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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. 94: Illinois

As the hosts of this Aurora-based show will warn, Illinois football could make you hurl.

Leave it to Ron Zook to land some of the premier talent in the Big Ten over the last five years. Leave it to Zook to, against all odds, lead a very young, inexperienced squad to the Rose Bowl. Again, leave it to Zook to take that same team — with its best days ahead of it, seemingly — and within two years return it to the bottom third of the Big Ten. Nobody does bad better than Zook, who can turn lemons into lemonade, and then turn that same lemonade back into lemons.

Conference
Big Ten

Location
Champaign-Urbana, Ill.

Nickname
Fighting Illini

Returning starters
12 (5 offense, 7 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 27

2009 record
(3-9, 2-6)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 90

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    Missouri (in St. Louis)
  • Sept. 11
    Southern Illinois
  • Sept. 18
    Northern Illinois
  • Oct. 2
    Ohio St.
  • Oct. 9
    at Penn St.
  • Oct. 16
    at Michigan St.
  • Oct. 23
    Indiana
  • Oct. 30
    Purdue
  • Nov. 6
    at Michigan
  • Nov. 13
    Minnesota
  • Nov. 20
    at Northwestern
  • Nov. 27
    at Fresno St.

Last year’s prediction

While the schedule will prevent Illinois from, in my opinion, winning more than eight games, I do believe the Fighting Illini will have a very nice bounce-back season. Illinois returns the pieces of a dynamic offense, including the Big Ten’s best quarterback-receiver duo in Williams and Benn. My biggest key to this team’s success will be either performing well through mid-October (say, going 3-2) or having the fortitude to rebuild after a rough start. The possibility is there for a major mid-season run, placing importance upon both the tough start and finish. I’m high on this team, and have them very much as a contender for Top 25 status.

2009 recap

In a nutshell Ugly, ugly, ugly.

High point Back-to-back wins over Michigan and Minnesota on Oct. 31 and Nov. 7. They stood as Illinois’ only Big Ten victories on the season; they doubled as the team’s only wins over F.B.S. competition on the season.

Low point The whole season was an unmitigated disaster. I blindly placed my finger upon last season’s schedule and landed on a 27-14 loss at Indiana, which seems as good a choice as any. That was Indiana’s lone conference win on the year, so it seems like a solid choice.

Tidbit Illinois has been to five Rose Bowls, which is good. Unfortunately, the program has been especially poor in the seasons following each of those five trips. After heading to the Rose Bowl following the 1946 season, Illinois went 11-13-3 from 1947-49. After returning to Pasadena in 1951, Illinois went 19-21-4 from 1952-56. Same story after 1963: 21-37 over the rest of the decade. After 1983: 20-23-2 from 1984-87. And as we all well know, Illinois has gone 8-16 since playing U.S.C. in the 2008 Rose Bowl.

Former players in the N.F.L.

25 OG Jon Asamoah (Kansas City), CB Alan Ball (Dallas), WR Arrelious Benn (Tampa Bay), LB Danny Clark (Houston), TE Jeff Cumberland (New York Jets), CB Vontae Davis (Miami), FB Jason Davis (New York Jets), LB Will Davis (Arizona), OT David Diehl (New York Giants), OT Xavier Fulton (Tampa Bay), CB Kelvin Hayden (Indianapolis), TE Michael Hoomanawanui (St. Louis), LB Jeremy Leman (Minnesota), WR Greg Lewis (Minnesota), WR Brandon Lloyd (Denver), C Ryan McDonald (San Diego), RB Rashard Mendenhall (Pittsburgh), FB Brit Miller (San Francisco), OG Brandon Moore (New York Jets), OT Tony Pashos (Cleveland), K Neil Rackers (Arizona), DT Derek Walker (San Francisco), P Steve Weatherford (New York Jets), S Eugene Wilson (Houston), DT John Wise (New England).

Arbitrary top five list

Most important Union states in the Civil War
1. New York.
2. Massachusetts.
3. Pennsylvania.
4. Illinois.
5. Maine.

Coaching

Ron Zook (Miami (Ohio) ’76), 21-39 over four seasons with the Illini and 44-53 over his two stops as a college coach. Illinois has taken a massive step back over the last two seasons, following up its Rose Bowl berth in 2007 with an 8-16 mark from 2008-9. This slide has raised significant concerns about Zook’s status as the leader of this program; one more season like last fall, and the university would be foolish not to release Zook of his responsibilities. Perhaps the only reason Zook remains in his current position is because of that magical 2007 season, when Zook was finally able to vindicate himself after his disappointing stint at Florida and an underwhelming first two seasons at Illinois. 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 in his three seasons at Florida; Zook signed 22 of the 24 Gator starters in its 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: 21 wins in 60 games at Illinois.

