Going into his eighth season at Illinois, the offensive-minded coach Ron Turner has defense on the brain. And why not? His Illini were among the worst in the country last season at stopping the other team. Illinois finished 92nd in total defense, 98th in scoring defense, 111th in rushing defense and 117th in turnovers gained. Two years removed from a Big Ten title, the defensive collapse meant a fall to 1-11 and questions about Turner's job security.
OffenseHow much can a team expect from a sixth-year quarterback coming off major surgery? Turner hopes the answer from Jon Beutjer is "plenty." Beutjer will have competition at the position; sophomores Chris Pazan and Tim Brasic and freshman Brad Bower will get long looks in preseason camp.
Though the quarterbacks completed 60.8 percent of their passes in 2003, Turner wasn't happy with the 15-to-16 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
The Illini have a nice problem in the backfield -- too many talented players. The numbers were whittled some in 2003 because of injuries. But if E.B. Halsey, Pierre Thomas and Marcus Mason stay healthy this season, Turner will have three capable tailbacks to choose from.
The wildcard among the Illini receivers is Kendrick Jones. The coaches have been waiting for the talented junior to live up to his potential. He had a strong spring, making both routine and spectacular catches.
Four starters return on the line, but they aren't all locks for jobs. Not when the Illinois offense finished 101st nationally in rushing and 107th in scoring.
"We're going to get the best five on the field, whoever they might be," Turner said.
DefenseTurner brought his defensive coaches into a room during the offseason, showed them the board listing the offensive players and said, "Take who you want."
The defensive coaches followed the instructions. Their first draft pick was Kelvin Hayden, who led the team in receiving in 2003. Hayden, they thought, would make a fine cornerback. The defensive coaches also asked for and received offensive lineman Chris Norwell (now a defensive tackle) and running back Morris Virgil (now a safety).
"We've got to stop people," Turner said. "If we can't stop people, we're not going to win."
The most important cog in the lineup wasn't on the field during the spring. End Mike O'Brien was recovering nicely from knee surgery and is expected to be back for training camp.
SpecialistsTurner landed the state's best placekicker, Rock Island's Jason Reda. If Reda is ready to handle extra points and field goals, it will give Turner some options. If not, Steve Weatherford will handle the placements and Matt Minnes will be the punter. Weatherford was among the league's best punters in 2003, but Minnes is a capable backup.
Final AnalysisIt isn't just about going to a bowl game and having fun at Illinois anymore. It's about keeping the coach on the job. Many outside the program called for Turner's dismissal after the 1-11 finish in 2003. But Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther stuck by his man. Now, Turner and his staff need to prove Guenther right.
The schedule is the most Illinois-friendly in Turner's eight seasons, with a record seven home games. The team doesn't leave Memorial Stadium until October and has just three games outside of Illinois (the finale is at Northwestern).
Beutjer must overcome his back injury and return to 2002 form. The team needs a major leap from the defense, which was run over by the rest of the league in 2003.
Still, it will be difficult for Illinois to climb up the Big Ten ladder this fall. There simply aren't any weak teams in the league.