Big Ten Football Previews – Part II
Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of my annual summer Big Ten football previews. Check back weekly (approximately) to see who’s next...
Team: Illinois Fighting Illini
Tidbits … The Illini last won a Big Ten crown in 2001, also the last season in which Illinois had a record better than .500. Linebacker J Leman led the Big Ten in tackles and tackles for loss in 2006.
2006 Prediction/actual: 5-7, 2-6 (8th) / 2-10, 1-7 (T-10th)
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: 9 offense, 9 defense, 2 kickers
Key Returnees: QB Juice Williams, RB Rashard Mendenhall, OG Martin O’Donnell, C Ryan McDonald, WR Kyle Hudson, DT Chris Norwell, LB J Leman, CB Vontae Davis, S Kevin Mitchell, PK Jason Reda
Key Losses: RB Pierre Thomas, RB E.B. Halsey, OG Matt Maddox, CB Alan Ball
Looking Back ... Year two of the Ron Zook era was utterly forgettable. Sound familiar? It should, that was my opener last year. However, the eternal “glass is half full” side of me says that you have to look deeper than the surface to see that the Illini really did improve last season. Despite just one win over a division one program, that lone victory came in conference play, on the road. Given that the orange and blue are 2-30 in league play since 2003, that one win is something to hang a hat on. That and the emergence of the next star quarterback in the Big Ten – Isiah “Juice” Williams.
Not only does Williams carry a cool moniker, he might well be the most exciting signal caller to take the field since Antwaan Randle El carried the Hoosiers on his back for four years. The difference? Randle El had to be a one man show. Williams shouldn’t have to be as the supporting cast improved more than it would appear (on paper) between ’05 and ’06 and there is ample talent in key spots heading into 2007. We all know Ron Zook can recruit. He built Florida’s national title team. And he’s doing it in Champaign too. Don’t anoint the Illini just yet, but take my advice – catch a game this season. Juice Williams is as fun to watch as any quarterback in the country, he’s only a sophomore and only getting better…
Outlook - Offense ... Call 2006 a season of growing pains. Coach Zook ditched the short term for the long term future and put a freshman under center. The offense struggled – mightily. The Illini were tenth in scoring offense, last in passing offense, last – by a mile – in turnover margin (35 giveaways), and ninth in total offense. The only saving grace was the ground game, and Pierre Thomas is no longer around. Success in 2007 depends greatly on an offense with talent but no results to tout just yet…
I’ll lead into the quarterback situation by drawing on my observations last summer: “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…”
Okay, so I’m not always 100-percent accurate in these predictions but I think it is fair to say I nailed that one. Thing is, Juice Williams has a chance to be the next Michael Vick. He has speed, size, mobility and an arm – albeit one that was utterly inaccurate last fall (39-percent completion rate). Williams already owns the single season record for most touchdown passes over 60 yards and will look to add to that, while getting better with accuracy. Illinois could have a major problem on its hands if Juice goes down as the only other player that returns and has thrown a pass in a game is WR DaJuan Warren. Eddie McGee and Billy Garza serve as the clipboard holders.
Last year, the unquestioned strength of this offense was the running game. The trio of Pierre Thomas, E.B. Halsey and Rashard Mendenhall lead the Illini to the best rushing average in a conference full of great running backs. The issue for 2007 is replacing Thomas and Halsey. Mendenhall was tenth in the conference in rushing yards last season, and is a solid anchor to build around. In fact, between Williams and Mendenhall, Illinois should have 1500 plus yards available. Still, it is vital to have a solid backup or two. The most likely candidate to tote the rock is Rashard’s brother Walter. While relatively untested, Walter is bigger and offers a change of pace. The fullback position is anchored by rock solid Russ Weil. A couple of names that could emerge as the season wears on are newcomers Deries Hodge and Troy Pollard, as well as JUCO back Daniel “Don’t call me Andy” Dufrene. Just as it is with the quarterback position, development of depth is a key to success for the Illinois offense this fall.
An area with tremendous potential and the true strength of the attack is the receiving corps. Illinois returns the three leading receivers from 2006; six in all who saw significant time a season ago and most notably, All-America recruit Arrelious Benn. Benn was a star of the spring game, nabbing five passes for 145 yards for a not-too-shabby 29 ypc average! It’s hard to imagine that he won’t be starting out of the gate, regardless of what the post spring depth charts say, but he does have some talented receivers around him. Kyle Hudson led the team last fall with 30 catches and has blazing speed. His knock is the lack of size and consistency. He could be more of a get it and go guy this year with the much bigger and equally as fast Benn there to garner a defense’s attention. DaJuan Warren gives the Illini a starting cast that rivals any in the league – based on potential. Like Benn, he too has size and talent; he just hasn’t let it all loose yet.
On the bench are the likes of Chris James and Joe Morgan as well as the second leading returning receiver Jacob Willis. A stockpile of others will vie for time as well, though mostly on special teams. The good news is that the Illini are equally as stocked at tight end where three with experience return. Jeff Cumberland was third on the team in receptions and is a great safety valve for a signal caller that is still learning on the fly. Michael “Who’s your mamma” Hoomanawauni is in the mold of today’s great tight ends – big, fast, a receivers hands with good blocking technique. The key here? Juice has to up his completion percentage to 55-percent and this group can then take over a game…
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. Guard Matt Maddox is the only player to depart a line that boasts three senior starters and a junior. Left guard Martin O’Donnell has the most experience (32 starts) but former Oklahoma transfer, left tackle Akim Millington might be the best of the lot. Charles Myles (RT), Ryan McDonald (C), and Jon Asamoah (RG) round out the starting five, but there is plenty of young and hungry talent waiting in the wings. Brandon Jones and Ryan Palmer will be fixtures soon enough and if the line struggles with pass protection as it did in 2006, that time could come sooner than later.
