The Illini open their season Saturday with an 11 a.m. matchup against Youngstown State. Here’s what you should be paying attention to when the orange and blue take the field.
All eyes on Lunt
No player has generated more offseason attention in Champaign than Wes Lunt, who was tabbed by Tim Beckman and Bill Cubit as the successor to four-year starter Nathan Scheelhaase. There’s a lot of pressure on Lunt for various reasons. Not only did Cubit and Scheelhaase combine to make the Illini offense one of the Big Ten’s best last season, but Lunt’s transfer from Oklahoma State gives Illinois a pretty big-time QB prospect, despite the fact he’s three years removed from high school. Lunt has the physical tools, and he should show them off Saturday. The key is whether he can develop a mastery of Cubit’s offense. He’s got the arm part of being a quarterback down, now it’s time to get all the complexities of the brain part down, too.
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Defense gets FCS test?
The Illini defense was pretty terrible last year, often erasing all those good things that the offense did. There’s a year of experience under the belts of a lot of the guys thrown into the fire as youngsters last season, and Beckman has talked all offseason about how that should make this unit better. But will that experience make up for all those points surrendered and tackles missed a year ago? The good news is the Illini get an FCS opponent to test their new D against in Week 1. The problem is, that didn’t help a year ago, as Southern Illinois went for 34 points and 407 total yards in last season’s opener. Plus, Youngstown State is a ranked team in the FCS top 25. The Illini defense should be fine, but if it isn’t, it could signal another season like the last one.
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Everyone knows Josh Ferguson is a great offensive weapon for the Illini at running back, succeeding in both the rushing and passing attacks last season. He’s expected to break out even more in 2014, and that’d be a big help for Lunt. What’s more unknown is the Illini’s inexperienced group of wide receivers. Though while they don’t have much experience playing at the D-I level, the coaches are pretty excited about these guys, and it’s rubbing off on observers. This group of receivers could prove dynamic weapons for Lunt. Junior college transfer Geronimo Allison and true freshman Mikey Dudek have earned rave reviews this offseason, and two returners in Martize Barr and Justin Hardee will be in the mix, too. Then there’s another true freshman in Malik Turner, the Sacred Heart-Griffin product who also raised plenty of offseason eyebrows. They might be inexperienced, but they could come up with some big plays Saturday.