2007 Illinois Preview

Posted May 23, 2007

Is Illinois really worth all the hype? With two fantastic recruiting classes that opened up eyes all across the college football world, and a thrilling playmaker at quarterback in Juice Williams, Ron Zook might finally have the program turned around.

Illinois Fighting Illini

Preview 2007

By Pete Fiutak

- 2007 Illinois Offense Preview | 2007 Illinois Defense Preview
2007 Illinois Depth Chart | 2006 CFN Illinois Preview

Well, we know Ron Zook can recruit (the 2006 Florida Gators proved that), but can he maximize the full potential of his players? More to the point, can the guy actually coach, or is he just a great salesman (Mack Brown-lite)? For Illini fans starving for a winning football program, it’s time to turn a corner. 

Zook is slowly upgrading the talent level with the speed and athleticism that will finally bring Illinois up to Big Ten snuff, and now the talent has to pay off in victories.  The Illini won just four games in the last two years, finishing both seasons with awful losing streaks. The off-seasons haven’t been fun after dropping the final nine games in 2005 and the last seven of last year.  

Head coach: Ron Zook 
3rd year: 4-19
6th year overall: 27-33
Returning Lettermen:
Off. 20, Def. 21, ST 4
Lettermen Lost: 14
Ten Best Illinois Players
1. LB J Leman, Sr.
2. QB Juice Williams, Soph.
3. DT Chris Norwell, Sr.
4. DE Derek Walker, Jr.
5. RB Rashard Mendenhall, Jr.
6. WR Arrelious Benn, Fr.
7. LB Martrez Wilson, Fr.
8. OT Akim Millington, Sr.
9. DE D'Angelo McCray, Fr.
10. CB Vontae Davis, Soph.

2007 Schedule
CFN Prediction: 5-7

Sept. 1

Missouri (St. Louis)

Sept. 8

Western Illinois

Sept. 15

at Syracuse

Sept. 22

at Indiana

Sept. 29

Penn State

Oct. 6


Oct. 13

at Iowa

Oct. 20


Oct. 27

Ball State

Nov. 3

at Minnesota

Nov. 10

at Ohio State

Nov. 17


2006 Schedule
CFN Prediction:
2006 Record: 2-10

Preview 2006 predicted wins

9/2 Eastern Illinois W 42-17
9/9 at Rutgers L 33-0
9/16 Syracuse L 31-21
9/23 Iowa L 24-7
9/30 at Michigan St W 23-20
10/7 Indiana L 34-32
10/14 Ohio L 20-17
10/21 at Penn State L 26-12
10/28 at Wisconsin L 30-24
11/4 Ohio State L 17-10
11/11 Purdue L 42-31
11/18 at Nwestern L 27-16

Consider 2006 a stepping stone to bigger things, after this young team full of underclassmen played like it didn’t know how to win. Four of the losses were by six points or less, including back-to-back battles with heavyweights Wisconsin and Ohio State. Time and again the team had a win in its grasp, needing a big play at the right time to turn the momentum in its favor, only to see something go wrong. You can blame inexperience for those problems, but it won’t wash for too much longer. 

Zook got a bit of a national hug after the Gators blew out Ohio State, and he’s as relentless a pitchman as there is on the recruiting trail, but if he doesn’t start producing, he might be building yet another foundation for another coach to come in and capitalize on.

While the league is improved this season and just about everyone will mentally circle Illinois as a win, this could be a dangerous team for anyone looking ahead. Progress was made last year. Now there should be a few more wins to show for it.

What to watch for on offense: The improvement of QB Isiah “Juice” Williams. A tremendous talent with 6-2, 220-pound size and excellent mobility, Williams has the type of moxie you want in a quarterback. Unfortunately, last season he couldn’t hit water if he was standing at the bottom of Lake Michigan, completing 39% of his passes to lead the Illini to dead last nationally in passing efficiency. The receivers are in place to do some damage. Now Williams has to get them the ball. 

What to watch for on defense: Despite having some great talents through the years, Illinois has never been known for its defense. That should change this season, as nine starters return to a group that was surprisingly strong in all phases, led by sleeper All-America linebacker candidate J Leman, who led the Big Ten in tackles. The coaching staff would love to bring more pressure and get into the backfield, but last year there wasn’t enough of a pass rush, despite plenty of big plays made against the run. Expect more blitzes and more problems for opposing quarterbacks.

The team will be far better if … it hangs on to the ball. Williams should be able to make up for his passing issues with his mobility, but the offense has to stop giving the ball away, after turning it over 35 times last season. While all turnovers are bad, too many of Illinois’ led directly to losses.

The Schedule: After the battle in St. Louis against Missouri to open the season, the Illini gets the easy part of the slate with Western Illinois, at Syracuse and at Indiana. Those are must wins, given the brutal four-game stretch of Penn State, Wisconsin, at Iowa and Michigan that comes later. With three of those four at home, Zook’s boys have to pull off at least one upset. Missing Purdue and Michigan State from the schedule isn’t necessarily a plus.

Best Offensive Player: Sophomore QB Juice Williams.  Even after suffering through the requisite growing pains of a true freshman quarterback, Illinois’ passing prodigy showed why he could be the Big Ten’s most exciting player over the next few years. While still very raw, he has a cannon for an arm, great feet outside the pocket and nine valuable games of experience that’ll speed up his maturation process in 2007.         

Best Defensive Player: Senior LB J Leman.  An All-Big Ten standout who seemed to never miss a tackle, Leman is the physical and emotional soul of the Illini defense.  Showing the ferocity and natural instincts inherent in great middle linebackers, he flourished a year ago, piling up a league-best 152 tackles and 19 tackles for loss and setting the stage for a senior year that’ll be chock-full of individual honors.     

Key player to a successful season: Junior RB Rashard Mendenhall. While the offense will be about Juice, Juice and more Juice, there needs to be a little bit more help from the backfield. With Pierre Thomas and E.B. Halsey gone, it’ll be up to Mendenhall, the speedy top recruit of a few years ago, to live up to his promise. He ran for 161 yards against Penn State and 94 against Ohio in back-to-back games, and now he has to be consistent coming off a good spring.

The season will be a success if ... Illinois wins six games. The team is still young and will lose a few games it shouldn’t, but it should be talented enough to pull off an upset or two, and it can’t afford to blow games against Indiana, Syracuse or Northwestern. Six wins this year would set the tone for a potentially huge 2008.

Key game: Sept. 1 vs. Missouri. Illinois has to show right from the start that it’s a better program and a better team with the speed, athleticism and talent to stay with a team as good as Missouri. The Tigers will be one of the favorites to win the Big 12 North, so if Illinois can pull off the win, it might be the type of confidence boost to carry the team to a huge start.

2006 Fun Stats: 
- Third quarter scoring: Illinois 31; Opponents 85
- Fumbles: Illinois 34 (lost 21); Opponents 20 (lost 10)
- Average yards per carry: Illinois 5.7; Opponents 3.3


Related Stories
2007 Illinois Preview - Offense
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  May 23, 2007
2007 Illinois Preview - Defense
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  May 23, 2007
2007 Illinois Preview - Depth Chart
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  May 23, 2007

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