2009 CFN Illinois Preview
Illinois WR Arrelious Benn
Illinois WR Arrelious Benn
Posted Jun 25, 2009

CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - Illinois Fighting Illini

Illinois Fighting Illini

Preview 2009

By Pete Fiutak

- 2009 CFN Illinois Preview | 2009 Illinois Offense
- 2009 Illinois Defense | 2009 Illinois Depth Chart
- 2008 Illinois Preview | 2007 Illinois Preview | 2006 Illinois Preview

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Head coach: Ron Zook 
5th year: 18-30
8th year overall: 41-44
Returning Lettermen:
Off. 22, Def. 20 ST 4
Lettermen Lost: 17
Ten Best Illinois Players
1. WR Arrelious Benn, Jr.
2. QB Juice Williams, Sr.
3. LB Martez Wilson, Jr.
4. TE M. Hoomanawanui, Sr.
5. FS Donsay Hardeman, Sr.
6. CB Dere Hicks, Sr.
7. FS Travon Bellamy, Jr.
8. OG Jon Asamoah, Sr.
9. DT Corey Liuget, Soph.
10. WR Jared Fayson, Jr.

2009 Schedule
CFN Prediction: 10-2
2009 Record: 0-0

9/5 Missouri (St. Louis)
9/12 Illinois State
9/26 at Ohio State
10/3 Penn State
10/10 Michigan State
10/17 at Indiana
10/24 at Purdue
10/31 Michigan
11/7 at Minnesota
11/14 Northwestern
11/27 at Cincinnati
12/5 Fresno State

2008 Schedule
CFN Prediction: 6-6
2008 Record: 5-7

Aug. 30 Missouri (St. L.) L 52-42
Sept. 6 Eastern Illinois W 47-21
Sept. 13 UL Lafayette W 20-17
Sept. 20 OPEN DATE
Sept. 27 at Penn State L 38-24
Oct. 4 at Michigan W 45-20
Oct. 11 Minnesota L 27-20
Oct. 18 Indiana W 55-13
Oct. 25 at Wisconsin L 27-17
Nov. 1 Iowa W 27-24
Nov. 8 WMU (Detroit) L 23-17
Nov. 15 Ohio State L 30-20
Nov. 22 at Northwestern L 27-10

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

That was the key part of the 2008 Illinois Preview and the most important question. It's the same concern going into this year, only magnified.

Ron Zook is a peerless recruiter, no matter how many innuendos and rumors might be slung by rival coaches and recruiting coordinators, but he has never been able to prove that he can win on a regular basis with all the talent he amasses.

He put together the Florida team, save for a big, bruising, left-handed, Heisman-winning quarterback, that ended up winning the 2007 national title under Urban Meyer, and he quickly turned around Illinois and got to the Rose Bowl by upgrading the talent and athleticism. Thanks to all the skill his was able to amass, Zook's Illini team shocked the Big Ten two years ago by getting to the Rose Bowl, highlighted by a win over an Ohio State team that plated for the national title with an epic fourth quarter drive, but that team also lost to a mediocre Iowa squad. Last year, Illinois was able to beat a very, very good Iowa team, but it followed it up with a loss at Western Michigan.

This year's Illinois team is loaded with experience, talent, and enough ability to get back to the Rose Bowl in a year when the best teams, Ohio State and Penn State, are in a rebuilding mode. If 2008 was about seeing if Zook's team could be consistent, 2009 needs to be about being dominant.

The receiving corps is the best in the Big Ten, and it's not even close. QB Juice Williams led the Big Ten in total offense, and after three years under center, and with a loaded group of skill players around him, he has Big Ten Player of the Year potential. There are several question marks on defense, but there's enough depth, speed, and skill to make up for most of the problems. Even in a worst case scenario for the defense, it can probably give up 35 points to most teams and the offense will take care of the rest.

But it all comes down to the question everyone had in Gainesville and everyone is still trying to figure out in Champaign. Can the guy actually coach?

Illinois might have been a disappointment last year, but the 5-7 season could have easily been the 9-4 of the year before, and vice versa. The 2007 team won close battles over good teams like Penn State, Wisconsin, and for that year, Indiana, while last year's team lost winnable games against Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Western Michigan when things didn't go quite the right way. Call that bad luck, or call that coaching that led to the inconsistency, but this year, this team is too good to do anything but succeed. If it doesn't, then the pressure, right or wrong, is all on Zook.

Eternally upbeat and with a non-stop motor, no one is going to outwork Zook. While 2007 might have been an upstart season, and 2008 might have been a disappointment, 2009 might be when it all pays off. If it does, then Zook finally might get credit for being more than just a great salesman.

