Illinois fans endured seven seasons under Head Coach Ron Zook, which resulted in strong recruiting classes but a disappointing 35-51 record. Zook coached his final game before the Illini’s victory over UCLA in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl (yes, that’s a thing), so he had only one bowl victory to his name during his tenure. Stepping in this season is former Toledo Head Coach Tim Beckman, a man who led the Rockets to a 21-16 record during his three seasons with the team. Beckman’s teams were known for running a go-go, faced paced, offensive attack to make up for what they lacked in talent, and to keep opposing defenses on their toes. Beckman inherits a team with some quality talent so it will be interesting to see how his style translates to the Big Ten. Here is a look at Illinois’ top draft-eligible players. Underclassmen are designated with an asterisk…
Michael Buchanan DE 6’6 240 – Buchanan played in 10 games as a freshman but was a virtual non-factor. In 2010, in 11 games and eight starts as a sophomore, he recorded a pair of sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. Last season, while playing in the shadow of current Houston Texan Whitney Mercilus, Buchanan racked up 7.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. He’s a fair run defender, but he’d benefit from adding some bulk. He comes in high at times and allows stronger linemen to get into his chest and push him around the field. With Mercilus gone, Buchanan will be asked to assume more of a pass rushing role. Considering his lanky build, moving to the right side full time and improving his pass rush technique will make him more appealing to 4-3 teams. His athleticism and lateral agility make him a candidate to move to linebacker in a 3-4 scheme as well. A model of consistency a year ago, Buchanan logged a sack or tackle for loss in 11 of the Illini’s 13 games. Look for those numbers to improve during the course of his senior season. Unfortunately, Buchanan has had a couple of off field incidents including a DUI in 2010 for which he was suspended indefinitely (before being reinstated) and more recently suffering a broken jaw in a fight. He claims he has learned from the experiences, and I hope he has.
Terry Hawthorne CB 6’0 190 – Hawthorne was a four star wide receiver out of high school where he scored 46 total TDs in his final two seasons. He made five starts at corner as a freshman for the Illini, and had one interception (which he returned for a touchdown) and five pass breakups. Hawthorne was bothered by injuries and limited to eight games as a sophomore, but as a junior he rebounded to intercept three passes, break up eight others, and make five tackles for loss. He returned one of his interceptions for a touchdown in a bowl game win over UCLA, and was named the MVP of the game. Hawthorne has excellent size for a CB and the team likes to use him on blitzes. He tends to line up in off coverage but he can be physical. Hawthorne is not afraid to help in run support, and is a strong, wrap-up tackler. Hawthorne is an aggressive player with a nasty streak. If he shows consistency in pass coverage he can work his way into the top two rounds of the draft.
Nathan Scheelhaase* QB 6’3 195 – Scheelhaase came to Illinois as a well regarded dual threat quarterback out of high school. After redshirting in 2009, he became the team’s full time starter and has led them to seven win seasons in each of the past two years. In his two-year career he’s passed for nearly 4000 yards and 30 touchdowns and rushed for close to 1500 yards and 11 more TDs. Perhaps the best indicators of his progress as a passer are his improvements in both completion percentage and yards per attempts. Scheelhaase seems like a solid fit for Beckman’s fast paced offensive attack that uses quick passing to open up plays down field. Beckman’s two QBs at Toledo last season, Austin Dantin and Terrance Owens, combined to complete 68.9% of their throws and average 8.2 yards per pass attempt. Despite the step up in competition for Beckman, look for Scheelhaase to elevate his statistics close to those levels. Still, with two seasons of eligibility remaining, it would be a surprise to see Scheelhaase leave school early.
Akeem Spence* DT 6’1 305 – After redshirting in 2009, Spence became a Freshman All-American (according to the Football Writers Association of America) after recording 45 tackles, four tackles for loss and a sack. Last season, the run stuffing tackle logged 69 tackles – including nine each in games against Michigan and Northwestern – 5.5 tackles for loss and a total of one and a half sacks. Spence is an undersized, yet stout run defending tackle who isn’t going to make a ton of flashy plays. He has a low center of gravity, which makes him powerful at the point of attack. He does a good job of occupying linemen to allow his linebackers to come up and make plays around him. Spence has improved in each of his first two seasons as a starter. There is potential for him to declare for the draft following the season but it seems likely he will return for his last year of eligibility in 2013.
Jonathan Brown* OLB 6’1 235 – Brown stepped right in and played immediately as a freshman. His season included a 66-yard interception return for a touchdown against Indiana. Last season Brown became a full time starter and finished the season with six sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss, including one and four respectively in a game against Big Ten Champion Wisconsin. Brown’s performance as a sophomore earned him second team All-Big 10 honors. The one black mark on Brown’s two-year career was a one game suspension for a flagrant hit against Northwestern. Brown is a talented athlete with good speed who has starting potential at the NFL level. Teams will watch closely to see if his skills translate to effective pass coverage and blitzing ability. His size limitations will make him more appealing to teams that run 4-3 sets, but with more and more teams using hybrid schemes, Brown’s natural talent makes him a good candidate to come off the board within the first two rounds of the draft. It will be no surprise if this is his final season in college at Champaign.
Also keep an eye on: Corey Lewis OT 6’6 305, Graham Pocic C 6’7 305, Zach Becker FB 6’3 250, Hugh Thornton G 6’5 310