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CHAMAPIGN, Ill. Coming off a 2-10 season, expectations around the Big Ten are low for Illinois.
That doesn’t surprise senior linebacker Jonathan Brown a bit.
“A lot of people are counting us out,” he said. “My sophomore year, we had the worst linebacking corps in the Big Ten, supposedly, and it turned out (to be) the No. 5 defense in the nation.”
Close: That Illinois defense was ranked seventh in the country, a stingy group that allowed fewer than 300 yards and less that 20 points a game.
Last year’s edition of the Illini defense had injury troubles – including a hobbled Brown – and wasn’t the same. Opponents scored 32 points a game and piled up almost 400 yards a week, and three of the best defensive players are now in the NFL.
After nine straight losses to end the season, the Illini are just looking for improvement.
Five things to watch as the Illini try to improve on 2012, starting with the Aug. 31 opener against Southern Illinois:
1. The sidelines: During coach Tim Beckman’s first season in Champaign, the sidelines saw their share of action – he was caught on camera using smokeless tobacco, a violation of NCAA rules, and was knocked to the turf and then flagged for a penalty as he strayed onto the field and into the path of an official.
2. Another year, another offense: Bill Cubit is the fourth offensive coordinator in five seasons at Illinois. He comes from Western Michigan, where as a head coach he was known for a quick-release passing attack. Cubit comes to town to rev up an offense that was the Big Ten’s worst in 2012 at just 16.7 points a game.
3. Quarterback shuffle: Beckman says Nathan Scheelhaase is his starter, but there’s already speculation that fans will see freshman Aaron Bailey. Scheelhaase has started all but two of Illinois’ 38 games the past three seasons – he’s 15-21 – but he’s never quite lived up to expectations he created as a redshirt freshman – 1,825 yards, 17 touchdowns and eight interceptions, plus 868 yards rushing. Last season, he threw for 1,361 yards, four TDs and eight interceptions. Beckman’s early endorsement came with a caveat, that Scheelhaase had to cut his interceptions. The 6-2, 220-pound Bailey, meanwhile, surprised Beckman in early practices with his arm strength. The best quarterback may be on the scout team: Wes Lunt has to sit out a season after transferring from Oklahoma State.
4. Impact linebackers: Looking for a bright spot on defense? That’d be linebacker Mason Monheim. Pressed into regular duty as a freshman, he led the team in tackles with 86. Monheim’s back and will team with Brown, who had 108 tackles in 2011.
5. Illinois’ biggest edge: Look up and down last season’s Big Ten statistics and you find Illinois in 11th or 12th place in a number of categories. But not punting. The Illini were first in the conference in net yards at 39.2 and third in total yards per punt at 41.9. And the punter behind those numbers, Justin Duvernois, is back for his junior season.
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