2006 Illinois Football Preview
Aug. 29, 2006
2005 Record: 2-9 (0-8 Big Ten) 11th
Head Coach: Ron Zook Record at Illinois: 2-9, Overall Record: 25-23
Starters Returning: Offense 10, Defense 10, Special Teams 1
Illinois was one of two schools in the Big Ten to hire a new coach for a football team that needed a much needed facelift. Enter Ron Zook and so too the beginning of the Zook era. After three winning seasons that included a conference title and three bowl appearances with the University of Florida, Zook arrived in Urbana-Champaign, Ill. to turnaround a team that was 1-23 in the past three conference seasons. Coming from the SEC one might assume that Zook would take the Big Ten lightly but what surprises most people is that Zook is a Midwest native, "Growing up in Ohio, I know how prestigious and competitive this conference is. We have everything we need. There's no reason why our program shouldn't be up there with everyone else. Since the 2000s, there have been four teams that have won the conference and Illinois is one of those teams." However, what doesn't come as such a surprise is how Illinois has turned into a basketball school throughout the years. Fans pack the seats of Assembly Hall to its capacity while Memorial Stadium sits solemn across the street. 2005 was a rebuilding year for the Fighting Illini, however, Zook is ready and predicting his Illini to break out and re-capture the hearts of all those basketball fans.
Illinois returns the most starters with 10 starters returning on both sides of the ball. The O-line was of great concern in 2005 and while it may be a Catch 22 that all five starters are returning, Zook has a better idea where everyone will be the most effective. The only player in the same spot will be left guard Martin O'Donnell as the whole line shifts around. Last year's center, Matt Maddox, will flip positions with former right guard Ryan McDonald while Charles Myles holds a spot at right tackle after moving from the D-line midway through last season. Oklahoma transfer Akim Millington adds size taking over left tackle responsibilities.
A stronger more stable line will help Illinois' biggest assets in running backs Pierre Thomas and E.B. Halsey. While they ran for fewer yards than in their sophomore campaigns, they combined for over 1,000 total rushing yards last year. They not only can beat you with their legs but their hands as well. In 2005, Halsey was often used as a small yardage receiver catching a team high 38 passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns. Team MVP and co-captain, Thomas led the team in rushing (664) yards per game (60) and rushing touchdowns (5) and only needs a similar rushing year this year to move all the way up to seventh on the career 1,000 yard rushers list behind Howard Griffith (2,485).
The ball was placed in Tim Brasic's hands last season after waiting his turn behind former QB Jon Beutjer. Brasic threw for 1,979 yards and was the second leading rusher (420) while throwing 11 touchdowns and 11 interceptions. While Brasic returns as the more experienced QB, highly touted freshman Isiah "Juice" Williams comes in with an already impressive resume. Williams was a PrepStar All-American and Midwest Quarterback of the Year. He was ranked No. 5 among senior quarterbacks in the nation by SI.com and second-rated prospect from the state of Illinois.
Sophomore Kyle Hudson (5-11, 165) had a fantastic freshman year emerging as the Illini's go-to guy while leading the team with 31 receptions. Playing bigger than his 5'11" stature this kid can catch anything that is thrown at him, reminiscent of former Illini pass-catching specialist, Mark Kornfeld.
There is only one way but up for the Illinois defense. Colorado assistant Vince Okruch will be a fresh face on the sidelines this year as he replaces former defensive coordinator Mike Mallory. Opponents averaged 39.5 points per game, outscoring the Illini 435-187 last year. The defense needs to improve off the line closing gaps and wrapping up opponents before they can get downfield. Last year, the Illinois secondary accounted for over 220 tackles. Derek Walker (DE), Chris Norwell (DT) and Xavier Fulton (DE) return to the front four while senior Josh Norris (DT) replaces second leading sacker (2.5), Ryan Matha.
The Fighting Illini lose a significant player in punter Steve Weatherford. The only all-Big Ten selection (second team) from Illinois, Weatherford left with records in career (43.5) and single-season punting average (45.4). Freshman Kyle Yelton will replace four year starter Weatherford while junior Jason Reda will return to his place-kicker responsibilities. Reda was a perfect 20-of-20 in extra point attempts while connecting on 13-of-20 field goals. He hit a career-long 52-yarder at Indiana.
Another year under coach Zook and in the weight room should have helped all 21 returning starters. Better size and speed will help both lines especially on the offensive side of the ball where it will be easier for Thomas and Halsey to put up numbers similar to previous seasons. The Illini have a good receiving core however Brasic needs to improve on his touchdown-to-interception ratio. The Fighting Illini face Iowa, Indiana, Ohio State and Purdue at home and play Michigan State, Penn State, Wisconsin and Northwestern on the road.