2010 Illinois Preview
Illinois LB Martez Wilson
After being one of the nation's biggest disappointments, Illinois has just enough experience and more than enough talent and athleticism to bounce back and be one of the Big Ten's surprises if star LB Martez Wilson is back and healthy. Check out the CFN Illinois Preview.
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Ron Zook is a lot of things, but his talents don't necessarily translate into being a top head coach.
Head coach: Ron Zook
6th year: 21-39
9th year: 44-53
Off. 20, Def. 25, ST 3
Lettermen Lost: 16
Ten Best Illinois Players
1. LB Martez Wilson, Jr.
2. DE Clay Nurse, Sr.
3. RB Mikel Leshoure, Jr.
4. LB Ian Thomas, Jr.
5. CB Tavon Wilson, Jr.
6. NT Corey Liuget, Jr.
7. OT Jeff Allen, Jr.
8. OG Hugh Thornton, Soph.
9. RB Jason Ford, Jr.
10. WR A.J. Jenkins, Jr.
Sept. 4 Missouri (in St. Louis)
Sept. 11 So Illinois
Sept. 18 No Illinois
Sept. 25 OPEN DATE
Oct. 2 Ohio State
Oct. 9 at Penn State
Oct. 16 at Michigan St
Oct. 23 Indiana
Oct. 30 Purdue
Nov. 6 at Michigan
Nov. 13 Minnesota
Nov. 20 at Northwestern
Nov. 27 OPEN DATE
Dec. 3 at Fresno State
That's not the slam it might appear to be. Zook is an elite recruiter, has peerless energy, and has the type of upbeat, attaboy personality that's perfect for the college game … as a defensive coordinator. But, of course, he's the head man for Illinois and he'd like to keep his gig by shocking the world with a 2007-like campaign. To do that, he needed to make some major changes, and he brought aboard offensive coordinator Paul Petrino and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning to help the cause.
With the two strong coordinators, Zook is hoping for a quick turnaround after his Illini were one of the nation's biggest duds. Zook pulled a Bucky Dent, coming up with one run to the Rose Bowl a few years ago but failing to come up with a winning season in his other four years with just 12 wins outside of the miraculous 2007 campaign. The talent has been there, the athleticism is in place, and there was no excuse last year to be so miserable with the first win over an FBS team coming on Halloween. Zook has to hope Petrino and Koenning can pick up the slack.
At Florida and Illinois, Zook has been able to load up with tremendous talents, as evidenced by the Gators winning the 2006 national title, and some coach out there has to be licking his chops at the possibility of taking over a program with so much potential and so many good pieces in place. Petrino and Koenning might be those coaches.
The offensive line loses some key players, but it's big, athletic, and full of potential, especially for the ground game. Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford form a big, home run hitting duo for the ground game, and the receiving corps has plenty of speed and upside. Petrino might not have any experience to work with at quarterback, but Nathan Scheelhaase is the type of prospect to build around for the next few years. Zook might not have that type of time, though.
Koenning and his aggressive style should work well for a fast, athletic defense that could be night-and-day better if Martez Wilson is back to form to be as the rising star middle linebacker that everyone has been waiting for. The secondary might not be a rock, but the experience is there while the speed is in place on the defensive front to generate more of a pass rush.
Can all the pieces fit? Can Zook be the ringmaster with the fire and motivational ability to put it all together? Unlike last year, the expectations are set low, and Illinois could be the surprise team in the Big Ten chase with enough talent to hang around with anyone. Now it's up to Zook, and his assistants, to do something with it.
What to watch for on offense: Nathan Scheelhaase. Going into last year, Illinois had a four-year starter in Juice Williams, who appeared to be ready to come up with a monster senior season with a loaded receiving corps to work with, and a promising star-in-waiting in Jacob Charest, a top recruit with next-level passing skills. Williams stunk, Charest transferred, and longtime backup Eddie McGee moved to wide receiver permanently. Part of the reason for Charest bolting and McGee's full-time switch was the emergence of Scheelhaase, an extremely promising redshirt freshman with 6-3, 195-pound size, Juice-like running ability, and an accurate arm. The rest of the offense should be just good enough to shine if Scheelhaase turns out to be more than just average.
