Big Ten Breakdown: Illinois Illini, Part 1 (Overview and Offense)
When Ron Zook was hired by the Illini in 2005, the consensus thinking was that it would be the best hiring the Illini would ever make or it would be an orange and blue mess.
He has now been in Champaign for six years and his record is 28-45. That ties him for the 89th-winningest program in the country over that stretch.
The only Big Ten teams that have had worse records have been...nobody. Illinois has the worst winning percentage of all Big Ten teams from 2005-10. However, in some fairness, they would be tied with Indiana if the Hoosiers had made one more bowl and then lost it.
So, taken at face value, does that qualify Zook as a success or a mess?
I think the answer to that is obvious, so the bigger question is how does Ron Zook still have his job?
The answer to that is timing and smoke and mirrors. His record speaks for itself, but he has won at just the right times in order to build enough capital in order to keep himself employed.
Specifically, following his first two (excusably) awful seasons, he took his Illini to the Rose Bowl. 9-3 Illinois was chosen to go to the Rose Bowl over a number of more deserving teams strictly because the Rose Bowl wanted to preserve their traditional Big Ten-Pac-10 matchup. However, nothing spells success on the gridirons of the Midwest like a Rose Bowl invite.
Part of the reason they were ranked highly enough to be eligible for the Rose Bowl was a 28-21 upset over the No. 1 team in the nation, Ohio State, in Columbus.
In effect, despite not reaching double-digit wins and getting spanked by USC in the Rose Bowl, 2007 was one of the most successful Illinois seasons ever.
The thing is, it was bookmarked on both sides by two terrible seasons. Between 2005-06, Illinois won four games. Between 2008-09, they won eight games.
So, what is Ron Zook still doing in Champaign?
Last season, it was make or break. If he didn't get his team to a bowl, he was through. Well, at 6-6, he got his team to a bowl—a middling bowl to be sure, but unlike the 2008 Rose Bowl, the Fighting Zookers handily beat Baylor in the Texas Bowl, 38-14.
So, here we are in 2011. A 6-6 record probably won't save Zook's job. Seven wins, maybe, and eight wins should do it.
With a soft schedule and a promising young quarterback Zook might be able to get there. Then again, it is Ron Zook.
2010 scoring offense: 32.5 PPG (fourth in the conference), total offense: 397.1 YPG (fourth), rushing YPC: 5.17 (fourth), passing efficiency: 128.63 (eighth).
Average scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: 6.4.
Best scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: Third (2008).
Worst scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: 10th (2006).
Returning Starters: QB Nathan Scheelhaase, RB Jason Ford, FB Jay Prosch, WR A.J. Jenkins, TE Evan Wilson, OL Hugh Thornton, OL Jack Cornell, C Graham Pocic, OT Jeff Allen.
Open Positions: WR, OL.
Many have attributed whatever success Zook has had at both Florida and Illinois to two things: strong recruiting and hiring the right coordinators.
He began his tenure at Illinois with Mike Locksley as his offensive coordinator. Locksley was also a key recruiter for Zook.
Together they installed a no-huddle spread option. With Locksley, the Illini never averaged more than 30 points per game. Though they were ranked as highly as third in conference scoring offense, part of that was due to a weak scoring conference.
Following 2008, Locksley took off to make a mess of New Mexico and Zook hired TCU offensive coordinator Mike Schultz for the job. That went...badly...and Zook promptly fired him and hired Paul Petrino to run his offense.
With Petrino calling the plays, Zook's Illini topped the 30 PPG mark for the first time.
Petrino ideally runs a pro-style system.
His attack begins and ends with a strong running game that features both the running back and a dual-threat quarterback.
Last year, as quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was still a redshirt freshman and the Illini had one of, if not the best running back in the conference in Mikel Leshoure, the burden of the O was on the running back's shoulders.
This year, Scheelhaase will be expected to take on more responsibilities.
Nathan Scheelhaase was one of the more pleasant surprises in the Big Ten last season.