What to watch for on offense: Explosion. Arrelious Benn, Florida transfer Jarred Fason, Jeff Cumberland, and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui form the Big Ten's best group of pass catchers. Every rushing yard gained last season is back, with four very good running backs to go along with the running ability of Williams. Jason Ford appears to be ready to do more for the ground game, the line has three good starters returning and some big-time sophomores ready to play bigger roles, and then there's Juice, who has shown he can move the ball through the air as well as with his legs. The offense played up to, and down to, its competition last season, but this year it should hit more home runs and blow through the mediocre defenses rather than struggle to get up for them.

What to watch for on defense: The defensive line question marks. Jerry Brown is expected to eventually grow into the team's best pass rusher, with the best raw pass rushing tools on the team, is trying to get his academics in order. One of the team's top tackles, Sirod Williams, is coming off a torn ACL, and one of the other top tackle prospects, Josh Brent, was suspended indefinitely, and missed all of spring ball after a DUI incident. The defense could be fine if any or all of them are out, but the defense could be fantastic if they're in the mix.

The team will be far better if … the special teams aren't horrendous ... again. The special teams have been awful over the last few years, and while there's hope for the return game with Jarred Fayson ready to go, and with the kicking game promising thanks to Matt Eller, who had a great second half of last year, the Illini need to be a lot better when it comes to the third phase. The coverage teams have to be far, far better, while there's too much speed and too many options, with Arrelious Benn part of the equation, to do more with the return game. And then there's the punting, which was a disaster last season and has nowhere to go but up. An improvement here could be the difference between a good year and a run for the roses.

The Schedule: It's not all that bad even with some tough non-conference games. If the Illini can't beat Missouri this year, it's never going to happen, while there are two tough battles late going to Cincinnati after the Big Ten season is over and a home game against Fresno State. The battle with the Bulldogs was moved to December 5th; bust out the long johns. The Big Ten season starts out nasty with at Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State, but things ease up quickly. There's a tough mid-season stretch of three road games in four weeks, but they're against Indiana, Purdue, and Minnesota. Missing Iowa and Wisconsin is a major plus.

Best Offensive Player: Junior WR Arrelious Benn. He hasn't put up big-time scoring numbers, but he has been a star from day one after coming in as a superstar, eye-opening recruit who made national headlines. He has caught 121 passes for 1,731 yards and five scores, and has rushed for 259 yards and two touchdowns, in his first two seasons, and now it's salary drive time. Considered a near-certain first round draft pick whenever he leaves, he could up his already sky-high stock with a monster junior season. While Benn is the most talented player, Williams could receive more in the way of accolades. Juice might be the Big Ten's best player this season, but Benn will have the millions in his bank account next year at this time.

Best Defensive Player: Junior LB Martez Wilson. This should be interesting. Mediocre talents J Leman and Brit Miller put up mega-numbers as the middle man of the Illini defense. Wilson is an NFL talent with as much raw skill and the next-level tools to be phenomenal now that he's being moved from the outside in. If it all comes together, Wilson, a superstar recruit in the 2006 class, could be an All-American and a national breakthrough playmaker.

Key player to a successful season: Sophomore DT Corey Liuget. With all the uncertainty on the defensive line, the Illini needs one player to become a steady rock to work around. Liuget, a big, talented young prospect, has the potential to be the star of the front, and even if Brent and Williams are back, he should be a run stuffing anchor. If Brent and Williams are out, Liuget will be the make-or-break difference maker to keep the Illinois high hopes for a big year alive.

The season will be a success if ... Illinois wins the Big Ten title. The team is more than good enough to split with Ohio State and Penn State in the first two games of the Big Ten season, and after going to Columbus, the toughest remaining conference road game is at Minnesota. That's not bad. While it might be asking a bit too much for the Illini to get to Pasadena, it'll likely be an underdog only against the Buckeyes and the Nittany Lions. If Illinois plays up to its talent level week in and week out, anything less than 9-3 would be a major disappointment.

Key game: Oct. 3 vs. Penn State. If Illinois loses to Ohio State, it'll need to beat Penn State in the Big Ten home opener to stay alive in the Big Ten race. If the Illini comes out of Columbus with a win, and if they can beat Missouri in the opener, then a win over the Nittany Lions would start up talk about going to Pasadena for a bowl game, but not just for the Rose Bowl. Yes, there could be real, live national title banter if Illinois started out 4-0, and it would be deserved

2008 Fun Stats: 
- Illinois opponent scoring in the 3rd: 40 - Illinois opponent scoring in the 4th: 117
- Penalties: Illinois 66 for 612 yards - Opponents 45 for 396 yards
- Interceptions: Opponents 16 for 274 yards - Illinois 6 for 73 yards

- 2009 CFN Illinois Preview | 2009 Illinois Offense
- 2009 Illinois Defense | 2009 Illinois Depth Chart
- 2008 Illinois Preview | 2007 Illinois Preview | 2006 Illinois Preview