Top 10 Players to Watch in 2013

Top 10 Players to Watch in 2013

The Top 10 list of Illinois players to watch in 2013.

No. 10 - TE Jon Davis

Davis cracks the Top Ten because of his potential, versatility and athleticism -- categories that he undeniably possesses to the max. It's unfortunate, however, that production isn't included, at least not to this point in his career.

Davis entered last season figuring to be a prominent factor on offense, giving fans hope that he would be used in multiple fashions to create a match-up headache for opposing defenses. Instead, he was limited throughout the fall due to lingering injuries. Even if he had been healthy, it's not clear how he would have been employed in an offense that lacked any sense of self and progressively worsened as the season moved along.

He finished the year with nine catches for 88 yards and 21 rushes for 102 yards and two total touchdowns.

Despite prior disappointments and the fact that surgery kept him out of spring drills, Davis' talent is such that he's still considered one of the best in Blue and Orange. New offensive coordinator Bill Cubit should be able to figure out how to get the 6-3, 240-pound junior the football in some capacity in 2013, whether it be via the pass or the rush. Cubit's quick hitting passing style should help, too.

It's a heavy-handed statement, but one that is also most likely true; if Davis doesn't get involved this season, the Illinois offense will once again struggle to make much noise.

No. 9 - WR Ryan Lankford

Playing a position where there isn't much set in stone, Ryan Lankford's key advantage is at least one thing for certain.

He's really fast. Actually, he's probably the fastest player on the Illinois team, at least in terms of the straight line, ready, set, go-kind of speed.

While Lankford lacks the size (listed at 6-foot, 175-pounds) to be an all-out go-to wideout, his speed gives him something that, for the most part, the Illini offense doesn't have -- big play ability.

Last year, his biggest play came in the season opener on his first touch of the season. Lankford hauled in a 64-yard touchdown reception, a play where he streaked down the middle of the field untouched for the score.

In that moment, the Jacksonville, Fla., native looked like a game changer, an instant form of yards after the catch for an offense that figured to struggle to maintain drives.

Unfortunately, that kind of excitement didn't happen very often. To go with his 64-yarder, Lankford had catches of 45, 24, 23 and 22 yards. His best game came against Penn State, where he had 104 yards on seven catches.

But he also failed to catch more than three passes in seven games and missed the Northwestern loss due to injury.

In sum, Lankford is a weapon, just an inconsistent one. His speed provides the potential for a quick score. His size, though, leaves him vulnerable, as seen when Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby frequently roughed him up at the line of scrimmage, relegating him to two catches for 14 yards.

This season Lankford may have more opportunities to get loose. If junior college transfer Martize Barr lives up to the hype generated in spring drills and/or one or two of Steve Hull, Miles Osei, Justin Hardee, Spencer Harris, etc., prove capable of helping out, maybe defenses won't be able to take Lankford out of the game plan.

Those, of course, are big ifs. And when big ifs are involved, speed can bail you out. The Illini will look for Lankford to make more chunk-yardage plays in 2013.

No. 8 - OL Ted Karras, Alex Hill, Simon Cvijanovic

Don't hold it against me, but I'll readily admit I'm copping out by placing three players at No. 8.

It's a jumble -- but that's how I've felt about the offensive line since I arrived in Illinois. Last season, the unit didn't fare too well. By now you already know why, as you do with most of the other areas of the team that struggled; injuries and a lack of continuity on the offensive side as a whole hurt the end result.

By season's end, there had been four different starting lineup combinations with seven different linemen making starts.

Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton are now gone from that tangle. Both were versatile and experienced, so the loss will surely hurt.

Now to be honest with you, I'm not sure how things will shake out in fall camp. That's why I've selected three different players.

I'll start with Karras. Now a sophomore, the Illini legacy seems poised to take a step up in numerous areas in 2013. He'll man one of the guard positions and drew praise in spring for his gains in both strength and technique.

He started every game last season, so he's been in the fight and knows what to expect. On another note, by the end of 2012, Karras began dealing with the media much better and seemed more comfortable fielding questions.

I, obviously, can't be in the locker room, but I imagine that type of confidence has developed in other areas as well, such as leadership, talking with other players and communicating with the staff.

That's what this unit needs -- a leader to look to. Perhaps Karras will make a push to become a central figure.

Cvijanovic is next because he'll likely man the always important left tackle slot. Depending on how Corey Lewis (more on him later) fares, the junior could play on the right side, but either way, he'll factor in.

