CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Wins have been scarce in Jon Davis' first three seasons at Illinois, just 13 in all. Seven of those came his freshman year.
But the tight end believes this could be the year the Illini turn the corner.
"Six or seven wins isn't a far-off goal," he said. "This team is good enough to be a bowl team."
It may have to be for coach Tim Beckman. His boss, athletic director Mike Thomas, has said the team needs be better than last season. Those Illini were 4-8 (1-7 Big Ten), a small step up from 2-12 in 2012.
"Now, it's not the numbers that we all want, but we did get better," Beckman said.
The third-year coach has at least one big weapon to work with this fall in transfer quarterback Wes Lunt. And the Illini have a bunch of returning players who should be better, as well as an influx of junior college talent. Five things to watch at Illinois this season:
QB TALENT: The last time Lunt played at Illinois' Memorial Stadium, he was the quarterback for Rochester (Ill.) High School and threw for 590 yards and four touchdowns in winning a state title. He started as a freshman at Oklahoma State before losing the job to injury, then sat out last season under NCAA transfer rules. Now 6-5 and 225 pounds, he is the kind of pure passer who could put serious bite into coordinator Bill Cubit's offense.
Illinois scored 29.7 points a game in 2013, sixth in the Big Ten, and was second in passing yards with 287.7 a game.
But Lunt's a better passer than last year's starter, Nathan Scheelhaase. And Lunt just plain knows what he's doing, Cubit said.
"You could just tell the kids trust him when he's out there and he's making calls," Cubit said.
RECEIVING QUESTIONS: If Illinois lacks experience in any one spot, receiver is it. The most productive returning wide receiver, Martize Barr, caught 26 balls for 246 yards. But Illinois added junior college receiving talent in Tyrin Stone-Davis and Geronimo Allison. And two true freshmen, Mike Dudek and Malik Turner, have won early praise.
SEEKING DEFENSE: As effective as the offense was last season, the defense was a problem. The Illini gave up 35.4 points a game, 104th in the country and 11th among the 12 Big Ten teams. The team had three interceptions and 15 sacks, both 11th in the conference. At defensive end, junior college transfer Jihad Ward's 6-6, 295-pound physique looks Big Ten-ready. And the secondary, Beckman says, is now experienced enough to let him move Earnest Thomas from safety to star, a hybrid secondary-linebacker position that will put Thomas closer to the line of scrimmage. He is the top returning tackler with 101 tackles.
THE SCHEDULE: Illinois ducks Michigan State and Michigan. But after an opening stretch that packs home dates with Youngstown State, Western Kentucky and Texas State around a trip to Washington, the Illini will play five of eight against Big Ten teams that won at least eight games in 2013 (with trips to Nebraska, Wisconsin and Ohio State). To get to six wins and a bowl, Illinois will probably need an upset or two.
JOB SECURITY: The buzz around Illinois football has faded since the surprise 2008 trip to the Rose Bowl. Attendance has dropped from 61,707 a game the season after that game to 43,787 in 2013. Beckman can't be blamed for all of that, of course, but he's under pressure to turn it around.
"That's the life of a football coach," he said. "If you're not going to have that life, then you shouldn't be in this profession."
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