90i #2: Nathan Scheelhaase

Nathan Scheelhaase
Quarterback
6′-3″, 205 lbs.
Senior (on scholarship, 1 year to play 1)
Rockhurst High School / Kansas City, Missouri
Jersey Number: #2

What I Know About Him:

There is quite literally nothing I can put in this section that you don’t already know. When we were in the 60′s, sure, maybe I know more about LaKeith Walls than you do. But with Scheelhaase, you know it all. Let’s just skip to the next section.

What I Expect From Him:

If he had an outstanding season, that could mean, what, six more wins for us? Outstanding performances from your quarterback can mean so much. I still claim that Russell Wilson and Russell Wilson alone brought five more wins to Wisconsin in 2011. Yes, Ball was a great back, but with Ball returning and no Wilson last year they went 7-5. I’m getting off track here.

If Scheelhaase plays for 12 weeks like he did in the first six weeks of the 2011 season, we’re going to a bowl game. He was so good in those six games (after we reached 6-0 with the Indiana win, he was #5 nationally in passer rating and on a few midseason all-whatever teams). And then everything fell apart.

That’s the narrative with Nate, isn’t it? 18 games where he kept getting better and better and better until he was top-5 in passer rating. And then 18 games where things got worse and worse and worse until he finished the 2012 season with only four touchdown passes. What will we get in his final go-around?

And it almost wasn’t his final go-around. I don’t have a source on this other than “people who talk”, but the story I heard was that Zook wanted to pull Nathan’s redshirt in 2009 when Juice was injured, but Nathan’s parents and high school coach strongly urged the coaching staff to keep his redshirt on. Did that really happen? Dunno. Story I heard. But, if true and Zook got his way, this would be an O’Toole/Bailey battle going into tomorrow.

OK, brass tacks. When I talked to Nathan in the spring, he didn’t seem like Nathan. He just seemed beaten down. In Rantoul, his attitude was different. Maybe it’s distance from the season. Maybe it’s the fact that he got married in July. But there was a spring in his step in Rantoul. If he can recapture that spring in his step, he can have a Tyler Griffey/DJ Richardson senior season: complete redemption. And we can win more than three games. If not… you know, the first game is tomorrow. Let’s not talk about “if not”.

90i #3: Jonathan Brown

Jonathan Brown
Linebacker
6′-1″, 230 lbs.
Senior (on scholarship, 2 years to play 1)
Christian Brothers High School / Memphis, Tennessee
Jersey Number: #45

What I Know About Him:

He was destined for the #1 spot this year. Impressive as a freshman, check. Then second team All Big Ten as a sophomore, check. Next step would be first team All Big Ten as a junior, and then make a run at some national awards as a senior.

But his junior season met a detour. Mostly due to injuries. He played through the first one – injured against Penn State I believe, and then hobbled through the Wisconsin and Michigan games. He was healthy again for Indiana and had his best game of the year. But then he hurt his shoulder in the first half against Ohio State and missed the rest of the season.

And then this spring… held out due to an injury. And then in Rantoul… held out most of camp due to a concussion. This team needs a healthy Jonathan Brown more than any other player on the roster, but after 11 straight months of injury issues, I’m beginning to wonder if we’ll ever see a healthy Jonathan Brown again.

What I Expect From Him:

The very last day I was in Rantoul, they removed Brown’s green no-contact jersey and put him out there for 11 on 11 drills. It’s amazing how much different this defense looks with Brown out there. Yes, part of it is knowing what he’s capable of. I even questioned myself at the time. If they put TJ Neal in a Jonathan Brown jersey and sent him out there, I’d probably say “this defense just looks so much better with Brown out there”. Part of it was seeing the number out there I’m sure.

But then, in a goal line drill, he read a delayed tight end out (tight end blocks initially, then sneaks out the back side for a pass). And the quarterback had to throw it away. And I wondered if Jonathan Brown and Mason Monheim could solidify this defense all on their own.

