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2010 NCAA Preview: Illinois Fighting Illini

Illinois Fighting Illini In A Nutshell

Ron Zook enters his 6th season at Illinois on the hot seat. After leading the Illini to a 2007 Rose Bowl appearance, Zook has guided Illinois to an 8-16 record over the past 2 seasons which is entirely unacceptable to the fan base after such a promising beginning. It’s understandable. Ron Turner did almost the same thing when in 2001 he took Illinois to a 10-2 record and a Sugar Bowl appearances, but the next 3 years were rough for the Illini and Tuner was out while Zook was in. If history holds any precedence at all in this matter, Zook is coaching for his life in ’10 and Illinois is going to have to produce a big season to keep him around. The ’09 season was expected to be a good one for Illinois. With what Ohio St. & Penn St. brought back, nobody was thinking national championship for Illinois, but a solid 9-10 win season should have been the expectation in 2009 which would have solidified Zook’s status as HC. Illinois brought back 8 starters on an offense that averaged 29ppg in ’08 including QB Juice Williams & WR Arrelious Benn. The defense would only return 5, but the ’08 defense was so poor people couldn’t help but expect improvement. The Illini opened up as 6pt favorites over rival Missouri before getting pounded 37-9! It was a harbinger or what was to come. Illinois opened 1-6 after losses to both Indiana & Purdue. They would rebound to 3-6 with wins over Michigan & Minnesota, but lose their last 3 against Northwestern, Cincinnati & Fresno St en route to a disappointing 3-9 finish putting Zook squarely on the hot seat.

Offensively Illinois was a product of bad luck. Guys like QB Williams, WR Benn, WR Jeff Cumberland, & TE Mike Hoomanawanui all spent time with injuries last season giving the offense in ’09 virtually no consistency or momentum at any point in the season. RB Daniel Dufrense led the team in rushing in ’08 but wasn’t very good in ’09. Illinois also brought in a new O-Line coach. This season Illinois loses all 5 of the players just mentioned. The big news though is Zook bringing in new OC Paul Petrino who had been working with his brother Bobby since 2003. The Petrinos are known for high powered offenses so it’ll be interesting to watch the transition Illinois goes through. As for personnel, Illinois is sorely lacking. They are going to essentially break in a new QB along with all new receivers. RBs Mikel Leshoure & Jason Ford return and those two combined for 1,300+ rushing yards along with 9TD which bodes well for Illinois’s rushing game. Still, it’s an offense that returns 5 starters from a squad that averaged 24ppg. The O-Line should be fine and Illinois probably will have a solid running game, but a QB and a couple of WRs are going to have to step up or defenses will easily stack the box and dare Illinois to beat them with the passing game. This would normally be up a Petrino’s alley, but with no QB in place and a new system to learn, it could be rough sledding in trying to score points.

Defensively Illinois should be better than the disaster that was 2009. Illinois allowed 30+ppg which was akin to the defense Illinois showed from ’03-’05, a 3 year stretch that saw Illinois go 6-28! The D-Line is going to be rough with only DE Clay Nurse returning, but DE Mike Buchanan brings good size to the other end at 6-6/230lbs while the DTs should be a couple of 300+ pounders albeit inexperienced 300+ pounders. The defense gets a big lift with MLB Martez Wilson back from injury. Wilson is the star of the defense with All-American type talent, but was injured for the ’09 season hurting the defense irreparably. Illinois’s strength should be at LB as they return all 3 starters if you include Wilson’s ’08 starts. The secondary looks thin when you consider that CB Tavon Wilson is the only returning starter, but that’s misleading. CB Terry Hawthorne is an uber-talent that played last season as a true freshman. He’s got all-conference talent and should be a lot better in his 2nd full year. Both safeties (Travon Bellamy & Supo Sanni) are upperclassmen with experience. Despite just one returning starter, the secondary looks decent. Obviously the weakness here for Illinois is their interior defensive line. The Big 10 has some scary good runners so this is the wrong place to be weak, but with Wilson plugging the middle and Nate Bussey returning as SLB, Illinois should be able to provide some help with the interior defensive line. It’ll put pressure on the pass defense, but Illinois simply has to get better here.

