2010 NCAA Football Preview: Illinois Fighting Illini
Between now and the September 2nd season kick-off, Danny Hobrock will be previewing all the major college football teams with new teams being released daily.
2009 final record (overall, conference): 3-9, 2-6
Bowl Game: None
Final Ranking (AP, Coaches'): NR, NR
Conference finish: 9th Big Ten Conference
Offensive rank: 47
Defensive rank: 91
2009 Individual Statistical Leaders
Rushing: Mikey LeShoure, 734 yards, 5 TD; Jason Ford, 588 yards, 4 TD; Juice Williams, 507 yards, 4 TD
Passing: Juice Williams, 1,632 yards, 12 TD, 7 INT
Receiving: Arrelious Benn, 490 yards, 2 TD; Chris Duvalt, 361 yards, 3 TD
Tackles: Ian Thomas, 95 total tackles
Sacks: Clay Nurse, 5.5 sacks (4 solo, 3 assisted)
Interceptions: 5 tied with one interception
2010 Season OutlookSchedule (* denotes conference game)
September 4 vs. Missouri: The Arch Rivalry has gone to Missouri the past five meetings and the Illini have not won consecutive matchups since 1976 and 1977. Only 23 matchups have been played in the series with Missouri leading 16-7. A 2-1 record is pretty much expected heading into the Ohio State matchup, but if Illinois can pull this one off and then take their next two winnable matchups against Southern and Northern Illinois, they'll be in great shape heading into conference play.
October 16 @ Michigan State: Few, if anybody, would give Illinois any chance against Ohio State and Penn State the previous couple of weeks, but the matchup against Michigan State, who are expected to finish in the middle of the pack this season, presents a winnable opportunity that should give us an idea of where the Illini are as a team in 2010.
November 20 vs. Northwestern: The Land of Lincoln Trophy replaces the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk that was the reward for the winner of this matchup from 1945 until 2008. Northwestern won the inaugural Land of Lincoln Trophy by a score of 21-16, holding off an Illinois comeback bid in the fourth quarter.
Coaches': Not Ranked
Juice Williams, QB; Arrelious Benn, WR; Jeff Cumberland, WR; Michael Hoomanawanui, TE; Jon Asamoah, G; Doug Pilcher, DE; Josh Brent, DT; Garrett Edwards, S
Key Returning Players
Mike LeShore, RB; Jarred Fayson, WR; Jeff Allen, OT; Clay Nurse, DE; Corey Liuget, DT; Ian Thomas, LB; Martez Wilson, LB; Tavon Wilson, CB
Four-year starter Juice Williams graduated, leaving a question mark at the quarterback position. Fortunately, Nathan Scheelhaase stepped up this spring as a dual threat option with excellent rushing ability, but could use some polishing in his passing. He's a redshirt freshman who many believe can lead the Illini for the next four years like Williams did from 2006 to 2009. Jacob Charest has decided to transfer and is no longer on the Illini roster, leaving incoming freshman Chandler Whitmer the backup to Scheelhaase. He'll lineup behind a big offensive line that leaves a bit to be desired in terms of pass blocking, but should pave the way for a nice rushing attack.
At 6'5, 305 pound tackle Jeff Allen will line up again on the left side. Coaches are hoping that he can improve his pass blocking with his run blocking already exceptional. Corey Lewis went down with an ACL injury in the spring, leaving Ryan Palmer the likely replacement from the right tackle spot. Hugh Thornton started seven games at tackle last season, but will move to the inside for this season. Joining him at guard will be Randall Hunt with Graham Pocic, a sophomore, taking over at center. This is a big line with every member 300+ pounds.
Zach Becker will replace Michael Hoomanawanui at tight end to serve as Scheelhaase's underneath safety net. A.J. Jenkins, who pondered transferring, emerged this offseason as the team's top receiver. He's not the tallest or strongest guy on the field, but he's quick enough to make some noise in the passing game this season. Jarred Fayson, a former Florida Gator, will join Jenkins along with former quarterback Eddie McGee to make up the core of the Illini receivers corps with Jack Ramsey, Fred Scott and Steve Hull also expected to work into the rotation.
The running game will see the return of Mikel LeShoure, who led the team with 734 yards and five touchdowns in 2010. He's a big back at 230 pounds who moves well with the ball. Jason Ford, last season's second leading rusher with 588 yards, will push LeShoure for time. Ford is another big back at 235 pounds who could be used in goal line situations and to give LeShoure a carry or two off throughout the game. LeShoure could emerge into one of the conference's top runners, but Ford is no slouch either and could step in if LeShoure struggles or is lost to injury. Scheelhaase will also see his fair share of rushing opportunities and the combination of LeShoure/Ford, a mobile quarterback and a very good run blocking line should make for some nice rushing numbers this season.
