Originally posted on The Sports Bank  |  Last updated 7/8/12

The Illini started to get defensive, real defensive in the 2010 Texas Bowl. In that 38-14 trouncing of Robert Griffin III and Baylor, they held RG3 and the Bears in check.

The man who would win the Heisman trophy and become the #2 overall pick in the NFL Draft the very next season was out of rhythm, out of sync versus the Illini in Houston. And that D carried over into 2011, when they Illini had a top 10 national defense.

A lot of that was the personnel, a lot of it was coordinator Vic Koenning, who unfortunately had to move on when Ron Zook was replaced by Tim Beckman.

Can they keep it going this fall, despite the coaching changes?

2011 was: the best of times, and the worst of times. For the first time since college football expanded to a 12 game season, we had somebody start 6-0, and finish 0-6. And that cost the Zooker his job. And then they went and won the most criticized bowl game of all time over another team UCLA, that had their coach fired before the game as well. Illinois went to back-to-back bowls for the first time since 1992.

2012 will go smoothly if:  “We’re going to build our defense around guys like the Mike Buchanans, the Akeem Spences, the Glenn Fosters, Justin Staples, Kenny Cunard has had an outstanding spring, we’re gonna continue to utilize what they do in rushing the passer, try to showcase them the best way we possibly can,” Coach Beckman said this spring.

Spence plays the same position as Corey Liuget who was a one year wonder and parlayed his big season into being drafted by the San Diego chargers in 2011. Similarly, Whitney Merciless came out of nowhere to win the Ted Hendicks award as the nation’s best defensive end (he also garnered all-american honors for that position) led the nation in sacks and set a college football record for most forced fumbles in a season. He then got drafted 26th overall by the Houston Texans.

DB Tavon Wilson also came out of nowhere to become a second round pick by the New England Patriots. So who’s next to go from obscurity to stardom? Maybe Jonathan Brown who was named to the Lott impact trophy award watch list? He had a special sophomore season, he just needs to not knee opposing players in the groin (like he did to Patrick Ward from Northwestern, and got suspended for it) he needs to stay on the field. Maybe he’ll have  a big year and jump to the NFL.

2012 will be rough if: In the 2012 Illini spring game, they seemed to have the same exact issue that they have during the final seven games of 2011- throwing the ball forward.

Perhaps part of the spring scrimmage m.o. was to hold back that part of the offense, but then again it’s a preseason exhibition why wouldn’t you let it fly? Unless it’s simply because you can’t?

And the statistics for starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase were extremely putrid that rainy Saturday, continuing the regression that she showed the final seven games of 2011. It’s not like Reilly O’Toole has been setting the world on fire with his numbers either, it’s just that Nate Scheelhaase hasn’t progressed much overall in his two years. Aided by now Detroit Lions tailback Mikel Leshoure, he had a good-for-a-freshman-type-season in 2010, had a great first half of 2011, terrible second half and is now right back where he started. How will he do without Jenkins, who inflated his numbers in 2011?

 BMOC: a lot of the guys listed in Beckman’s quote. Cornerback Terry Hawthorne is a very elite player, involved in a move to wide receiver now, how will it affect his performance? It’s never a good sign when you have coaches “drafting” players from one side of the ball to the other, at least for the unit that’s getting the player. The WRs will miss AJ Jenkins who broke all the key school records for that position. TB Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young, will the latter live up to the game of the last two guys to wear that number and play that position (Rashard Mendenhall and Leshoure)?

All-name team: WR Fritz Rock (a new genre of music?) DB Patrick Nixon-Youman, LB Ta’Jarvis Fuller, Mason Monheim

Bottom Line: There are some questions on offense, at pretty much every position, so reaching a bowl depends on them winning all their winnable games. They have enough talent to pull off a couple upsets and improve that ugly conference record. With Ohio State in eligible, and Penn State about to deal with more off-the-field issues, now is the time to make a move in the division. A couple obstructions are out of the way. Illinois could look really good in the non-conference though and then fall apart again in Big Ten play. They appear to be a 5-7  to 7-5 squad. When you have two guys taken by the NFL in both the first and second round. And then the year before have two guys taken in the first two rounds, yet finish 14-12 over that span…well that was the best case yet for why Zook needed to be fired.

Rankings Athlon- 52 Lindy’s-  62 Phil Steele- 57

All the 77s

#55 Vanderbilt

#56 Washington St.

#57 Wake Forest

#58 Ole Miss

#59 Purdue

#60 Iowa St

#61 Kentucky

#62 Arizona State

#63 Boston College

#64 Ohio

#65 Marshall

#66 Arizona

#67 Southern Miss

#68 Tulsa

#69 Oregon State

#70 Houston

#71 Syracuse

#72 Colorado

#73 Kansas

#74 Maryland

#75 Duke

#76 Minnesota

#77 Indiana

Paul M. Banks is CEO of The Sports Bank.net, an official Google News site generating millions of unique visitors. He’s also a regular contributor to Chicago Now, Chicago Tribune.com, Fox Sports, MSN, Walter Football and Yardbarker

A Fulbright scholar and MBA, Banks has appeared on live radio all over the world; and he’s a member of the Football Writers Association of America, U.S. Basketball Writers Association, and Society of Professional Journalists. The President of the United States follows him on Twitter (@Paul_M_BanksTSB) You should too

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