Illinois Fighting Illini Prospect Preview
Nathan Scheehaase, QB, Senior- Scheelhaase feels like he has been at Illinois forever to me (and he has, this is his 5th and final year with the team) and while he showed some potential as a freshman he has largely been unimpressive in the years since. That may have something to do with changing offensive coordinators every year (we saw what that did to Alex Smith, after all) but blaming his unimpressive accuracy and relatively poor decision making on the constant change at offensive coordinator doesn’t add up to me. Still, it looks like the 6’3”, 200 pound senior will be the starter over Riley O’Toole (who threw four, yes FOUR, interceptions in the spring game) in spite of throwing for just 1,361 yards on 246 attempts (60.6% completion) with 4 touchdowns and 8 interceptions (usually you hope for the direct opposite ratio). He doesn’t have a very strong arm, he’s not accurate, he doesn’t protect the football, and he doesn’t have a lot of poise in the pocket. Sounds like the next Andrew Luck right? I don’t think Scheelhaase will have a great senior year, but I’ve never been a big fan and I will be very surprised if he is drafted whether it is at quarterback or wide receiver.
Wes Lunt, QB, Sophomore- I really wish Lunt could start this year but unfortunately we will all have to wait a year. I was a fan of Lunt at Oklahoma State and was rooting for him to win the starting job despite being a true freshman. He had an up and down freshman year, but upon realizing that he wouldn’t be the starter he elected to transfer. He’s still young, and he will have a year to learn Cubit’s system before he has to play, and I think he has some upside. He’s more of a pocket passer which theoretically fits Cubit’s system better, and I think he has much better arm strength than Scheelhaase. So I for one am excited to see if he can win the starting job over O’Toole (god I hope so) so I can see what he brings to the table for two or three years as the starter.
Donovonn Young, RB, Junior- I have been on the Donovonn Young bandwagon since he was a freshman and I’m not hopping off now. The offensive line was underwhelming last year (despite my fandom of Hugh Thornton) and Young only got 131 carries which he turned into 571 yards and 3 touchdowns. Those obviously aren’t eye popping numbers, but he also led the team in receptions with 38 and added 172 receiving yards and another touchdown through the air. He’s a complete back and at 6’0”, 220 he is a load to bring down in the open field. I’d say he has about 4.5 speed, some quickness, reliable hands out of the backfield, and he runs hard which I like to see. I don’t think he’s on Rashard Mendenhall’s level yet, but I still believe he has similar upside. If the Illini can solidify their offensive line I think Young could surprise a lot of people, he’s a talented back.
Justin Hardee, WR, Sophomore- The Illini have two senior wide receivers in Spencer Harris and Ryan Lankford, but neither one jumped off the screen to me when I watched Illinois during the season or in the spring game. The kid who DID jump off the screen was then freshman, now sophomore Justin Hardee. Hardee is listed at 6’1”, 190 pounds and I’m not sure how fast he is, but boy does he have good hands. He was snagging passes outside of his frame like it was nothing in the spring game and actually went over 100 yards in the game despite O’Toole’s ineptitude. Hardee is buried on the depth chart behind more experienced players like Lankford, Harris, and Martize Barr, but I think Hardee has more upside than all of them. He had 17 receptions for 192 yards last year as a true freshman, but I’m hoping he gets more playing time because I seriously think he might have the best hands on the team.
Jon Davis, TE, Junior- Jon Davis is an interesting case because while he showed a lot of promise as a freshman his production dropped from 22 receptions, 187 yards and 1 touchdown as a freshman to just 9 receptions, 88 yards and 1 touchdown as a sophomore. In fact, he had 12 more attempts RUSHING than he did receptions which I could hardly believe. He’s clearly an impressive athlete as he managed 102 yards and 1 touchdown on his 21 attempts, but I think all Illinois fans want to see him become more of a focus in the passing game as a junior and a senior. He’s got a lot of upside, but the 6’3”, 240 pound H-Back just hasn’t lived up to it yet. Hopefully he takes a big step forward as a junior, but until the quarterback play is elevated it’s going to be hard for him to put up significant numbers.
Alex Hill, C, Junior- Hill is a favorite of alioneye.com and I have to say I’m intrigued with him as well. He’s listed at 6’3”, 325 pounds and I love that size in a Center. He doesn’t have much previous experience having only started 3 games in his first two seasons, but he played in 11 games last year including one start at left guard. It sounds like the Illini haven’t had the luxury of developing their young linemen and instead have essentially been playing them before they were likely ready which explains some of their poor offensive line play last year. I’m still skeptical that their offensive line will be much better this year, but they return three starters (though Simon Cvijanovic will be moving to left tackle full time) and Hill is replacing Graham Pocic at center. Since Hill doesn’t have a lot of starting experience I’m not very familiar with his game, but he’s definitely one of the guys I’ll be keeping an eye on up front.
Simon Cvijanovic, OT, Junior- Cvijanovic caught my eye both because of his last name and because he has 15 career starts (13 at right tackle, just two at left tackle) but he will be the starting left tackle for the Illini this year. Cvijanovic is listed at 6’5”, 295 pounds and has shown me some upside as a wall-off blocker, but I’m interested to see more of him from a pass protection perspective at left tackle. He doesn’t look overly comfortable in his kick slide on the left side, though he does seem to have pretty good lateral agility. He’s still a relative unknown to me but he’s one of Illinois’ top returning linemen so he’s definitely on my watch list.
Houston Bates, DE, Junior- Bates is a linebacker who has been converted to defensive end so his speed and athleticism isn’t the question mark. He’s listed at 6’3”, 240 pounds so he will need to gain some weight if he’s going to hold up at defensive end in the Big-10. However, if there’s one player who I think could provide some boost to Illinois’ pass rush this year I think it is Bates. I don’t have any tape to base that on since he’s moving to a new position this year, but I’m excited to see what he can produce from a pass rush perspective.
Jonathan Brown, OLB, Senior- Brown is the top senior or junior prospect on the Illini in my opinion. I’ve been watching him since he was a sophomore and while he had a great sophomore year he hasn’t quite lived up to my expectations for him. Some of that has to do with injuries, but if he can stay healthy I think he can recreate his sophomore season where he had 108 tackles and 18.5 TFL. He was a force that year, but injuries robbed him of 3 games and 5 starts as a junior. The 6’1”, 235 pound linebacker still managed 59 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 7 TFL and 1 pass break-up as a junior though. Brown may not be the biggest linebacker but he is a good athlete, a reliable tackler, and he has a high football IQ. He struggles when asked to shed blocks and can get caught up in trash at times, but I think he projects pretty well to a weak-side linebacker role at the next level. He has day 2 upside, but he needs to stay healthy and show what he can do all year to help revive his stock a bit.
Mason Monheim, MLB, Sophomore- Monheim had a great freshman year and honestly watching him I wouldn’t have guessed that he was a true freshman. He had some trouble trying to spy Braxton Miller in the Ohio State game, but that’s not an easy task for anyone, much less a true freshman, to accomplish. He’s another relatively undersized linebacker who is listed at 6’1”, 230 pounds and he led the team with 86 tackles last year. He also added 1.5 sacks, 4.5 TFL, 1 pass break-up and an interception. He seems to have similar instincts as Jonathan Brown and also struggles to shed blocks much like Brown does. He has room to grow though, so he’s definitely worth keeping an eye on.