Illinois Preview 2006 - Offense
Illinois Illini
Posted Aug 6, 2006

Illinois Fighting Illini Preview 2006 - Illinois Offense

What you need to know ... Things didn't work out so hot in the first year under Ron Zook and offensive coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher finishing last in the Big Ten in scoring averaging 17 points per game, but even though Zaunbrecher left for Purdue there's hope for a night-and-day improvement depending on the emergence of a line that did next to nothing last year. Now it's up to former Akron coordinator Jim Pry to make the attack more potent. The addition of Oklahoma transfer Akim Millington at tackle boosts an experienced line that should be able to open more holes for the solid 1-2 rushing punch of Pierre Thomas and E.B. Halsey. The quarterbacks should finally have time to breathe and push the ball downfield more to the speedy young receiving corps, but who will the number one passer be? Tim Brasic is the incumbent, but true freshmen Isiah Williams and Ben McGee will join three others to try to take over.

Returning Leaders
Passing: Tim Brasic
206-337, 1,979 yds, 11 TD, 11 INT
Rushing: Pierre Thomas
127 carries, 664 yds, 5 TD
Receiving: E.B Halsey
38 catches, 185 yds, 2 TD

Star of the offense: Senior RB Pierre Thomas
Player that has to step up and become a star: Sophomore WR Derrick McPhearson
Unsung star on the rise: Senior OT Charles Myles
Best pro prospect: Junior OT Akim Millington
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Thomas, 2) Millington, 3) C/G Matt Maddox
Strength of the offense: Experience, running backs
Weakness of the offense:
Tight end

The situation isn't all that bad even with top backup Chris Pazan leaving the team due to ongoing concussion problems and Kisan Flakes leaving after off-the field issues. Tim Brasic is a good all-around quarterback who can be just good enough to keep the Illini offense moving, but he's not a special talent and will have to keep competing to keep his job. The real excitement is over super-recruit Isiah Williams and fellow freshman passer Ben McGee. Don't be shocked if one of them is starting at some point, if not on opening day.
The key to the unit: Hope the young freshmen are as good as advertised and look for Tim Brasic to take a step up in his development as a midrange to deep passer.
Quarterback Rating: 7

Projected Starter
- Tim Brasic, Sr. - 206-337, 61%, 1,979 yds, 11 TD, 11 INT, 151 carries, 420 yds, 3 TD
He's better than you think. He wasn't always sharp and he had a hard time moving the offense, but he was occasionally a one-man gang trying too hard to do a little of everything. He's a dangerous runner when there's an opening tearing off 116 yards against Wisconsin and 77 against Rutgers, and he has an accurate arm on his short passes. However, he needs to do a better job of pushing the yard downfield and getting the ball to his receivers on the move. He was suspended for a time due to academic reasons, but he's back in the coaching staff's good graces.

Top Backups
- Billy Garza, Soph.
Garza is a pure passer, but he isn't nearly the runner that the Illinois offense is looking for and his arm is average at best. He appears to be the third man in the mix, but he'll get his chances to move up and show some improvement.

- Isiah Williams, Fr.
Here's the quarterback who could turn the Illinois program around. Ron Zook's top recruit is a big, dangerous runner with a next-level type of arm. He still needs a lot of work, but Zook hinted that he might not be afraid to go with the true freshman right off the bat if he shows he can handle the workload. 

Running Backs
This will be one of the Big Ten's best backfields, but will they get any space to run? Pierre Thomas is supposed to be the thunder to E.B. Halsey's lightning, but Halsey hasn't broken off enough big plays and Thomas has turned into more of the workhorse. The most talented back on the roster is sophomore Rashaed Mendenhall, but he still needs some work at running inside and waiting for the holes to develop. The fullback is strictly used for blocking; Russ Weil can do that well.
The key to the unit: The backs need to get the ball in a position to make plays as receivers as well as runners.
Running Back Rating: 8

Projected Starters
- E.B. Halsey, Sr. - 84 carries, 349 yds, 4.2 ypc, 1 TD, 38 catches, 185 yds, 2 TD
Halsey has been a great do-it-all back throughout his career as a big play weapon as a runner, receiver and kick returner. He has decent size at 5-10 and 200 pounds and tremendous quickness, and now the coaching staff has to figure out how to get him the ball in space a little better. He led the team in receiving last year, but he only averaged 4.9 yards per grab.

- Pierre Thomas, Sr. - 127 carries, 664 yds, 5.2 ypc, 5 TD, 28 catches, 225 yds, 1 TD
Considered more of a power runner than E.B. Halsey, Thomas has good straight line speed and is tough to bring down by just one tacklers. He showed off good hands last year as a receiver with a career high 28 catches and he remains one of the Big Ten's most dangerous kick returners with a 24.5 yard average for his career.  

Top Backups
- Fullback Russ Weil, Soph. - 1 run, 6 yds, 2 catches, 22 yds
Fullback isn't a glamour position in the Illinois offense, and it often goes ignored or is blown off to add another receiver to the mix. The 240-pound Weil served last year as backup and will be purely used as a blocker or a surprise receiver out of the backfield.
- Rashard Mendenhall, Soph. - 48 carries, 218 yds,4.5 ypc, 13 catches, 82 yds, 2 TD
The big-time recruit got his feet wet as a true freshman last year and showed off enough flash to get more work to prepare for being the main back in 2007. He's a good receiver with tremendous speed, but he needs to become a better blocker to get more playing time. He's at his best when he can use his speed on the outside, but he has the power to pound it, too.
- Fullback Walter Mendenhall, Soph. - 9 nine tackles, 1 sack, 4.5 TFL
A reserve linebacker last year, the physical sophomore will move over to fullback to add more speed to the mix behind Russ Weil. He's only 225 pounds, but he can hit..

