2011 Illinois Preview
Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase
Illinois QB Nathan Scheelhaase
Posted Jun 1, 2011

Illinois came up with a rebound year in 2010, but now the expectations are higher with a good nucleus, an emerging star in QB Nathan Scheelhaase, and tremendous athleticism on both sides of the ball to be the Big Ten's X factor. Can head coach Ron Zook produce more wins to convince a new athletic director that the program is on the right track? Check out the CFN 2011 Illinois Preview.

Illinois Fighting Illini

Preview 2011

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By Pete Fiutak

Head coach: Ron Zook
7th year: 28-45
10th year overall: 51-59
Returning Lettermen:
Off. 20, Def. 19, ST 3
Lettermen Lost: 16
Ten Best Illinois Players
1. QB Nathan Scheelhaase, Soph.
2. OT Jeff Allen, Sr.
3. CB Tavon Wilson, Sr.
4. WR A.J. Jenkins, Sr.
5. DT Akeem Spence, Soph.
6. LB Ian Thomas, Sr.
7. FS Trulon Henry, Sr.
8. PK Derek Dimke, Sr.
9. C Graham Pocic, Jr.
10. RB Jason Ford, Sr.
2011 Schedule

Sep. 3 Arkansas State
Sep. 10 South Dakota State
Sep. 17 Arizona State
Sep. 24 Western Michigan
Oct. 1 Northwestern
Oct. 8 at Indiana
Oct. 15 Ohio State
Oct. 22 at Purdue
Oct. 29 at Penn State
Nov. 12 Michigan
Nov. 19 Wisconsin
Nov. 26 at Minnesota

When Illinois becomes really good, Ron Zook probably won't be the head coach.

That's not meant to be mean, and that's not meant to say that Illinois can't be decent, but the simple facts of the matter are 1) there's a new athletic director on the way in the near future and 2) the "rebound" year wasn't all that great.

Zook was kept around despite two straight losing seasons following the 2007 Rose Bowl campaign, but he needed to make some changes. In came Paul Petrino as the offensive coordinator, and the Illini attack that was a stunning disappointment in 2009, scoring a mere 24 points per game despite finishing 47th in the nation in total offense, improved to 45th in the nation in total offense while averaging 32.5 points per game. Considering the rebuilding job needing to be done and with a freshman quarterback taking over, the results were more impressive than they might appear.

In came Vic Koenning, a long-time assistant and former Wyoming head man, and he transformed a defense that finished 91st in the nation and was last in the Big Ten in several major categories to 38th in the nation and second in the Big Ten in sacks and tackles for loss.

The moves worked.

But as was the case when Zook was the head man at Florida, even the successes were overshadowed by strange and puzzling failures. Sure, after going 3-9, a 7-6 season looks terrific, but there was a strange loss to Minnesota in the home finale, a loss to a mediocre Fresno State, and the wild 67-65 loss to Michigan. To the Zook faithful, Illinois was just a few plays and eight points away from a 9-3 regular season, but, of course, that's not how things work.

In the new world of the Big Ten, Illinois gets a monster break with the implosion of Ohio State. The Leaders Division still has Wisconsin and Penn State to deal with, but all of a sudden, winning the division doesn't seem so far-fetched. The new athletic director – who hasn't been named as of this writing - is going to want to put his stamp on the program and is going to be hired because he's going to sell the idea that Illinois can be a successful football school. Zook has gone 28-45 in his six seasons at the helm and has a 51-59 career record overall making this year his one big audition to show that he really can be the guy who can make the Illini relevant.

At some point, just getting to a bowl game isn't enough, and just coming up with a winning season shouldn't cut it. Missouri is just down the road, and if it can shed its tag of being a basketball school and can succeed in football, then there's no reason that Illinois can't become a bigger player. Things really turned around when Mizzou hired Gary Pinkel, and the new AD will probably have one guy in mind who can do the same thing in Champaign.

But for now, Zook has a nice little team put together with great athleticism, young talent, and a lot of promise. No, there aren't the elite prospects of a few years ago when Zook rocked the college football world with some phenomenal recruiting classes, but there are enough good pieces in place to expect another winning season and a record that might be just good enough to keep the current coaching staff in place.

The Petrino offense is going to run the ball, as always, and has a rising star in dual-threat sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase to work around. There's speed at receiver, there are several good options in the backfield, and the line that was pieced together last year should be a strength for the next few seasons.

The defense loses its two stars, LB Martez Wilson and DT Corey Liuget, but the front seven is loaded with speed and athleticism and the secondary might quietly grow into one of the best in the Big Ten.

The schedule is as accommodating as possible with five home games to start the season while missing Michigan State and Nebraska from the Legends, and the coaching staff knows what it's doing after so many major changes last year. Basically, the expectations are justifiably high, but it's time for them to be higher.

If Zook can come up with eight wins he's going to get a contract extension. If the Illini sputter to another 7-6 season, all bets are off. With the athletes Zook has amassed, if nothing else, this might be the Big Ten's X factor team that could go either way. This will be one of the league's toughest teams to predict, but it'll also be among the most entertaining and interesting.

