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2008 Illinois Preview - Offense
Illinois WR Arrelious Benn
Illinois WR Arrelious Benn
CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Apr 28, 2008


CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - Illinois Fighting Illini Offense

Illinois Fighting Illini

Preview 2008 - Offense


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

What you need to know: The offense came through like it was supposed to last season as it led the Big Ten, and finished fifth in the nation, in rushing averaging 257 yards per game. The scoring was sporadic and the passing game inefficient, but there's little arguing with a Rose Bowl berth. The line, one of the most productive in the nation last year, gets three starters back and won't have a problem filling the other two holes. The receiving corps, led by Arrelious Benn, is big, fast, and talented, and now it'll get used more as Juice Williams, one of the nation's most dynamic running quarterbacks, appears ready to be a more efficient passer after a strong spring. The big concern is at running back where it'll take a committee of average backs to try to replace Rashard Mendenhall and his 1,681 yards and 17 touchdowns.

Returning Leaders
Passing: Juice Williams
153-267, 1,743 yds, 13 TD, 12 INT
Rushing: Juice Williams
165 carries, 755 yds, 7 TD
Receiving: Arrelious Benn
54 catches, 676 yds, 2 TD

Star of the offense: Junior QB Juice Williams
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior RB Daniel Dufrene
Unsung star on the rise: Junior TE Michael Hoomanawanui
Best pro prospect: Sophomore WR Arrelious Benn
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Williams, 2) Benn, 3) OT Xavier Fulton
Strength of the offense: Receiver speed, line, mobile quarterbacks
Weakness of the offense:
Running back, efficient passing game

Quarterbacks

Projected Starter: Junior Isiah "Juice" Williams will never be Tom Brady throwing the ball, but Tom Brady will never be Juice Williams running it. Williams went from completing 39.5% of his passes as a freshman to hitting 57% of his throws for 1,743 yards and 13 touchdowns, but he tossed 12 picks. Of course, his game isn't about bombing away, it's about coming up with the big play when the opportunity presents itself, like it did when Ohio State dared the Illinois passing game to produce and Williams completing 12 of 22 passes for 140 yards and four touchdowns, and it's about running the ball. As a freshman, he ran mainly because he didn't know what he was doing, and last year he was second on the team with 755 yards and seven touchdowns, highlighted by a 133-yard day against Minnesota and  136-yard outing against Northwestern, by design. The 6-2, 233-pounder has great size and is tough to bring down, and he can cut on a dime. This year, he's expected to be even more efficient passer after improving this spring.

Projected Top Reserves: 6-4, 200-pound sophomore Eddie McGee was brought in from time to time when a better passer was needed, but he didn't throw the ball as well as Williams completing 53% of his passes for 444 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions. While he's not Williams running the ball, he's not far off with 153 yards and two touchdowns. He led the comeback that fell just short in the opening day loss to Missouri, throwing for 257 yards, but Williams was good enough to see most of the action the rest of the way.

Jacob Charest is a nice pickup who was considered among the top 25 quarterback recruits in the country. An accurate passer, the 6-3, 190-pounder isn't exactly the right fir for what the Illini does; he's not a great runner. Even so, he'll give the team a pro-style passing option.

Watch Out For ... Williams as more of a leader. It's not really Juice's style to get in everyone's face and be a rah-rah sort of guy, but that's his job now that he's going into his third year as the starter. He's the man and this is his offense. Now he'll have to speak up more.
Strength: Running. The Illini has two quarterback options who combined for over 900 yards with nine touchdowns last season. Williams and McGee should do even more now that the running back situation isn't as strong.
Weakness
:
Passing. Things improved by leaps and bounds last year, and they should be even better as Williams appears to be even stronger this season, but few defenses will be scared off by the Illini passing game.
Outlook: After two years of Juice running the show, the offense will rely on him more than ever to carry the attack. McGee is more than good enough to start, and even be put in from time to time to give Williams more of a breather. This is a strong situation that'll only get better as the year goes on.
Rating: 8

Running Backs

Projected Starter: It's going to take several players to replace Rashard Mendenhall, and getting the first crack will Daniel Dufrene, a 5-11, 201-pound junior who finished third on the team with 294 yards and two touchdowns highlighted by a 106-yard day against Ohio State. While he's not a pounder and he isn't going to bang the ball between the tackles, the former Vanderbilt Commodore has good speed when he gets to the outside. 

