Illinois Searches For QB, Defensive Playmakers
It was the Blue vs. the Orange, the Illinois spring game in Champaign, Ill., and the Blue squad dominated with a 38-7 victory.
After a 4-8 season, the Fighting Illini are searching for answers this spring. The coaching staff, led by head coach Tim Beckman, needed this game to evaluate how their crop of players have been developing.
The key battle on everyone's mind took place underneath center. Illinois lost longtime starter Nathan Scheelhaase to graduation. Scheelhaase finished with the fourth-highest quarterback rating in the conference.
The quarterback battle likely got a little bit harder after Saturday. Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt only went 6-16 with an interception while Reilly O'Toole threw for two touchdowns, completing 12-of-17. Lunt is still the leader for the starting role, but O'Toole closed the gap a little with his spring performance.
Lunt is the leader because he has experience, and success, as a starting quarterback. He opened the 2012 season for the Cowboys, and he completed 61.8 percent of his passes. The 6-foot-5 Lunt has the tangibles to become one of the top quarterbacks in the conference, and it looks as if he will get the nod to show his skills.
Running back Josh Ferguson ran for 61 yards in limited work, but running back will be one of the focal point of the Fighting Illini offense. He won the MVP award for the offense on Saturday.
The defensive side of the ball is where Illinois had most of its issues in 2013. They were young, inexperienced, and outclassed by their Big Ten brethren.
T.J. Neal won the Most Improved Defensive Player award, and the sophomore will be one of the players to watch in 2014. He has a lot of talent, and he will try to anchor the second wave of defense. Neal will join the team's defensive MVP, Earnest Thomas III, as a key defender.
The defense even managed to get on the board for the Blue squad during the spring game. Defensive back V'Angelo Bentley took a tipped pass 89 yards to the end zone in the second quarter. Bentley is one of several upperclassman attempting to elevate the defensive performance.
Illinois' 2014 campaign will have its ups and downs. It still is a struggling program seeking answers, but Beckman is leading his young talent through the ranks in the hopes of soon challenging the current authority that sits atop the conference. Fans of the Fighting Illini need to take on the patience of the coaching staff. It will be a slow build back to relevancy.
Beckman has to be excited with the improvement of his team. There were a lot of bright spots during the spring game that should give the Illinois fans something to look forward to in this upcoming season.
Following the game the awards were handed out on the field. These are the award winners courtesy of FightingIllini.com:
Most Improved Offensive Player: Michael Heitz, OL
Most Improved Defensive Player: T.J. Neal, LB
Offensive Most Valuable Player: Josh Ferguson, RB
Defensive Most Valuable Player: Earnest Thomas III, STAR
Special Teams Most Valuable Player: Ralph Cooper, LB
Unsung Award: Defense - Zane Petty, DB // Offense - Alex Hill, OL
The 2014 schedule will be another tough road to hoe, but the improvement on the defensive side of the ball should keep the Fighting Illi in more games than last season. They should have an outside shot at reaching bowl eligibility.