The biggest thing we need from Brown: tackles for loss. This defense will give up yards. But if Brown can put offenses in long yardage situations with the old “read the play, knife the line, and grab the tailback four yards in the backfield” that he showed as a sophomore, it would give us a much better chance to force punts (or even turnovers). Yes, turnovers. They really do happen. My father used to tell me stories of football teams that regularly took the ball away with these magical events called “fumbles” and “interceptions”.

90i #4: Mason Monheim

Mason Monheim
Linebacker
6′-1″, 235 lbs.
Sophomore (on scholarship, 4 years to play 3)
Orrville High School / Orrville, Ohio
Jersey Number: #43

What I Know About Him:

Biggest leap in The 90 Illini history. 78th last year, FOURTH this year. It will probably be a long time before someone jumps 74 spots.

Just to show you how wrong I was about this kid, here’s what I wrote in last year’s The 90 Illini when I ranked him 78th out of 90:

College defenses can be a bit overwhelming for high school linebackers. I remember seeing Dickinson and Cooper getting reps with the first string last summer in Rantoul and looking a bit overwhelmed. Same with Bad News Brown in the summer of 2010. So I’m guessing Monheim (and Neal) will go through some growing pains.

Looking at future depth charts, with Cooper and Dickinson both burning their redshirts last fall, I think 2015 is the target year for Monheim to start.

Yeah, and then he starts in 2012, leads the team in tackles, and ends up on a couple second-team Freshman All American lists. I will never question the Monhiem Steamroller again.

By the way, I need to say this again. Monheim Steamroller is not a Robert original. Completely stole it from a guy who posts here now and again – Devon. Sometimes, something is so good that you have to take the torch and run further. Or something.

What I Expect From Him:

In 2010 I declared Jonathan Brown the next great Illini linebacker. And as a sophomore in 2011, when he made second team All Big Ten, it looked like he was well on his way. But injuries derailed his junior campaign (and his hopes to go to the NFL after his junior season), and seeing him in a green no-contact jersey most of Rantoul didn’t exactly scream “he’s back”. Brown has to have an All American-type year if he wants to be mentioned with the Studwells and the Howards.

In 2013, I’m declaring Mason Monheim as the next great Illini linebacker. As a sophomore in 2013, I expect that he’ll build on his fantastic freshman campaign and possibly lead the team in tackles again (in this defense, I think the Mike has more tackle opportunities than the Will, which probably gives Monheim more tackles than Brown). Then, as a junior or senior, time to start challenging for a spot next to Holocek and Brownlow.

90i #5: Tim Kynard

Tim Kynard
Defensive End
6′-3″, 270 lbs.
Senior (on scholarship, 1 year to play 1)
St. John’s High School / Toledo, Ohio
Jersey Number: #59

What I Know About Him:

I know one thing. We’ll have the smilingest defensive line in the Big Ten. Maybe IN THE COUNTRY. Between TK and Austin Teitsma, we’re going to smile offensive lines to death. And I’ve said this before, but we also have the wierdest defensive line numbers in the country. Our starting D-Line is #44, #55, #59, and #95. Who does that?

Kynard is a pretty athletic kid. Played basketball in high school. He considered staying in his home town and playing for new head coach Tim Beckman at Toledo, but decided an offer from a Big Ten school was too good to pass up. Actually, he had an offer from Michigan State as well, but once you’re Zooked, you don’t look back.

What I Expect From Him:

We always start with a theme, and now we’re ending with a theme. On this list, every year, when we’re in the 80′s, it’s “redshirt him, get him in the weight room, see what we have next year”. In the top ten, this year, it’s “he has to make a leap or we’re sunk”. I guess that makes sense for a team that has lost 14 consecutive conference games, but it’s true of every player in this top ten, especially the seniors.

