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2015 Big Ten preseason preview: Illinois

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2015 Big Ten preseason preview: Illinois

BY JEFF SLADE 

As football season inches closer, we take a look at the early preseason previews of every team for the 2015 Big Ten Season, ranking numbers 14 through one until we finally hit September 3rd. 

<<<CLICK HERE FOR COMPLETE 2015 BIG TEN POWER RANKINGS>>> 

2014 Record: 6-7 (3-5) 

Key games: at Iowa, at Minnesota, Northwestern

Players to watch:  QB Wes Lunt, RB Josh Ferguson, LB Mason Monheim  

Overview: 

Illinois football has improved by two wins each of the last three years, going 6-7 in 2014 including wins over Minnesota and Penn State.

They reached a bowl game for the first time since 2011, dropping 35-18 to Louisiana Tech in the Heart of Dallas Bowl. Despite the loss, simply playing in the postseason was a welcome change for Illini fans after 6 combined wins the previous two seasons. 

Can they continue this positive trend in 2015? 

If they do, it’d be the first winning season for Tim Beckman in Champagne. Anything less may in fact lead to the end of Beckman’s tenure, after his predecessor Ron Zook was fired after consecutive 7-6 seasons. 

There’s also been a bit of unwanted controversy this offseason for Beckman.  

In May, former Illini offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic took to twitter to rip Beckman about his treatment of players, accusing his former coach of making him play through injuries. 

“A bad knee and a bad shoulder and I'm supposed to just keep going?” he said in the tweets. “Just play right tackle they said.” 

No matter, Beckman is still the coach in Champagne, although Cvijanovic’s accusations possibly turn Beckman’s hot seat into a burning one if the on-field product fails to improve. 

That may be aided by a fairly easy non-conference schedule. 

The Illini face Kent State, Western Illinois, and Middle Tennessee at home in addition to a road contest against North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They should be at worst 3-1 exiting that stretch, as anything less would be an indication for a rough year ahead. 

They then move on to a fairly tough Big Ten schedule, facing Penn State and defending National Champions Ohio State from the East Division. 

Key games against Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, and Northwestern will go a long way towards the team’s success or failure. 

On the offensive side of the ball, Illinois will likely rely on junior quarterback Wes Lunt, as he’s shown to be a capable signal caller when healthy. His health, though, and not his talent, might be the primary question for fans. 

In the backfield, Lunt will have help behind him, with senior running back Josh Ferguson coming off a 741 yard, eight touchdown season in 2015. If there were one thing the explosive Ferguson can improve upon it’d be his shaky ball security, last year giving it away seven times. 

The receiving corps and offensive line, however, will be the primary questions, as 2014’s leading receiver Mike Dudek is still recovering from a torn ACL and the line replaces three of their best players. 

On defense, things might hinge on whether Illinois is able to improve their rushing defense, ranking 82nd in 2014 for Opponent Rushing Success Rate. It doesn’t matter how good a secondary is if the other team can move the ball on the ground at will. 

They do have some pieces, most notably defensive end Dawuane Smoot and linebacker Mason Monheim. They also return every cornerback from a pretty decent secondary, which will probably be the backbone of the 2015 defense. 

In all, watch for the success Wes Lunt and ability to stop the run to play major roles whether Tim Beckman finds himself in Champagne come 2016.

Prediction: 6-7 (3-5); fifth in Big Ten West 

<<<CLICK HERE FOR COMPLETE 2015 BIG TEN POWER RANKINGS>>> 

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Maryland's Darnell Savage signs rookie contract with Green Bay Packers

Maryland's Darnell Savage signs rookie contract with Green Bay Packers

Darnell Savage is the third NFL draft prospect profiled in our series ‘I Am the Prospect’. Download the MyTeams App for all three features.

Darnell Savage Jr. spent four seasons wowing fans in College Park as a defensive star for the Maryland Terrapins, and in April he found out he’ll be taking his talents to Wisconsin after being selected in the first round of the NFL Draft by the Green Bay Packers.

Now, his future in Green Bay is officially official.

As Schefter mentions, Savage is the first first-rounder to sign a contract in 2019. It will be the standard length of first-round draft picks, going four years guaranteed with a fifth-year option. Reports are that the speedy, hard-hitting safety will earn $12.5 million over the first four seasons of the contract.

There were some questions about Savage’s fit in an NFL defensive backfield, given his size. But he is an athletic player with great instincts for the ball, and his statistics were thoroughly impressive the last two seasons in college. The Packers certainly believed he would be a terrific fit in their defense, considering they traded up to the 21st pick in order to make the selection.

Savage should have a great opportunity to start early in Green Bay, and now that he’s signed his contract so early, he’ll be able to get to work sooner rather than later. Knowing Savage, that’s just the way he wants it.

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NFL Draft prospect Tre Watson hopes to time draft night around 'Avengers' release

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NFL Draft prospect Tre Watson hopes to time draft night around 'Avengers' release

Thursday night will be a very important moment in the life of former Maryland linebacker Tre Watson.

At midnight, the highly-anticipated Marvel movie Avengers: Endgame will hit the big screen for general audiences to see, bringing the conclusion to a decade worth of popular films. Watson, like millions of others, has been counting down the days until he could see the Avengers and Thanos go at it one more time.

Oh, and Thursday also marks the beginning of the 2019 NFL Draft, where Watson will most likely hear his name called at some point over the three-day span.

While Watson will be tuning into the draft that night, he understands that his moment of recognition may come a little later on in the week. Therefore, Thursday is all about 'Avengers'.

"Fortunately, you know, I'm kind of realistic. I know I'm not going to be a first-round pick," Watson said in an interview on NFL Network. "So I'll just be watching that just kind of for the formality of it, I'm definitely excited for 'Avengers' and then I kind of will springboard into Day 2 and Day 3 where I'm hoping to hear my name called. It's really a perfect set up for me, honestly."

This isn't the first time that Watson has let it be known to the world that he is a dedicated Marvel fan. His Twitter feed is filled with thoughts on the movie, including a tweet from a few months back that took the internet by storm.

The first round of the draft still does have some intrigue for Watson, as his former teammate Darnell Savage Jr. has gained a lot of steam during the draft process and has a chance to be chosen on Thursday night. However, Watson will hope that Savage's name is called earlier in the night rather than later, as he will need time to get to the theatre to prepare to watch  Captain America and company save the day one last time. 

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