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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 57: Illinois

Just when you think you’re out, Ron Zook is going to pull you right… back… in. We were almost free a year ago today, when Illinois, fresh off hitting rock-bottom at 3-9, entered the summer with a freshman quarterback, holes along the offensive line, a thin receiver corps, question marks in the secondary – I’ll stop here – and two new coordinators, along with the changes in philosophy that accompany such arrivals. And here we are, July, and the Illini are trending again. Zook wins another reprieve. He’s not going anywhere. Ever. Well, never say never.

Conference
Big Ten, Leaders

Location
Champaign-Urbana, Ill.

Nickname
Fighting Illini

Returning starters
13 (7 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 94

2010 record
(7-6, 4-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 52

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    Arkansas State
  • Sept. 10
    South Dakota St.
  • Sept. 17
    Arizona St.
  • Sept. 24
    W. Michigan
  • Oct. 1
    Northwestern
  • Oct. 9
    at Indiana
  • Oct. 15
    Ohio St.
  • Oct. 22
    at Purdue
  • Oct. 29
    at Penn St.
  • Nov. 12
    Michigan
  • Nov. 19
    Wisconsin
  • Nov. 26
    at Minnesota

Last year’s prediction

For this offense to succeed, it will need the running game to do all it can, and then do some more. There are issues at quarterback, as mentioned, but also along the offensive line. The defense is in good hands, as Koenning has a proven track record, but will again be stymied by an unproven secondary. This doesn’t look like a pretty season for Illinois; perhaps the Illini can shock the Big Ten — if not all of college football — and fight for another Rose Bowl berth in 2010. Sounds very, very unlikely. I’m thinking more of a repeat of last season’s struggles, with the potential, should everything fall into place, to battle for a spot in the middle of the conference.

2010 recap

In a nutshell Paul Petrino was as good as advertised, from September through December. Vic Koenning was as good as advertised, from September through October. The defense couldn’t quite keep pace with this offense, which was a throwback, and the season fall apart – to a degree – when the calendar turned towards November. Through October, the Koenning-led defense held each of Illinois’ first eight opponents to 26 points or less; the defense allowed 12.2 points per game in Illinois’ five wins through October. Then the bottom dropped out: 67 points in a loss to Michigan, 45 during regulation, 38 points in an embarrassing home loss to Minnesota and 25 points in a loss at Fresno State. But the offense continued to deliver throughout – did I mention that Petrino was as good as advertised? The year ended with a Texas Bowl win over Baylor, a complete performance on both sides of the ball, which pushed Illinois to 7-6 overall. A winning season, the program’s third since 2002.

High point A 33-13 win at Penn State, the program’s first victory at Beaver Stadium. So that’s noteworthy. Then there were back-to-back wins over Purdue and Indiana by a combined score of 87-23. And the Illini destroyed Northwestern at Wrigley Field, 48-27, rushing for 519 yards. That’s some serious yardage.

Low point The losses to Michigan and Minnesota. Michigan might have hurt worse: the Wolverines and Illini went toe-to-toe for one, two, three overtimes, but the Illinois defense couldn’t get stops when it mattered most. In terms of playing down to its competition, Illinois really shouldn’t have lost to Minnesota.

Tidbit Illinois was the third-best red zone team in the country in 2010. The Illini converted 49 of 52 trips inside the 20 into points: 34 touchdowns and 15 field goals. Illinois was 74th nationally in this category in 2009, 62nd in 2008, 72nd in 2007 and 35th in 2006.

Tidbit (Petrino edition) Paul Petrino might not be long for Champaign-Urbana. That’s if he continues to work the sort of wonders he did a year ago, when Illinois overcame the above obstacles — the quarterback, offensive line, receiver issues — to finish fourth in the Big Ten in scoring and total offense and lead the way in rushing. The Illini gained less than 300 yards of offense only four times, losing three of those games, but exceeded the 500-yard mark three times, including in the win over Baylor. Illinois also threw and ran for at least 200 yards three times, at least 187 yards four times and at least 168 yards five times. The highlight of Petrino’s debut season may have come in the offense’s most unbalanced performance: Illinois broke Northwestern’s back with those 519 yards on the ground, which included 24 first downs via the running game. Most importantly, Illinois set a new program-high with 32.5 points per game, narrowly edging out the great 2001 team for the school record.