Tim Kynard has only started six career games and has two career sacks. He’ll need at least 7.5 sacks this year for us to be good. And a couple tipped passes. And two forced fumbles. And a safety. No pressure or anything, but as a senior (and certain captain), it’s his time to put this team on his shoulders. And then smile.

90i #6: Ryan Lankford

Ryan Lankford
Wide Receiver
6′-0″, 175 lbs.
Senior (on scholarship, 2 years to play 1)
Paxon High School / Jacksonville, Florida
Jersey Number: #12

What I Know About Him:

It’s funny to see that he maxed out at 175 lbs. When he was a freshman at Camp Rantoul in 2010, there’s no way he weighed more than 150 lbs. He was tall enough – six foot or so – but had to have the skinniest arms and legs in Illini freshman history. I think he was listed on the roster as 160 lbs back then – no chance he was anything but 144.

He did play that year, though. Even had that long 52 yard reception in the Texas Bowl. He’s slowly played more and more over his sophomore and junior years, and last year he was second in receptions (behind Donovonn Young). It’s funny thinking back to this time last year. We felt pretty good about the team going in, and four plays into the first game of the season, BANG, a 64 yard touchdown bomb from Scheelhaase to Lankford. And that would be our longest play from scrimmage the entire season.

What I Expect From Him:

I’ve said this when I mentioned the other guys, but if there’s one storyline that might emerge this fall, it’s our quarterbacks and receivers and their close relationships. Our first and second string quarterbacks (Scheelhaase and O’Toole) and three senior receivers (Lankford, Osei, and HULL) are all very close friends. Which has me longing for a Colt McCoy/Jordan Shipley scenario for Scheelhaase and Lankford where every time they connect on a passing play the announcers go on and on about their friendship. Sign me up for that, please.

There’s a theme developing in our top ten here. Usually, guys in the top ten of this list are “if they have a good year, we have a good year”. This year, it’s “they have to make a giant leap forward or we’re sunk”. And that’s so true of Lankford. This team is dying for a go-to receiver. If Illini Football could talk, it would say “please, someone, anyone, step up and be the go-to guy like AJ Jenkins”. If that happens, the best bet to be that guy is Lankford.

90i #7: Houston Bates

First off, yes, I’m about three days behind. I’d list several excuses, but it’s simple. Bloggin’ ain’t easy. Sometimes, I fall asleep at the keyboard and won’t have time again until 11:15 the next night. But I’m working on that.

So tonight, a quick burst. Three 90i’s in about 45 minutes. On your mark. Get set. 90i.

Houston Bates
Leo
6′-3″, 250 lbs.
Junior (on scholarship, 2 years to play 2)
St. Paul’s High School / Covington, Louisiana
Jersey Number: #55

What I Know About Him:

I know his freshman year he earned the nickname “Bieber” because of the hair hanging in his eyes. I want to say that it was Aaron Gress who gave him that nickname. I also want to say that the fact that I know that Aaron Gress gave Houston Bates the nickname “Bieber” in 2010 is frightening to even me. And I’m me.

This spring he shaved off the long hair. In the practices before spring break – hair hanging in his eyes. The two weeks of practice after spring break – buzz cut. I asked him at the Chicago spring scrimmage what happened on spring break. He said he couldn’t tell the story. I think that’s awesome.

Oh, and he was recruited as a defensive end to LSU, but on signing day, when they got a surprised verbal, they asked him to “grayshirt” – walk on for a semester and take a scholarship the next year. He said no thanks, went looking for a new team, and landed at Illinois. We tried him at outside linebacker for three years, and now in his redshirt junior year, he’s at Leo, our hybrid DE/OLB position.

What I Expect From Him:

Watch for Bates on Saturday. He’ll be all over. I don’t mean that in the “great NFL linebackers” sense where they seem to be all over the field (although I hope for that), I mean that in the “watch and see how many different places the Leo lines up in this defense” sense. Given Bates linebackerness, I think we’ll spread him around even more than we did with Michael Buchanan.