The schedule is tough. Illinois draws a horrible out of conference slate as Missouri might be a sleeper Top-15 team while Fresno St. could easily play spoiler in the WAC. Both are road games. Northern Illinois is one of the more solid MAC teams this season so it won’t be a cakewalk even if Illinois wins. Southern Illinois is a FCS school so Illinois should win that handily at home. The Big 10 slate isn’t bad at all either. Illinois misses both Iowa & Wisconsin which would have been guaranteed losses and gets 3 winnable games (Minnesota, Indiana & Purdue) at home. Illinois also gets just 3 true road games as the Northwestern game will be played in Wrigley Field. The best thing about the road game against Fresno St. is that it happens on December 3rd after a bye week. If Illinois is going to show improvement and suffer through some growing pains, those things should be over by early December. If Illinois can steal the Fresno St. game then they are looking at a 3-1 non-conference record. If they take care of business at home and can steal a Big 10 game, Illinois could be looking at a 6-6/7-5 season which would show some improvement. Zook certainly needs it.

BOTTOM LINE: Best case for me is 7-5. The schedule is set up to win some games. Despite losing some pretty big names from a year ago, Illinois is surprisingly deep losing the fewest number of letter winners in the Big 10 conference. They’d have to go 3-1 out of conference and take care of business at home against the lower tier Big 10 squads, but those things could happen. Ron Zook’s knock is that he can’t actually coach that well when he’s in the big chair. He’s going to have to disprove that argument in ’10. Worst case is 1-11. Frankly there is a tremendous amount of turnover on offense and the defense is weak up front which is about the worst thing that could happen to a defense. Illinois could easily finish the season 0-8 in conference and lose 3 of the 4 non-conference games. The schedule is somewhat front loaded and Illinois has to understand that going 2-4 in their first six games isn’t the end. If they let the early losing get them down, it’s going to be a murderously long year for Illinois. If they can shake off a 2-4 start early, they could easily rebound to 4-4 with 4 to play to become bowl eligible. Splitting the difference Illinois looks like a 4-8 squad. I don’t think that gets it done for Zook. He needs a big season and there might be a little too much transition and not enough talent/experience to overcome that liability in ’10.

Head Coach: Ron Zook: 21-39 at Illinois; 6th season as HC
Last Season: 3-9 (9th in Big 10)
Bowl Game: none
Last 3 Seasons: 17-20
Last 5 Seasons: 21-39
Last 10 Seasons: 45-73
Last 5 Bowl Games: 2-3
AP/BCS National Championships: 0
Experience Level for 2010: 9th most experienced team in Big 10 (#83 in NCAA)
Turnover Margin: -4
NFL Draft Choices: 3 (WR Arrelious Benn-2nd Rd; OG Jon Asamoah-3rd Rd; TE Michael Hoomanawanui-5th Rd)

If the story of Ron Turner is of any consequence, we are probably looking at Ron Zook’s final season coaching the Illini. Ron Turner took Illinois to a 10-1 record in 2001 and a top-10 ranking before losing to LSU 47-34 in the Sugar Bowl. Illinois would finish 10-2, but Turner would guide the Illini to a record of 9-26 during the next three seasons and was justifiably fired afterward.

Illinois hired Florida castoff Ron Zook to take Turner’s place and now Zook faces a very similiar set of circumstances. In 2007, Zook took a 9-3 Illinois squad to the Rose Bowl where they met USC. Illinois was ranked in the top-20, but got murdered by the Trojans 49-17 proving just how big of charlatans Illinois actually was. Admittedly, Illinois only got to Pasadena because Ohio St. was in the process of getting beat by LSU in the BCS National Championship, but Zook has now gone 8-16 in the 2 years since. Unless the Zooker pulls off an 1-11 record, he won’t fall quite to the depths that Turner did after his breakthrough season, but he’s likely to be close after this season.

Frankly I thought the Zook hire was a good move for Illinois. The program had stagnated in Turner’s latter years and Zook wasn’t nearly as bad as Florida as Gator Nation made him out to be. Is he Steve Spurrier or Urban Meyer? Absolutely not and a program like Florida deserves a coach that is of the same caliber as Spurrier & Meyer. For that reason, Zook was probably a bad fit for Florida, but while in Gainesville, he proved to be a helluva recruiter and quite a bit of college success rests on whether or not a head coach can recruit.

