Way too early 2016 look: Illinois
As we close the door on 2015, Saturday Tradition takes a look at each B1G team and how it projects in 2016. Yes, we realize that projecting 2016 records in January is silly. Take them for what you wish.
2016 coach: Bill Cubit (second season)
2015 record: 5-7 (2-6 in B1G)
Biggest losses: Clayton Fejedelem, S; Josh Ferguson, RB; Mason Monheim, LB
Key returners: Wes Lunt, QB; Ke’Shawn Vaughn, RB; Mikey Dudek, WR
2016 recruiting class ranking (247sports): 60th (11th in B1G)
Top committed recruit: Three-star RB Kentrail Moran
2016 strength: Passing Game
The loss of Geronimo Allison will hurt, but the return of Mikey Dudek will be huge. Wes Lunt lacked his safety valve all year. Far too often, Illinois was hurt by its lack of possession receivers. Dudek, if he can return to his freshman form, will be one of the B1G’s top outside weapons in 2016, and he’ll have a third-year starter feeding him the rock. That’s a nice combination to have. On top of that, Malik Turner showed he can be a worthy Allison replacement, and Marchie Murdock will add depth. Lunt struggled when he didn’t have Josh Ferguson catching passes out of the backfield. For Illinois to spread teams out the way it wants to, it needs Ke’Shawn Vaughn to have a more prominent role in the passing game. If he can do that, Illinois should see some nice growth offensively in Bill Cubit’s second year.
2016 weakness: Run-stopping
Illinois finished 11th in the B1G against the run in 2015. That was with the B1G’s tackles leader in Clayton Fejedelem, one of the program’s all-time great linebackers in Mason Monheim and future NFL defensive end Jihad Ward. All of them are gone. Defensive coordinator Mike Phair is going to have some major holes to fill. T.J. Neal, Jr. could lead the B1G in tackles and Dawuane Smoot showed an ability to blow up plays in the backfield. But it’s always concerning when a unit loses five of its top seven tacklers. The Illini will have inexperience at linebacker, which usually is a tough thing to overcome in the B1G. With only one member of its secondary back, this unit could struggle on the back end, as well. Illinois could be in for plenty of shootouts in 2016.
Way too early 2016 projection: 5-7 (3-6 in B1G)
Another season of mediocrity would be tough to swallow, but Illinois simply lacks the incoming talent to warrant significant strides. The Illini does get three home games in non-conference play. But North Carolina and Western Michigan are obviously not cupcakes. Illinois also has the unfortunate crossover draws of Michigan and Michigan State, both of whom will be preseason top-15 teams. The X-factor in everything could be the emergence of Vaughn. The four-star tailback could become a game-changing back as a sophomore, and if he does, Illinois will boast one of the nation’s better offenses. Ultimately, if Illinois hopes to finish with its first eight-win season since the 2006-07 Rose Bowl team, it’ll have to establish a balanced, potent attack that it hasn’t had in years past.