What to watch for on defense: The Bandit. Vic Koenning likes to employ a hybrid in the front seven that combines the pass rushing ability of an end and the range of an outside linebacker so his defense can flex in between a modified 3-4 and 4-3. It's the glamour position in the defense with the potential to create big play after big play and pile up tons of stats. 6-6, 225-pound Michael Buchanan will get the first crack at the job and the pressure will be on to be a disruptive force because …
The team will be far better if … it forces more turnovers. Illinois tied Florida Atlantic, Tulane, and UNLV for the honor of picking off the fewest passes in America. The Illini came up with five interceptions a year after taking away just six. The D forced 11 fumbles, which was fine, but that didn't make up for the other problems. With little pass rush and few tackles for loss (the Illini finished last in the Big Ten in both categories), the hope has to be for the Bandit to be the difference.
The schedule: Zook's program isn't expected to make a huge comeback a year after supposedly being loaded with veteran talent, at least on offense, but the schedule works out well enough to demand a winning season with no excuses. Missing Iowa and Wisconsin from Big Ten play is enough of a break, and there's no reason to not be 3-1 in non-conference play against Missouri, Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois, and Fresno State. Playing Ohio State and at Penn State to start off the Big Ten season isn't fair, but at least the Illini get them both out of the way immediately.
Best offensive player: Junior RB Mikel Leshoure. Little used in his first season, Leshoure broke out over the second half of last year with three 100-yard games in the final six highlighted by a 184-yard, two touchdown day against Fresno State and 150 yards against Michigan. At 6-0 and 230 pounds, he's a thick, powerful back with the great speed to score from anywhere on the field. He tore off three 60+ yard runs.
Best defensive player: Junior LB Martez Wilson … hopefully. On upside and potential, Wilson is one of the best players in the Big Ten. The 6-4, 250-pounder was considered a sure-thing NFL prospect when he first signed on, and while he was decent early on, he didn't play up to the hype. Expected to blow up last year, he started off well before suffering a season-ending neck injury. If everything is right, and if there aren't any concerns about his neck, he could be a 100-tackle major leaguer who makes the defense night-and-day better.
Key player to a successful season: Senior OT Ryan Palmer. Scheelhaase will have his rocky moments, but if he's given time he'll be fantastic here and there. However, he needs time to operate. The line was great for the ground game but was a disaster in pass protection, and now it'll be up to the veteran, Palmer, to be a major factor at one tackle after starter Corey Lewis went down for the year with a torn up knee. Jeff Allen is the team's best tackle, but he, like Palmer, must be steadier in pass protection.
The season will be a success if … the Illini gets back to a bowl. Everyone seems to expect Rose Bowl-like miracles out a program with million dollar talent and ten-cent production, but just getting to the second bowl game in the Zook era would make for a solid season. There will be a mega upset somewhere on the board, but the back half of the schedule is light enough to expect at least a seven-win regular season and a decent 13th game.
Key game: Sept. 4 vs. Missouri. This was supposed to be a big-time border war that took the basketball rivalry to another level, but it's been all Tigers over the last five battles. The Illini made things interesting in 2007 and 2008 in wildly entertaining losses, but last year was an ugly 37-9 blasting that set the tone for the miserable year. If Illinois can somehow win this year's opener, the team that relies so much on momentum and positivity could ride the victory to a 3-0 start before dealing with Ohio State.
2009 Fun Stats:
- Attendance for Illinois State (the home opener), 62,347 - Attendance for Fresno State (the season finale), 48,358
- Penalties: Illinois 78 for 734 yards – Opponents 55 for 475 yards
- 3rd Quarter Scoring: 55 – 4th Quarter Scoring - 105
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