2012 Illinois Football Preview: The Enthusiasm Gap

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - DECEMBER 31: Michael Buchanan #99 of the Illinois Fighting Illini is congratulated by Justin Staples #54 of the Illinois Fighting Illini after Buchanan recovered a fumble against the UCLA Bruins during the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl at AT&T Park on December 31, 2011 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Attendance plummeted in Ron Zook's final seasons as Illinois' head coach. Can Tim Beckman put butts in the seats and points on the scoreboard? Related: Illinois' complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends and rankings galore.

For more on Illini football, visit Big Ten blog Off Tackle Empire and SB Nation Chicago.

In the last five years, Illinois has gone 31-32, found themselves ranked in three of those years, and gone to three bowl games. It has easily been the Illini's best sustained stretch of play since the heydays of John Mackovic and Lou Tepper (they combined to go 48-33-2 from 1988-94). But there has been, to say the least, an enthusiasm gap even as the wins keep rolling in at a medium pace.

Illinois averaged attendance of 61,707 in 2008 following their Rose Bowl season of 2007. In 2009, attendance fell four percent to 59,544. In 2010, it fell nine percent to 54,188. In 2011, despite a bowl in 2010 and a hot start in 2011, attendance again fell by nine percent, to 49,548.

In other words, there were probably reasons for firing Ron Zook following Illinois' 6-6 regular season last winter, reasons beyond "He's Ron Zook." Ron Zook was is a quirky coach, decent (but probably overrated) as a recruiter, solid as a program builder, and iffy in terms of in-game management. But he had indeed engineered back-to-back bowl seasons for his program. Still, when the results are only middling and the fanbase has lost interest, you almost don't have a choice but to make a move.

So out went Zook, and in walked Toledo coach Tim Beckman. Beckman is a goofy guy in his own right, but he engineered a strong turnaround at Toledo, from 3-9 and reeling from a point shaving scandal, to 9-4 three years later. And on paper, it could have been even better: Toledo ranked 28th in F/+ (24th on offense, 42nd on defense) but lost three-point squeakers to Syracuse and Northern Illinois. And perhaps as important as the wins (and near-wins), Toledo fans began to notice and show up. Toledo's attendance improved by 19 percent in 2010, then another 15 percent in 2011.

Buzz is still a little hard to come by in Champaign, but people follow wins. It might take Beckman a little while to figure things out -- Illinois' offense fell apart last year, and the defense must replace its best player -- but he has passed the tests he's been given so far, and he gets the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise.


Related: Check out Illinois' statistical profile.

Last Year

Here's what I said about the Fighting Illini last year:

We'd seen this episode before. Embattled coach gets one last shot to turn things around, only he's forced to re-tool his coaching staff in the process. Rarely does this work. For Ron Zook, who has spent much of the last decade embattled, the changes before the 2010 season were significant. In came new offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, quarterbacks coach Jeff Brohm and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. Utilizing a pistol attack on offense and a more aggressive defense, Illinois' approach was nothing like what Zook tried to accomplish when he first came to Champaign.

And the result was ... solid. Good, even. Not "Best Illinois squad ever" good, by any means, but considering the expectations, Illinois' 2010 was a stark, pleasant surprise. The Illini went 7-6, ranked 33rd in our F/+ ratings, laid few eggs, and played competitive, controlled football.

So now what happens? How does the encore work? To milk a tennis analogy, now that Zook and company have unexpectedly broken serve, do they consolidate their break, or do they get broken right back? […]

Is there any killing Zombie Ron Zook at this point? It really does feel like he's been on a hot seat of some sort for decades (then again, he knows how to cool off, but he keeps winning just enough to survive. And with a rather ridiculous eight home games this year (the non-conference slate: Arkansas State, South Dakota State, Western Michigan, Arizona State) the odds of their reaching bowl eligibility again in 2011 are solid. We can debate what Zook's long-term prognosis is in Champaign-Urbana, but this is Ron Zook. There is no long-term.

So it turns out that, for Ron Zook at Illinois, there is indeed no long-term. No short-term either. A late losing streak after a lovely start led to his demise in Champaign.

I have used the trite "tale of two seasons" reference before to describe a team's in-season trends, but I'm not sure there is another way to describe Illinois' performance in 2011. The schedule got much rougher over the final half of the season, so a decline in the win percentage was to be expected. But it was matched by a drastic decline in Illinois' actual performance, as well.

