You might want to feel sorry for second-year coach Tim Beckman, who oversees the worst team in the Big Ten and one of the two or three worst in any "big six" conference. While predecessor Ron Zook universally was praised for his recruiting ability, he sure didn't leave much talent for Beckman. Illinois has had four players selected in each of the past three drafts, but it wouldn't be a shocker if the school has zero picked in the 2014 NFL Draft.
New offensive coordinator Bill Cubit guided some powerful attacks while coaching at Western Michigan, but there is an alarming lack of offensive playmakers in Champaign, Ill. Illinois ranked 122nd (out of 124 teams) in the nation in total offense and scoring offense last season. The Illini enter the season on a 14-game Big Ten losing streak and another winless league season is a distinct possibility.
Top senior prospects
OLB Jonathan Brown: Brown (6-foot-1, 235 pounds) was extremely productive as a sophomore in 2011, flashing good instincts and speed to finish with 108 tackles, six sacks, 19.5 tackles for loss, four pass breakups, three quarterback hurries, an interception, a 28-yard fumble return and a forced fumble. But he battled inconsistency and a shoulder injury last season, finishing with only 59 tackles and two sacks in nine games. A return to his 2011 form could lead to him being drafted.
WR Ryan Lankford: This is a leap of faith of sorts. Cubit oversaw some highly productive passing attacks at Western Michigan, meaning Lankford (and some others) could benefit. Lankford (6-0, 175) has good speed and bloodlines (his dad, Paul, was a cornerback for the Miami Dolphins for 10 seasons). But Lankford has only 55 catches in his career and needs a big senior season.
LB Mason Monheim: Monheim (6-1, 233) was much more productive than expected as a true freshman last season, leading the Illini with 86 tackles. He lacks elite quickness, but is tough against the run thanks to solid instincts. He and Brown should make for one of the better linebacker duos in the Big Ten this season.
OG Ted Karras: The offensive line struggled last season, but Karras (6-4, 300) was a bright spot as a redshirt freshman. He is a physical presence in the running game and comes from a football family. His great uncle was former NFL star Alex Karras, and his grandfather, also named Ted, played nine seasons in the NFL.
RB Donovonn Young: Young, a 6-foot, 220-pound junior, is a physical between-the-tackles runner with good hands. He led the team with 38 receptions last fall and should be a nice fit in Cubit's offensive scheme. Young isn't a burner, but his receiving ability improves his NFL chances. He could be a fullback at the next level.
Three must-see games of 2013
Oct. 5 at Nebraska: Brown and Monheim will get a chance to show off against Nebraska's talent-laden offensive line. And if the Illini indeed have an improved passing attack, perhaps they can take advantage of a rebuilding Huskers secondary.
Oct. 26 vs. Michigan State: The Spartans look to have the best secondary in the Big Ten, so Illinois' receivers face a stern test. In addition, Young will have a chance to impress because Michigan State has a good group of linebackers.
Nov. 16 vs. Ohio State: The loaded Buckeyes will pose a huge challenge for the Illini. Again, it will be a chance for Brown and Monheim to make some noise against a talented offensive line.