CHAMPAIGN, Illinois — Coach Tim Beckman believes last season's 6-7 bowl team provided the kind of momentum the Illini can build on as the start spring football on Saturday.
Illinois lost in the Heart of Dallas Bowl to Louisiana Tech, but getting there was a big improvement for a team that had won just six games total in Beckman's first two seasons on campus.
"We really had an outstanding second half of the season," Beckman said Tuesday. The Illini had three wins in their last five games.
Beckman believes he'll have better depth to work with this year. That doesn't mean the Illini will be deep — he said Tuesday that with injuries he won't have much depth at offensive line this spring.
But he sees good position battles for playing time at key spots where last year the team struggled to put players on the field.
Cornerback, he said, should be much deeper. And linebacker should be, too, with the return of Mike Svetina from a broken foot that cost him all of the 2014 season. Svetina started 11 games as a sophomore.
Some other things to watch from Illinois' practices between Saturday and the April 18 spring game:
Starting quarterback Wes Lunt has missed major pieces of both his seasons as a college quarterback with injuries. Last season senior Reilly O'Toole served as an experienced backup, and wound up the starter late in the season. But this fall Lunt's backup is a redshirt freshman, Chayce Crouch. And behind him are two true freshmen, Jimmy Fitzgerald and Jeff George Jr., who Beckman says will compete for the No. 3 spot.
"We're looking for a lot of the leadership capabilities of being a starting quarterback in the Big Ten (from Crouch)," Beckman said.
Illinois' defense has been among the conference's worst during Beckman's time in Champaign. In the offseason he added former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Chicago Bears assistant coach Mike Phair as a co-defensive coordinator alongside coordinator Tim Banks.
Phair will work with the defensive linemen, but it isn't clear who will call the plays on game day or how Banks' job will change.
"We'll see," Beckman said.
Illinois returns starter Josh Ferguson, who had 735 yards on 146 carries (5 yards a carry) and eight touchdowns as a junior.
But none of the four players listed behind him has carried the ball in Division I college football. They include one junior college transfer, Enyenihi Henry from Sacramento City College, and promising 5-11, 200-pound freshman Dre Brown.
Finding a backup from that group plus the two more freshmen backs due to enroll this fall is a priority, Beckman said.