Posted by: marcmwm | May 22, 2009

Big Ten four downs: Illinois


Illinois head football coach Ron Zook, left, talks with linemen Jeff Allen, rear, and Jon Asamoah during the first quarter of the Fighting Illini's loss to Western Michigan at Ford Field in Detroit, Saturday, Nov. 8, 2008. The loss knocked Illinois out of bowl eligibility. (AP photo)

Illinois head football coach Ron Zook, left, talks with linemen Jeff Allen, rear, and Jon Asamoah during the first quarter of the Fighting Illini's loss to Western Michigan at Ford Field in Detroit, Saturday, Nov. 8, 2008. The loss knocked Illinois out of bowl eligibility. (AP photo)

QUICK LOOK BACK: After its first Rose Bowl since 1983, Illinois followed up with a no bowl. The Fighting Illini won just two of their last seven games, including three straight losses to end the season with a 5-7 record. Western Illinois and Northwestern were included in those losses. The ’07 season brought Pasadena. Last year, it was the OTB in Champaign.

Quarterback Juice Williams was brilliant, for the most part. He led the Big Ten in passing (264.4) and total offense (324.3). He led the Big Ten in TD passesIllinoisLogo (22), but also led it in interceptions (16). He also led the Illini in rushing with 719 yards (4.1 a carry). That probably won’t happen again this season. Between Daniel Dufrene, Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford, the Illini should be able to find a steady running back. Ford and Leshoure came to Illinois with stripes. Three starters return on the OL. And llinois still has WR Arrelious Benn. This offense is poised for big things in ’09.

Six starters return on defense, including LB Martez Wilson and DT Josh Brent. Wilson was third on the team with 73 tackles along with three sacks. Kicker Matt Eller and punter Anthony Santella return.

FOURTH DOWN — CONCERNS: Illinois is going to need some growth on defense, specifically the defensive line. Brent and Corey Luiget are capable, but partner Sirod Williams is coming off an ACL. End is sort of up in the air. Doug Pilcher was a part-time starter. Brown led Illini blue with eight tackles and two sacks in the spring game, but he faces academic questions going into the fall.

The secondary returns three, including safety Donsay Hardeman who sat out spring with a neck injury. The Illini were ninth in the league in rush defense last season (152.9). That has to be better for them to have serious intentions.

THIRD DOWN — STRENGTHS: The Illinois receiving corps will scare opposing defenses like few others in the Big Ten this season. Been is a bona fide playmaker (67 receptions for 1,055 yards and three TDs). This is his third season, so decent stats would likely make it his walk year. He’s NFL waiting to happen. After Benn, there’s big body Jeff Cumberland (6-5, 255), experienced Chris Duvalt and Florida transfer Jarred Fayson, who practiced with the first team this spring before suffering a foot injury. TE Michael Hoomanawanui has also made himself into a pass-catching threat. He caught 25 for 312 yards last season.

SECOND DOWN — THE TALK: “I don’t think there’s any question that Juice has got a chance to be a pretty good football player for us,” Illini coach Ron Zook said after Williams lit up the spring game for 150 yards and a TD. “The thing that’s great about him is he’s a very humble guy. They know that he’s leader. The maturity he’s developed in terms of wanting to be in that position is exciting, too.”

“They just tell me to stay in the film room,” aid Martez Wilson, who’s trying to replace Brit Miller (132 tackles and six sacks) at middle linebacker this season. “(Middle linebacker) is about knowing your position more than just playing it.” In December, Wilson was stabbed. He’s since recovered and is 100 percent full-go.

FIRST DOWN — THE PLAY: This is Juice’s team, every which way. He’s the arm, the feet, the heart and the brains. All parts helped get the Illini to the Rose Bowl two years ago. Last year, no bowl, but, aside from a bad stretch late, Juice was all right. The Illini’s offense will run opponents ragged, but Illinois’ defense needs to find something against the run. It was soft with Miller, a warrior LB. Without, it could be the fatal flaw. And then there’s that non-conference schedule. Zook, recently voted college football’s fittest coach, is gonna go “American Gladiator” on whomever came up with the non-conference lineup of Missouri (a traditional) and then closing at Cincinnati and Fresno State.

“Zooker,” that could pass for an “American Gladiator” name.



  1. They have the Zooker, which is good for all of their opponents.

  2. A few more points about the Illini:

    – Brent has had some legal issues. He’ll probably just have to contend with a brief suspension and then he’ll be back. However, he probably only has “one more strike” until they show him the door … so he better keep his nose clean.

    – If Brent keeps his nose clean, then I actually think that the Illini DL will be pretty good. Pilcher has been pretty productive over the past 2 seasons and Nurse showed some decent flashes in 2008.

    – Ever since Okruch left Illinois and the wake of his influence subsided, the Illinois D just doesn’t play with the same tough “edge” that they did back in 2006 and 2007. Their ongoing “experiment” with co-defensive coordinators appears to be a mistake … and a mistake that Zook hasn’t yet been able to fix (thanks to LJ Sr not biting on the big money offer that the Illini offered him).

    – Illinois has talent at LB, but they lack experience. They lost a whole lot of depth last season in 2 starters and their top backup at MLB. Also, while I think that Martez Wilson is a great talent, I sincerely wonder if he has the football IQ to be a really good MLB …. we’ll have to wait and see there.

    – The Illini safeties have proven that they can hit … however, it will be quite another to see if they can play smart and in position too. As for the rest of the secondary, they have some guys with some real talent … however, they’re not swimming with experience there. I’d look for the secondary to be pretty exploitable.

    – While a lot of attention has gone to superlatives of the O and the deficiencies of the D … what has gotten lost in the mix is that the Illini OL will still be a little bit of an unknown quantity. Folks have to remember that some of the Illini’s difficulties were attributable to Juice getting forced into tough situations due to their pass protection breaking down. Furthermore, they still had fairly experienced guys and yet they still had some difficulties running the ball. Obviously relying on TR FR RBs didn’t help them there … however, the blocking could have been better too. Thus, not only are they going to need to reload on the OL … but they’re going to have an all new OL coach too! It will be interesting to see how things work out there for the Illini O.

    – On top of having a new OL coach, they have a new OC too. Anybody watch many TCU games last year?

  3. Wow, Homer. Fantastic.

    Locksley went to New Mexico. Forgot that.

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