Like Karras, the 6-foot-5, 300-pounder received plenty of experience last season, suffering through many bad times while also taking part in a few bright outliers (301 total yards, 149 rushing yards against Wisconsin). The offensive staff needs Cvijanovic to take his game to a new level and become a dependable piece on the line to build around. He has two years left to play, so along with Karras being around for three more seasons, there's a good chance to put something together.

Lastly, I've tabbed Alex Hill as a player to watch. Another junior, Hill seemed to get the most reps in spring at center, a position we all know is crucial for success. By no means has Hill solidified himself at the spot, but he has both a good build and the intelligence to make reads and calls at the line of scrimmage.

In my opinion, it would be a drastic step in the right direction if Hill, Karras and Cvijanovic entrench themselves in the starting lineup early in fall camp. Each guy has multiple years left to play and has playing experience in the past, setting up a good year for all three to help get the offense moving again.

Note - I did not include Corey Lewis here, but he's still certainly a player to watch. The sixth-year senior stands a good shot of starting or contributing major time, most likely at right tackle. I'm happy for Lewis -- he's been through so much and nobody deserves to play more than him. I'm also nervous for him too, though, because he's been hurt so many times in the past. Here's to him staying healthy and maintaining his availability throughout the year. That would be both a boost to Illinois and blessing for him personally.

No. 7 - LEO Houston Bates

Honestly, I don't know much about Bates the football player. I am aware he can grow a gnarly Viking-looking beard, always a good trait to have.

But he's not at Illinois to show off his facial hair. He's in school to play football, and given his lack of playing time last season and new position this year, he's a little bit of a wildcard.

Last season Bates appeared prime for a startering role and plenty of production. The expectations were created by his solid redshirt freshman year, where he had 23 tackles and two really good games against Indiana and Arkansas State.

Most thought he'd start opposite Jonathan Brown in 2012. But that plan was sidetracked by an ankle injury that lasted pretty much from start to finish. He missed two games completely and made only 18 tackles as freshmen Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina logged most of the snaps with Bates and Brown both ailing and less than 100 percent.

In the offseason, Bates was moved to the Leo spot. There's plenty of depth at the inside linebacker positions, creating what could be described as an odd-man-out situation.

But I don't see it that way. I think Bates is perfect for the Leo spot, essentially a stand-up defensive end that mostly rushes the quarterback while sometimes dropping into coverage.

At 6-foot-3, 240-pounds, I think the move makes Bates a player to watch this season. He was named the Defensive Most Improved Player at the conclusion of spring drills, and, entering his junior season, he should be hitting his stride in both the physical and mental side of the game.

He's got to stay healthy though. That's another aspect of this selection, as the options at Leo behind Bates are sketch. Darrius Caldwell got himself thrown out of school. And Abens Cajuste, to me, seems a little out of place at the position. Bates needs to log the most reps here.

If he does see the majority of the playing time, I think he could contend to lead the team in tackles for loss and QB hurries. And thinking about it as a whole, I really like the thought of Bates, Brown, Monheim and Svetina all on the field together in some capacity.

That sounds legit.

Note – For the record, my early August birthday makes me a Leo. While it doesn't apply to Bates or the position, I thought I'd point it out.

No. 6 - DB Earnest Thomas

When taking a look at what's gone and what's left in the Illini secondary, it's clear that more than one person has to step up.

Speaking strictly about safety, Supo Sanni and Tommy Davis graduated and Steve Hull moved to receiver.

That leaves… Earnest Thomas and somebody else.

As far as the Earnest Thomas part of that last sentence, I feel pretty settled about it. He already let us know he can handle it.

He finished fourth on the team with 69 tackles as a sophomore in 2012, and also had a team-high three forced fumbles, a quarterback sack and an interception.

As far as the somebody else part at safety, my educated guess tells me junior college transfer Zane Petty will join Thomas in the starting lineup. But he's never played in the Big Ten before. And the others at the position, notably Taylor Barton and Ben Mathis, are solid players, but not guys that are going to move the needle.

That's why Thomas is so important. Illinois can't afford to have even the sophomore version of him in 2013 -- they need him to be even better. A closer look at last year's statistics tells a story -- Thomas played his best ball at the end of the year. He had at least eight tackles in four of Illinois' last five games. He kept getting better as the year went on.

That progression was stalled this spring when a groin injury limited him for much of the work the team put in. I watched most of the team's practices, and no offense to anybody else, but without Earnest out there, I was less than impressed with what was going on in the secondary. Petty was injured too, so that gave me a glimpse into what life would be like without the two headliners at the position.

Let's just say, Thomas needs to have a big year.

No. 5 - WR Martize Barr

He's not very tall.

That's all I can come up with. I'm trying to be as cynical as I can, as these preseason lists can get awfully sunshiny and rainbow-y.