Without question this is the team's biggest position of promise with plenty of young talents and lots of speedy options. The question is whether or not any of them can progress into dangerous difference makers. Kyle Hudson came out of nowhere to lead the team as a freshman, and now he'll get pushed by a slew of players looking to be the number one target. Derrick McPhearson and Jody Ellis had injury problems last year, but they're good-looking young prospects who'll make more of an impact. Dajuan Warren is the veteran, but he's a reserve with all the talent around him looking for time. Speedy Will Judson and freshman Marquis Wilkins will be the X factors. Tight end is a concern with J.R. Kraemer an interesting prospect, but the door is open for a freshman to take over the job.
The key to the unit: Hope all the potential turns into production.
Receiver Rating: 6

Projected Starters
- Kyle Hudson, Soph. - 31 catches, 469 yds, 1 TD, 15.1 ypc
Hudson turned out to be one of the biggest surprises of the Big Ten season coming out of nowhere to be the team's leading wide receiver thanks to a ten-catch, 114-yard, one touchdown game against Wisconsin. He's not all that big at 165 pounds, but he's really, really fast. Now that he knows what he's doing, he'll be expected to grow into more of a big-play threat.

- Derrick McPhearson, Soph. - 13 catches, 89 yds, 6.8 ypc, 1 TD
McPhearson overcame a broken leg suffered last summer to grow into a decent receiver, but not a bit time threat over the second half of the season. He's one of the team's fastest players with sub-4.4 speed, but he didn't do much field stretching last season. Now that's he's a veteran, expect a big jump in production as he should open things up for the passing game.

- Jody Ellis, Soph. - 15 catches, 156. yds, 10.4 ypc, 1 TD
The former receiver was starting to have a nice season highlighted by a seven-catch game against Indiana before he hurt his shoulder and was out for the year. He should be a productive third receiver if he can build on what he was starting to do.

- Tight end
 J.R. Kraemer, Soph.
Kraemer is more physical than fellow tight end Will Davis and has the athleticism to become a good receiver. He was a star high school hurdler and triple jumper, and now he's up to 235 pounds without losing any of his speed.

Top Backups
- DaJuan Warren, Jr. - 21 catches, 205 yds, 9.8 ypc
Warren was a spot starter last year but didn't make the big impact he was expected to. At 6-2 and 205 pounds he's one of the team's biggest receivers and has track star speed to become a dangerous deep threat. Now he has to start making more plays as one of the most experienced players in the corps.
- Greg McClendon, Soph. - 1 catch, 3 yards
McClendon spent last year as a tight end moving over from running back. Now the 6-2, 220 pound sophomore will make another switch to receiver providing size, strength, and athleticism.
- Will Judson, Jr.
The Florida A&M transfer is only 5-8 and 155 pounds, but he has the potential to be electrifying. He can flat-out fly, but the concern will be his ability to handle getting pushed around. He'll only be effective if he can get the ball in space.
- Marquis Wilkins, Fr.
One of the stars of the recruiting class enrolled early and should be an instant factor. He's tremendously strong and has running back moves from his time as a top high school back.

Offensive Linemen
The line was awful last year doing nothing in pass protection allowing 32 sacks last year and wasn't nearly physical enough in the running game. There's hope for a big improvement this season with five starters returning and Oklahoma transfer Akim Millington taking over at tackle and as the anchor of the line. It's a big group that'll shift around positions several times before the season starts. Matt Maddox is one of the line's steadiest players at either guard or center, and former defensive tackle Charles Myles looking better and better at right tackle. Unlike last year, there's even a little bit of depth to count on.

The key to the unit: Finding the right combination and sticking with it to get the line time to jell.
Offensive Line Rating: 6.5

Projected Starters
- OT Akim Millington, Jr.
Millington instantly becomes the line's best player now that he's finally in the mix after transferring over from Oklahoma. A family emergency forced him to lead the Sooners last year, but he would've been one of the team's key starters. He's 6-6, 310 pounds, and is the team's best pro prospect. 
- OG Martin O'Donnell, Jr.
O'Donnell had an average sophomore season after being one of the team's surprise freshman, but he's big, talented, and experienced at left guard. With Akim Millington next to him, he should have a more consistent season.
- C Ryan McDonald, Soph.
The emergence of the 300-pound sophomore is a key to the line allowing Matt Maddox to play at guard. He cam play tackle if needed, but he'll get every chance to grow into the center job.
- OG Matt Maddox, Sr.
The former guard became one of the team's best lineman at center last year. He was one of the few bright spots on last year's line and at 310 pounds should once again be a rock for the running game at either guard or in the middle.
- OT Charles Myles, Sr. 
Look for Myles to be one of the rising stars of the offense now that he knows what he's doing. He started off last year on the defensive line before taking his 320 pounds over to the offensive side late in the season. As he gets better, so will the line. 

Top Backups
- OT J.J. Simmons, Sr.
One of the line's most experienced veterans, the 6-5, 290-pound senior has been a starter at left tackle for the last two seasons. He's an average all-around talent and will have a hard time getting his starting job back over Akim Millington after having problems following knee surgery this off-season. He might end up seeing time at guard just to get more playing time.
- OT Jim Labonte, Jr.
Able to fill in at tackle or guard, the 6-7, 305-pound junior is trying to get back in the mix after a back injury and the subsequent rehab kept him down. He'll start out at right tackle but might work his way into the starting right guard spot if Matt Maddox moves back to center.
- C Eric Block, Soph.
Block is likely the future at center. He's a tough, powerful blocker with good athleticism. He'll start out pushing for time in the middle, but he might end up making more of an impact this year at guard.

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