By this point in the 2014 Husker football season, we’ll have a decent idea of what or what not to expect from Bo Pelini’s seventh team. The Illinois Fighting Illini also give the Huskers a chance to keep momentum going if the non-conference schedule is kind to them…or even if it’s not.
Rather than run through standard names and statistics, we reached out to our fellow FanSided site Writing Illini for the skinny on what we can expect from Tim Beckman’s group this year. Editors Ricky Widmer and Ryan Kraemer were happy to oblige.
Husker Corner: Tell us about the QB situation. Wes Lunt and Aaron Bailey are familiar to Nebraska fans as one played for Oklahoma State and the other was a recruit, but O’Toole apparently had a good spring. Who should we expect to get the bulk of the snaps?
Ricky: Despite the “open quarterback competition” this offseason, everyone should expect to see Wes Lunt taking the bulk of the snaps for the Fighting Illini this season. It’s true that Reilly had a good spring, but Lunt’s potential in Bill Cubit offense is too much to pass up even for a season. My bet is that he’ll be the starter and Bailey will be used in special situations like last season.
Ryan: Barring injury, Wes Lunt is going to get the majority of the snaps this season. O’Toole has had a shot in the past, and the end result was less than inspirational. Aaron Bailey has a monster arm, and the ability to run when necessary, but from what I’ve seen he lacks touch at this point in his career very much like Juice Williams early on during his tenure as an Illini quarterback.
Lunt was brought in because he is the prototypical pocket passer that has excelled in Bill Cubit’s offense in the past. After seeing him first hand at training camp a year ago and more recently at the Spring Game, I feel very safe in making the assumption that Lunt will not only take the majority of the snaps this season, but also put up some monster numbers as the Fighting Illini’s new quarterback.
HC: With so many wide receivers graduating, who’s going to have to step up to fill those roles?
Ricky: The big names to watch this season will be Geronimo Allison, Martize Barr, Mike Dudek and Raphael Barr. Allison came to the Illini this offseason as a JUCO transfer and should be the No. 1 WR for the Orange & Blue in 2014. Martize is the only WR returning that caught more than 20 passes last season and should be the No. 2 WR on the team.
However, Beckman recently announced the addition of Barr who just transferred over from Citrus College in California. If he learns the playbook quickly, Illini fans can expect to see a lot of him in 2014. Then there’s true freshman Mike Dudek. Dudek is an in-state recruit that has tons of potential in his first ever college football season.
Ryan: Despite the production lost, Illinois’ passing catching arsenal isn’t bare by any means.
I look for Geronimo (Gmo) Allison, Tyrin Stone-Davis and Mikey Dudek in particular to step up and fill the void created by the losses of Hull, Lankford and Harris.
However, it certainly wouldn’t surprise me to see the tight ends being used more this season which would mean better production from Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse.
As NFL Scouts cycled through last season, many seemed intrigued by the unique combination of size and speed that LaCosse brings to the table. If he can put it all together there’s a great chance he will get a shot to play on Sundays.
HC: Do you feel Illinois will rely on the running game a bit more as a result of the graduation of so many receivers?
Ricky: I expect Cubit to run his system much like he did last season. He’s not going to change things because we lost receivers. He’s going to expect those new receivers to step up their play.
Ryan: In short, no I do not, at least not in the traditional sense. It’s not Cubit’s style, unless you consider swing passes to the running back the equivalent of a rush game. Illinois is going to sling it because that’s just what they do.
They’ll continue to use the pass to set up the run, as opposed to the more traditional line of thought to do the opposite.
HC: Does the offensive line look like a decent unit this year?
Ricky: I’m not worried about the offensive line. Corey Lewis is the only starter that we lost due to graduation. It’s just a matter of finding someone to step into the RT position this season.
Ryan: I think the expectation should be that the offensive line performs better than last season. The current projection is that they will start three seniors, a junior, and a sophomore.
Most importantly, LT will be manned by a senior (Simon Cvijanovic) that has plenty of game experience. Lunt’s blind side should be well protected. Keeping him upright (and healthy) will be the name of the game this season.
HC: What part of the Illinois defense is going to give opponents the most trouble this season and why?
Ricky: None? Haha. Honestly, the defense worries me this season. Last year, Illinois let Big Ten teams run all over them, and that was with Jonathan Brown on the team. Overall, I don’t see the Illinois defense “giving teams trouble” this season.
Ryan: There’s a good chance that the defensive line play will be vastly improved this season, and as poor as they were last season that should catch some teams off guard. It’s no secret that they gave up 200 yard rusher after 200 yard rusher a season ago, but they were woefully thin and young up front.
Enter Jihad Ward, Paul James, Carroll Phillips and Joe Fotu. Suddenly what was once a glaring weakness is now seemingly better equipped to deal with teams that come in and try to simply pound the rock down the defense’s throat.
HC: Do you believe that Illinois can reach the postseason?
Ricky: Yes, but barely. The “for sure” wins I have for Illinois this season are Youngstown State, Western Kentucky, Texas State, Purdue, and Northwestern. That means Illinois will just need to “steal” one game. Three “steal games” for Illinois would be Washington, Minnesota or Penn State. If they win the “for sure” games and steal one, they will make the postseason.
I predict the Illini to 6-6 (2-8 in the Big Ten) this season.
Ryan: Yes, I do. They should certainly begin the season 3-1, and possibly even 4-0 if they can go to Seattle and upend a Washington team that has lost some major offensive pieces as well as their head coach. That means they have to find two or three more wins on a favorable schedule.
They get Purdue at home in a very winnable game along with Minnesota. Minnesota is extremely thin at quarterback and they will be starting a third year sophomore that hasn’t shown much at all in game action or more recently during the spring practices/game. I’m looking at that as a winnable game as well.
That gives Illinois five or six wins depending on what happens through the first third of the schedule.
If the Illini lose to Washington and are still searching for that elusive sixth win late in the season they should get a shot at finding it when they get Iowa or Penn State at home down the stretch and then wrap up with Northwestern on the road in the annual rivalry game.
Reaching the postseason should be the expectation because the schedule sets up nicely for it.
HC: How do you see the Illinois-Nebraska game going down?
Ricky: I had to double check, but Ameer Abdullah is still on the team for Nebraska. Unless this kid doesn’t play for some reason, the Illini might not have a shot against the Huskers. Huskers win in a closer game, 38-35.
Ryan: It’s tough to put a guess on it now for me. With Nebraska returning Armstrong and Abdullah, the offense should be solid, especially in the rush game. Until Illinois proves they can stop the run, I’ll have to side with the Huskers in this one, but as I said before there is a pretty solid chance that the Illini will improve in that department this season.
That said, this prediction is totally subject to change once I get a better feel for how Illinois’ defense is playing heading into that showdown.
At this point, I am confident the offense is going to put up numbers for Illinois regardless of who they are playing on this year’s schedule. Their whole season, including the matchup with Nebraska, is going to come down to whether the defense takes the proper strides forward as a unit and can slow down opposing offenses enough for the Illini O to work its magic.
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