Former players in the N.F.L.

27 OG Jon Asamoah (Kansas City), CB Alan Ball (Dallas), WR Arrelious Benn (Tampa Bay), LB Nate Bussey (New Orleans), LB Danny Clark (New Orleans), TE Jeff Cumberland (New York Jets), LB Will Davis (Arizona), CB Vontae Davis (Miami), LB Will Davis (Arizona), OT David Diehl (New York Giants), OT Xavier Fulton (Washington), CB Kelvin Hayden (Indianapolis), TE Michael Hoomanawanui (St. Louis), LB Jeremy Leman (San Diego), RB Mikel Leshoure (Detroit), WR Greg Lewis (Minnesota), DT Corey Liuget (San Diego), WR Brandon Lloyd (Denver), RB Rashard Mendenhall (Pittsburgh), RB Brit Miller (St. Louis), OG Brandon Moore (New York Jets), OT Tony Pashos (Cleveland), K Neil Rackers (Arizona), RB Pierre Thomas (New Orleans), P Steve Weatherford (New York Jets), S Eugene Wilson (Houston), LB Martez Wilson (New Orleans).

Arbitrary top five list

N.B.A. players from Illinois
1. C George Mikan (1949-56).
2. PG Isiah Thomas (1982-94).
3. PF Dan Issel (1971-85).
4. SG Dwyane Wade (2004-present).
5. PG Tim Hardaway (1990-2003).

Coaching

Ron Zook (Miami (Ohio) ’76), 28-45 over six seasons with the Illini and 51-59 over his two stops as a college coach. Illinois took a massive step back from 2008-9, following up its Rose Bowl berth in 2007 with an 8-16 mark — 3-9, a real low, in 2009. The slide raised some significant questions about the program’s direction under Zook, though a few of those concerns were addressed during last season’s return to bowl play. Prior to taking the Illinois job, Zook spent three season as the coach at Florida, where he compiled three consecutive top 25 finishes. Unfortunately, Zook had the unfortunate task of replacing the legendary Steve Spurrier in Gainesville, as Spurrier cast a large shadow upon Zook’s entire three-year term with the Gators. Looking back, there is no doubt that Zook’s teams underachieved, but you must credit his tireless recruiting efforts for the success Urban Meyer achieved over his first three seasons at Florida; Zook signed 22 of the 24 starters in Florida’s 2006 national title season. Zook was a longtime assistant on both the pro and college level before moving up to a head coach position. In the N.F.L., Zook served as an assistant with the Steelers (1996-98), the Chiefs (2000-1) and the Saints (2002-4), the latter as defensive coordinator. He has also been an assistant at some of college football’s top programs: Cincinnati (1981-82), Kansas (1983), Tennessee (1984-86), Virginia Tech (1987), Ohio State (1988-90) and Florida (1991-95). All of which has led to this: 28 wins in 73 games at Illinois. Last year was nice, but Zook needs to return to bowl play to maintain his job security.

Players to watch

If Nathan Scheelhaase wasn’t the best freshman quarterback in the country in 2010 — and he was right near the top — he was certainly the most important. What does that mean? It means that for the first time since its Rose Bowl run, Illinois could put a quarterback on the field and feel confident in the results; partly due to Petrino, partly due to this freshman’s talents, few teams in the F.B.S. experienced such a genuine reversal of fortune under center from 2009 to 2010. Scheelhaase is the real deal, folks, and a quarterback perfectly-suited to run Petrino’s dangerously multifaceted attack. All he needs to do is become a better passer — and I think the Illini would settle for Scheelhaase becoming a competent passer, as he’ll never be asked to sling the ball around with abandon.

