Aug. 25, 2009
By Larry Watts
Illinois was the big surprise in the Big Ten in 2007. In 2008, the Fighting Illini could not maintain the level of success that brought them to the Rose Bowl. While the 2008 Illini only managed a 5-7 record, 3-5 in the Big Ten (tied for sixth), Illinois has higher expectations this fall.
Head coach Ron Zook heads into his fifth season in Champaign with eight starters returning on offense, led by quarterback Juice Williams, who is just as dangerous by foot as he is with his arm. But on defense, graduation took a heavy toll on the linebackers and the secondary will have to step up to fill the void left by Vontae Davis, a first round draft choice by the Miami Dolphins.
OFFENSE: A three-year starter, Williams led the Big Ten with 3,173 yards passing (22 touchdowns, 16 interceptions) in 2008 and he also was the team's top rusher (719 yards). With 8,455 total yards (6,405 passing, 2,050 rushing), he needs only 425 yards to become the Illini's all-time total offense leader and 100 yards rushing to move into second place all time for Big Ten quarterbacks. Four of Williams' top receivers, led by junior All-America candidate Arrelious Benn (67 catches, 1,055 yards), return in 2009. Jeff Cumberland (20 catches, 352 yards), an imposing 6-foot-5, 255-pound junior, will present many mismatches in the secondary. Senior tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (25 catches, 312 yards) and senior running back Daniel Dufrene 30 catches, 271 yards) are also key weapons, but the big addition to the receiving corps could very well be junior Jarred Fayson, a transfer from Florida. The speedy Fayson already owns BCS and SEC championship rings from his two-year stint as a starter with the Gators. The Illini really need to beef up their running game, where Dufrene produced 663 yards on 117 carries but failed to rush for a touchdown. Dufrene is being pushed hard by sophomore Jason Ford in camp. On the line, senior Eric Block, a starter at left guard in 2008, moves over to center. Senior Outland Trophy candidate Jon Asamoah (RG) and sophomore Jeff Allen (LT) are the other returning starters. Juniors Randall Hunt (LG) and Ryan Palmer (RT) are projected as the new starters.
DEFENSE: Illinois will have to rebound after being ranked ninth in both scoring and rushing defense in 2008. The Illini return senior Doug Pilcher (DE) and junior Josh Brent (DT) up front, but Brent, who ranked second on the team with 8.5 tackles for lost yardage, missed spring practice while dealing with legal issues and his status for the opening of the season is still uncertain. Fifth-year senior Sirod Williams, who redshirted with a knee injury last fall, and sophomore Corey Liuget are also figuring into the mix at tackle while senior Antonio James holds the edge at the other end slot. Junior Martez Wilson, a starter at weak-side linebacker last year, is moving to the middle, where the Illini have produced the top tackler in the Big Ten in two of the past three years. Wilson, a highly touted recruit when he came to Champaign, was 12th in the conference with 6.6 tackles per game in 2008. Sophomores Ian Thomas and Russell Ellington figure to be stepping into the other linebacker slots. Illinois was sixth in pass defense in 2008. Sophomore Travon Bellamy, a starter at strong safety last year, has moved up to battle sophomore Tavon Wilson to fill the void left by Davis at one corner. Two-year starter Dere Hicks, a senior, is holding down the other corner while senior Donsay Hardeman (FS) and junior Garrett Edwards (SS) round out the secondary. Hardeman suffered a career-threatening neck injury last year and was held out of contact during the spring while recovering from surgery. Edwards will be pushed hard by sophomore Bo Flowers for playing time.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Junior punter Anthony Santella and sophomore kicker Matt Eller return from 2008. Illinois is hoping to get a little more leg out of Santella, who ranked ninth in the Big Ten last year with a 39.7 average. Eller was 39 of 41 on extra points and hit 15 of 20 field goal attempts, connecting on seven of nine between 40-49 yards.
MISCELLANEOUS: With 19 sophomores listed on the preseason two-deep, Zook will be counting heavily on the young blood to rise to the occasion in 2009 ... Two of the biggest changes on offense are members of the coaching staff. Mike Schultz comes from TCU as the new offensive coordinator and former Houston assistant Joe Gilbert takes over the offensive line ... Championships may be won in November, but Illinois' destiny could be determined by the second week of October. Four of the Illini's first five opponents (Missouri, Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State) all went to bowl games last year and combined for a 40-13 record ... With the "Sweet Sioux Tomahawk" now retired, Illinois will host the first battle for the Land of Lincoln Trophy when Northwestern visits Champaign Nov. 14 ... The Illini end the 2009 campaign with a trip to Cincinnati (Nov. 27) and a home date with Fresno State (Dec. 5). It will be the first time they have met either school on the gridiron.