What to watch for on offense: The running back situation. Rashard Mendenhall was a special back who turned into a first round draft pick, and last year Mikel Leshoure took his game to another level with 1,697 yards and 17 scores, and he might be the centerpiece of the Detroit Lion running attack in the near future. Does Illinois have another back with the same talent level waiting in the wings? Jason Ford was supposed to be that guy at some point over the last few years, but it hasn't happened yet and he's already banged up coming out of spring ball with a dinged knee. Troy Pollard is a speedster with promise, but he was also hurt this offseason. It might be more running back by committee, but if nothing else, the Illini has to find options to take the pressure and the workload away from QB Nathan Scheelhaase, who finished second on the team with 868 rushing yards.

What to watch for on defense: The linebackers. Martez Wilson was an elite recruit who could've gone anywhere, suffered a serious neck injury, and came back to star with a team-leading 112 tackles on the way to being drafted by New Orleans. Nate Bussey came up with a surprising 93-tackle season and was all over the place with 8.5 tackles for loss and three recovered fumbles. He's gone, too. The Illini have athletes, and they have a good veteran in Ian Thomas to work around, but they don't have a player of Wilson's caliber and the overall linebacker play wasn't up to snuff this offseason. Outside linebackers Ashante Williams and Jonathan Brown can fly, but they have to show they can hold up against the power running teams and they have to be consistent.

The team will be far better if … the special teams aren't so miserable. Derek Dimke is one of the nation's best kickers, but that's it for the special teams that continue to be awful under Zook's watch. The punting game wasn't too bad, but now it'll count on a true freshman, Justin DuVernois, to take over and shine, and something, anything has to come from the returners. Illinois was 117th in the nation in punt returns – a chronic problem under Zook – and was 100th in kickoff returns. The coverage teams weren't much better. Considering Illinois lost three games by four points or fewer, including a two point three-overtime loss to Michigan and a two point loss to Fresno State with Dimke missing a makeable field goal in each, improved special teams could be the difference between a decent season and a great one.

The schedule: When your road trips are Indiana, Purdue, Penn State and Minnesota, the schedule isn't all that bad. The Illini have no excuse whatsoever to not start out hot with five straight home games and six in the first decent. The one road game before October 22nd is at Indiana, and while that's followed up by a home date with Ohio State and Arizona State will be a nasty early test, 5-2 is a must and 6-1 is possible before going on the road to face Purdue, There are only four road games overall and there's a well-timed November off week before facing Michigan and Wisconsin in back to back weeks. The non-conference schedule, other than the date with the Sun Devils, shouldn't be bad even though Western Michigan will be a sneaky-good MAC team.

Best offensive player: Sophomore QB Nathan Scheelhaase. After emerging as the starter late last summer, the 6-3, 195-pounder had a nice season throwing 17 touchdowns and with six of his eight interceptions coming in two games, while running for 868 yards with five scores. He improved as a passer this offseason with crisper throws and looking more confident. He doesn't have to be Peyton Manning, but he should throw for close to 2,500 yards while being an even more effective runner.

Best defensive player: Senior CB Tavon Wilson. Tackle Akeem Spence has the upside to be the star of the defense, and linebacker Ian Thomas will almost certainly lead the team in tackles, but it's Wilson who appears ready to bust out from the pack as the team's No. 1 lockdown corner who can also hit. At 6-0 and 205 pounds he's built like a tough safety, and he showed it 48 stops last year. If he does more when the ball is in the air, he could be a First Team All-Big Ten performer.

Key player to a successful season: Senior DT Craig Wilson. Akeem Spence is a given in the defensive interior, but the line still has to replace the production of Corey Liuget, who came up with 63 tackles with 4.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss and ten quarterback hurries. Wilson is being moved over from the offensive line, and while he hasn't done anything so far in his career, he has the 6-5, 320-pound size to be a space-eater. If he's great, the expectations of the front seven will quickly change.

The season will be a success if … the Illini win eight regular season games. There are several major concerns from right tackle to linebacker to No. 2 receiver, but there's enough returning tackle and enough overall talent to expect a strong year against a reasonable schedule. Home wins over Arkansas State, South Dakota State, and Western Michigan are a must, and beating Northwestern, Indiana, and Purdue are all winnable. Throw in a late road game at Minnesota and a possible upset over Arizona State or Michigan, and it's not crazy to ask for an 8-4 campaign before going to a decent bowl.

Key game: Sept. 17 vs. Arizona State. There's no Missouri on the slate anymore, and the date against a loaded and experienced Arizona State team will end up being the early measuring stick. The Sun Devils will be hyped up all offseason and will almost certainly come into the season ranked in the top 25, but it's also a home game for the Illini. A win over ASU would put a 6-0 start within reach before hosting Ohio State.

2010 Fun Stats:
- Fourth Down Conversions: Illinois 9-of-11 (82%) – Opponents 7-of-17 (41%)
- Punt Return Average: Opponents 8.2 – Illinois 3.2
- Time of Possession: Illinois 32:19 – Opponents 27:41

- 2011 Illinois Preview | 2011 Illinois Offense
- 2011 Illinois Defense | 2011 Illinois Depth Chart
- Illinois Previews  2010 | 2009 | 2008 | 2007 | 2006