Change ahead for Illinois, but how much unclear

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Associated Press

Posted on March 4, 2013 at 8:00 PM

Updated Monday, Mar 4 at 8:02 PM

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Coming off a 2-10 season, there will be changes in Tim Beckman's second season as Illinois coach.

Spring practice starts Tuesday after an offseason of coaching turnover.

Beckman changed much of his staff, bringing in new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit and adding new assistants on both sides of the ball.

And Illinois will play without four of the most talented players off last season's team — defensive end Michael Buchanan, defensive back Terry Hawthorne, defensive tackle Akeem Spence and offensive lineman Hugh Thornton. All four are trying now to catch the eye of NFL teams ahead of the draft.

Beckman said Monday that he wasn't surprised by challenges his team faced last fall — depth key among them, he said.

"It's what I thought it was when I was getting in," said Beckman, who came from Toledo to replace Ron Zook. "I knew it would be a challenge. ... I think we're moving forward."

With Cubit in charge of the offense, change is likely there.

Cubit was fired last season after eight seasons as Western Michigan coach, but has a history of putting together productive offenses. Illinois' was the Big Ten's worst last season in both scoring (16.7 points a game) and in yardage (296.7).

Cubit says returning starter Nathan Scheelhaase has the edge at quarterback, but said he's really hoping backup Reilly O'Toole pushes the incumbent. O'Toole, a sophomore, played in seven games last fall as Scheelhaase struggled with both his performance and injuries.

"I expect Reilly to go out there and say, 'I want to go out there and be the starter just like Nate is,'" Cubit said. "That's the only way to do it. If he sits back, he'll never be good."

The team's running backs, Beckman said, figure to be a strong point. Donovonn Young, Josh Ferguson and Dami Ayoola combined for 1,000 yards on 232 carries last season.

The line in front of them was a weakness last fall, but Beckman said it should be better.

Illinois will go through the spring without its second most-productive receiver. Darius Millines — who had 319 yards on 32 catches last year — was already out with a shoulder injury but is now suspended for violating unspecified team rules, Beckman said Monday. Beckman said he'll re-evaluate Millines' situation in May.

With three of the four likely NFL prospects that left on defense, Illinois' biggest holes may be on that side of the ball. And those losses come from a unit that struggled in 2012. Illinois gave up 32.1 points a game — 11th in the 12-team Big Ten — and was 10th in yards allowed at 387.6. The team was also last in turnover margin and near the back of the conference in sacks just a season after being among the best in the country.

The problem last season, defensive coordinator Tim Banks said, wasn't the system. So don't expect to see big changes there.

"I mean, I think it's proven. Obviously we didn't play as well as we wanted to last year," said Banks, who came to Illinois from Cincinnati, where he ran one of the top defenses in the country. "Is it the same defense I had two years ago? Yep."

"If (Alabama coach) Nick Saban's guys don't make tackles and don't pick balls off," he added, "it's not a great system."

With a few exceptions, Illinois' spring practices will be closed to fans and news media. The annual spring game will be April 12 at Memorial Stadium.

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Follow David Mercer on Twitter: www.twitter.com/davidmercerap

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