If this defense is going to be any good, juniors like Bates will have to make big leaps forward. Every starter on last year’s defensive line is in an NFL camp right now (at least Justin Staples was still in the Browns camp the last I checked), and now it’s up to guys like Tim Kynard (a part time starter last year) and Houston Bates to make a big leap forward.

90i #8: Corey Lewis

Corey Lewis
Offensive Tackle
6′-6″, 315 lbs.
6th Year Senior (on scholarship, 1 year to play 1)
East Stroudsburg High School / Cresco, Pennsylvania
Jersey Number: #70

What I Know About Him:

Corey Lewis’ ranking in The 90 Illini last year: unranked.

I had completely given up. After his first two torn ACL’s, I figured he’d just never play football again. After his third torn ACL, I just thought he’d leave the program quietly. And now here he is, the 8th most important Illini in 2013.

And that’s probably not high enough. If we have a surprising season this fall – and let me just go ahead and define 5-7 as surprising – then I think Corey Lewis will have a lot to do with that. The line this year should be improved, but it could be greatly improved with a strong right tackle. Without Lewis, we’d have Michael Heitz at right tackle (who is probably better at guard), or we’d have Pat Flavin at right tackle (who is probably a year away). With Lewis… he could solidify this entire line.

What I Expect From Him:

I’ve probably said this five times on here, but my goal for Lewis this year is this: Akim Millington’s 2007. Millington had some injury problems, and he struggled a bit at left tackle in 2006, and then in 2007, when we put Millington at right tackle and Xavier Fulton at left tackle, BOOM. Everything fell into place.

That’s the best case scenario for Lewis this year. In his final season, he pulls an Akim Millington and gives us a “where have you been all our lives” kind of season. Worst case scenario? We all know what the worst case scenario is. So we’re not going to talk about it.

If this line takes a big step forward, I think it will be because Corey Lewis solidified the right side. Which is why I’m ranking him higher than any other offensive lineman. After not ranking him last year at all.

90i #9: Earnest Thomas

Earnest Thomas
Safety
6′-2″, 210 lbs.
Junior (on scholarship, 2 years to play 2)
St. Mary’s High School / Orchard Lake, Michigan
Jersey Number: #9

What I Know About Him:

Here’s my yearly evolution of Earnest Thomas knowledge:

2009: Hey, we landed Thomas on Signing Day. Huge pick-up. Offers from UCLA, Wisconsin, Penn State, Stanford, Louisville… and he’s ours.
2010: Hey, there’s that freshman Earnest Thomas. Koenning likes him as an outside linebacker.
2011: Earnest Thomas looks really lost at outside linebacker. Thinking too much. Just a redshirt freshman, though, so maybe it will just take some time.
2012: Beckman moved Thomas to strong safety. Maybe this position switch is what he needed to find his way into the two-deep. Crap, booted from the Penn State game for a big hit.
2013: You know, Earnest Thomas has to be The Guy for this secondary.

What I Expect From Him:

He has to be The Guy. Our starting secondary will be a redshirt freshman, a true sophomore, a redshirt sophomore, and Thomas. He’s the only upperclassman, so he has to lead.

Thomas would have been a great safety in 1994 because he likes to hit. Come over the middle and you’ll pay. But football has changed, and this year, if you even try to jar the ball loose over the middle, you’ll get a penalty (or an ejection). Nearly every hit Tyrone Washington made in 1994 would now be a penalty. And that’s not hyperbole. Football will be very different this fall. Lots of ejections if safeties hit.

So with that change to the game, Thomas will have to change his forte. Instead of patrolling the center of the field keeping receivers honest, he’ll need to be the safety who 1) Doesn’t let anyone behind him and 2) is great at run support. Which means I have one task for Thomas: study film for hours. His play action bites have to reduce to zero. OK, nine. They can reduce to 9%.