Unfortunately for Zook, it really does look like he’s more of an assistant/recruiter than head coach. In his first two seasons at Illinois, Zook guided the Illini to a 4-19 record. Then came the Rose Bowl run, but in the 2 seasons after, Zook is 8-16 meaning that Zook has a 4-year mark of 12-35 if you discount 2007. From that standpoint it really does look like the Rose Bowl run was an outlier and Zook is a lot more like a coach of a 3-9 team rather than a 9-4 team. Combine that with lackluster recruiting of late and there doesn’t seem to be much justification in Zook keeping his job.

Nobody was expecting a Big 10 championship from Illinois in 2009 with what Ohio St. & Penn St. were bringing to the table, but expectations were pretty high. The schedule was very conducive for Illinois to get 8-10 wins and make a serious run at a BCS bowl. They missed both Iowa & Wisconsin in Big 10 play which was a major coup while having a manageable out of conference slate. The offense was returning both QB Juice Williams & WR Arrelious Benn for a unit that returned 8 total starters from an offense that averaged 29ppg in 2008. Illinois was favored against Missouri in the opener, but Vegas must have been napping because Mizzou came out and thrashed Illinois 37-9! It was a tough break, but Illinois rebounded to beat Illinois St. 45-17 before getting Penn St. & Ohio St. in back to back games. Illinois would lose both to drop to 1-3, but in reality their schedule was back loaded and the best they could have hoped for was a 2-2 record to begin the season. That it started 1-3 wasn’t completely ruinous.

However, the season never got better. Illinois would lose a home game to Michigan St. before losing back-to-back games against Indiana & Purdue on the road. Most people thought Illinois could be 4-3 at this point after the Missouri loss, but instead the Illini were 1-6 and reeling. They would win their next two games over Michigan & Minnesota. Two games they were underdogs, but they would get Northwestern at home only to lose 21-16 despite being favored by 5 points. Illinois was 3-7 with 2 to play. Cincinnati would beat Illinois in the Queen City 49-36 although Illinois would cover the 21 point spread. Illinois would be favored at home against Fresno St. by 3 points but would lose a 1-point shootout 53-52! Illinois would finish the year 3-9.

Things really didn’t go right for Illinois. QB Juice Williams got hurt during the season which led to some problems in the passing game. Illinois averaged 249 yards passing per game in ’08 and saw that number diminish to 193 despite bringing back Williams and star WR Arrelious Benn. Illinois also suffered through the season without star MLB Martez Wilson which was a brutal blow to the defensive side of the ball. Now Zook enters the ’10 season without its stalwart offensive stars. That’s quite a bit of transition to go through when you need to score points, but Illinois does return 7 starters on defense including Wilson. Ron Zook’s seat couldn’t be hotter. I’m not sure how good Illinois can be given how good the Big 10 should be this season, but if he can somehow get Illinois back to a bowl game, I think he can stick, but otherwise I think he’ll be looking for employment.

ILLINOIS OFFENSE

Returns: 66.3% of rushing yards, 29.6% of passing yards, 44.7% of receiving yards
PPG: 24.2 (8th in Big 10)

Rushing Offense: 200ypg (2nd in Big 10)

Passing Offense: 193ypg (10th in Big 10)

Total Offense: 394ypg (5th in Big 10)

Starters Lost

QB Juice Williams: 57.7%, 1,632yds, 12TD, 7INT, 507yds, 4TD, 3.5ypc
WR Arrelious Benn: 38rec, 490yds, 2TD

WR Chris Duvalt: 23rec, 361yds, 3TD

OC Eric Block: 12 starts

OG Joe Asamoah: 12 starts, 2nd Team All-Big 10

Returning Starters

RB Mikel Leshoure/JR: 734yds, 5TD, 6.8ypc, 14rec, 177yds, 2TD
RB Jason Ford/JR: 588yds, 4TD, 6.1ypc, 11rec, 128yds

