2012 Program Preview - Illinois

Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase has a, let's say, unconventional style. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Now we move on to the Big Ten, the B1G, the Legends and Leaders, the...oh fine. We start, given the Program Preview Law of Alphabetical Purity, with Illinois.

At the end of Ron Turner's tenure as head coach and early on during Ron Zook's time at the helm, the program ambled around at the bottom of the conference. From 2003-2006, Illinois went 8-38. Nothing was going right in Urbana-Champaign. Then in 2007, Illinois shockingly went 9-4, earning their first Rose Bowl berth since 1983. From then out, it was an uncomfortable ride of mediocrity under Ron Zook. Strange then that he left Illinois as they won consecutive bowl games in the last two years, a first in the program's history.

In steps Tim Beckman, coming off of a resuscitation job at Toledo. He's got a tough task ahead of him with a top-heavy roster that hasn't brought in top classes in the last two years -- certainly not on par with the 2008-2010 run. It puts an even heavier burden to win now on his, and the team's, shoulders.

A quality 2012 will do wonders for the program. Looking at the Leaders Division, it's certainly a possibility.

After the jump, the prospects worth noting as well as some games and matchups to pencil into your calendar.

References

SBN Illinois community coming soon (stay tuned), Off Tackle Empire (SB Nation conference community), SB Nation Chicago, SB Nation team page, official team site, Bill Connelly's preview for SBN

Notable offensive prospects

Name POS Yr. Early projected Rd (notes)
Graham Pocic C RS Sr. 5
Hugh Thornton OL Sr. 6
Evan Wilson TE Jr. UD
Darius Millines WR Jr. UD
Donovonn Young RB Soph. N/A


Notable defensive prospects

Name POS Yr. Early projected Rd (notes)
Michael Buchanan DE Sr. 1
Terry Hawthorne CB Sr. 3
Jonathan Brown OLB Jr. 2
Akeem Spence DT RS Jr. 2
Houston Bates OLB RS Soph. 4


Summary

Understandable that the Illinois defense offers more NFL talent. With Zook being a defensively-minded coach, I'm not surprised that he was able to identify and take in more talent on that side of the ball. The defense was the class of the team last year; and even without Whitney Mercilus they should be again. The real question on offense is what shakes out at QB. RS junior WB Nathan Scheelhaase has been at the helm for two years, but Reilly O'Toole saw increased playing time down the stretch last year and Miles Osei could factor as well. With A.J. Jenkins now a 49er, they'll need better play from the position in 2012.

Key games

Arizona St. (away) - Week 2 (Sat., Sep. 8 - 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)

An interesting non-conference game here early on should be an enjoyable contest, just like last year's 17-14 Illini win over the Sun Devils. ASU lost some quality players to the NFL (QB Brock Osweiler, CB Omar Bolden, WR Gerell Robinson and everyone's favorite psycho MLB Vontaze Burfict) and has a tough rebuild in front of them under new head coach Todd Graham. If he can get their defense in order early on, they could surprise Illinois in this late-night game.

Penn St. (home) - Week 5 (Sat., Sep. 29 - TBD)

Illinois opens Big Ten play against the Nittany Lions ahead of road games at Wisconsin and Michigan. Suffice to say that if Illinois wants to contend for the division crown, this is likely a must-win game. And it is a winnable game. Don't be surprised if we get a repeat of the 2011 game in which both sloppy offenses were overmatched by two solid defensive units.

Key matchups

DE Michael Buchanan v. Wisconsin OT Ricky Wagner, Week 6 - Sat., Oct. 6

I wouldn't be surprised if these two are both first-round selections next April. Wagner moved over to LT last season filling in for Gabe Carimi capably while Buchanan is a tall, rangy DE who took a huge step forward in 2011.

C Graham Pocic v. Ohio St. DT Johnathan Hankins, Week 10 - Sat., Nov. 3

Another NFL-caliber battle, this will literally be at the center of the action in early November. Hankins is a massive young defensive lineman while Pocic is an unusually tall center who was named the offensive MVP of Illinois' spring game. This game has serious recruiting implications as new head coach Tim Beckman has stuck with his Ohio pipeline, picking up six early commits from the state in the 2013 class.

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