Projected Top Reserves: Troy Pollard saw a little bit of time in three games running for 148 yards averaging 6.4 yards per carry before suffering a knee injury against Indiana. A good all-around back with excellent upside, he'll get his change to make a big impact in the rotation from the start.

6-0, 240-pound freshman Mikel LeShoure has the size to bring the power, but he hasn't showed it off in practices yet. Along with being a strong runner, he has good hands and can be used as a receiver if the coaching staff wants to carve out a role for him early on. The Champaign native was banged up in his senior year of high school, but he's ready to go.

When the Illini uses a fullback, it'll be 6-1, 255-pound junior Rahkeem Smith who'll fill in once he gets over a foot injury. He saw time in every game last season and didn't get a carry and caught one pass for eight yards. He was a star recruit as a possible linebacker, but he quickly moved over to the offense and has spend most of his time on special teams.

Watch Out For ... the true freshmen. No one did anything to move the needle this spring, including LeShoure, so look out for 6-0, 209-pound Jason Ford, arguably the best of the running back recruits, to see time sooner than later if Dufrene and Pollard can't get the job done.
Strength: Speed and quickness. That's what the offense needs. Mendenhall was a luxury with the ability to bang the ball as well as take it the distance, which is why he was a first round draft pick. Dufrene and Pollard can move and will be able to bust out big runs any time they get into the clear.
Weakness
:
Power. The coaching staff openly groused about not having a power back who could crank it out between the tackles. That's not Dufrene and Pollard's game. While their toughness hasn't come into question, without it being explicitly stated, their toughness has come into question.
Outlook: It's not a stretch to say the Illini would be considered a possible national title favorite had Mendenhall returned for his senior season, he was that good, but he and Ron Zook didn't exactly have a lovey-dovey relationship. There's no one in the backfield with that kind of talent this year, and it's going to take a committee to come close to replacing Mendenhall's 1,681 yards and 17 touchdowns. Dufrene and Pollard will be fine, but they're not going to be special.
Rating: 6


Receivers

Projected Starters: In the middle of one of the nation's hottest recruiting battles a few years ago, with Notre Dame and Florida State pulling out all the stops, sophomore Arrelious Benn showed why as he led the Illini with 54 catches fro 676 yards and two touchdowns averaging 12.5 yards per catch. At 6-2 and 214 pounds with tremendous speed, he has the type of NFL talent to make the passing game go. A pure game-breaker who's also an elite return man, averaging 28 yards per kickoff return, he's one of the Big Ten's best offensive weapons. The key is getting healthy after suffering a shoulder injury.

5-11, 167-pound senior Kyle Hudson was the team's leading receiver in 2006 with 30 catches, but he was an afterthought in the offense last year catching just 12 passes for 127 yards with a touchdown. A serviceable veteran with phenomenal athleticism, he has to be used more as a deep threat. Along with being a good receiver, he's on the Illini baseball team.

About to blossom into an all-star, NFL-caliber producer is 6-5, 265-pound junior tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. More than just a beefed up wide receiver, he's a great blocker to go along with his excellent hands and route running ability. He only caught five passes for 64 yards and two touchdowns, but he's about to be used a lot more once he gets over a hamstring injury.

Sort of a second tight end and sort of a big wide receiver, 6-5, 247-pound junior Jeff Cumberland is a big target who can be used in a variety of ways. A strong safety valve who finished third on the team in receiving two years ago and caught 12 passes for 243 yards and three touchdowns last year, he averaged 20.2 yards per catch and he has the next-level speed to go along with the size to be used far more.

Adding more size to the mix is 6-2, 210-pound junior DaJuan Warren, who caught 15 passes for 186 yards as a spot starter. He has the size and the speed to be a dangerous all-around playmaker, but it hasn't happened over the last two years. He has to take advantage of all the single coverage.

Projected Top Reserves: Trying to work his way into the mix is sophomore Chris James, who was the starter coming out of spring ball last year before tearing his ACL. A lightning quick target who can play inside and out, he'll work behind Hudson.

Moving over from the secondary to add even more speed behind Cumberland is 5-11, 175-pound junior Chris Duvalt, a former cornerback with 4.4 speed. With his speed, he has the potential to be a decent kick returners as well as a deep threat.

6-0, 188-pound sophomore Brian Gamble turned into the team's fourth leading receiver last season and got the start in two games finishing with 16 catches  for 170 yards and a touchdown. Originally considered a safety when he came to Illinois, he quickly made the switch over to the offensive side and will play behind Benn.

