Fighting Illini Ready To Return to Bowl Game in 2009

Nathan GrimmCorrespondent IJune 24, 2009

The Fighting Illini football team has surprised a lot of people over the course of the past few seasons.

As Illini fans found out, that's not always a good thing.

After a breakout 2007 that ended with their first Rose Bowl appearance since the 1983 season, they stumbled to a 5-7 record in 2008, and missed the bowl postseason.

It's sufficient to say the 2009 season is anybody's guess.

Their struggles in '08 were a result of untimely turnovers and largely ineffective defense, so those two areas will be of highest concern in the coming season.

The offense is still incredibly dynamic with senior quarterback Isiah "Juice" Williams and wide receiver Arrelious Benn as the two biggest weapons.

Williams is the definition of a dual-threat quarterback—he can hurt a team with his arm or his legs.

And, in his two years at Illinois, Benn already has a receiving, rushing, and return touchdown to his name. He had 1,055 receiving yards and three receiving touchdown in 2008, standing out as one of the brighter spots in the down year.

One thing that will be different about the offense in '09 is the coach calling the plays.

After Mike Locksley left to be the head coach at the University of New Mexico, Illini head coach Ron Zook brought in another Mike, Mike Schultz of Texas Christian University, to be the new offensive coordinator.

The TCU offense set single-season school records for points scored and touchdowns in 2008 with Schultz calling the shots.

One thing the TCU offense did especially well was run the ball, ranking 13th nationally. That's a good start for a team that likes to run and utilizes a lot of different looks in their offensive backfield.

After Rashard Mendenhall graduated in 2007, the team turned to a running back-by-committee in 2008, utilizing Jason Ford, Daniel Dufrene, and often Williams on designed scrambles.

While the group was fairly effective, the signings of four-star recruit Bud Golden and three-star Greg Fuller should give the Illini even more options on the ground in '09.

Williams will almost certainly retain his starting role, but he will be pushed by another four-star recruit, Nathan Scheelhaase. Even if Scheelhaase sees limited time in '09, he looks to be the heir to Williams in the future.

With Benn and A.J. Jenkins, the Illini have two top receivers returning, and the addition of Terry Hawthorne, yet another four-star athlete, makes the unit that much more of a strength.

Hawthorne is rated as one of the top deep threats in this year's class by

The Illini also improved on the offensive line, adding four linemen. The group is headed by Leon Hill, a four-star prospect out of Chicago.

The offensive line's improvement will be key in reducing the number of sacks sustained by Williams.

The front five allowed over two sacks per game in '08, putting them in the bottom half of the category nationally. The loss of tackle Xavier Fulton to the NFL won't help, but the unit is still strong with seniors Eric Block and Jon Asamoah returning.

While offensive improvements will help the Illini put up even more points in '09—they were 19th in the nation in total offense in 2008—defensive improvement is what will win the Illini more ballgames.

The defense took a hit when standout cornerback Vontae Davis left early for the NFL.

Davis was the defense's biggest playmaker in his two years, so replacing his production will be a daunting task for the returning athletes and incoming freshmen.

One of those freshman might make the loss of Davis a bit easier, though. Justin Green, possibly the biggest recruit in the '09 class for Zook, seemed certain to be headed elsewhere when National Signing Day rolled around last February.

First it was Kentucky.

Then it was Ohio St.

But, in the end, Green ended up at Illinois and immediately solidified the cornerback spot vacated by Davis.

Green is ranked as the second-fastest and second-best athlete at the cornerback spot in his class by

He, along with returning seniors Donsay Hardeman and Dere Hicks, will be asked to shut down a Big Ten receiving group that regularly produces NFL wide receivers.

Another area of concern for the Illini was the defensive line.

Two four-star athletes, end Michael Buchanan and tackle Lendell Buckner, head an incoming group that should team well with returning linemen Josh Brent and Jerry Brown to make the line a solid group in '09.

Linebacker has been a position that has produced many of the nation's top tacklers in the past few seasons.

Matt Sinclair, J Leman, and most recently Brit Miller have all stepped in and solidified the defense as middle linebackers after their predecessors graduated.

Another Illini linebacker will be asked to do the same this year after Miller's departure.

Martez Wilson is the most likely candidate because of his natural athleticism, but Wilson has struggled to be a consistent force in his time at Illinois.

Ian Thomas has also gotten a look at MLB, so between the two the Illini hope to catch lightning in a bottle once again.

The incoming class isn't headlined with big-name recruits, but junior college transfer Aaron Gress and freshman Eric Watts are solid prospects who should contribute.

On special teams, the Illini struggled in both the punting and the punt return games. Benn will likely handle the punt returns again in '09, and, after a subpar returning year, he should bounce back and be more of a force in that area.

Anthony Santella handled punting duties in '08, but failed to average 40 yards per punt, so he and senior Kyle Yelton could be in an open competition for the job in '09.

The schedule is always tough in the Big Ten, and the Illini will again open the season against Mizzou in what will be (at least for the immediate future) the last installment of the Braggin' Rights game in St. Louis.

So, nothing will be given to the Illini this season.

But, with the returning talent in the form of Williams and Benn along with incoming prospects like Golden and Green, Zook should have the Illini on the right side of .500 and, barring bad luck and unforeseen injuries, back to a bowl in '09.

Unfortunately with this team, nothing will come as a surprise.


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