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Illinois has nowhere to go but up

Nathan Scheelhaase (above) Reilly O’Toole will resume their battle become Illinois’ starting quarterback when camp opens Monday. | AP

Nathan Scheelhaase (above) and Reilly O’Toole will resume their battle to become Illinois’ starting quarterback when camp opens Monday. | AP

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The schedule

August

31 Southern Illinois, 11

September

7 Cincinnati, 11

14 Washington, 5

28 Miami (OH), TBA

October

5 at Nebraska, 11

19 Wisconsin, 7

26 Michigan State, 2:30

November

2 at Penn State, TBA

9 at Indiana, TBA

16 Ohio State, TBA

23 at Purdue, TBA

30 Northwestern, TBA

Key game

Sept. 14 vs. Washington. It’s a showcase game for coach Tim Beckman’s program against a solid Pac-12 opponent at Soldier Field. If Beckman’s going to snuggle up to the Chicago recruiting area, his team has to rise to the occasion here.

Key addition

Quarterback Aaron Bailey or offensive tackle Corey Lewis. Illini fans are hoping it’s freshman Bailey, but it might be sixth-year senior Lewis, who — if he can avoid a fourth major knee injury — should bolster an offensive line in desperate need of bolstering.

Key departure

Nobody. Do we have to pretend there was one? There’s no one the Illini can’t win more than two games without.

Updated: September 5, 2013 6:54AM



No single positive development in training camp will transform Illinois’ football team into a winner, but the right combination of things? Well, it couldn’t hurt.

That’s some kind of hard-hitting analysis, is it not?

We’ll try to do better with these five burning questions about the Illini as they gear up for three weeks of camp, which begins Monday in Champaign.

What difference will new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit make?

Cubit has been a one-man cleanup crew, de-cluttering the passing game so his quarterbacks can make better, quicker decisions. Both Nathan Scheelhaase’s and Reilly O’Toole’s passing suffered last season, when they had to execute run-fakes before dropping back and getting into their progressions. Of course, a porous offensive line didn’t help. Ditching all those run-fakes will give
Illinois’ quarterbacks a fighting chance.

Cubit will continue to work on speeding up his quarterbacks’ releases. O’Toole, in particular, needs this ongoing intervention. Former Illini star Kurt Kittner thinks it’s the biggest key for O’Toole as he endeavors to win the starting job.

‘‘The thing with Reilly was, he had kind of a longer, more deliberate [arm motion],’’ said Kittner, a radio analyst on Illinois broadcasts. ‘‘You could see in the spring that Scheelhaase still has a quicker release, but they’ve both gotten quicker.’’

How important is it for top recruit Aaron Bailey to have early success?

Illini fans can’t wait to hear all about how good the freshman quarterback from Bolingbrook is. That excitement is a good thing — especially for a downtrodden program coming off a 2-10 season — but it’ll be a major upset if Bailey leapfrogs a pair of tested veterans during camp.

That’s not to say he can’t find his way onto the field during the season. Unless coaches decide to redshirt him, Bailey’s development in August is vital. If, as the weather turns chillier, the offense is again one of the worst in the Big Ten and bowl prospects are dim, many fans will be screaming for a long look at Bailey. And coach Tim Beckman, who might be under pressure at that time, might be wise to give it to them.

Two days before he was scheduled to report to campus, Bailey was feeling good about his prospects.

‘‘I’m honestly just confident,’’ he said. ‘‘I have a lot of confidence in myself with my God-given ability.’’

Hello? Anybody home to catch the ball?

Illinois’ wide receivers were basically invisible during the second half of last season. Ryan Lankford (14 catches and one touchdown in his final six games) must re-establish himself in a big way. Spencer Harris should feel free to reintroduce himself to his quarterbacks, too.

Maybe junior-college transfer Martize Barr will create some buzz, as he did in the spring. Somebody has to.

Will Beckman be doing anything differently?

He’ll be coaching Illinois’ cornerbacks. There are a bunch of new faces at that position; all but one of the cornerbacks on the roster were Beckman recruits. Their development will be an intriguing story line. Their collective performance once games start will be a fun new way by which to judge Beckman.

Is there a successor to first-round picks Whitney Mercilus (2012) and Corey Liuget (2011)?

As was the case last season, the answer is almost certainly no. Unlike last season, perhaps the Illini’s defensive line can flourish anyway.

Beckman and coordinator Tim Banks simply want their D-linemen to form a cohesive unit. As end Tim Kynard, the lone returning starter up front, recently admitted, the 2012 defense wasn’t exactly enamored of the system that had been installed by a new coaching staff.

‘‘There was a learning curve last year, and this year will be better,’’ Kynard said. ‘‘Year 2 is always better.’’

It all starts Monday.



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