Watch Out For ... the tight ends. Actually, Cumberland doesn't count as a tight end anymore, but he might as well be one with his size. Hoomanawanui has way too much talent and upside not to be special.
Strength: Speed. Everyone can fly from Benn to Hudson to Cumberland to Hoomanawanui to Duvalt. There's no shortage of speed and there will be no shortage of deep balls.
Weakness
:
A scary second receiver. There might be plenty of targets who look great on paper and have all the measurables, but there's no one outside of Benn who will need to be game-planned for ... yet. That could quickly change.
Outlook: No offense to Juice Williams, but put this receiving corps in the hands of a great passer and the results would be jaw-dropping. It's not a stretch to call Benn the most talented wide receiver in America, or at least one of them, while there's speed to burn at all the spots and among the backups. Benn along makes this corps good, and if Cumberland and Hoomanawanui play up to their talent, this could be a major strength. If there wasn't enough speed and upside, one the way is Cordale Scott, Hubie Graham and A.J. Jenkins and Russell Ellington, four elite receiver prospects.
Rating: 7.5

Offensive Linemen

Projected Starters: The line that was so good last year welcomes back to starters who'll be getting paid a whole bunch of money in the near future, senior OT Xavier Fulton and senior center Ryan McDonald.

The 6-5, 295-pound Fulton earned second team All-Big Ten honors as the starter on the left side for every game. Considering he missed all of 2006 with a knee injury suffered halfway through 2005, his production was remarkable as he became the team's most dominant run blocker along with a rock-solid pass protector.

The 6-5, 296-pound McDonald can play guard or center, but he's entrenched in the middle after earning second-team All-Big Ten recognition. He's been part of the mix for the last three seasons with good quickness and excellent smarts to make all the right line calls. He's consistent and doesn't make mistakes. While he's a good run blocker, he excels in pass protection.

One of the biggest losses in at right tackle where Akin Millington is gone after starting every game. In steps 6-7, 300-pound sophomore Ryan Palmer, a talented backup last year at both tackle spots with the upside to be a regular on the line for the next three years. He'll likely move over to the left side next year when Fulton is gone.

The other big loss is at left guard where longtime starter Martin O'Donnell is gone. While O'Donnell was excellent last year, there might be an upgrade at the spot with 6-6, 303-pound sophomore Randall Hunt ready to step in and shine. He didn't see much action last year, but he's a big-time talent who should ease his way into the job playing next to Fulton.

Returning to his starting spot at right guard is 6-5, 309-pound junior Jon Asamoah, who started every game last year. He bulked up big-time over the last year going from an athletic 265-pounder to a strong interior presence. He basically grew into his frame, and while he's not an elite player, he's rock-solid.

Projected Top Reserves: The team's most versatile backup is 6-3, 292-pound senior Eric Block, who can play either center or guard. While he's better suited for the middle, where he'll start out behind McDonald, he'll move around where needed. 

hile he only saw a little bit of action last year, it's just a question of time before sophomore Brandon Jordan to be a major factor. He'll work behind Asamoah at right guard, but he'll move around where needed. At 6-5 and 318 pounds, he has excellent size and has the talent to become a steady starter very soon.

Already in school is one of the team's top recruits, Graham Pocic, a 6-7, 316-pound right tackle who was considered among the best prospects in the country. He could've gone anywhere, with placed like Florida, Tennessee, Michigan and Wisconsin pushing for his services, but he'll bring his tremendous combination of size and athleticism to the Illini line for the next four years.

Watch Out For ... Palmer. The big, talented sophomore might not be Millington right away, but he has the skills to become an all-star and a rock at either tackle spot. He'll likely take over the on the left side next year.
Strength: Production. The line did everything well last season as it paved the way for the Big Ten's best, and the nation's fifth leading running game, and it only allowed 16 sacks. Yes, the scheme had a lot to do with the running numbers and having mobile quarterbacks to block for certainly helped the sack total, but this really was a good line that gets three top starters back.
Weakness
:
Luck. No way, no how does a team get the same injury luck two years in a row. Last year Illinois enjoyed the luxury of having all five starters play every game. The continuity was there, and unless Ron Zook has several hundred lucky rabbit's feet in his desk, it's not going to happen again.
Outlook: Everything came together last year as the line had one of the most productive seasons of any in the nation, and even with the loss of two starters, there's no reason this can't be a dominant front five again. Fulton and McDonald are terrific, while the new starters will be more than good enough to keep the offense rolling.
Rating: 9