RT Hugh Thornton/SO: 7 starts

LG Randall Hunt/SR: 11 starts

LT Jeff Allen/JR: 12 starts

Juice Williams left Illinois as the 3rd leading passer in Illinois football history. He was a 4-year starter so he definitely will be missed as a team leader with that kind of experience. Williams was a sophomore when he played in the Rose Bowl for the Illini. On the other hand, Williams was never really an accurate passer and his TD:INT ratio wasn’t great either. Williams was certainly a dual threat QB you had to be aware of, but he wasn’t really a championship QB either. His injury last season paved the way for some young guys to get a chance like Jacob Charest who at 6-4/220lbs, is more of a pocket passer. Illinois also has rFR Nathan Scheelhaase & true freshman Chandler Whitmer battling it out with Charest to get starts in the fall. Breaking in a new QB is never easy especially so when a guy like Williams is the guy you have to replace. All three QB options are very talented guys who were touted HS players so there is potential. Even with the loss of Williams, Illinois might be better if only because the QB play in ’09 was so bad. Scheelhaase is more of a dual threat like Williams.

It’s a mixed bag at the skill positions for Illinois. They do lose WR Arrelious Benn who jumped to the NFL but they also lose WR Chris DuValt & TE Mike Hoomanawanui who was a 5th round draft pick by the St. Louis Rams. Benn & DuValt were the two leading receivers in ’09 so Illinois has a lot to replace. Illinois has no returning starters back at WR and put QB Eddie McGee at WR to add depth to the position. TE London Davis has good size at 6-4/260lbs and WR Jarred Fayson was orginally a very highly regarded recruit who transferred from Florida, but for the most part there is nothing here that will help new QBs. The running backs are a different story. The Illini return both Mikel Leshoure & Jason Ford at RB. That duo combined for 1,322 yards rushing and 9TD while averaging 6.4ypc. Illinois had the 2nd best rushing offense in the Big 10 last season and I don’t think they’ll fall too far away from that kind of production, especially if Scheelhaase is the starting QB. Leshoure & Ford are both juniors and soph Justin Green is a bit time talent backing the two up.

The offensive line was fantastic last season paving the way for 4.8ypc for the Illini runners. It was good enough for the 2nd best mark in the Big 10. The unit gave up quite a few sacks so there is room for improvement. The line returns 3 starters, but is actually more experienced than that. Projected starting OC Graham Pocic is a sophomore, but is in his 3rd year in the program and played in 11 games last year. RT Ryan Palmer is a 5th year senior & has 8 career starts. LT Jeff Allen has potential all conference talent while the other two starters (RG Hugh Thornton & LG Randall Hunt) bring some massive bodies to the table. Illinois’ average O-Lineman goes about 6-6/310lbs. They’ll need to give their QB a little more time in order to better the passing production, but overall this is a solid offensive line that should power a very solid running game.

The recipe here is pretty simple. Illinois should be a solid running team, but with some many question marks surrounding the passing game, it’s going to be easy for opposing defenses to stack the box and bet Scheelhaase or Charest can’t beat them with the passing game. I don’t think the running game is so good that it can’t be stopped no matter what the defense tries, so there is going to have to be somebody to step up on offense to give Illinois a more balanced attack. It’ll be a big year for guys like Fayson, Davis, Scheelhaase & Charest.

The wild card here is new OC Paul Petrino. Petrino is the brother of Arkansas HC Bobby Petrino and had been on big brother’s staff since 2003 when Petrino was still in Louisville. One thing the Petrino’s are known for is having a high octane offense so it’ll be interesting to see what kind of schemes Illinois will be running. The QB is an incredibly important position for a Petrino led offense and given the nature of guys like Chris Redman & Ryan Mallet it certainly seems like this would be a good sign for Jacob Charest to be the starter, but who knows? Petrino didn’t actually do the play calling as Bobby did it himself so with Paul being the man pulling the trigger we’ll see if he’s as good as Bobby in producing high scoring offenses.