But when it comes to Martize Barr, sunshine and rainbows are appropriate.

Put simply, the junior college transfer looked like a game-changer this spring. He's built well, runs fast, catches everything and can even play defense, too. The only real knocks are that he's on the short side (maybe six foot) and he's never played at the Big Ten level for a season.

He passes the eye test though, and at the wideout position, a unit filled with players that seem to have one awesome trait accompanied by a basket of question marks, Barr can make a difference.

During the spring practice time I got to see, it was hard not to keep watching Barr during drills -- not just when watching the wide receivers, but when scanning the entire field. I don't wanna gush on and on about it, but the guy has the 'it' factor. I don't know how you get it, but I sure can tell when a player has 'it'. Barr has it.

That's what this Illinois offense needs… Consistency is cool. That will be up to the quarterbacks not making mistakes, the line blocking and the running backs making positive yards. While you need all that to be successful, Barr seems to be the guy that can both make possession-style catches and also turn small plays into long gains. That big-play ability can widen the margin for error or staleness.

I'd move him around as much as possible, get him on the outside and in the slot. I'd run him on deep, intermediate and short routes. He's an OW -- an offensive weapon. He's got to be exploited to the max.

Illinois needs Barr this season. Hell, I need him, too. Imagine the headlines I can write if this dude does well.

Setting the Barr High. Passing the Barr Exam. Open Barr Tab. Twix Barr?

That last one won't work, but I love Twix. And if the potential is fulfilled, Illinois fans will love Barr.

No. 4 - QB Nathan Scheelhaase

By now I already know.

Some of you don't care much for Nathan Scheelhaase. And yeah, I get it, it's not personal. He's a great guy. It's just the starting quarterback portion of his description that doesn't sit well.

I've heard it and read it and lived it.

Football players aren't usually ones to make excuses, so I'll write out the list for the guy.

How many coordinators has he had? I think he's going on his fourth or fifth (since the time he signed his letter-of-intent). That's absurd. While I have a perfect understanding of the 'this is a business' mentality and realize change in the coaching ranks is inevitable, how can Scheelhaase be properly judged?

He's run nearly a half dozen offenses!

I bet by now you're tired of reading the excuses because you already know what I'm going to say, so I'll make it quick. Last season. Injuries. A joke of a situation. A staff that couldn't get along. A quarterback hung out to dry.

OK, I'm done now.

Do I think Aaron Bailey is gonna be a better quarterback than anything else Illinois has right now (not counting Wes Lunt, who can't play this season)? Yes. Do I think he's going to be ready to lead an offense and be the face of a program as a true freshman? I'm not willing to say that. Yet.

So while I acknowledge Scheelhaase's past experience isn't impressive, at least there's past experience. He's been in Big Ten battles and two bowl games, been calling plays to the No. 1 offense for going on four years now.

That has to count for something.

With that in mind, as it pertains to Scheelhaase (and the rest of the offense), here's what you have to hope for -- that Bill Cubit is the right man to not only lead the charge, but to also design the charge as well.

From what I've seen and heard, he's at least aware of who he is, what he has done and what he can and cannot do with the personnel Illinois has. He's been there, done that, so I think it was the biggest move of the offseason.

Also, Cubit has charisma and confidence. I think that's what Scheelhaase needs, a steady figure instilling positive feelings. He'd never admit to this, but I can only imagine how many different emotions Scheelhaase has gone through during his career. Now more than ever, with fans anxious to see Bailey and texting back and forth about Lunt, Scheelhaase needs to feel comfortable. He's not going to be effective if he's looking over his shoulder or wondering if those in attendance will support him.

I could see Bailey taking over as the starter at some point, most likely if the season goes into a tailspin early.

You don't want that. And neither does Scheelhaase. He's the man this year. Whether you like it or not.

No. 3 - LB Mason Monheim

Watching Mason Monheim emerge last season was pretty cool.

That's the best way for me to describe it. There wasn't much for Illini fans to be proud of 2012, but Monheim was an immense success in his first season in blue and orange.

I was told early in fall camp that the staff had high expectations for the Orrville, Ohio native, but those initial thoughts were more long-term in scope.

Injuries to Jonathan Brown, Houston Bates and others expedited the process.

Monheim, now 6-foot-1, 230 pounds, was inserted into the starting lineup in mid-September, started making tackles right away and never looked back.

The highlights: an interception against Charleston Southern, 11 tackles versus Penn State, nine solo takedowns in the Indiana game and a career high 15 stops against Minnesota.

Even better than the highlights was the consistency. Monheim had six or more tackles in eight games, a tackling machine that was seemingly getting up off the pile after every play.

