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Illinois football hopes transfers can boost defense

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the schedule

Aug. 30 vs. Youngstown St. 11 a.m.

Sept. 6 vs. W. Kentucky 11 a.m.

Sept. 13 at Washington 3 p.m.

Sept. 20 vs. Texas State TBA

Sept. 27 at Nebraska 8 p.m.

Oct. 4 vs. Purdue TBA

Oct. 11 at Wisconsin TBA

Oct. 25 vs. Minnesota 11 a.m.

Nov. 1 at Ohio State 7 p.m.

Nov. 15 vs. Iowa TBA

Nov. 22 vs. Penn State TBA

Nov. 29 at Northwestern TBA

Updated: August 3, 2014 8:45PM

Illinois can do all it wants to create an artificial quarterback competition when the team starts training camp Monday. If there were any more of an overwhelming favorite, the guy would be a sure thing.

The guy is Wes Lunt, the transfer from Oklahoma State who is eligible to play this season.

Coach Tim Beckman, offensive coordinator Bill Cubit and the Illini coaching staff have to be hoping Lunt doesn’t struggle to the extent they’d have to consider giving the job to Reilly O’Toole or Aaron Bailey.

They’re banking on Lunt finding some of the magic that earned him the starting job as a true freshman with the Cowboys in 2012, though he missed all but five games of that season to injury.

The Illini need that Lunt — not the one who lost his job in Cowboys camp the next year — to make the kind of improvement Beckman needs to save his job.

So what becomes of O’Toole, a prized Ron Zook recruit, and the super athletic Bailey?

O’Toole appears destined to be second on the depth chart for the fourth consecutive season. Like Lunt, he’s a pocket passer, making him the better fit than the run-minded Bailey as the presumed starter’s understudy.

Cubit should make every effort to get Bailey on the field because the quarterback would tap into the offensive coordinator’s creative side. Will there be a run-specific package for Bailey? Or could the speedster change positions altogether? Receiver perhaps?

Bailey was thought to have chosen the Illini over the likes of Ohio State and Notre Dame because he would start this year as a sophomore. But his career could take a decided turn this month.

Reinforcements are here

The Illini hope that junior-college transfer Jihad Ward can jumpstart a fledgling defense. Last year, Illinois’ defense was terrible, and its defensive line was even worse.

Ward, a 6-6, 295-pound tackle, was one of the most sought-after junior-college defensive linemen this offseason. He’s very athletic, having played receiver in high school and recording 10 sacks over two junior-college seasons.

Ward is joined by fellow junior-college transfer Carroll Phillips, a pass-rush specialist who originally signed with Cincinnati when current Illini defensive coordinator Tim Banks was with the Bearcats.

Both will have to compete for starting jobs, but they should see substantial playing time regardless.

Receiving void

The Illini want to go six-deep at receiver. Good luck.

The team’s three leading receivers last year are gone, meaning Iowa Western Community College transfer Geronimo Allison could assume the role of top target in 2014.

But many offensive coaches say the receiver position presents the toughest transition for a junior-college player. Allison can ask teammate Martize Barr, who also played at Iowa Western. Barr struggled in his first season with the Illini in 2013.

The Beckman Barometer

In case wins and losses don’t tell the full story for Beckman this season, look to the secondary. Beckman coaches the cornerbacks, who struggled last season.

The Illini coach blamed their youth. That won’t fly this year.


Twitter: @SethGruen

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