2008 CFN Illinois Preview
Illinois QB Juice Williams
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
2008 CFN Illinois Preview
2008 Illinois Offense
2008 Illinois Depth
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
Off. 21, Def. 21, ST 2
Lettermen Lost: 24
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 Record: 0-0
Aug. 30 Missouri (St.
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 Record: 9-4
Missouri (St.L) L 40-34
Sept. 15 at
Syracuse W 41-20
Sept. 29 Penn
State W 27-20
Wisconsin W 31-26
Iowa L 10-6
Michigan L 27-17
Ohio State W 29-21
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 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
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
... 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.
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