First six games: Illinois 29.6 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 22.8 (plus-6.8)
Last seven games: Opponents 24.7 Adj. Points per game, Illinois 22.6 (minus-2.1)

You will not find many examples of a team fading this significantly, especially considering there were no major injury issues of which to speak. No, this team just fell apart offensively (perhaps when opponents came to realize that every pass was going to go to A.J. Jenkins on a slant or a short route and adjusted accordingly and, perhaps because of the hopelessness on offense, suffered more defensive lapses as well. As a result, a 6-0 start was matched by an 0-6 finish, and Zook was ousted.

Offense

You'll forgive Illinois fans if they are a little spooked by the word "spread" right now. The last coaching staff attempted a run-first spread last season, and, as noted, it crashed and burned in Big Ten play. And one of the themes from the spring, it appears, is that the personnel did not exactly take well to the system at hand. That said, there is no denying the offensive success that Tim Beckman had on the offensive side of the ball at Toledo. His offensive coordinator, Matt Campbell, stayed behind to take the head coaching job at Toledo, so we'll see how much of the Rockets' success was due to whom, but the fact remains that Beckman is used to putting entertaining, explosive offenses on the field.

To replicate what Campbell brought to the table, Beckman brought in a pair of co-coordinators: Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales. Beatty most recently served as wide receivers coach at Vanderbilt (in 2011) and running backs and slot receivers coach at West Virginia (2008-10). Gonzales, meanwhile, was LSU's passing game coordinator in 2010-11 and Florida's receivers coach from 2005-09. They have major conference experience, and they could make for an interesting pair. Vanderbilt's passing game was low-efficiency but high-explosiveness in 2011, and thanks to an effective run game and play-action system, LSU had, surprisingly, one of the most explosive passing games in the country. They will inherit a passing game full of mostly unknown quantities.

In 2011, A.J. Jenkins was the most frequently targeted receiver in the country; passes to him made up 42 percent of Illinois' passing game. Defenses accounted for him better over the last half of the season, and unfortunately for Illinois, nobody else really stepped up. Just about everybody besides Jenkins returns, but who knows what that means exactly? Illini fans are excited about junior Darius Millines, a former high-three-star recruit who averaged a healthy 8.3 yards per target with a 73-percent catch rate last season. He missed spring ball with a foot injury but is expected to be healthy this fall. Beyond that, juniors Spencer Harris and Ryan Lankford were hit-or-mostly-miss in 2011, combining to average 4.9 yards per target with a 56 percent catch rate. The Illini are certainly deep at tight end -- four returning tight ends caught passes last year, led by sophomore Jon Davis (189 yards, 5.9 per target, 69 percent catch rate) -- but we'll see how exactly Beckman plans to utilize that. Despite over 30 passes per game, Toledo's leading tight end caught just 10 passes last year. Beyond that, the most interesting thing about this unit is that star cornerback Terry Hawthorne might play both ways and take some snaps on offense.

Of course, a questionable receiving corps could be made better by stellar quarterback play, something that was occasionally lacking for the Illini last year.

Junior Nathan Scheelhaase is a strong runner (he rushed for 896 pre-sack yards last year and a team-best plus-4.8 Adj. POE), but his passing skills are still a question mark. He improved his completion percentage from 59 percent to 63 in 2011, but he took FAR too many sacks (a 10.5 percent sack rate is simply way too high) and, again, couldn't figure out what to do with the ball if Jenkins wasn't open. He has a chance to become a four-year starter in Champaign, but he will have to prove a little more through the air than he has to date.

Meanwhile, sophomore Reilly O'Toole got some opportunities last year as well and did very little with them. He avoided sacks nicely (1.5 percent sack rate) but still only averaged 4.0 yards per pass attempt (Scheelhaase averaged 5.7 despite the sacks) because he wouldn't go anywhere with the ball. He averaged a horrid 6.8 yards per completion and threw just one touchdown pass to four picks. He was just a freshman, of course, but the numbers suggest Scheelhaase was further along both on the ground and through the air. Beckman showed last year that he has no problem going with a quarterback platoon -- both Terrance Owens and Austin Dantin threw for at least 1,400 yards and rushed for at least 222 pre-sack yards (with minuscule sack rates) last year, and Toledo was none the worse for wear with their rotation. But you need good quarterbacks to pull off a successful platoon, and the jury is out on that.

The good news is that Toledo wasn't all-pass, all-the-time in their spread. They liked to run the ball (three running backs gained at least 500 yards), and that will play to the strengths of the returning personnel. Scheelhaase is solid, but a pair of young running backs are particularly intriguing. Sophomore Donovonn young averaged 5.2 yards per carry (with a plus-2.4 Adj. POE) in about seven carries per game last year, and redshirt freshman Josh Ferguson erupted in the spring game. Plus, they have their very own Kain Colter in converted quarterback Miles Osei, an exciting runner who could very well line up at quarterback, running back and wideout this fall. Osei had by far the best passing performance of the spring game (8-for-12 for 115 yards; Scheelhaase and O'Toole combined to complete 30 of 57 passes for just 244 yards), so perhaps we shouldn't count him out in that race either. The line should be at least decent in run blocking -- six players return with starting experience (68 career starts), including two-year starters Graham Pocic (center) and Hugh Thornton (guard).

Defense

While it may have regressed slightly over the last half of the season, make no mistake: the Illinois defense was really, REALLY good in 2011. The Illini ranked ninth in overall Def. F/+, 11th in Rushing S&P+, 13th in Passing S&P+, ninth on standard downs, 25th on passing downs, ninth in Adj. Line Yards and second in Adj. Sack Rate. Ends Michael Buchanan and Whitney Mercilus were a terrifying combination, sacking quarterbacks 23.5 times, forcing 10 fumbles (nine from Mercilus) and recording a total of 36 tackles for loss. Mercilus will be donning a Houston Texans uniform this fall, but Buchanan should ensure that the sack rate is still good, if not great. The former four-star recruit recorded 4.5 sacks by himself in the spring game and could be poised for an enormous fall, especially considering both starting tackles -- Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster (combined: 9.5 tackles for loss) -- return. And if you're looking for raw potential, 3.0 of junior Tim Kynard's 6.5 tackles were behind the line of scrimmage last year.

There were two other primary members of Illinois' TFL party last year: linebackers Jonathan Brown and Ian Thomas, who combined to log 30.0 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks, an interception, a forced fumble and six passes broken up. Thomas is gone, but Brown returns, giving Illinois two proven (and spectacular) entities in the front seven. Again in the "raw potential" category, you have to like sophomore Houston Bates, who in minimal time recorded just 2.0 tackles … both behind the line of scrimmage. (He recorded a sack and recovered a fumble, too.) He is one of quite a few freshmen and sophomores who will, for better or worse, fill out the linebacker two-deep. Beckman's defensive coordinator of choice, Tim Banks (formerly of Cincinnati), appears to be installing a bit of a hybrid 4-3/4-2-5 defense, with the third linebacker (the "STAR" linebacker) serving partially as an LB, partially as a safety. Senior Ashante Williams, sophomore Earnest Thomas and freshman TaJarvis Fuller will battle to serve as starting STAR this fall.

With such a fantastic front seven, the Illinois secondary wasn't tested excessively in 2011, but it did show potential. Illinois will miss cornerback Tavon Wilson (6.5 tackles for loss, one pick, six passes broken up), but senior Terry Hawthorne (5.0 tackles for loss, three picks, eight passes broken up) is now a two-way keeper, senior Justin Green still has a chance to live up to his four-star hype, and the safety position is deep and experienced.

In all, it might be difficult for the Illinois defense to perform as well in 2012 with a new coordinator and the loss of Mercilus, Thomas and Wilson. But make no mistake: this should still be one of the Big Ten's best units. To the extent that the Illini have issues in 2012, they are mostly on the offensive side of the ball. (And in special teams, where they ranked 106th in Special Teams F/+, 80th in net punting, 118th in punt return average and 120th in kick return average. Incoming transfer Tommy Davis was a decent returner at Northern Illinois, but he might not be able to single-handedly fix everything. Especially since, as far as I know, he can't punt.)

Defining Success

If -- if -- Illinois can engineer a solid homefield advantage in 2012, they should win enough to reach their third straight bowl game. Their home slate is fully of tricky-but-quite-winnable games (Western Michigan, Charleston Southern, Louisiana Tech, Penn State, Indiana, Minnesota, Purdue), which is good because the road slate (Arizona State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State, Northwestern) is not particularly kind. So we'll say that a return to the postseason will be a success in Beckman's first season.

Prognosis

In the overall hunt for program enthusiasm, Beckman should keep the postseason train rolling. But considering the current makeup of the Big Ten's Leaders Division -- Ohio State ineligible for the Big Ten title game, Wisconsin replacing Russell Wilson, Penn State facing change and scandal, Purdue not quite ready for prime time, it is pretty easy to paint a picture of a shockingly successful Illinois season. Let's say Beckman finds success in a Scheelhaase-O'Toole platoon, Darius Millines becomes an Eric Page-like "possession receiver plus" type of receiver, Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young erupt, and the defense remains a Top 20 unit. With four easy conference home games, a win over Northwestern, and perhaps a road upset, Illinois could steal a spot in the conference title game, no?

Excited yet, Illinois fans? No? Well, I tried.

For more on Illini football, visit Illinois blog Hail To The Orange, plus Big Ten blog Off Tackle Empire and SB Nation Chicago.

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