Tidbit (coaching edition) Zook’s new staff, which features two new coordinators and four new position coaches, is no joke. On paper, the new hires represent an overwhelming improvement over last season’s crew; unfortunately, it took last season’s disaster for Zook to acknowledge that changes needed to be made. Take a look at the new Illinois coordinators: Vic Koenning, late of Clemson, will lead the defense and coach the secondary; Paul Petrino, formerly of Arkansas, will run the offense. Each has a resume that speaks for itself. Koenning led Clemson to four consecutive top 25 finishes in total and scoring defense from 2006-9, and before that piloted Troy’s opportunistic attack. Petrino was ready to get out from under the shadow of his brother Bobby; Illinois will give him the chance to run an offense without his brother Bobby, his boss since 2003.

Players to watch

For all its inconsistency, the Illinois offense featured one of the top rushing attacks in the country, yet again: 220.4 yards per game, 17th-most nationally and the second highest average in the Big Ten. Most of the pieces from this ground game return in 2010, paced by honorable mention all-Big Ten pick Mikel Leshoure, a junior. Last fall saw Leshoure lead the Illini in rushing yards (734) and touchdowns (5) despite missing three September affairs due to a violation of team rules. He’s not the only option: Leshoure will be spelled — and pushed for the starting role — by juniors Jason Ford (588 yards) and Troy Pollard and sophomore Justin Green. The quartet combined to rush for 1,477 yards on 6.3 yards per carry a season ago. The clear strength of the offense is the depth at running back.

The Illinois offensive line will sorely miss the production and leadership of departed starter Jon Asamoah and Eric Block. It’s also worth paying attention to how the returning starters, as well as the new contributors, take to the new offensive system: it’s not just a change in philosophy, remember, it’s also a wholesale change in line calls, blitz assignments and more. It will help to have junior Jeff Allen back at left tackle, where the two-year starter found a home last season. Allen has been a fixture at tackle since three games into his true freshman season, though he started on the right side; he moved to the blindside last fall, and will anchor this offensive line. Sophomore Hugh Thornton returns at left guard, giving Illinois a very good weak side of the line. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of the line decreases from there: sophomore center Graham Pocic, senior right guard Randall Hunt and junior right tackle Corey Lewis are far from sure things, though Hunt did start 11 games a year ago.

When it comes to the receiver corps, it’s junior A.J. Jenkins… and that’s about it. Jenkins is a very good Big Ten receiver, but he alone won’t be able to replace a talent like Aurrelious Benn, who took his wares to the N.F.L. a year early; it will take a team effort. Such an effort begins with Jenkins, however, who can do things the rest of the group cannot: get open, and get deep. While Jenkins has spent time in and out of Zook’s doghouse, at times raising the idea of transferring closer to home, he seems to have rededicated himself to the task of serving as the Illini’s top target. Fighting for roles alongside Jenkins are seniors Jarred Fayson (16 receptions in 9 games last fall) and Eddie McGee, the latter a former starting quarterback who will return to receiver after starting his career at the position. Sophomore Jack Ramsey, who made 16 receptions for 182 yards in his debut season, is another option.

The new defensive scheme will place an emphasis on improving this Illinois pass rush, which was below average a year ago. One player who came to play in 2009 was senior end Clay Nurse, who earned honorable mention all-Big Ten honors after his 31-tackles (10.5 for loss), 5.5-sack season. Most of that damage, however, came in his four-sack performance in a November win against Minnesota. I’m excited to see what kind of production Illinois receives from its new Bandit spot, where sophomores Michael Buchanan and Nate Palmer will fight for starting duties. Palmer, a former strong side linebacker, has the speed to excel in this spot. The interior of the line will again be led by junior Corey Liuget, who made 36 stops (8 for loss) and a pair of sacks a year ago.