Illinois went into the year replacing their inconsistent starter for the previous four years, Juice Williams. Scheelhaase, a redshirt freshman, surprised a lot of people by winning the job.
He struggled early on with a 110.24 passing efficiency in his first six games (93.84 against FBS teams). However, he turned it around in his last seven games, boasting a rating of 151.51 with 13 touchdowns to one interception.
On top of that, he was the Illinis' second leading rusher on the season, carrying the ball 184 times for 854 yards. Of course, against Missouri, Ohio State and Michigan State, he only manged 99 yards for 2.91 YPC.
There is no getting around the fact that the tougher part of the Illini schedule was the first half of the season, and guessing how he would have done later in the season against the likes of Missouri, Ohio State and Michigan State would be conjecture. Still, 151.51 is nothing to sneeze at, and if Scheelhasse can maintain that type of productivity even against lesser teams, the Illinois offense will be a force to be reckoned with.
All indications are that Scheelhaase has progressed this offseason. Both Zook and Petrino have spoken highly of his development, and ESPN blogger extraordinaire Adam Rittenberg has commented on the improvement of his release and decision-making.
The problem is Illinois has only one receiver with experience, the O-line should be decent but will take a step back—albeit a small step back—from where they were at the end of last season, and Mikel Leshoure has moved on.
In effect, the entire offense will be on Scheelhaase's shoulders. Can he—still only a redshirt sophomore—handle it?
As for depth, there is none. If Scheelhaase goes down, inexperienced sophomore Miles Osei or a true freshman would probably step in, and the Illini offense would effectively be null and void.
In short, last season Scheelhaase showed himself to be a very good quarterback with a lot of talent. But can he carry the team?
Big Ten Position Group Ranking: 4
Mikel Leshoure is gone and his 1,902 yards from scrimmage in 2010 are gone with him.
The Illini have players—experienced players—to fill his position, but those players are an undeniable step down.
The first player and probable starter is Jason Ford. Ford is a senior that has rushed for 1,362 yards and 19 touchdowns thus far in his career. He is not going to outrun that many teams, but at 6'0", 235 lbs., he will bowl some defensive backs over.
Again, he is solid, but last year, running in the same offense as Leshoure, behind the same offensive line, against defenses that Leshoure softened up, he averaged more than one full yard less per carry than Leshoure. This was despite the fact that heading into 2010, Ford had more career carries than did Leshoure, and thus, more experience.
Behind Ford is senior Troy Pollard. Pollard is the lightning to Ford's thunder. He is listed as under 200 lbs. and relies on speed rather than bulk.
He has picked up 64 carries and 361 yards in four seasons (he took a medical redshirt after playing in three games during his true freshman year).
Finally, Bud Golden is a redshirt sophomore and is the most balanced of the three backs. Last year, he grabbed eight carries in garbage time.
With three solid, fairly experienced (for non-returning starters) options, there should be plenty of depth at the running back position. Moreover, I don't mean to imply that Ford, Pollard and Golden aren't skilled players.
However, they have given no indications that they are anywhere near Leshoure's talent level.
Meanwhile, sophomore Jay Prosch should maintain his position as the fullback. He is a spark plug and weight-room monster. He only touched the ball once last year (one reception for one yard), but he was no small element of Mikel Leshoure's 2010 success story.
Behind him are a number of players though the most probable backup is senior Zach Becker.
In the end, this is a decent position group with minimal surprises. What you see and expect from the Illini running backs is probably what you're going to get in 2011.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Illinois returns three of its top five 2010 pass catchers and seven of its top 10, but that is a somewhat misleading figure.
First of all, they lose two of their top three, one of whom was Mikel Leshoure, which should give an indication of just how much this offense leaned on him.
Secondly, Illinois had the second fewest passing attempts in the conference and were 112 nationally.
In effect, their fifth leading pass catcher, sophomore wide receiver Ryan Lankford, only had six catches.
The top guy going into 2011 will be senior A.J. Jenkins. Last season was his first as a starter and he made the most of it, leading the team with 56 catches for 746 yards and seven touchdowns.
