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Hoge’s Big Ten Preview: Illinois Fighting Illini

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Nathan Scheelhaase (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Nathan Scheelhaase (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

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By Adam Hoge-

While Big Ten training camps are underway, Adam Hoge will devote an entire day to each of the 12 teams in the conference. He will include a preview on each team, plus news, notes and analysis on Twitter. He will also take your questions on Twitter and 670TheScore.com. Follow him at @AdamHogeCBS.

(CBS) Illini fans weren’t exactly excited about the hiring of Tim Beckman, but they should be now. Beckman made a bold move by going after Penn State players, and in doing so — whether intentionally or unintentionally — he went against the wishes of Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany.

Beckman’s move was controversial, but it also showed that he’s serious about winning. It’s also not the only bold decision he has made. Beckman shortened the team’s time at Camp Rantoul, opting for more practices out of the public eye to protect information. He also split the team into two groups for the first three days in an effort to give all his players more reps and his younger players more attention from the coaching staff. He’s also introduced loud music to practice, getting his team used to the crowd noise at Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State.

Of course, none of this will matter if the Illini don’t win games. Let’s take a look at their chances:

Top Returnees

1. LB Jonathan Brown (Jr.) — Illinois’ top tackler is back and should be First Team All-Big Ten, if not a darkhorse All-American. Brown had six sacks and 13.5 TFLs last season.

2. CB Terry Hawthorne (Sr.) — Hawthorne is one of the better corners in the Big Ten and the coaching staff loves his athleticism so much that he is expected to get some time at wide receiver this season too.

3. DE Michael Buchanan (Sr.) — The Illini will miss Whitney Mercilus, but Buchanan is getting plenty of NFL looks too. He had 7.5 sacks last year and six TFLs. He’s set up for a big year.

4. QB Nathan Scheelhaase (Jr.) — Can the Illini score points this year? They need Scheelhaase to improve. If not, he’ll lose his job.

5. WR Darius Millines (JR.) — They lose A.J. Jenkins, but Millines can emerge as a home run threat. He’ll need to catch more than one touchdown pass, however.

Key Questions

Think #Illini have the receivers to run the spread? – @kevin_elliott86

I think the real question is whether or not the Illini have enough receivers, period. A.J. Jenkins accounted for 90 catches and 1276 receiving yards last season. The next closest was Spencer Harris with 26 catches and 226 yards. That’s a huge drop off. Jenkins caught eight touchdowns last year. No other wide receiver had more than one. You can see why new offensive coordinator Billy Gonzales wants to get Hawthorne in as a receiver.

will the #Illini be able to run the ball with their RB’s this year? Or will they rely heavily on #2? – @chazinois

Illinois struggled to find a reliable running back last year, but I think that is going to change with sophomore Donovonn Young and redshirt freshman Josh Ferguson this season. Young ran for 451 yards on just 87 carries last season and Ferguson looked really good in the spring. Scheelhaase’s legs are still valuable but the offense will be much more effective if one or two running backs emerge.

I’m concerned that Beckman is in over his head in the Big Ten conference. Your thoughts? – @HessLoren

This seems to be a pretty common concern among Illini fans and it’s pretty normal for a coach coming from the MAC without a whole lot of hype. I like what Beckman has done so far, but you’re right, he needs to prove that it translates to wins in a major conference.

Will the special teams improve?

Dropped snaps, bad coverage and no return game. That’s how the 2011 special teams can be described. It also didn’t help that the normally reliable Derek Dimke missed a huge field goal at Penn State as time expired. Dimke is gone and special teams is a major area of concern for Beckman.

What is going on with the offensive line?

In a somewhat surprising move, co-offensive coordinators Gonzalez (passing game) and Chris Beatty (running game) decided to shake up the offensive line in the offseason. They still want to spread out the field, but they obviously want the offensive line to maintain the physicality needed to win in the Big Ten. Hugh Thornton is moving from left guard to left tackle, center Graham Pocic to left guard and left tackle Michael Heitz to right guard. Simon Cvijanovic takes over at right tackle and Jake Feldmeyer at center. Penn State transfer Ryan Nowicki will provide some depth at tackle.

Schedule Outlook

Illinois’ non-conference schedule isn’t exactly easy. They’ll get an early test from Western Michigan and quarterback Alex Carder in Week 1 and then they’ll head to the desert for a game against Arizona State, a team with a new coach and similar expectations as the Illini.

Their Big Ten home slate is manageable, but games at Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State are tough. They’ll also have to avoid the late season letdown with a Nov. 17 test against Purdue in Champaign.

Best Case

The Illini build confidence early and steal a win at Wisconsin Oct. 6. They hold serve at home and come through with a big road win at Northwestern to end the regular season. Their 6-2 Big Ten record is enough to go to Indianapolis because they hold the tiebreaker over the Badgers in the Leaders Division.

Worst Case

Nathan Scheelhasse struggles, new wide receivers fail to emerge and the Illini can’t find enough offense to win games. They open the season 0-2 and fans start criticizing Beckman and athletic director Mike Thomas immediately. They fall out of the Big Ten race early after losing the opener to a resilient Penn State team in Champaign and back-to-back road trips to Wisconsin and Michigan. Illinois finishes with a disappointing 4-8 overall record and 2-6 Big Ten record.

Check out Adam’s final verdict on the Illini when his Big Ten preview concludes later this month. Up next in the series are the Indiana Hoosiers. Tweet your questions to Adam at @AdamHogeCBS.

adam hoge 2012 small1 Hoges Big Ten Preview: Illinois Fighting Illini

Adam Hoge

Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHogeCBS and read more of his columns here.

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