No Sleep Till Football

Like Brooklyn Except It's Football

2011 Preview – Illinois Fighting Illini

The college football season is about a month away so it’s time to get down to the nitty gritty and start previewing and predicting how the college football season is going to unfold. As always I start with the Big 10 because I’m in the heart of Big 10 country! In past years these previews could get a little lengthy so I’m going to try to break them down into important categories and be as brief as I can be within those parameters. I’ll go in alphabetical order within the conference. Let’s go!

ILLINOIS ILLINI (Last Year = 7-6, T4 in Big 10)


Illinois had a good year transitioning out of the era of guys like Juice Williams, Arrelious Benn and Rashard Mendenhall. Despite losing records in 2008 & 2009, Illinois broke in a new QB in rFR Nathan Scheelhaase and managed a 6-6 regular season, and then beat Baylor in the Texas Bowl 38-14 to get to 7-6. Illinois’s best case record was 10-3 while their worse case was 6-7 making their close games record 1-3. The Illini were +8 in TO margin so we are getting a bit of a mixed bag with regards to luck. Illinois never really got on a roll. They were 3-3 after 6 games and 5-3 after 8 games, but went 1-3 in their last 3 with 3 closes losses to Michigan, Minnesota & Fresno St. Given what they accomplished last season, I’d expect the program to believe it should be better than 7 wins in 2011.


The big loss here is RB Mikel LeShoure. LeShoure rushed for 1,697 yards and had 20 total TDs. He averaged 6.0ypc and led a run heavy attack for the Fighting Zookers. Illinois also loses their #2 WR Jared Fayson who caught 38 balls for 355 yards & 1TD. Illinois also loses RT Ryan Palmer & RG Randall Hunt. LeShoure was a 1st Team All Big 10 RB as well as a 2nd Team All-American! LeShoure leaves some massive shoes to fill, but overall Illinois doesn’t lose a ton offensively.


Most importantly, rSO QB Nathan Scheelhaase returns in his 3rd year in the program. Scheelhaase is a duel threat QB who rushed for 868 yards & 5TD while passing for 1,825 yards & 17TD. Scheelhaase only completed 58.7% of his passes, but he did only throw 8 picks so when he misses, he’s at least not missing to defensive backs! WR AJ Jenkins led the team last year with 56 catches with 746 yards & 7TD. OC Graham Pocic was an Honorable Mention All Big 10 players. LT Jeff Allen was a 2nd Team All Big 10 player. The 6’6/250lbs TE Evan Wilson also returns for his true sophomore season after catching 10 passes & 2TD in his true freshman year.


WR Kenny Knight is 6’4/190lbs and immediately becomes one of the biggest wideouts on the team. Knight could see time this year because of his size alone. Illinois has a couple of big offensive linemen in Pat Flavin (6’7/260lbs) & Chris Boles (6’5/315lbs) that could potentially see some time on the O-Line although Flavin might need to add quite a bit of weight to that 6’7 frame. I don’t expect Illinois to have freshman impact the offense.


Illinois averaged 32.5ppg last season which was the most of any offense in the Ron Zook era. It’s hard to believe Illinois will be able to score that many points again this year if RB Jason Ford doesn’t play extremely well in trying to take over for Leshoure. Ford is a senior. He’s big at 6’0/235lbs. Now he needs to produce on the field. Illinois does have 4 starters returning on the offensive line plus all their skill players minus Leshoure back. A talent like Leshoure is practically impossible to replace at a program like Illinois so expect the offense to take a step back in 2011, although Zook has pieces in play to do very well for himself.


Illinois did lose some impact talent on defense. DT Corey Liuget was a 1st team All-Big 10 DT and also a 1st Rd. draft pick of the San Diego Chargers. Liguet led the Illini in sacks and tackles for loss. Also gone is another 1st team All-Big 10 player in MLB Martez Wilson who was a 3rd Rd. draft pick of the New Orleans Saints. Wilson led the teak with 112 tackles and was 2nd behind Liuget in sacks and tackles for loss. SLB Nate Bussey was a 7th Rd. pick of the Saints and was the #2 tackler. CB Travon Bellamy & DE Clay Nurse are also gone. Losing talent like Wilson, Liuget & Bussey hurts quite a bit I would think. Illinois has some talent coming back but losing 3 NFL guys and 2 1st teamers isn’t easy to overcome.