That accounted for 33.93 percent of Illinois' total receptions. No other Big Ten team came close to concentrating that much attention on one receiver (Michigan was the closest with one receiver accounting for 29 percent of the catches).
As he is the lone receiver with substantial experience, the Illini will need to find another viable threat or else Jenkins will find himself blanketed all game.
After Jenkins there are a ton of bodies, but only one with more than 20 career catches.
The players that will be vying for playing time are senior Fred Sykes; sophomores Ryan Lankford, Darrius Millines, and Spencer Harris; redshirt freshman Anthony Williams; and Clemson transfer Brandon Clear.
Heading into spring ball, Millines was the second starter, but he sat out much of the end of practices with a minor injury. In effect, Lankford stepped up and was the offensive star of the spring game, catching five passes for 64 yards. The coaches also named Lankford the most improved offensive player of the spring.
In 2010, Lankford caught six passes for 129 yards, while Millines snagged two grabs for 42 yards. While most of their catches were in garbage time, it is notable that each player made one big reception in the bowl game, Lankford's for 52 yards and Millines for 32.
Spencer Harris is a true sophomore that played in eight games last year, starting one. At 6'3", he is a big body. Last year, he had four receptions for 48 yards.
Both Williams and Clear are also big bodies at 6'4" and 6'5" respectively. Clear came from Clemson and can play right away, as he has already earned his bachelor's degree. However, as with the other Illinois wide receivers, he hasn't made many waves thus far in his career, as he only has six catches for 137 yards.
The tight end will be sophomore Evan Wilson, who started 11 games last season, though he only caught ten passes for 135 yards and two touchdowns. Wilson's involvement in the offense should increase with experience, as Petrino likes to use his tight ends.
In 2008, as the Arkansas offensive coordinator, his top tight end, D.J. Williams, caught 61 passes. In 2009, Williams grabbed 32 receptions. In 2006, as the Louisville offensive coordinator, his top tight end, Gary Barnidge, caught 31 passes.
The players behind Wilson, like the receivers, are mostly inexperienced. The most notable players are sophomore Justin Lattimore and junior Eddie Viliunas. Also, there might be room for true freshmen.
In short, the Illini pass catchers consist of A.J. Jenkins and a lot of players with little experience.
Big Ten Position Group Ranking: 11
Illinois finished last season with one of the stronger rushing games—and by extension, one of the stronger offensive lines—in the conference.
The offensive line returns four of the six players that played significant snaps last season.
After the spring game, the most likely starting lineup is: senior Jeff Allen, junior Hugh Thornton, junior Graham Pocic, senior Jack Cornell and junior Corey Lewis. As Illinois does not lineup in the traditional left-to-right, but instead strong side and weak side, it is impossible to say which side the players will lineup on.
The only one of that group that did not see considerable minutes last season was Corey Lewis. Lewis began 2010 competing for a starting job, but tore his ACL during spring practice. He re-injured the same leg before spring practice this season. If he can make a full recovery, he will push hard for a starting position.
Last season, Allen was second team all-conference and he will compete for first team All-Conference this season. He is the best of the bunch and will likely hear his name called in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Thornton is a two-year starter, while Pocic and Cornell have one year's worth of starts under their collective belts.
As last season's offensive line only lost one game to injury, there is almost no depth here. Behind the starters are a splattering of redshirt freshmen and sophomores with little to no game time experience.
One statistic of note is that Illinois let up the second most sacks in the conference last season. This is particularly damning when the Illini also had the second fewest passing attempts in the conference.
Part of the problem was a new quarterback. That will not be a problem this season. Nevertheless, this is something that will have to be cleaned up.
Overall, this line has potential to be dominant, though the complete lack of depth could hurt them. If one of the starters gets injured, there is the potential for a collapse.
Big Ten Position Group Ranking: 6
Be sure to check out past installments of Big Ten Breakdown, beginning with the most recent, the Purdue Boilermakers.
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