CHAMPAIGN, Illinois — Illinois started what it hopes will be a road to improvement on Monday with its first preseason practice.
The Illini are coming off a 4-8 season (1-7 Big Ten) that, while better than head coach Tim Beckman's two-win opening season in Champaign, probably will have to be improved on if Beckman wants to maintain job security.
Six wins in two seasons, senior offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic said, has left the team frustrated.
"We're upset, we want to win so bad," he said. "We won't end practice on an interception or a fumble. We'll work on it until we get it right."
Monday's opening practice begins 20 days of work split between the campus in Champaign and the team's traditional preseason home in Rantoul, about 20 miles north.
Most of the practices will be closed to the public. Those in Rantoul, which start Aug. 11, will be open.
The Illini bring back most of last season's coaching staff, including offensive coordinator Bill Cubit. The former Western Michigan head coach is credited with reviving Illinois' offense last season under senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, a starter for most of his four seasons in Champaign.
"It's been weird just looking back and Nate's no longer there," tight end Jon Davis said.
With Scheelhaase at quarterback, the Illini were sixth in scoring in the Big Ten last season at 29.7. A year earlier the team averaged 16.7 points a game, worst in the Big Ten.
Scheelhaase's likely replacement is Wes Lunt, the transfer who was a starter at Oklahoma State as a freshman before losing his job to injury.
Beckman has declined to name a starter, but the strong-armed Lunt is considered the favorite.
"Wes is a big strong kid," Davis said, adding that he throws the ball "effortlessly."
The bigger questions for Illinois concern the defense. Most of the starters are back from a young group. But that defense was among the worst in the Big Ten — 11th in total defense at 481.5 yards a game, 11th in sacks with just 15 and, bottom line, 10th in points allowed at 35.4 a game.
With experience, Beckman hopes his defense can make the same kind of leap that Illinois' offense made in 2013.
"You've got 18 faces out of the 22 on two deep that are back," Beckman said.
Illinois opens its season Aug. 30 at home against Youngstown State.
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