Preview 2008 - Offense
2008 CFN Illinois Preview
2008 Illinois Offense
2008 Illinois Depth
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.
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
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
Weakness of the offense:
Running back, efficient
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.