The spring workouts are in the books and the long offseason has arrived. But before diving into summer and the painful wait for football to return, we’re taking a look back at the developments from March and April and sneaking a peek at what to expect in the fall for Illinois.
Three things we learned in the spring
Maybe the Illini don’t need to rush at quarterback: The assumption heading into camp was that even with the coaching staff evaluating multiple quarterbacks, Wes Lunt was a lock to win the starting job. Maybe the transfer from Oklahoma State still has the inside track, but Reilly O'Toole shined in the spring game and he and Aaron Bailey have done enough to keep the battle going into August.
Concerns linger about who will catch those passes: Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit was quick to point out before practice even started that he was more worried about finding receivers than picking a guy to throw to them, and that issue hasn’t been entirely put to bed. Even after a spring game that featured productive outings for former walk-on Peter Bonahoom and Justin Hardee, Cubit still expressed concern about broken routes and drops from the unit.
The pass rush is showing signs of life: The bar is low to show improvement, but the Illini appear well on their way to adding some bite in the trenches and making more plays in the backfield. Collectively the defense racked up seven sacks in the spring game, led by a dynamic outing from Paul James III, who chipped in a pair of those sacks, added two more tackles for loss and also recovered a fumble.
Three questions for the fall
How will the secondary hold up?: V'Angelo Bentley provided a hint that better things are on the way with an 89-yard interception return in the spring game, but the Illini still need to prove they’ve overcome the youthful mistakes that popped up while allowing more than 480 yards per game overall a year ago. Coach Tim Beckman wasn’t thrilled with some deep shots the cornerbacks allowed as spring closed, and the defense will have to hold up its end of the bargain to get the program on track.
Will the offensive line improve?: The Illini might be serviceable enough to provide pass protection for Cubit’s attack, but unless the offensive line can start consistently getting some push up front for the tailbacks, there won’t be enough threat from the running game to keep talented defenses off balance. Spring games aren’t perfect barometers, but neither squad averaged more than 2.9 yards per attempt on the ground in the exhibition, a discouraging sign for a team that finished No. 10 in the conference in rushing last year.
Is there a new toughness to go with the new look?: The rebrand on the uniforms gives Illinois a sharp new look. Now it needs to prove those upgrades aren’t just superficial. The tests for the guys inside those jerseys come one after another on the road in the Big Ten, and the Illini will have to embrace the challenge of playing in hostile venues like Nebraska, Wisconsin and Ohio State if they're going to return to being contenders in the league again.
One way-too-early prediction
The Illini aren’t ready to compete with the powerhouses in the Big Ten, but assuming they can get three wins outside the league and defend Memorial Stadium against Purdue, the chance to earn a bowl bid could be well within reach heading into November. It may still come down to the final weekend of the regular season and a trip to Northwestern, but Illinois has the talent to get the job done and return the postseason.