Aug. 31, 2010
By Larry Watts
Since the 2007 season resulted in a trip to the Rose Bowl, the Illinois football team has not been able to recreate the success enjoyed that season. After a 5-7 campaign in 2008, the Fighting Illini slid to 3-9 (2-6 Big Ten) last year. As a result, head coach Ron Zook hopes to pump new life into the program by bringing in six new assistants, including offensive coordinator Paul Petrino and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning.
Petrino has abandoned the spread and will go with multiple formations. However, the personnel at fullback and wide tight end are a bit lacking in experience, where he will have to count on young talent.
Zook (21-39 in five seasons at Illinois) has 12 starters returning from the 2009 season. But the depth start has already taken some huge hits. Junior left tackle Corey Lewis, who played in all 12 games last year and was the projected starter on the left side, tore his ACL in the spring. In the final week of preseason camp in Rantoul, junior Supo Sanni, the projected starter at strong safety, tore his Achilles and sophomore Terry Hawthorne, a returning starter at cornerback, suffered a stress fracture in his foot. Hawthorne is expected to be sidelined three to six weeks.
OFFENSE: The Illini offense will not only have a new look in formations, but also key personnel since Juice Williams, who started 44 of 48 games at quarterback, and key receiver Arrelious Benn have moved on. Redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase emerged from the spring with the starting call at quarterback. Not only does the coaching staff like his accuracy, but they have been very impressed with the mobility of the 6-foot-3, 195-pounder from Kansas City, Mo. Scheelhaase is backed up by true freshmen Miles Osei and Chandler Whitmer, but in case of emergency, fifth-year senior Eddie McGee is available. McGee, now a starting wide receiver, backed up Williams for three seasons. The focus of the Illini offense will be the running game, where they return the 1-2 punch of juniors Mikel Leshoure (108 carries, 765 yards in 2009) and Jason Ford (97, 606). The 230-pound Leshoure, who is on the Walker Award watch list, finished the 2009 campaign on a strong note, breaking the 100-yard barrier in three of his last six games, including 150 yards against Michigan and 184 yards (on 11 carries) against Fresno State. The loss of Zach Becker (foot) and Russell Ellington (shoulder) leaves the Illini thinner at fullback and tight end for Saturday night's opener against Missouri. Jay Prosch (6-0, 250) and Evan Wilson (6-6, 240), both true freshmen, will get the call at fullback and tight end, respectively. Joining McGee at wide receiver are senior Jarred Fayson (218 yards receiving last year), a returning starter, and junior A.J. Jenkins (123 yards). Backups Chris James, a senior, and Fred Sykes, a junior, both have valuable experience while true freshman Darius Millines could make a breakthrough. Senior Randall Hunt (6-6, 315) returns to start at guard on the strong side while junior Jeff Allen (6-5, 305) and sophomore Hugh Thornton (6-5, 310) are returning starters at tackle and guard on the weak side. Senior Ryan Palmer (6-7, 310), who started five games last year, will be the starting tackle on the strong side. Sophomore Graham Pocic (6-7, 305) will be handling the snaps.
DEFENSE: In addition to the losses of Sanni and Hawthorne in the backfield, the Illini will also be entering the season without senior Nate Palmer, a valuable backup at the bandit (hybrid end/linebacker). Senior Clay Nurse (6-3, 260), who is coming back from shoulder problems, and junior Corey Liuget (6-3, 300) are the veterans at end and tackle. Nurse had 10.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks last year while Liuget recorded eight TFLs. Redshirt freshman Akeem Spence (6-1, 305) will step in at the other tackle while sophomore Michael Buchanan (6-6, 225) has earned the call at the bandit spot. The linebacking corps is solid, especially with the return of junior Martez Wilson (6-4, 250) in the middle. Projected for All-Big Ten honors last year, Wilson, who is on this year's Butkus Award watch list, opened last season with nine tackles against Missouri, but a herniated disc in his neck sidelined him for the rest of the season. Wilson's return allows junior Ian Thomas (team high 95 tackles last year) to move to the weak side while senior Nate Bussey (43 tackles) is back on the strong side. The rash of injuries in the secondary means sophomore running back Justin Green will now be starting at one of the corners while wide receivers Jack Ramsey, a sophomore, and Steve Hull, a redshirt freshman, are now the primary backups at the other corner and free safety, respectively. Junior Tavon Wilson (74 tackles) returns to start at strong safety. Junior college transfer Trulon Henry will line up at free safety and senior Travon Bellamy, who started 11 games at strong safety last year, will line up at the other corner.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Illinois returns all of its kickers for the 2010 season. When Matt Eller struggled, Derek Dimke, who has handled kickoffs for the past two years, took over the placekicking duties in the final two games. Dimke was 5-for-5 after Eller had gone 4-fot-11 in field goal attempts. Three-year veteran Anthony Santella had a 41.3 average in punting last season. Green and Millines get the first call on kickoff returns, but junior Troy Pollard has plenty of experience after returning 16 kicks for a 20.4-yard average in 2009. Ramsey and Fayson handled all the punt returns last season.
MISCELLANEOUS: Illinois will need to take a big step defensively in order to be a threat in the Big Ten this season. The Illini tied for last nationally with only five interceptions. They were also last in the Big Ten in points allowed (32.5), touchdowns allowed (45) and yards per game (403.2). Leshoure's 6.8 yards per carry last year was tops among all BCS conference players with at least 100 attempts. The Illini have played Missouri five times in their season opener since 2002 and lost all five. In their last 17 Big Ten openers, the Illini are 1-16. Bowl chances for the Illini will probably be determined by a rugged October schedule that starts with a home game (Oct. 2) against Ohio State. They will then travel to Penn State and Michigan State before returning home for more manageable games with Purdue and Indiana. The Nov. 20 rivalry game with Northwestern will be played at Wrigley Field in Chicago. The Friendly Confines has not hosted a football game since the Bears left at the end of the 1970 season. The last college game in Wrigley Field was played in 1938.