CHAMPAIGN -- Walking onto the field before the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl last December, Nathan Scheelhaase's football world was cracking wide open.
After starting 6-0, his team had just lost six in a row. Ron Zook, the coach he came to Illinois to play quarterback for, had been fired as a result. And even with new coach Tim Beckman already hired, no one knew who would be back for 2012 with the NFL or transfers beckoning.
"I remember walking out on the field for that bowl game with (defensive back Terry Hawthorne), remember slapping hands with him and giving him a hug and thinking, 'Man, is this the last game I'll play with this guy?"' he said. "Because you don't know."
For starters, he didn't know what kind of Illini team would show up that day.
"People expected us to kind of roll over and play dead," Scheelhaase now says.
Illinois instead scratched out a 20-14 win over UCLA to finish 7-6, and four of those players -- Hawthorne, defensive end Michael Buchanan, defensive tackle Akeem Spence and center Graham Pocic -- came back.
Beckman is thankful they did.
"When Michael Buchanan and Graham Pocic and Terry Hawthorne and Akeem Spence made the decision to come back and be a part of that, I sure hope that's the start of something special about being a senior and about being the leader of a football team," Beckman said.
The four, along with Scheelhaase, sophomore running back Donovonn Young and a handful of others, are the key pieces Beckman is building around in his first season since coming to Illinois from Toledo. The Illini open at home against Western Michigan on Sept. 1.
Buchanan, Hawthorne and Spence return from a defense that finished seventh in the country, fourth against the pass and 21st in scoring defense. Whitney Mercilus led the country in sacks with 16 before leaving to play in the NFL, but Buchanan quietly had 7 1/2 sacks, fourth in the Big Ten.
Buchanan said one of the biggest reasons he came back was Beckman.
"He was very honest with us about what the NFL scouts were saying about us," pointing out a number of areas where Buchanan could improve with another year.
One thing Buchanan changed, he said, was his weight. He's added about five pounds to get to 250 give himself an edge playing inside against Big Ten offensive linemen. The extra weight, the 6-6 senior said, "actually feels more comfortable when you're trying to get through the line, stunting."
The defense was the surprise strength of the Illini last season, in part because the offense turned so bad over those six losses. Illinois scored 11 points a game over that stretch.
The offensive line was a big part of the problem.
Scheelhaase and the other Illini quarterbacks who spelled him often threw under pressure and had almost as many interceptions -- 13 -- as their 14 passing touchdowns. Illinois gave up 36 sacks, better than only two other teams in the conference.
Illinois' run-first offense was only a little better on the ground, averaging a middle-of-the-pack 171.7 yards a game.
Promising, though, were the 451 rushing yards and six touchdowns Young had as a freshman. He was fourth on the team in rushing yards -- Scheelhaase was first with 624 -- but this season he'll be called on to carry more of the load. What he can do in Beckman's spread offense may be dictated by what the senior center, Pocic, and the rest of the line can do in front of him.
"The major concern, as we all know, is the offensive line," Beckman acknowledged.
Beckman has stressed competition since his opening news conference -- competition in everything, from the practice field to weight training to some things you might not expect.
"We did a 3-point shooting contest with our shoulder pads on," Scheelhaase said.
That emphasis, Scheelhaase said, is intended to teach players to hold up under the pressure of tough times.
The Illini who are back from last season know a little about that.
Young says that after the 21-14 loss to Purdue -- Illinois' second loss -- the feeling around the team changed.
"After that, you could tell the atmosphere was a little different around here," said the 6-0, 220-pound Young. "You could see the change coming."
But the bowl win, players believe, showed they learned to handle struggles.
Now, with neither Penn State nor Ohio State eligible to win the Big Ten title, Illinois has an unusual opportunity. A new staff usually means rebuilding, but the Illini -- while stressing the standard football players' commitment to taking things a game at a time -- acknowledge that the path toward the Big Ten title game is just a little more open since neither the Buckeyes nor Nittany Lions can get there.
"We understand that we have a better chance at being Big Ten champs, and that's our goal," Young said. "It's there. We know. It's not like we're naive to the situation."