I will predict right now that Illinois will only be as good as the offense allows them to be. There are oodles of talented players all around but that needs to translate into consistency, a dual threat and ultimately, points on the board.
Outlook - Defense ... You can’t blame the defense for the woeful 2006 campaign in Champaign. It made great strides from year one of the Ron Zook era. Improvements aside, it can – and must – get better if 2007 is to be a giant leap forward in the wins department.
A good defense starts with a rock-solid front four. Three of the four starters from last year return, with tackle John Norris the only departure. The line is led by junior tackle Chris Norwell. Norwell was among the best in the conference in racking up tackles for loss (12.5) and simply knows how to get it done inside. He might be the most unsung defensive lineman in the conference. He will be joined inside by junior David Lindquist, who saw a lot of time off the bench last fall and led the team in fumble recoveries. The outsides will be manned by Derek Walker and Doug Pilcher. Pilcher and Walker are a bit on the inconsistent side but have put together some good games in the past and must do so this year with plenty of talent waiting in the wings. Evidence of a couple of solid recruiting classes is starting to show when otherwise entrenched starters are being pushed. Newcomer D’Angelo McCray is a highly touted recruit that is overcoming an injury but will push for time on the inside. Antonio James, Will Davis, Clay Nurse and Jerry Brown will vie for time at end. The bottom line is simple; a decent line needs to get good – really good – if the Illini are to contend for anything this fall.
Dick Butkus will be proud. Illinois is flat out stacked at linebacker heading into the ’07 campaign. All three starters return and there is depth coming out of the woodwork. If you’re going to focus on one player, that guy is – hands down – J Leman. Leman led the Big Ten with 12.7 tackles per game last fall and has gone from an under the radar guy to a legitimate contender for All America honors. He’s not alone though. Antonio Steele made a nice splash after joining the team as a JUCO transfer last fall and Brit Miller is also solid on the outside. Sam Carson and Anthony Thornhill provide some good, experienced play off the bench, but the next player to watch has to be incoming recruit Martez Wilson. He has great size and speed and will likely see time here and as a pass rushing end when the situation calls for it. Don’t put it past Rodney Pittman or Rahkeem Smith to push for PT as well. Any way you slice it, the strength of the Illinois defense is at linebacker. If the line can hold its own, moving the ball against this front seven could be a nightmare for the first time in a very long time…
The secondary takes a slight hit with the loss of Alan Ball but don’t linger on that one for too long. Freshman All American Vontae Davis is back and will be even better. Three safeties with starting experience also return to this fall: Kevin Mitchell, Justin Harrison and Justin Sanders. The only question is who will take Ball’s place at the vacated corner? There was a heated battle for the rights to start all spring and it will carry into fall practice. Dere Hicks, Chris Duvalt and Antonio Gully are engaged in that battle and again, position battles mean there is quality depth available as well. Others to watch at the safety position are Garrett Edwards and Bo Flowers. The Illinois pass defense was second only to Wisconsin in 2006 and appears to be getting deeper and better. With a good to potentially great front seven, look out.
The defense was a pleasant surprise in 2006 and should be a big contributor to any great improvements this fall. Chris Norwell, J Leman and Vontae Davis are bona fide stars. The depth has improved. The talent pool is getting deeper. Time will tell…
Outlook - Special Teams ... Kyle Yelton was no Steve Weatherford last season, but he was serviceable and returns with a year of experience behind him. He needs to improve on his per kick average, which put the Illini dead last in the category - in the Big Ten and the nation. If he isn't better, he'll lose his job to Utah transfer Anthony Santella who had a solid spring. Of comfort is the return of PK Jason Reda. Reda has a ton of experience and was third in the conference last fall making 15 of 19 tries. He’ll be among the best in the conference again this fall. The return game should be solid as waves of athletes have been joining the team since Ron Zook took over.
9/1 – at Missouri (St. Louis)
9/8 – WESTERN ILLINOIS
9/15 – at Syracuse
9/22 – at Indiana
9/29 – PENN STATE
10/6 - WISCONSIN
10/13 – at Iowa
10/20 – MICHIGAN
10/27 – BALL STATE
11/3 – at Minnesota
11/10 – at Ohio State
11/17 – NORTHWESTERN
Key Games: 9/1 - at Missouri, 9/22 – at Indiana, 10/6 – Wisconsin, 10/20 – Michigan, 11/17 – Northwestern
Prediction ... As bad as Illinois was last year, and really has been the several seasons, I truly expect to see some strides in Champaign this fall. I am, however, a little wary to predict a total turnaround. Last year I had Illinois getting five wins and they were no where close. There are some great players but youth is still an issue. I see Syracuse as a make or break game in the OOC slate. I went back and forth on that one. Mizzou is a tough start, as are Penn State and Wisconsin early in Big Ten play. Indiana will be no picnic either. A win there might be a great springboard, however. I want to say this team could squeeze out six wins and go bowling, but the past results tell me otherwise. I.E. guilty until proven innocent!
OOC: 3-1 (loss to Missouri)
B10: 1-7 (win over Northwestern)
Overall: 4-8, T-10th in the conference