Defensive tackle Josh Brent was chosen by the Cowboys in the NFL's supplemental draft, leaving a hole on the line to go along with the one left by departed defensive end Doug Pilcher. Tackle Corey Liuget and end Clay Nurse, last year's team leader in sacks with 5.5, each return, however, and there is optimism about this unit. Glenn Foster, a former end, is an undersized tackle, but will join Liuget on the interior, using his quickness to get in the backfield and be a force on the interior. Michael Buchanan will play the Bandit position in new coordinator Vic Koenning's defense. The Bandit will be a hybrid end/linebacker position that will be counted on as a playmaker on the defense. Nate Palmer could also see time at Bandit with Akeem Spence finding time on the interior.
Martez Wilson showed flashes of brilliance early in his Illini career, putting in successful freshman and sophomore seasons before injuring his neck in the opener against Missouri (he had recorded nine tackles in the game up to that point). He's an NFL caliber talent who will be looked upon to lead this defense from his middle linebacker position. Ian Thomas led the team in tackles in 2010 with 95 and really stepped up once Wilson went down. He'll join Nate Bussey as the outside linebackers with Russell Ellington and Evan Frierson a likely part of the rotation on the outside and inside.
The Illini finished with more interceptions than nobody last season. Tied with UNLV, Tulane and FAU for the fewest interceptions in the country with five (three by the secondary), the Illini secondary will be counted on to force more turnovers in 2010. Improvement in the pass rush with the new Bandit position may provide better opportunities, but as a whole, this defensive backfield needs to make more plays, plain and simple. Tavon Wilson was one of three defensive backs to come up with an interception last season and finished with 74 tackles, good for third on the team. He'll line up at cornerback with Terry Hawthorne, who also recorded a pick, likely to start opposite him. Walter Aikens has been suspended indefinitely after he was arrested and subsequently sentenced to two weeks in jail for possession of stolen property. His absence will cut into the depth at the safety position with Travon Bellamy and Supo Sani likely getting the nod at strong and free safety, respectively. Trulon Henry, brother of Arrelious Benn, is a JUCO transfer who could see time at free safety or even push Sani for the starting spot.
Special Teams Overview
Derek Dimke did not attempt a field goal or extra point until October 24 last season, but hit all five of his field goal attempts with a long of 48 and all 12 of his extra point attempts. He enters the season as the man in the kicking game with Anthony Santella returning as the punter. Santella managed a 41.3 yard per punt average in 2009, putting 16 inside the 20 yard line.
To put it simply, the Illini were no good in the return game in 2009. The kick return game averaged 19.3 yards per return with the punt return game averaging 4.2 yards per return. While Arrelious Benn's 26.5 yards per kick return was nice, the team as a whole failed to produce consistently. Terry Hawthorne will get his shot to be the man in the return game.
Head Coach: Ron Zook
Ron Zook begins the 2010 season on the hot seat after four subpar seasons in five years. The lone success came in 2007 when the Illini went to the Rose Bowl as an at large team. Illinois finished with a 9-4 record that season highlighted by a 28-21 win over top ranked Ohio State. Zook has done a fine job of recruiting some talented players, bringing in a top 35 recruiting class from 2006 to 2009 at Illinois. And don't forget that Zook's recruiting efforts at Florida yielded some talented players that made their 2007 National Championship possible.
Despite his efforts on the recruiting trail, he has not enjoyed consistent success on the field. His Florida teams finished with two 8-5 records and a 7-5 record (7-4 in 2004 under Zook) and excluding the 9-4 2007 season, the Illini have finished with no better than a 5-7 record. They've finished 8th, 9th, 10th and 11th in the Big Ten with the exception of the 2nd place finish in 2007. If the Illini cannot turn things around on the field this season, Zook could be looking for new employment come December/January.
Top 2011 Draft Prospects
Clay Nurse, DE
10th Big Ten Conference
With the new Bandit position in Champaign, the defense will be more aggressive and will likely see some improvement over last season's abysmal performance. Still, if they cannot force a few more interceptions and be more disruptive in the passing game, the Illini could again struggle to keep opponents off the board (they ranked 96th in scoring defense in 2009).
The key to success on the offensive side of the ball will be how quickly Scheelhaase becomes acclimated to the offense and the college game in general. He'll have a talented backfield that, combined with his own efforts and those of the offensive line, will make for a formidable running game.
While a run at a Big Ten title is pretty much out of the question, and despite losing arguably their top-tier talent in quarterback Juice Williams and wide receiver Arrelious Benn, the Illini could find themselves in the middle of the conference and in a bowl game come season's end if things go their way and they're able to put it all together before they reach conference play. That said, it's hard to see much of an improvement for a team with unproven potential at several positions and considering the unfulfilled expectations from last season. - Danny Hobrock
Danny is a sports journalist primarily covering college football and professional baseball. His work for Xtra Point Football has garnered national attention and is critically acclaimed. Danny is the former editor of a political and current events website and the editor of our college football content.