ILLINOIS DEFENSE

Returns: 69.5% of tackles, 77.1% of sacks
PPG: 30.2 (11th in Big 10)

Rushing Defense: 154ypg (8th in Big 10)

Passing Defense: 249ypg (10th in Big 10)

Total Defense: 403ypg (11th in Big 10)

Starters Lost

DE Doug Pilcher: 32tkl, 3.5sks, 4tfl, 1int
DT Sirod Williams: 6tkl

SS Garrett Edwards: 79tkl, 0.5sks, 4pbu, 1int

FS Donsay Hardeman: 42tkl, 2tfl, 4pbu

CB Dere Hicks: 34tkl, 3tfl, 6pbu

Returning Starters

DE Clay Nurse/SR: 31tkl, 5.5sks, 5tfl, 1pbu
DT Josh Brent/SR: 29tkl, 3sks, 4tfl, 1pbu

LB Nate Bussey/SR: 43tkl, 0.5sks, 1pbu

LB Ian Thomas/JR: 95tkl, 1sks, 3.5tfl, 4pbu

LB Martez Wilson/JR: starter in ’08; injured & medical redshirt in ’09

CB Tavon Wilson/JR: 74tkl, 3.5tfl, 7pbu, 1int

This was an awful defense no matter how you slice it. On the D-Line they lose DE Doug Pilcher, DT Josh Brent and DT Sirod Williams. They do return DE Clay Nurse who was an honorable mention All Big 10 player last season. No matter how you spin it, losing three-fourths of your defensive line is a tough pill to swallow. It looks like DTs Corey Liuget & Lendell Buckner will take over for the interior of the line. Neither have much experience although Buckner brings quite a bit of size at 6-3/330lbs. DE Mike Buchanan takes over for Pilcher. The best thing to say about the Illinois defensive line is that they do bring some size & athleticism to the table. Buchanan is 6-6/230lbs and is only a sophomore. Buckner is a rFR. Nurse is 6-3/260lbs and Liuget is 6-3/300lbs. There at least is some size on the interior and some size/speed combination on the edge. It’s a weakness to be sure.

Linebacker should be a strength of the Illini. They get Martez Wilson back at LB while returning WLB Ian Thomas who started 12 games last year. Thomas led the team last season with 95 tackles so pairing him with Wilson should give Illinois two big time play makers on defense. SLB Nate Bussey also returns who has 7 career starts on his resume. Wilson has big time talent. He’ll compete for a shot at being a 1st team All Big 10 LB which is saying something given the depth of the position in the conference. With a great season, Wilson could vault himself into the conversation as one of the best ILB in the entire nation. Bussey & Thomas don’t have that kind of talent, but both should be solid productive players. After losing Wilson last season, Illinois would be well served to get healthy seasons from their projected LB corps.

Illinois had a god awful pass defense last season but their secondary should be improved. They get junior Tavon Wilson back at corner and sophomore Terry Hawthorne had 5 starts as a true freshman last year. Hawthorne was one of the very best corners in his HS class so he has the talent to become a very good player. All he need is the experience. Illinois doesn’t have any returning starters at safety but that’s misleading as well. SS Travon Bellamy is a senior and started 11 games in ’08 but has dealt with some injuries limiting his use to only 3 starts last year. FS Supo Sanni is a junior who was a solid talent coming out of high school. Wilson & Bellamy are pretty much returning starters while Hawthorne & Sanni are a bit inexperienced, but have the talent to be good players. Illinois also has solid size in the secondary. Both corners are 6’0 tall while the safeties average 6-1/215lbs. There aren’t any household names here, but the experience isn’t as bad as it might appear. As bad as the pass defense was last season, it’s hard to think this group won’t improve it to some degree.

It’s a bad defense. Martez Wilson has star potential and DE Clay Nurse could be a solid contributor, but there isn’t much experience or talent anywhere else on defense. For the defense to have any kind of chance to keep Illinois in games, the LBs are going to have to play out of their minds. Maybe they can do so on occasion, but I don’t see it happening on a consistent basis for an entire season. Illinois gave up 30+ppg last year and I think they can do better than that, but if they improve to 26-28ppg it won’t make that much of a difference given the woes the offense should experience.

ILLINOIS SCHEDULE

Missouri (in St. Louis, MO)
Southern Illinois

Northern Illinois

BYE

Ohio St.

@Penn St.

@Michigan St.

