2007 RECORD: 9-4; BIG TEN: 6-2
Lost Rose Bowl vs. USC 49-17
LOCATION: Champaign, Illinois
STADIUM: Memorial Stadium (65,000)
HEAD COACH: Ron Zook
OVERALL: 36-37 (6 seasons)
AT ILLINOIS: 13-23 (3 seasons)
We knew Ron Zook could recruit—see the 2006 BCS Champion Florida Gators—but last season Zook showed us that he can in fact coach a little too. When he arrived in Champaign, the Illini were coming off back-to-back losing seasons in which they combined to win four games (19 losses). It wasn’t a quick turnaround for the Zooker—he won four games in his first two seasons (19 losses)—but quietly he was building the foundation. Last year Illinois broke through, not only qualifying for a bowl, but the Rose Bowl. They won nine games which, if you do your math right, is one more than the previous four seasons combined.
WHEN THE ILLINI HAVE THE BALL
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike Locksley (4th Season)
OFFENSIVE STARTERS RETURNING: 7
KEY LOSSES: Rashad Mendenhall, Martin O’Donnell, Akim Millington, Jacob Willis
Rashad Mendenhall is a big loss, but don’t shed too many tears for the Illini’s rushing attack. They return three-fifths of their offensive line and in Juice Williams they have one of the nation’s top running quarterbacks. Williams has a thick lower body which allows him to use his power as well as his athleticism to break tackles. Williams also does not run simply to pad his numbers, but when the team needs him the most—his yards count. Replacing Mendenhall will likely fall to more than one man. Senior RB Daniel Dufrens showed glimpses of his breakaway ability in backup duty. Freshmen Mikel LeShoure, Troy Pollard and Jason Ford will get their chances, with LeShoure packing a big punch at 240 pounds. Williams is still a work in progress as a passer, but the arm strength and potential are there. Sophomore WR Arrelious Benn was as good as advertised and should even better in year number two as a starter now that he is completely healthy. Jeff Cumberland has potential and was underutilized last season.
TOP PROSPECTS: 1) WR Arrelious Benn (SO), 2) TE/WR Jeff Cumberland (JR)
WHEN THE OTHER TEAM HAS THE BALL
CO-DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Dan Disch (2nd Season/4th at Illinois)
CO-DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Curt Mallory (2nd Season/4th at Illinois)
DEFENSIVE STARTERS RETURNING: 6
KEY LOSSES: J Leman, Antonio Steele, Justin Harrison, Kevin Mitchell, Justin Sanders
Up front, none of their players would be described as spectacular, but they have an excellent rotation at defensive end, led by seniors Will Davis and Derek Walker sharing time with junior Doug Pilcher. Davis is their top pass rusher, with Pilcher providing some big plays off the bench. In the interior, senior DT David Lindquist is their top run stuffer. The back seven features two of the most physically gifted and talented defenders in the nation in junior CB Vontae Davis and sophomore LB Martez Wilson. Davis is further ahead of the curve with two years of experience as a starter, while Wilson is more of a raw talent still learning the ropes. Both are explosive and potential difference makers. Leading the group in the huddle will be senior Brit Miller, who slides over from OLB to MIKE, taking the place of J Leman. They have talent at safety, but they are unproven. Whether it be at safety or sprinkled in the front seven, expect an influx of young talent on the defensive side of the ball.
TOP PROSPECTS: 1) CB Vontae Davis (JR), 2) LB Martez Wilson (SO)
The Illini have a chance to show the college football world that last season was not a fluke when they take on “Arch” rival Missouri to kick off the season. Last season neither team was ranked to start the year…this time around, both are. One thing is for sure—if they are to reach nine wins again, the Illini will have to earn it. They must visit Penn St., Michigan and Wisconsin, with their trips to Happy Valley and Ann Arbor kicking off their conference schedule. That’s four foes in the preseason Coaches Poll before the calendar turns to November. In the season’s final month, they finally play a ranked opponent in the friendly confines as the Ohio St. Buckeyes make a visit.
A more well-rounded Juice: Williams has been receiving high praise for his play in camp and is coming off a scrimmage in which he completed 16-of-25 passes for 196 yards and two touchdowns (no interceptions). He can do it, he’s done it before, he just needs to do it on a more consistent bases. Against the No. 1 ranked Ohio St. Buckeyes, Williams threw four touchdown passes and no interceptions, handing the Buckeyes their lone regular season loss. However, in the Illini’s other 12 games, his TD-INT ratio was 9-12, which is simply unacceptable. His completion percentage of 57.3 also will not cut it if Illinois is to take the next step.
CFI FINAL ANALYSIS
The Illini may have arrived a bit ahead of schedule last season. Some might even say they were exposed by the Men of Troy in the Rose Bowl…but not so fast my friends. Although the Illini may not improve upon their 9 wins from last season, there's no reason to think they can't at least match it. With three tough tests in their first five games, the learning curve is steep, but no one can deny the playmakers are in place. Illinois is a sleeper in the Big Ten.
Photo Credit: University of Illinois
Thursday, August 21, 2008
2007 RECORD: 9-4; BIG TEN: 6-2