Friday, July 28, 2006

Big Ten Football Previews - Illinois Fighting Illini

Editor's Note: This is the fourth in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Stay tuned for the next review at a time and date TBD...

Team: Illinois Fighting Illini

Past Predictions/Results:
2005 Prediction / actual: 4-7, 2-6 (10th) / 2-9, 0-8 (11th)
2004 Prediction / actual: 4-7, 1-7 (T-10th) / 3-8, 1-7 (T-10th)
2003 Prediction / actual: 5-7, 3-5 (T-7th) / 1-11, 0-8 (11th)
2002 Prediction / actual: 8-4, 4-4 (T-6th) / 5-7, 4-4 (T-5th)
2001 Prediction / actual: 6-5, 3-5 (T-7th) / 10-2, 7-1 (1st)

Returning Starters: 10 offense, 9 defense, 1 kicker

Key Returnees: QB Tim Brasic, RB Pierre Thomas, RB E.B. Halsey, WR Kyle Hudson, OL Matt Maddux, DT Chris Norwell, DE Derek Walker, SS Kevin Mitchell, PK Jason Reda

Key Losses: P Steve Weatherford

Looking Back ... Year one of the Ron Zook era was utterly forgettable. After winning the first two games of the season, the Illini got beaten, battered and outright hammered the rest of the way. An 0-fer in Big Ten play was punctuated by an average margin of defeat of 32 points per game. But, we all know that sometimes you have to take a few steps backwards in order to make progress. The cupboard that Zook opened up when he came was mighty bare and it’ll take time for him to bring this program back to respectable status.

The bright side of such a lackluster season was the effort of the team. Even in crushing defeats to Michigan State, Penn State and Ohio State, there was no real sign of quit in the young players that make up the foundation of this team. Given time to recruit and fill needs, Ron Zook will likely become one of the more solid bosses in the league. Meantime, Illini fans have to be patient. The good news? All the experience gained last year will lead to more competitive results this year and probably a few more wins too boot.

Outlook - Offense ... You might not think it by looking at last season’s statistics, but the Illini offense could surprise some people this fall. The biggest reason is the return of all of the skill players. Big strides can be made this autumn if the Illinois offense can give the defense a break. And it should be able to.

It all starts with quarterback Tim Brasic. Brasic was nothing spectacular in 2005 but he was a fairly accurate passer. He needs to cut down on his interceptions as he threw 11 (to 11 TDs) a season ago. If Brasic doesn’t pan out, don’t be at all surprised to see a freshman rise up and take the reigns. Isiah Williams is a highly touted recruit who might be just what this program needs to rise from the cellar of the Big Ten. We all know that potential doesn’t always pan out, but in today’s win now, not later world, Zook’s hand may be forced earlier than planned. The thing is, we all might take notice if and when that happens…

The unquestioned strength of this offense is the running game. If Illinois gets good play up front, the trio of Pierre Thomas, E.B. Halsey and Rashard Mendenhall could be this year’s version of Maroney, Russell and Pinnix. Any of the three could be the featured back and Thomas and Halsey have had big games in their careers. Look for the depth chart to go in that order, but for Zook and new offensive boss Jim Pry to work to get two or even three of them on the field at a time in stretches.

An area with tremendous potential, if not currently a true strength of the attack is the receiving corps. Although the group is rather young, there is plenty of speed and talent to make some noise this season. Kyle Hudson is arguably the go to guy, a sophomore who came out of nowhere in his first season to lead the team in receiving. DaJuan Warren is probably the most intriguing player in the mix. He is the elder statesmen of the corps as a junior but given his potential and speed, he’s been rather underwhelming thus far. If Illinois is to have success, Hudson and Warren need to standout and players like Derrick McPhearson, Will Judson and Greg McClendon must step up as reliable playmakers.

With all of the potential at the skill positions, the spotlight is on an offensive line that returns four starters and brings in a highly touted transfer. Running backs can’t break off long runs, quarterbacks can’t find open receivers and offenses cannot have success without a good front five. Like every other area on offense, it seems, this group has plenty of potential, but will that translate into on field success? If it does, Oklahoma transfer Akim Millington and long-time starter Matt Maddux will be the players to thank. There is ample experience up front and a bit of depth as well. The bottom line is, if this group is up to the task, Illinois will improve, vastly improve.

Outlook - Defense ... If the old adage that defense wins games is true, then that explains 2005. The Illinois defense gave up points (yards too) in droves. Obviously, that has to change – and fast – if the Illini hope to improve on last year’s swoon.