Last season, Monheim was good. He was a freshman standing out on a defensive unit that did not do well. At all. What that did is set high expectations moving forward. The defense has to be better, therefore Monheim has to be better.

Long-since accepted doctrine in college sports, players are said to make their biggest jump in development and understanding from their freshman to sophomore seasons.

From what I've seen from Mason after games, during practice and away from the field, I expect him to be a much better player in 2013. He's a determined and smart player with a great work ethic. And he may even have a little motivation chip on his shoulder after not receiving an offer from Ohio State out of high school.

It's an easy prediction to make at the moment, but I'd say the Buckeyes will regret that decision by the time Monheim's college career is done.

Anyway, Brown and Monheim form the best starting unit on defense. Easily. Throw in Mike Svetina, T.J. Neal, Ralph Cooper, Zeph Grimes and Henry Dickinson, coming back from a terrible leg injury, and you've got the deepest and most talented position group on that side of the ball. Easily.

Specifically talking about Monheim, he's got three years left and nothing but a positive path to keep following. He's a piece everyone, players, coaches and fans, can get excited about building around.

No. 2 - LB Jonathan Brown

I know everybody hates losing. Or at least, I assume everybody hates losing, especially those playing college sports. But there are different levels of hate, different ways of responding to defeat.

Jonathan Brown, in my opinion, hates losing more than just about anybody associated with the Illinois football team. And he doesn't mind talking about it.

Last season, loss after loss, it was Brown who talked with more edge in his voice, providing candid responses packed full of plenty of emotions and even more truths. Embarrassment. Anger. Disdain. Pride.

Illinois wasn't good. Brown was hurt. Brown was pissed.

He let us know the product on the field wasn't acceptable. He said it time and time again, saying he was taking responsibility for what was going on and apologizing to the fans for something he himself couldn't possibly have changed alone.

I know he's had some immature moments in the past. I think he can be a bit of a coach's headache from time to time, and it's most likely not in his best interest to answer questions with straight-fire truth all the time. But what can be deemed as bad can also feed the good. Jonathan Brown is a the kind of football player with the kind of mentality you need to push people back and not give any cares about doing so. You want, no you need, him on your side.

When he harnesses his emotions properly, he's the best player Illinois has.

I know this because Brown wasn't 100 percent healthy for most of last year, yet he led the team in tackles for loss (9.5) and very well could have turned pro. For the second season in a row, Brown is on the Bednarik preseason watch list, which at this point means nothing, but hey, Illinois needs all the hype it can get.

From the bold side of me clammering to get out… I'll say Brown leads the team in tackles and TFLs in 2013. OK, so that wasn't all that bold. While the linebacker position is easily the deepest on the team, Brown's talent is so big that he needs to play big. The depth elsewhere dictates such.

Here's to candid statements this fall. Let's hope for a more positive tone.

No. 1 - RB Donovonn Young

Remember that time I told you about Jonathan Brown's noticeable hatred for losing? Well, add Donovonn Young to that level. The Houston, Texas native was equally vocal about the disappointment and embarrassment of last season's results.

While Brown experienced added frustration due to injury, Young was equally ticked because he couldn't fully be utilized either.

After all, it's hard to effectively employ the running attack when you're losing by double digits.

So the promise of the 6-foot, 220-pound Young coming into the season, after a solid first-year on campus, resulted in 571 yards and three touchdowns. Clearly, those weren't the numbers Young had in mind -- but there wasn't much he could do it about it. Usually by the time the second half rolled around, Young was running pass routes or trying to help block for the quarterback.

He did manage 4.4 yards per carry, which in hindsight, is really respectable given the daylight, or lack thereof, he had on most of his runs.

Now entering his junior campaign in 2013, Young stands to benefit from new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit nearly as much as the quarterbacks will. Cubit's style is most known due to a fast-passing attack, but his approach on the ground should help the powerful and strong Young. Cubit prefers runs that are north-south, not the spread look that the Illini spent much of last season in.

That suits Young, who is built to both run between the tackles (although he does have enough speed to not be classified solely as a bruiser) and carry the football around 20 times a game.

So why he is No. 1? I see Young as a the best professional prospect Illinois has on the offensive side of the ball. He has the size, speed and hands to be a complete back. And now entering his third year on campus, he should be mature enough to handle the responsibility and accountability that comes with being a leader, statistically, vocally and by example.

Kinda of like I said with Brown and a few others near the top of this list, Young is the closest thing to a game-changer Illinois has. That means he has to change games.

If that doesn't happen, the offense won't go. And that can't happen again.

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