Indiana

Purdue

@Michigan

Minnesota

Northwestern (in Chicago, IL)
BYE

@Fresno St.

The schedule didn’t do Illinois any favors. The out of conference schedule is nasty. Illinois plays a neutral game against Missouri and they have no chance at winning that game. Missouri beat Illinois last year 37-9 when Illinois supposedly had a talent advantage. They don’t have that this season while Missouri has a very good chance to challenge Nebraska for a Big XII North championships. Traveling to Fresno St. isn’t easy either. I don’t think Illinois wins that one either. Northern Illinois is a solid MAC team while Illinois gets a guaranteed win over Southern Illinois. I’d expect Illinois to go 1-3 here, but if they somehow got 2 wins it would be a heavenly gift.

The Big 10 schedule is kind again as Illinois avoids both Iowa & Wisconsin. Those would have been absolute losses without question. The first 3 conference games will be the toughest test for Illinois as they start the conference season with a home date against Ohio St. before going on the road in back to back games against Penn St. & Michigan St. I don’t see how Illinois wins any of those games, but returns home to get both Purdue & Indiana at home. I think Illinois is probably a dog in each of those games despite being the home team, but they have comparable talent as the Boilermakers & Hoosiers and definitely get a break by getting a couple of winnable games at home. Playing against Michigan in the Big House won’t be easy but Illinois gets another winnable game against Minnesota at home. They’ll play Northwestern at Wrigley Field in the conference finale before traveling to Fresno St.

Illinois catches a tough break because Missouri, Fresno St. & Northern Illinois are solid teams and easily have the ability to beat Illinois. However, I think Illinois catches a break getting games against Indiana, Purdue & Minnesota at home. Those are very winnable games. Illinois also misses Iowa & Wisconsin so they really couldn’t have asked for a better schedule. If Illinois can somehow manage a 3-1 out of conference record, they should be able to 3-4 conference games if they play to their potential which puts Illinois squarely in 6-6/7-5 territory. I don’t think it’s likely, but despite having a bad team, Zook has a schedule that can produce wins if Illinois plays up to potential and Zook can coach them up a bit.

ILLINOIS SUMMARY

Best case for me is 7-5. Illinois has some winnable games as I’ve said before. They can beat Northern Illinois, Southern Illinois, Minnesota, Purdue, Indiana, Northwestern & Fresno St. if they can pull things together. They definitely have to take care of business at home, but if they do so I think Illinois could fight their way into a bowl. On the other hand, their worst case is 1-11. The only really guaranteed win here for the Fighting Zookers is a home date against Southern Illinois.

Zook is going to be coaching for his life, but there is potential. Offensively Illinois should be able to run the ball well meaning Zook would be wise to play a lot of clock controlled methodical football that kept the score low while opposing offenses wasted away on the sidelines. They’ll need whichever starting QB that emerges to show the ability to make plays through the air or otherwise defenses will stack the box and take away the run. If Illinois cannot get any type of offensive going in one-on-one situations on the outside, then I don’t see how Illinois scores points

Defensively I think Illinois might be OK in their back 7. If they can keep Martez Wilson healthy at MLB, the LBs should be very solid. The secondary doesn’t have a ton of talent, but there is some experience there and more starts than one might think. The problem is the D-Line which is going to hurt on the interior and possibly be OK on the edge. Teams are simply going to double team Nurse on the edge and make the other Illini lineman to try and get some pressure.

If you split the difference this is a 4-8 team, but I’d take the under. I think at best Illinois goes 2-2 in out of conference games while a 2-6 Big 10 season would be a miracle. The Illini do get Purdue & Indiana at home, but I don’t think it’s going to matter. Indiana has the ability to score on anyone and Illinois’ defense isn’t going to be anything special. I don’t think Illinois can move the ball on Purdue’s defense and QB Robert Marve will make enough plays to beat the Illini.

Look at it this way, if Illinois really does have a bad season then I think they make a play for ex-Texas Tech HC Mike Leach. Leach could be a big time upgrade for Illinois and has a track record of remarkable success. He would only make the conference that much stronger & most likely would make Illinois relevant again.

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July 19, 2010 - Posted by | Illinois, Previews

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