Any good defense starts with the front four. This group was flat out awful in 2005 but there is hope heading into 2006. There may still be some growing pains early, but junior tackle Chris Norwell is big and quick and can also add experienced to his resume. Sophomore Derek Walker has the potential to be a special pass rusher and was one of the best freshmen defenders in the nation last season. The question is, are the rest of the players in the mix up to the challenge? Can they step up their games as well so that the Illini defense can become less and less of a liability? Big questions that we’re not going to have answers for right away.

One thing is for sure when you look at the linebackers – they are young. That said, there is some speed and definite ability here and the lumps the group took last season might start to pay off. J. Leman might be the slowest, but best playmaker in the linebacking corps. He is good against the run, however, something the worst run defense in the nation desperately needs. Brit Miller, Sam Carson and Remond Willis are three youngsters with a lot of upside and a player to keep an eye on is JUCO transfer Antonio Steele. Much like the front four, this unit needs to show vast improvement in order for Illinois to be much more competitive this fall.

The strength of the defense is the secondary. There is a ton of experience at all four positions with a couple of potential stars working to take over starting slots. Cornerbacks Alan Ball and Sharriff Abdullah are able bodies, even if Abdullah is working at a major height disadvantage (5-8). Safeties Kevin Mitchell, Justin Harrison and Justin Sanders are sure-tacklers and good playmakers. The problem is, they will get way too much work if the front seven fails to do its job. The player to keep watch for is cornerback Dere Hicks. He has tremendous speed and better size than Abdullah and could give him a run for his money. Then, that’s exactly what teams need to get better – young players that can legitimately push the veterans to get better.

Chances are this defense is going to have to be bailed out a lot this fall but don't be surprised to see some of the guys who were thrown into the fire last season start to really come around and become bona fide Big Ten playmakers. That is going to need to happen if the Illini wish to climb from the basement this fall.

Outlook - Special Teams ... It sounds a little funny, but the biggest personnel loss that this team suffered from last season was the graduation of punter Steve Weatherford. He was one of the best in the nation and will be missed. He’ll be replaced by the highly touted Kyle Yelton but it remains to be seen whether or not Yelton can help the Illini win the field position game. Of comfort is the return of PK Jason Reda. He needs to be more consistent but we all know what experience typically means for a kicker…

9/9 – at Rutgers
9/23 - IOWA
9/30 - at Michigan State
10/7 - INDIANA
10/14 - OHIO
10/21 – at Penn State
10/28 - at Wisconsin
11/11 - PURDUE
11/18 – at Northwestern

Key Games: 9/9 - at Rutgers, 9/16 - Syracuse, 10/7 – Indiana, 11/11 – Purdue, 11/18 – at Northwestern

Prediction ... As bad as Illinois was last year, and really has been the past few seasons, I expect to see some strides in Champaign this fall. Players who are tossed into the fire young have a tendency to make that work to their advantage later on down the line. There are some underrated playmakers on offense and if the defense can just shore it up a bit, the Illini may come surprisingly close to a bowl berth. I certainly feel that this team will be more competitive this fall and missing Michigan doesn’t hurt. The key will be taking any early season OOC success and translating that into momentum and wins in conference play.

OOC: 3-1 (loss to Rutgers)
B10: 2-6 (wins over Indiana & Northwestern)
Overall: 5-7, 8th in the conference


felix said...

Great job, as usual, Andy.

I have a couple additions to your info.

Highly rated FR CB Vontae Davis from Maryland has a good chance at earning a starting spot at some point this season.

So WR McPhearson also should be a starter and maybe the #1 target. Fr WR James from Chicago also has a great shot at getting playing time. He was a early enroller (Jan 06) so had Spring practice, as have the JC guys and OT Millington.

OUr biggest addition just happened this week though as last year's #1 rated HS DT has enrolled at Illinois after a year at Prep School, Melvin Aleaze, from Maryland. Expect him also to get early PT.

BigTenSportsFan said...

Right on, Felix. If the Big Ten isn't scared of Ron Zook yet, well -- they should be! Mr. Zook is known for his X and O prowess. Couple that with his stockpiling of Midwest talent, and you have a force to be reckoned with for many years to come.

Vontae Davis is a shutdown corner who is going to solidify an already impenetrable D.

McPhearson will turn some heads in Zook's high-flying offense and earn a few Biletnikoff votes along the way. Look for the Illini to win 8-9 games this season, and follow that up with a BCS appearance in 2007-8.

A.G. said...

Dude, you are too much. And people think I am overly optimistic.