Tis the season to be jolly…unless you have been an Illinois football fan during the Ron Zook regime.
It looked like Christmas was going to come early for the surprising Illini, jumping out to a 5-3 start before losing three of their remaining four games.
Ron Zook came to Illinois in 2005, giving Illinois football fans everywhere something they definitely wanted for Christmas that year: a “high profile” coach. Sure Ron Zook couldn’t meet the expectations of the high pressure Florida job, but rebuilding an Illinois team that won only nine games after a Sugar Bowl appearance in 2001 under Ron Turner seemed within his reach.
Snap back to reality…Illinois is 6-6 and in a bowl game with a future that once again shows promise.
10 things that Illini football fans should hope Santa puts under their trees are…
Just kidding… Juice’s disappointing career was a combination of many things …but come on.
How does a guy get preseason accolades his senior year for the Davey O’Brien and the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm awards and finish his career as Illinois’ all time offensive yards leader (10,594 yards)?
Throw in the fact that Illinois was 19-30 in his four years at Illinois, and it makes you wonder what all the hype was about.
I guess Illini fans will always have to wonder, "what if."
Now on to the gifts that can actually help Illinois in the future.
When Ron Zook first got to Champaign, he recorded ranked recruiting classes that produced the likes of Juice Williams, Vontae Davis and Martez Wilson.
He has lost his touch as of late, most likely due to his “lack of success” since the 2007 season.
It starts with the 2008 class which, despite being ranked, still saw the top four recruits from Illinois (Garrett Goebel, Darius Fleming, Steven Filer and Sean Cwynar) go to Ohio State and Notre Dame. From that class, Zook was able to keep guys like Graham Pocic, Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford in state, but could you imagine a line backing corps that featured Darius Fleming alongside Martez Wilson?
In 2009, Illinois received a commitment from the state’s top recruit, Terry Hawthorne. After that, it got ugly. The five other recruits that Zook kept in Illinois that year have been reduced to two as a result of transferring and getting kicked off the team.
2010 was even worse. The top recruit was a big, athletic receiver by the name of Kyle Prater. He was just what the Illini needed to get over the loss of Arrelious Benn. Instead, he chose to go out of state (to USC) like 25 of the other top 30 ranked Illinois recruits did.
Which leads to an even better present…
Zook had ranked recruiting classes in 2007 and 2008.
The classes of both 2009 and 2010 went unranked. The class of 2011, which will be finalized in the spring, is also unranked.
Still, Zook was able to sweet talk some recruits to Illinois when they were a lost cause. He also used the advantage of hiring new, well known coordinators to keep his own players from transferring. He has the reputation as a good recruiter, but it appears to have fallen by the wayside as of late.
Of course, attracting premier talent is a direct result of a program’s success so…
Stats: 1583 Passing Yards, 17 TD’s, 8 INT’s
815 Rushing Yards, 4 TD’s
2010 Accomplishments: Broke Juice Williams’ single season rushing record for quarterbacks
Awarded Big Ten Freshman of the Week five times
Awarded Big Ten Player of the Week
Nathan Scheelhaase doesn’t have the strongest arm in the word, but he has already proven that not only can he run, but he can run effectively. If he continues to work with quarterbacks coach Jeff Brohm and becomes a more efficient passer, Scheelhaase has the potential to have a career similar to that of the aforementioned Juice Williams. Let’s just hope that it ends better.
The sophomore cornerback came to Illinois as one of the premier talents in not only Illinois, but the whole nation. He was a Parade Magazine All-American, the No. 1 recruit in Illinois, and won a state title.
In his freshman season, he played in all 12 games, including five starts. He also had an interception that he returned for a touchdown against Minnesota. Hawthorne became a fan favorite when he ran down Michigan’s Roy Roundtree and prevented the Wolverines from scoring.
His sophomore season didn’t start well, when Hawthorne suffered a stress fracture in his right foot during training camp. He then did not make his 2010 debut until week six against Penn State, of which he only played 10 snaps.
Since then, Hawthorne has been inserted into the secondary rotation, but has appeared to have lost a step this season, which is most likely due to suffering a foot injury.
Barring an additional injury, Hawthorne will be full speed in 2011 and ready to entertain Illini nation with his blazing speed.
Ron Zook has taken the Illini to a Rose Bowl in the past and currently has them in this year’s Texas Bowl. His predecessor, Ron Turner, also took the Illini to a BCS Bowl (2002 Sugar Bowl) and the MicronPC Bowl.
The reason those four accomplishments don’t get much credit is because, during their combined 14 seasons at the head of the program, Illinois has an overall record of 62-102 and a Big Ten Conference record of 36-76.
Although he spoke of transferring before his junior season, Corey Liuget returned to Illinois and had his best season yet as a member of the Fighting Illini.
He had 58 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and was a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten.
Now that he is eligible for the NFL, it is rightful to assume that if he is projected to go high enough, he is going to take his money and run.
Money is always tough to turn down, but the threat of a work stoppage combined with the potential to be even better in 2011 could be enough to sway him to stay and graduate.
Martez Wilson was a highly recruited linebacker out of Chicago. He decided to come to Illinois and has been all potential during his career. That is until his (redshirt) junior season.
In 2010, Wilson recorded 105 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. He was all over the place.
He now has the decision to return for a fifth season or go to the draft and begin his career as a professional.
Wilson is the defensive MVP of the Illini defense this season and his return is essential to the team improving in 2011.
The defense is already going to lose linebacker Nate Bussey and defensive lineman Clay Nurse due to graduation. To lose Wilson would be like digging a giant hole in the middle of the defense.
The headline player and hands down MVP of this team is Mikel Leshoure.
2010 represents Leshoure’s breakout season in which he established himself as arguably the best back in the Big Ten and arguably the entire nation.
He finished the season as the nation’s eighth leading rusher with 1513 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns.
He set the Illinois single game rushing record at 330 yards and needs 169 rushing yards in the Texas Bowl to break Rashard Mendenhall’s single season rushing record.
Obviously the NFL is in his future, but the Champaign native has stated that he enrolled at Illinois with the intention to graduate. His return for a senior season to join forces with Jason Ford for one last hurrah would give Illinois one of the best 1-2 running back tandems in college football.
All of the preceding wishes more than likely would lead Illinois to a winning season in 2011, which would be the university’s first set of consecutive winning seasons since 1991 and 1992. That is also the last time Illinois made consecutive bowl appearances.
That would lead Illinois in the direction of program stability. Being a middle of the road Big Ten team that finishes 7-5 or 8-4 each season with the potential to do even better every few years should not be too much to ask.
The obvious choice and number one thing that Illinois fans should have on their Christmas lists is a bowl victory.
This is something that the Illinois Fighting Illini have not been able to do since 1999. This would also be the first bowl victory for Ron Zook at Illinois.
If Illinois beats Baylor and finishes 7-6, they would then enter 2011 with high expectations given their talent and their favorable schedule.
Six of their first eight games are against Arkansas State, South Dakota State, Western Michigan, Northwestern, Indiana and Purdue. They also finish the season against Minnesota. Given the current state of all these teams, it is very likely that Illinois can win at least six of those games.
Christmas is only a few days before Illinois takes on Baylor down in Houston.
The Holiday Season is all about giving so Illini fans can only hope that most, if not all, of the wishes on this list can come true and give them something to cheer about in the future.