The 2009 Fighting Illini enter their fifth season under Ron Zook looking to prove that they belong amongst the elite teams in the Big Ten. Since joining Illinois in 2005, Zook as led Illinois to an unremarkable 18–30 record (9–36 if you remove their 2007 Rose Bowl campaign).
The 2007 Illini team looked like it had arrived as a power in the conference behind Juice Williams, Rashard Mendenhall, and Arrelious Benn. Victories over Ohio State, Penn State, and Wisconsin, and a trip to the Rose Bowl made Illinois a trendy, preseason pick in the Big 10 going into 2008.
But 2008 turned out to be major disappointment in Champaign. Mendenhall left early and was drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Illinois failed to build on their 2007 success as they struggled with inconsistency and turnovers throughout the 2008 season, ending on a sour note with three straight losses to Western Michigan, Ohio State, and Northwestern.
Illinois’ major weaknesses in 2008 was its defense, which ranked ninth in the Big 10 overall and gave up 18 passing and 16 rushing touchdowns, both ninth in the Big 10 as well. Illinois’ secondary managed only six interceptions. Only Miami (FL) and Fresno State had less amongst FBS teams.
Without Mendenhall, Zook’s offense struggled to find consistency at the running back position. Williams finished the season with 719 rushing yards, more than any of the team’s running backs. Jason Ford served as the short yardage back, scoring eight times and Daniel Dufrene rushed for 663 yards but failed to find the end zone.
The rushing attack fell to fifth in the Big 10 after leading the league the previous two seasons.
Williams led the offense with his arm and legs, throwing for over 3000 yards and 22 touchdowns, while rushing for five more. But Williams’ success was tempered by his inconsistency.
During the final five games of the season, Williams managed just six touchdowns while throwing nine interceptions. Illinois went one and four and failed to qualify for a bowl a year after representing the Big 10 in the Rose Bowl.
2009 Preview: Strengths
On offense, Williams and Benn return to lead the Fighting Illini in what will be the final year of their successful partnership.
During spring practice, backup quarterback Terrance McGee spent time at wide receiver with promising results. McGee’s athleticism on the field with Williams and Benn will add a new dimension to the Illini offense, expected to score early and often.
A more mature Williams and a blossoming Benn give the Illini a lethal combo capable of scoring in a hurry.
Incoming freshman Bud Golden looks to be the breakaway back Illinois lacked last year. Zook also recruited the heir-apparent to Williams in Nathan Scheelhaase, a duel threat quarterback ranked seventh overall amongst duel-threat quarterbacks by Rivals.com.
With nearly the entire offense intact, the defense and special teams will have to improve on last year’s performance if the Illini are going to be a force in the Big 10.
Losing interception-leader Vontae Davis and sack-leaders David Lindquist and Will Davis will make things even more difficult. Fortunately, leading tacklers Martez Wilson and Travis Bellamy return to lead a unit that will rely heavily on several top recruits.
Justin Green enters the Illini secondary as Rivals.com’s seventh highest-rated cornerback while defensive linemen Michael Buchanan and Lendell Buckner should anchor the Illini in the trenches for the next four years.
Special teams are another area of weakness that Zook and the Illini will have to address in 2009. Illinois ranked 10th in yards per punt, 11th in punt return yardage, and 10th in kickoff return coverage.
The Illini offense will need to do a better job holding onto the ball as well. In 2008 Illinois ranked ninth in the Big 10 with a minus six turnover margin. Last year’s Illini also lacked discipline, finishing as the second most penalized team in the Big 10.
Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley bolted for the head coaching position at New Mexico. Zook hired TCU offensive coordinator Mike Schultz to replace him and also brought on Houston’s Joe Gilbert to coach the offensive line. Schultz, who groomed LaDainian Tomlinson at TCU, has ample experience developing a powerful rushing attack.
Illinois faces one of the toughest schedules in the Big 10. With non-conference games against Missouri (preseason 25 AP), at Cincinnati (12 AP), and always dangerous Fresno State, Illinois will have every opportunity to prove it belongs in a major bowl.
In conference, the Illini travel to Columbus to face Ohio State (9 AP) and then take on Penn State (8 AP) and Michigan State (24 AP) at home.
What’s at Stake
2009 could prove to be a watershed year for Zook, Williams, and the Illinois program.
Williams, back for his senior year, needs a strong campaign to prove he’s NFL ready. A winning season, a bowl bid and Big 10 contention should result in confirmation that Zook has built a contending program in Champaign.
Five Burning Questions
- Will Juice Williams become an elite quarterback capable of leading a talented Illini team to a major bowl?
- Who will run the ball? Can freshman Bud Golden and new offensive coordinator Mike Schultz inject life into one of the Big 10’s worst rushing attacks?
- Who will step up on defense? Are juniors Travon Bellamy and Martez Wilson ready to lead a unit that must improve for Illinois to contend?
- Can Arrelious Benn live up to his billing as one of college football’s elite wide receivers?
- Can Illinois survive a grueling opening five weeks which features AP Top 25 teams Missouri, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Penn State?
Illinois makes it through its opening gauntlet with a three and two record (wins over Illinois State, Penn State, and Michigan State). Illinois finishes overall with a record of eight and four (six and two in conference play), good for third in the Big 10 and a trip to a solid bowl.