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2008 CFN Illinois Preview
Illinois QB Juice Williams
Illinois QB Juice Williams
Posted Apr 28, 2008

2007 was the breakout year for Juice Williams and Illinois in the Ron Zook era, but it was only supposed to be a stepping-stone to this year and beyond. Now the fantastic 2006 recruiting class is supposed to kick in big-time, but can the program handle the expectations? Check out the CFN Illinois Preview.

Illinois Fighting Illini

Preview 2008

By Pete Fiutak

- 2008 CFN Illinois Preview | 2008 Illinois Offense
- 2008 Illinois Defense | 2008 Illinois Depth Chart
- 2007 CFN Illinois Preview | 2006 CFN Illinois Preview

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Ron Zook and Illinois proved one thing; with the right recruiting, you can turn a program around in a huge hurry.

Yeah, there are still the naysayers out there who believe the major improvement under Zook came because of, uh, wink, wink, um, shall we say, curious recruiting practices when it came to getting guys who normally would've starred for some of the top teams, but no matter what the jealous rumors and unsubstantiated innuendos that might be coming, and no matter how the talent got to Champaign, Zook and his staff did a great job of putting together the season long-suffering Illini fans have been waiting for.

Head coach: Ron Zook 
4th year: 13-23
7th year overall: 36-37
Returning Lettermen:
Off. 21, Def. 21, ST 2
Lettermen Lost: 24
Ten Best Illinois Players
1. CB Vontae Davis, Jr.
2. QB Juice Williams, Jr.
3. WR Arrelious Benn, Soph.
4. LB Brit Miller, Sr.
5. LB Martez Wilson, Soph.
6. DE Derek Walker, Sr.
7. OT Xavier Fulton, Sr.
8. C Ryan McDonald, Sr.
9. WR Jeff Cumberland, Jr.
10. TE M. Hoomanawanui, Jr.

2008 Schedule
CFN Prediction:
2008 Record: 0-0

Aug. 30 Missouri (St. Louis)
Sept. 6 Eastern Illinois
Sept. 13 UL Lafayette
Sept. 20 OPEN DATE
Sept. 27 at Penn State
Oct. 4 at Michigan
Oct. 11 Minnesota
Oct. 18 Indiana
Oct. 25 at Wisconsin
Nov. 1 Iowa
Nov. 8 Western Michigan (Detroit)
Nov. 15 Ohio State
Nov. 22 at Northwestern

2007 Schedule
CFN Prediction:
2007 Record: 9-4

Sept. 1 Missouri (St.L) L 40-34
Sept. 8 Western Illinois W 21-0
Sept. 15 at Syracuse W 41-20
Sept. 22
at Indiana W 27-14
Sept. 29 Penn State W 27-20
Oct. 6 Wisconsin W 31-26
Oct. 13 at Iowa L 10-6
Oct. 20 Michigan L 27-17
Oct. 27
Ball State W 28-17
Nov. 3 at Minnesota W 44-17
Nov. 10 at Ohio State W 29-21
Nov. 17
Northwestern W 41-22
Rose Bowl
Jan. 1 USC L 49-14

Forgetting the beatdown applied by USC, 2007 was special, but can Zook maintain the success? That's going to be the real test: consistency.

What got lost in all the glory was how last season was supposed to be a stepping stone for the future. The 2007 recruiting class was a monster with several excellent young prospects, and while everyone will be expecting another good year, the scary part is that Illinois still might be a year away from where it’s supposed to be.

There are some big personnel losses to deal with. You don't get better by losing RB Rashard Mendenhall out of the backfield, tackling-machine LB J Leman, all-star OG Martin O'Donnell, and unsung DT rock Chris Norwell, and the schedule is nasty. On the plus side, there's a boatload of young talent waiting in the wings from Zook's first two recruiting classes, and while this might be a bit of a transition year, the overall skill level is there to prevent a big dip, and in fact, there might be an upgrade.

Leman was a special tackler, but the linebacking corps will be more athletic with Brit Miller moving to the middle and Martez Williams stepping into a starting role on the outside. Norwell might be gone from the line, and one-time star recruit D'Angelo McCray transferred, but the line should still be solid. Mendenhall left early for the NFL, but, well, Illinois is in trouble at running back, but overall, Zook has assembled one of the most athletic teams the program has ever had.

The bar has been set higher now and the expectations are there. As tough as it might be, patience, for one more season, might be the key. No, Illinois isn't going to be Florida when it comes to pressure to produce, but after last year, anything less than another step forward would once again call into question Zook's coaching talents, and that's unfair.