90i #10: Jon Davis

Jon Davis
Tight End
6′-3″, 240 lbs.
Junior (on scholarship, 2 years to play 2)
Trinity High School / Louisville, Kentucky
Jersey Number: #3

What I Know About Him:

Remember the Wisconsin game in 2011? We were in a freefall, and then in the first half against Wisconsin, we looked like we knew what we were doing. (And then we gave up three short touchdown drives in the second half with turnovers and more turnovers and lost.) Remember Jon Davis in that game? Just a freshman, already a go-to target. 5 catches for 53 yards, all of us elbowing each other in the stands and saying “we found ourselves a tight end”?

Since then… I’m not sure what happened. Well, injuries happened. And our 2012 offensive disaster happened. And Jon Davis went from “we found ourselves a tight end” to “will he ever be healthy?” He missed games last year. He missed the spring. He missed a lot of Camp Rantoul last week. I’m probably overreacting, but I went from “finally” to “is he Darius Millines and will always be injured?” pretty quickly.

So now, what will we get? The four-star recruit who showed so much promise in 2011? Or the hobbled player last year who couldn’t stay healthy this spring or summer? I’m probably being too hard on a player for one injured year. But after what happened with Millines, I’m gun shy.

Wait, is it gun shy or gunshy? Gunshy looks like it would be pronounced “gunshee”. #wordprobz

What I Expect From Him:

OK, now that I got all of that out, let’s ramp this up.

I expect health. I expect lots of targets. I expect a return to “we found ourselves a tight end”. I know that makes a lot of you twitch – we’re 14 years into our “we’re going to throw to the tight end” journey at this point – but that’s what I’m going with for Davis. He’s a great athlete. He’s the perfect bigger/faster/stronger recruit. He might be the most talented player that Ron Zook recruited in the 2010 or 2011 classes. So why not push all in?

That’s why I have Davis in the top-10. I’ve decided to bank on a healthy Jon Davis for the entire 2013 season. Cubit will use his tight ends all over – from the backfield, from the wing, from the line – and Davis can do all three. So I expect a return to his freshman trajectory. As long as he stay healthy.

90i #11: Teddy Karras

Teddy Karras
Offensive Guard
6′-4″, 312 lbs.
Sophomore (on scholarship, 3 years to play 3)
Cathedral High School / Indianapolis, Indiana
Jersey Number: #69

What I Know About Him:

I know I’m happy he didn’t toss me in an ice bath for suggesting he needed to do jumping jacks to get from 312 to his playing weight goal of 310. I still flinch when I think of that. This man is legitimately frightening – the #1 Illini player you’d want with you in a street fight – and there I was all Jokey McFunnyguy.

His current ankle injury has me worried on several fronts. For starters, we need him in there every game. He has the potential to be our top lineman. And for other reasons, I kind of want to see him break the Tim Simpson/Ryan McDonald record of 48 starts in an Illini uniform.

Nathan Scheelhaase was on pace to break it, but he missed two starts last year with his ankle injury, so he can only max out at 48 and tie (unless we go to a bowl game this year, and, well, you know). Karras had 12 starts as a freshman, so if he continues that streak and we make one bowl the next three seasons, he’ll have the record. I don’t know why I care about that.

What I Expect From Him:

I expect him to be a first team All Big Ten offensive lineman in 2015. That’s the goal. The trajectory ends there. And I really think he’s on pace for that.

Freshman year: Start every game, begin to show signs, but struggle in certain areas because it’s a learning year.
Sophomore year: Strides. Become consistent. Learn what it takes to never take a play off.
Junior year: Defensive coordinators start to acknowledge you when gameplanning. A consistent problem for defensive lines.
Senior year: All Big Ten. A force. National pub. When they talk about the Illini offense on ESPN, everyone thinks “yeah, they have that Teddy Karras guy”.

One other goal: by 2014, I get everyone to start calling him Mongo.