If he’s healthy, former five-star middle linebacker Martez Wilson is an all-conference candidate. He’s spent more time off the field than on, however, and missed 11 games last fall due to a neck injury. Wilson, who was one of two major acquisitions — along with Benn — four recruiting cycles ago, has all the talent in the world; it’s just a matter of time before he puts it all together. Senior Nate Bussey played admirably in his stead and will start this season on the strong side. Ian Thomas, who led the Illini with 95 tackles a year ago, is back on the weak side. If Wilson is healthy, this is a pretty solid group. There’s good talent here for Koenning to work with.

The secondary will welcome back junior cornerback Miami Thomas, who missed all of last season due to a knee injury. He’ll start 2010 as a reserve, however, as fellow junior Tavon Wilson was productive after being inserted into the starting lineup: 74 tackles (3.5 for loss) and an interception. Sophomore Terry Hawthorne will start opposite Wilson. The real concern in the defensive backfield is at safety: there’s some experience here, such as in senior Travon Bellamy, but there remains more question marks than answers. For now, Trulon Henry and Supo Sanni will fight for the starting role at strong safety. Yet Illinois is expecting true freshman Earnest Thomas to have an immediate impact at safety when he arrives on campus in the fall, and potentially battle for a starting role in his debut season.

Position battles to watch

Quarterback First there were three, at least: sophomore Jacob Charest, redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase and true freshman Chandler Whitmer. More if you count players like junior Sean Anderson, a former walk-on, or McGee, a starter at quarterback as an underclassmen who is making the move back to wide receiver for his final season. However, it was the trio of Charest, Scheelhaase and Whitmer that entered the spring as the three primary options to replace Juice Williams under center. Charest seemed to have the upper hand, having appeared in four games a year ago as the team’s third-string quarterback. It would have been a surprise to see Whitmer, a true freshman who arrived on campus a semester early, immediately step into the starting role. After all was said and done, it was Scheelhaase who entered left the spring holding onto the top job, thanks to his above average play and Charest’s sub par performance. The picture at quarterback isn’t beautiful: no matter how you cut it, the Illini will have the least experienced group in the Big Ten — and one of the youngest groups in the entire country. The only saving grace is my belief that if anyone can round a young starter into form, it’s Petrino. It helps to have this strong running game to rely upon.

Game(s) to watch

It pains me to say so, but a September affair with Southern Illinois may be this team’s best chance at a win before Indiana and Purdue come to Champaign-Urbana in late October. Not to say the Salukis, coming off an 11-2 finish in 2009, will be a pushover. The silver lining of the difficult start is that it will give the Illini plenty of opportunities to score an upset.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell I wish that Zook would have surrounded himself with such a talented staff two years ago; perhaps Illinois would not have 16 of its last 24 games. Now that the staff is in place, the Illini are poised for great things, right? Not so fast: regardless of what Koenning and Petrino bring to the table, this won’t be a one-year turnaround. There’s the schedule, for starters. While Illinois has a fair handful of eminently winnable games — the aforementioned Southern Illinois, Northern Illinois, Indiana and Purdue — the Illini will be underdogs in at least half its games, if not the eight remaining games on its schedule. The quarterback situation is also a concern, though it’s only fair to point out how average the play of the team’s quarterbacks were in 2009. 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.

Dream season Just when you think it can’t be done, Zook and the Illini do it again: 9-3, 6-2 in the Big Ten, and in a January bowl.

Nightmare season What do you do for an encore to last season? How about one win — against an F.C.S. opponent, no less — and a program record-tying 11 losses? If you think it can’t be done, think again.

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.

Up Next

Who is No. 93? Our next program has won 18 games over the last four seasons. Not great, but more than it had in any four-year span from 1971-86 and from 1989-99.

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Comments

  1. Alan says:

    >>>Who is No. 93?

    UTEP?

  2. Jason Foster says:

    That voice of doubt you heard in your head last year when you put Illinois at #27 in the countdown was actually me screaming at you through the Interwebs, warning you that Illinois has as much “bounce-back” as a deflated basketball. For the past 20 years, the Illini have had extremely small oases of success surrounded by giant deserts of despair and futility. The team of Red Grange and Dick Butkus hasn’t had consecutive winning seasons since 1989-90.

    As an alum, I would gladly contribute funding toward the creation of a lasting monument to the next Illinois coach to manage to string together three consecutive winning seasons. On the other hand, I’m not a Highlander, so I might as well start organizing the construction of the Mackovic Monument.

  3. ponder says:

    This is going to be a better team than people think. Scheelhaase is a special quarterback who is going to make people forget about Kurt Kittner (zing). He has the “it” factor. I predict 6-6.

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