It's all about results. Zook didn't have any early in his Illinois reign, and now everything is on the right track. Expect an even better team this year, even if the results don't show it.

What to watch for on offense: More Juice. The running backs haven't exactly lit it up this off-season in their attempt to replace Mendenhall, and that puts even more pressure than ever on Juice Williams to be a more consistent passer and will likely rely on him to add even more to the running game. Williams was abysmal throwing the ball two years ago, struggling to complete 40% of his passes, but improved last year. This spring he was even more accurate, more confident a passer, and more of a leader.

What to watch for on defense: Time for the 2006 haul to really kick in. WR Arrelious Benn was one of the jaw-dropping talented Illinois never used to get, but was a big part of the 2006 recruiting class. Depending on what recruiting guru you like to pay attention to, he might have been the third best player in the haul. Martez Wilson is an NFL outside linebacker waiting to happen, and after a good first season, the one-time superstar recruit is about to take the next step and is expected to blossom into a star on the outside. The other next-level talent brought in two years ago was D'Angelo McCray, a prototype defensive tackle who missed last year with a knee injury. He was supposed to be an anchor, but he chose to transfer this off-season leaving a big hole up front, even though he never came through as expected.

The team will be far better if … the special teams aren't horrendous. Jason Reda was a fabulous kicker over the last few years, but he's gone and now there's nothing positive the Illini special teams can rely on. The punting game needs more of a boost, the kickoff return game was abysmal, and the punt returns weren't anything special. On the plus side, Benn is a great return man and should be more involved, and there are big-legged options ready to step in for Reda.

The Schedule: The tone should be set for the season in the St. Louis showdown against Missouri. If the Illini can pull that off, it would prove right away that 2007 wasn't a fluke and will pave the way for a 3-0 start before an off week. Starting the Big Ten season on the road against Penn State and Michigan isn't a plus, but these might not be the same Penn State and Michigan teams of the past. While the schedule is hardly a breeze, the locations certainly work out well with four of the final seven games at home, including a showdown with Ohio State, while one of the away dates is in Detroit against Western Michigan and one is in Evanston to close out against Northwestern. The problem? The other away game is at Wisconsin. The Illini misses Purdue and Michigan State from the Big Ten schedule.

Best Offensive Player: Junior QB Juice Williams. Last year was about getting the ground game moving, and Williams made it happen as he led the Big Ten's best rushing attack. Now in his third year at the helm, and with a great receiving corps to work with, it's time the passing game kicked in. Williams might not throw the ball for 300 yards a shot, but he should be more efficient and he should hit on more deep passes.

Best Defensive Player: Junior CB Vontae Davis. He should be a starting defensive back for some NFL team right now. The brother of former Maryland star and current San Francisco 49er tight end, Vernon Davis, Vontae is a gifted cover-corner who packs a wallop when he gets his chance. One of the nation's most physical corners, he'll be the tone-setter for a good defensive back seven.

Key player to a successful season: Junior RB Daniel Dufrene. Mendenhall didn't come out of nowhere to become the Big Ten Player of the Year, but he had yet to show he could be a superstar. Then he came up with 1,681 yards and 17 touchdowns. Dufrene and Troy Pollard, the two main running back options going into the fall, can each fly, but can they run between the tackles like Mendenhall did? They're good, but they're not good enough to carry the ground game like Mendenhall could.

The season will be a success if ... Illinois wins the Big Ten title. The combination of the lines are the best in the Big Ten, Juice is a crusty veteran, the receiving corps might be the most talented in the conference, and that includes Ohio State, and there's enough talent and athleticism across the board to build on last year and win a championship. There's no reason to shoot for anything lower.

Key game: Sept. 27 at Penn State. The Illini first showed it was for real with a fantastic 27-20 win over the Nittany Lions in the second game of the Big Ten season. Now the tables have turned as Penn State wants to prove it's the real deal by returning the favor in the conference opener. It's uh-oh time for Illinois if it doesn't come out of Happy Valley with a win with the next two road games at Michigan and Wisconsin, and with Ohio State still looming down the road.

2007 Fun Stats: 
- Sacks: Illinois 40 for 277 yards – Opponents 16 for 106 yards
- Yards per carry: Illinois 5.6 – Opponents 3.7
- Fourth down conversions: Illinois 6 of 8 (75%) – Opponents 10 of 23 (43%)