We’re already seeing some healthy progression. Scheelhaase was the starter by default, at least somewhat, heading into last season, and he showed his youth through Illinois’ first six games: 73 of 125 for 781 yards with four touchdowns against seven picks. Then came his final seven games: 82 of 139 for 1,044 yards with 13 touchdowns and only a single interception. That’s a serious in-season improvement. If nothing else, Scheelhaase is just going to get better and better. He becomes the centerpiece of the offense in 2011.

The receivers don’t get much of a workout, but that should change as Scheelhaase grows more comfortable in passing situations. When Illinois does look to pass, more often than not it’s senior A.J. Jenkins on the end of Scheelhaase’s attention: he stepped into a huge void pretty nicely last fall, taking on a leadership role in addition to leading the team in receptions (56), receiving yards (746) and touchdowns (7), each by a very significant margin. The key will be finding a second option to take some pressure off the senior, particularly since Jenkins has been slowed as he recovers from surgery.

Here’s betting it’s going be a sophomore — which one, on the other hand, remains to be seen. I see three within striking distance of a starting role: Spencer Harris, Ryan Lankford and Darius Millines. Each played a bit last fall, starting a game here and there and showing periodic flashes of future potential, such as when Lankford showed his speed in a catch-and-run gain against Baylor. Another sophomore, tight end Evan Wilson, could be a nice intermediate option in the passing game but earns his keep as a sixth blocker up front.

The offensive line returns largely intact. It’ll be the status quo from left tackle to center, where the Illini return — from left to right — all-conference pick Jeff Allen, Hugh Thornton and Graham Pocic. Allen’s a star: he’s an all-conference left tackle who can handle all that the Big Ten throws at him. Any questions about whether Pocic could handle center duties with his 6’7-inch frame were answered a year ago, when he joined Allen as an all-Big Ten selection.

Senior Jack Cornell is an easy pick as Randall Hunt’s replacement at right guard, seeing that he spelled Hunt in the starting lineup four times in 2010. Keep close watch on the battle ensuing at right tackle: redshirt freshmen Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic are neck-and-neck, though that could change if junior Corey Lewis recovers from last season’s knee injury. Heitz was singled out for his strong play during the play, and that he was a highly-praised recruit two years ago might help his cause.

A year after taking its cue from a stout front seven, the strength of the Illinois defense moves back to the secondary, where three of last season’s starters are back in the fold. The lone loss, Travon Bellamy, is a big one, but Illinois will offset his departure by moving senior Tavon Wilson (48 tackles, 1 interception) back to cornerback from strong safety, where he was a 13-game starter — not to mention an honorable mention all-conference pick — a year ago. It’s really a no-brainer, this move, but credit Koenning and Zook for having the guts to mess with a successful safety duo.

Wilson’s job is set in stone at one cornerback spot, though Illinois continues to tinker with juniors Justin Green (55 tackles) and Terry Hawthorne (28 tackles, 1 interception) on the opposite side. Green should be considered the leader, seeing that he started all 13 games a year ago, but Hawthorne produced when on the field, so both seem like viable options. The loser of this competition will definitely be this team’s third cornerback, playing a valuable role and taking significant snaps.

Wilson’s move opens up a gap at strong safety, one Illinois is confident can be filled by either junior Supu Sanni, sophomore Steve Hull or some combination of the two. It could be said that Sanni would have started a year ago before an Achilles injury ended his season, forcing Illinois to move Wilson over from cornerback. Whether he’s healthy may dictate who starts, but Hull might have done enough in a limited role in 2010 — starting the Texas Bowl, actually — to win the job in his own right. Whether Hull or Sanni, the starter will line up alongside all-Big Ten pick Trulon Henry (64 tackles, team-best 3 interceptions), a former JUCO transfer who took to the Big Ten with ease.

You can’t help but be at least somewhat worried about Illinois’ losses along the front seven, even if you acknowledge the fact that Zook and his staff have done a pretty nice job identifying and developing younger talent. In other words: there is not another Corey Liuget or Martez Wilson — definitely not the former — on the roster, but I don’t think the bottom is going to drop out overnight for one of the Big Ten’s better defensive fronts. Will the Illini continue to largely dictate the tempo along the line of scrimmage? No, but this defense won’t revert back to its 2009 form.

Illinois knows that sophomore Akeem Spence (45 tackles, 4 for loss) is going to deliver: he did a nice job as a rookie, taking advantage at times of the attention opposing offensive lines paid to his talented teammate, but he’ll need to take on Liuget’s mantle as the lead presence along the interior of the line. His running mate inside is going to be senior Craig Wilson, a converted offensive lineman who has intriguing size but a troubling lack of experience. At end, Illinois needs more in the pass rush department from juniors Michael Buchanan (40 tackles, 2 sacks), Whitney Mercilus (16 tackles, 3 for loss) and Justin Staples.

Illinois will miss Wilson’s production, but the tackles will always come from somewhere. To me, the Illini will have a harder time replacing Nate Bussey’s nose for the big play: more often than not, a big play created by this defense featured Bussey in one way or another. Senior Ian Thomas (67 tackles, 6.5 for loss) will take on Wilson’s role as leading tackler. Could sophomore Jonathan Brown be the next Bussey, a rangy, athletic linebacker who can poke his jaw into the mix on the ground and also make plays in space?

If not Brown, perhaps redshirt freshman Houston Bates can live up to his sizable billing and grab a big role. His time is coming, whether in 2011 or a year later. Illinois also moved junior Ashante Williams down from the secondary, giving another dose of athleticism to this linebacker corps. Look for sophomore Brandon Denmark to factor into the rotation as a pass rusher, something he did on occasion in 2010.

Position battle(s) to watch

Running back Illinois could go with a by-committee approach in an effort to replace breakout star Mikel Leshoure, who parlayed his all-American 2010 season into an early date with the N.F.L., leaving the team without its leading rusher in each of the last two seasons. Yeah, the Illini could go with two or more backs in an effort to recoup Leshoure’s 1,706 yards rushing. Or the Illini could just turn the ball over to senior Jason Ford, who has waited patiently for this moment since losing his tenuous grasp on the starting role in 2009. One thing is certain: whether Illinois shares the wealth or not, Ford is going to be the main man in the running game. Actually, one could say that Scheelhaase (868 yards, 5 scores) will be the leading rusher, but Ford will factor heavily into this team’s run-first attack. Can he carry the load? Ford has done fairly well as a second option, rushing for 480 yards and 7 touchdowns last fall, 588 yards in 2009 and 294 yards with a team-best 8 scores back in 2008. The good news is that Ford is built to take a pounding, thanks the size he carries on his 6’0 frame. Senior Troy Pollard (109 yards) could provide a nice shake when used along with Ford’s beef, which will help. But there isn’t great depth here: Pollard’s around, as is sophomore Bud Golden — another bigger back — and Illinois adds a pair of true freshman into the mix come August. Much depends on whether Ford can hit the ground running in his new full-time role.

Game(s) to watch

It’s all about the home games, all eight of them. Some will be walkovers, others larger tests, but Illinois must win at least five of those games to ensure a return to bowl play. The Leaders division is pretty open, in case you hadn’t heard, so that the Illini get Ohio State and Wisconsin at home is a great thing.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Illinois is going back to bowl play in 2011, if only because it would take an incredibly inept coaching job to not get the Illini back to at least six wins. Not that such rationale is the only reason why Illinois is gone to win at least six games: I see a talented sophomore quarterback, a nice offensive line, a young and talented receiver corps and a strong secondary, not to mention two standout coordinators worth their weight in gold. But then I come back to two things: one is history, as for nearly 20 years, Illinois has been unable to string together at least two successful seasons; the other is Ron Zook, who has been inconsistent at best, to put it mildly. The one constant throughout the last half-decade of Illinois football has been Zook, meaning players and assistants come and go but he has been the defining force behind this program’s inability to reach out and grab a spot in the top half of the Big Ten. My take in less than 30 words: the Illini should win at least eight, they’ll probably win seven, and six or less should lead the program to make a coaching move on Nov. 27. The team is good enough to be a very realistic challenger for the Big Ten crown, but I don’t have enough confidence to go that far. Instead, put me in the camp of 7-5, thanks to the combination of the above positive factors and eight home games — even Ron Zook could win seven games in 2011. Of course, perhaps only Zook could take this team, these great coordinators and this schedule and win only seven games. Perhaps I’m far less bullish on the Illini than most, but I do remember very well the times that Zook was supposed to win but didn’t, held every advantage but still disappointed, had all the pieces to the puzzle but still couldn’t put it together.

Dream season The Illini ride a smooth  schedule and another strong offense to a 9-3 finish, 6-2 in the Big Ten.

Nightmare season Zook takes Illinois back down, down, down: 3-9, 1-7 in conference play.

In case you were wondering

Where do Illinois fans congregate? For independent sites, you should check out IlliniHQ.com and Illinois Loyalty. Illinois fans can also find in-depth recruiting coverage at Orange & Blue News and Inside Illini.

Word Count

Through 64 teams 187,786.

Up Next

Who is No. 56? The city housing tomorrow’s university shares its name with a former Ambassador to the United Nations from a Central American country.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. M Meyer says:

    I’m guessing Toledo. That sounds like a good last name for an ambassador.

  2. Bird says:

    I feel like the nightmare season should read as follows: “Zook takes Illinois back down, down, down: 3-9, 1-7 in conference play… and retains his job”

  3. Bobby says:

    Mario Monteforte Toledo (1911 – 2003) was a Guatemalan writer, dramatist, and politician. Born in Guatemala City, he played important roles in the governments of both Juan José Arévalo and Jacobo Arbenz, including periods as Ambassador to the United Nations between 1946 and 1947, as a deputy in the National Congress from 1947 to 1951, and being both leader of the Congress and Vice-President between 1948 and 1949 before retiring from politics in 1951. With the fall of the Arbenz administration in 1954, Monteforte went into exile in Mexico until 1987.

  4. Gotham Gator says:

    Very funny, Bird.

    Zook will lose some games he shouldn’t, but give the man credit for the full range of his inconsistency – Zook will also win some games he shouldn’t. Sadly for Zook and Illinois, there are far more of the former than the later.

  5. GTWrek says:

    I found a Toledo, looks like a good guess:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mario_Monteforte_Toledo

  6. Jason Foster says:

    Illinois in a nutshell: no consecutive winning seasons since 1990, and just as many 11-loss seasons (2) as BCS-bowl appearances (2) since 1997. Who needs consistency?

  7. SMD says:

    Ron Zook took over a team that was Wazzu-bad and had them in a BCS bowl three years later. He and Pat Fitzgerald have almost identical records in the Big Ten over the past four seasons, and Zook had the much bigger reclamation project. Fitzgerald had MSU come back from 35 on him, has never beaten Ohio State or PSU, never won a bowl game, and lost to 1-10 Duke. But one is a boob and the other is Mr. Up-and-Coming.

  8. Rich says:

    @SMD

    Look at the recruited talent between NU and UIUC over the past 5 years. Ron Zook has recruited a middle of the pack Big Ten team and they play (typically) at levels that don’t match their recruiting stars. Look at what Zook did at Florida–recruited great and couldn’t do anything with the talent. Meyer came in and took Zooks recruits to 2 National Titles.

    Fitzgerald on the other hand constantly has recruiting classes ranked in the bottom third in the Big Ten and coached those players up to a middle of the road Big Ten team. Imagine what he can do with Zooks talent…

    Maybe Zook is not a boob but he certainly can’t coach players up like Fitzgerald can.

    Oh and btw Fitz took over a team that was dealing with a tragedy worse than a situation described as being “Wazzu bad.” I think he deserves a pass for the 35 point MSU comeback and losing some games NU shouldn’t have over his first two years.

  9. taybax says:

    @SMD

    Let’s simplify:

    One went 23-14 at Florida (taking over a team that finished #3 in the country the previous year) and then 28-45 at Illinois (taking over a 3-win team). Maybe not “boob” territory, but nothing to brag about.

    The other took over a middling NU program at age 31 and has done a bit better than his two predecessors at 34-29. At age 36, I’d say that qualifies him as “Up-and-Coming”.

  10. wildcat6 says:

    @SMD

    Keep in mind, when the Fitz-led ‘Cats lost to Michigan St. in that 35-point comeback game, that was during the 2006 season in which NU had suddenly lost Randy Walker to a heart attack just two months before the season began. Fitz went 4-8 as the “emergency head coach” that year, including wins over Iowa and Illinois. Under the circumstances, not bad.

    Anyway, Fitz has gone 30-21 in the four years since, which is probably a better barometer of the overall job he has done.

  11. Sasser says:

    @SMD

    Let’s nevermind that fact that Illinois has been bowl-eligible only twice in Zook’s 6-year tenure, as opposed to four times in Fitz’s 5-year stint as head coach.

    But of course, let’s not forget that Fitz is 3-2 against Illinois, while Zook is 2-4 against the ‘Cats.

  12. MidwestPDXR says:

    Zook couldn’t coach his way outta a wet bag. He CAN recruit.

    Fitz can get his team ready for a game or 2. Recruiting is tough, but he recruits well. He has a average selling point education & location.

    But it all comes down to Bowl Games, & neither is doing very well lately, especially the Cats.

  13. SMD says:

    Fitzgerald has done pretty much as well as Walker did. Their conference records are almost identical. And while the Walker situation was emotionally difficult, I don’t think people understand just how bad 2003-04 Illinois was.

    Also, people keep using Fitzgeralds overall record. Northwestern’s noncomference schedule has been abysmal since he took over; the only BCS teams he’s faced have been Duke, Syracuse, and Vanderbilt. Conference records are a better comparison.

    As for the recruiting vs. coaching thing, wins are wins. It doesn’t matter how you get there. Besides, Zook and Fitzgerald are once again similar in that they both are CEO/recruiter type coaches, not Xs and Os guys.

    As much as it pains me to say it, Northwestern has been a better program than Illinois since the Barnett era. Fitzgerald has neither improved nor fallen off that trajectory, yet. Illinois has gone from worst team in the BCS to mid-tier team. I dont think either coach is great or awful. In fact, I think they are pretty much the same.

  14. Matt Rob says:

    Any BCS team in the country* should win at least 6 games out of this schedule (ranked from least to most imposing):

    Arkansas State
    South Dakota St.
    W. Michigan
    Indiana
    Purdue
    Minnesota
    Northwestern
    Michigan
    Penn St.
    Arizona St.
    Ohio St.
    Wisconsin

    The only beast on the schedule is a Russell Wilson-led Wiscy squad. OSU, PSU, and ASU should have more talent, but they are all deeply flawed teams for the coming season.

    *Probably not Vandy, Duke, UVA, Rutgers, Wake Forest, and Washington State.

  15. Raymond Park says:

    @SMD has a good point about conference records, but this helps Fitz (18-22) vs Zook (16-32), even more so if you allow Cats fans to exclude that tragic 2006 (16-16 even conf record for the young coach since 07). Fitz does need to finally beat PSU and OSU to get to the next level, while Zook clearly needs to show some consistency.

    Cincinnati, home to Kroger’s (biggest supermarket chain but second to Walmart in grocery sales), is next.

  16. Raymond Park says:

    …and re: the bowl game curse for Fitz and NU, note that Zook won his first bowl game just 7 months ago.

  17. taybax says:

    Fitz’s teams punted to Jeremy Maclin and lost to a favored Mizzou team in OT. His kickers missed a bunch of kicks and NU lost in OT to a favored Auburn team. They lost by 7 with two semi-functional QBs to a favored Texas Tech team. Not an awful bowl showing. In 6 years Zook has a blowout loss to USC and a nice win last year vs. Baylor.

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