Despite some significant losses, Illinois does have some impact guys returning on defense. The stars are the cornerbacks in Terry Hawthorne & Tavon Wilson. Wilson was an honorable mention All Big 10 player last year while Hawthorne has ridiculous ability, but has been sidelined a bit with injury during his first couple of years. WLB Ian Thomas will take over Wilson’s spot at MLB, and was the team’s 4th leading tackler a year ago. FS Trulon Henry, like Wilson was also a Big 10 honorable mention selection. Keep an eye on DT Akeem Spence. Last year the redshirt freshman was a frosh All-American at at 6’1/310lbs has solid size in the middle of a 4-3 alignment. I’d also keep an eye on DE Michael Buchanan. Buchanan is 6’6/230lbs and could be a pretty disruptive force on the edge.


Really only a couple of names stick out. Safety Dondi Kirby could see some time at SS, but at 6’3/190lbs, he’s probably still a little light. The other potential impact player is CB Zeph Grimes who has pretty good size at 5’11/212lbs. It’ll be hard to get on the field considering Illinois has both Hawthorne & Wilson back, but it’s a possibility. Grimes will also be behind CB Justin Green who took over for Hawthorne last season when he went down with injury.


Illinois’s defense in 2010 was vastly improved. In 2009 the Illini gave up 30.2ppg whereas in 2010 they gave up 23.5ppg. That was good enough for 5th in the Big 10. Remember that the ’09 version didn’t have Martez Wilson because he was lost to injury. The same will be said of the 2011 Illini except this time Wilson will be playing for the Saints instead of being on IR. The defense is somewhat like the offense. You can’t help but predict a step back for Illinois considering what they lost, but there are some intriguing guys here such as Spence, Buchanan, DT Craig Wilson and LB Ashante Williams to make the squad very interesting.


Illinois has one of the more interesting schedules. They open up with home games against Arkansas St. and South Dakota St. which should be a couple of easy tune up wins. Their 3rd game is a home date against Arizona St. Why is this interesting? Because the Sun Devils will be coming off a home game against Missouri. The Tigers could make it very very tough on Arizona St. If ASU loses to Mizzou then that’s a tough loss. If they win a very tough game against Missouri, they could have a road let down game the following week against Illinois. Illinois then gets Western Michigan before hosting Northwestern. The problem to me is that I think WMU is going to be a tough out and Northwestern has a bye the week before they play Illinois. I think Northwestern pulls off an upset here. I think Illinois rebounds against Indiana in Bloomington as the Hoosiers will have most likely taken a beating the week before at the hands of Penn St. Illinois then goes back home to play Ohio St. who will be playing the 2nd of back-to-back road games. Who did Ohio St. play the week before? Nebraska! This sort of sets up a situation like the one with Arizona St. so Illinois is in good position to pull off a stunner in Urbana-Champaign, but I can’t imagine Ohio St. losing two games in a row. Plus Ohio St. will be on a bye the following week so maybe they let it all hang out against Illinois. The following week Illinois goes on the road to Purdue after the Boilermakers come off the road against Penn St. I’ll call for another Illinois win, but the week after Illinois travels to Penn St. The Lions will be coming off a road game against Northwestern that won’t be easy while Illinois should have had an easier time with Purdue. I think the good times keep rolling and Illinois wins. Illinois has a bye week before they play a home game against Michigan. Michigan will be coming off a road game against Iowa, but I think this is a tougher game than I’d expect. I’m going to call for a Michigan loss simply because the Wolverines will be on the back end of back-to-back road games. Next up is Wisconsin, but here the good times stop. Illinois will have its hands full with Michigan and despite playing the Badgers at home, Wisconsin will be coming off a road game against Minnesota. Illinois loses their second game. The Illini finish the schedule with a road game against Minnesota they should win.


Maybe it’s crazy, but I’m going to put Illinois at 9-3. If I had cajones I’d probably put Illinois at 10-2 and give them a win over Ohio St., but that’s probably too much to expect. I think the Zooker finishes 3rd in the “Leaders” division behind both Ohio St. & Wisconsin, and takes a bit of heat off of himself at Illinois. A bowl win would give Illinois a double digit win total for the first time since 2001! This team is intriguing. Defensively they could surprise a lot of people despite the losses. Losing Leshoure at RB is going to hurt some, but remember that Scheelhaase was only a freshman last year. If every single things breaks their way, Illinois could finish as high as 11-1. I’ll stick with 9-3, but watch out if they start the year 6-0. That might be enough momentum to carry them to 10-0 where they’ll welcome in Wisconsin for a shot at the Big 10 title game.


August 5, 2011 - Posted by | Illinois, Predictions, Previews

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: