College Football 2011: Illinois Fighting Illini, BigTen Leaders Division Preview

Robby DonohoContributor IIJune 8, 2011

ST. LOUIS - SEPTEMBER 4: A.J. Jenkins #8 of the University of Illinois Fighting Illini celebrates his touchdown against the University of Missouri Tigers during the State Farm Arch Rivalry game on September 4, 2010 at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Missouri. The Tigers defeated the Fighting Illini 23-13.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

After previewing all six teams from the Legends Division of the Big Ten, it is time to flip the page and move on to the second of two new divisions from the Big Ten Conference.

We start with a team that has numerous questions that need to be answered going into 2011, but if they can figure out the fixes and how to address them, the Illinois Fighting Illini are a team the Big Ten may need to keep on their radar this upcoming season.

The Illini were finally back in a bowl game after a three year hiatus, and the performance to end the year against Baylor is definitely encouraging going into the new year.

Yet again, Ron Zook is on the hot seat to produce another bowl season team. This team can do it, but there's always a possibility that Zook's team will collapse under the pressure. If he can keep his job and keep his team together, the Fighting Illini have a chance to make this season an exciting one for the fans in Champaign.

Looking Back: 2010

Last year's Fighting Illini were marred by not finishing games, being close but not good enough, and ending the regular season the wrong way.

Mikel LeShoure was the guy who carried this team last season, rushing for over 130 yards per game; he ranked a stellar fifth in the nation and was second in the conference behind Denard Robinson. While the rushing offense was dominant, the passing offense struggled to really be a factor in big games.

Remove the final game of the year against Baylor, and the Illini failed to pass for over 230 yards in every game during the regular season, eclipsing the 200 yard mark just twice in their victories over FCS Southern Illinois and the three OT bonanza against Michigan.

Of course, the usage of a freshman QB does come into play, but it is worth noting that Nathan Scheelhaase actually had a fairly strong season last year, even without eclipsing 250 yards passing in a game.

17 TDs and 8 INTs is quite an impressive stat when you observe a freshman quarterback who, a year ago, tallied over 100 yards rushing four times in his 13 appearances. This is all the more reason to be excited about him for the next three years at Illinois.

The defense had its bright spots at times, but the Michigan game certainly wasn't one of them. If you remove that game from the picture, the defense held opponents under 30 points in all but one game last year. The only problem was that the defense wasn't nearly as good as most thought at getting in the backfield and attacking opposing quarterbacks.

Next season, both units will have to improve in being able to play against the best the Big Ten has to offer. They will also have to have the ability to win on the road in hostile environments.

Illinois did that on occasion, winning at Penn State and Northwestern, but close losses to Michigan and Fresno State won't cut it for a team looking to compete for the conference crown.

What Lies Ahead: 2011

Returning Starters: Eight Offense, Six Defense, Two Specialists

The losses of Corey Liuget, Martez Wilson and Mikel Leshoure sting quite a bit more, seeing as how all three could have returned for their senior year before bolting for the Draft. If those three would have come back, there's no doubt Illinois would be competing for a Big Ten title.

Without them, it's still a strong team that is back, but there are questions as to whether or not the rushing game can pick right up after losing Leshoure and get back to dominating opposing defenses.

If there's anything that can be taken from last year's team, it's that anything can happen with Ron Zook and the Fighting Illini.

You see a different team each and every game; it's impossible to predict how Zook teams will play on a game-by-game basis—you see them dominate a team like Penn State, then they come right back and barely score against Michigan State.

They were a bit of an enigma last season, but when they were at their best, the Illini showed they truly can compete for the division title and a chance to play for a conference championship in Indy.

This year's team will need to get off to a hot start going into the conference season, and if they can, the Big Ten schedule is easily the most friendly out of all 12 schools playing in the conference this season.

Like I said before, the Fighting Illini are planning on making the Big Ten recognize that Champaign, Illinois has a pretty darn good football team that will make noise in 2011.

Offensive Outlook

2010's offense began with Mikel Leshoure and ended with Mikel Leshoure. The 2011 offense will begin and end with sophomore Nathan Scheelhaase, who in my opinion was one of the more impressive players in the conference last season.

Don't look at the statistics too much when trying to compare the freshman to other QB's, just look at the fact that he was a freshman starting in his first year and competing for the starting spot.

The passing offense didn't put up gaudy numbers, but it didn't necessarily need to with how well the rushing game was last season. Scheelhaase was put in a perfect position where he wasn't forced to make big plays, he just needed to go in and perform the duties expected of a normal quarterback.

He did that and more, and there's reason to believe he will break out in 2011.

His 58.7 completion percentage isn't great, but his 62 home percentage looks a lot better when breaking down his stats. Throw in the fact that he's a capable runner, and you could be looking at the total package for the Fighting Illini.

Next to Scheelhaase lies the biggest question that needs to be answered for next season: Who's starting at running back? Mikel Leshoure has moved on to the professional ranks, and that leaves a huge hole that has to be filled immediately for the Illini to be a contender next season.

The logical starter would be senior battering-ram Jason Ford, who's about as fast as my 75-year-old grandmother, but still got the job done last year rushing for nearly 500 yards and seven TDs. Ford will be penciled in as the starter due to experience, but in all honesty Bud Golden may be the best out of the backs returning.

Golden's unique blend of power and speed makes him a home run hitter every time he touches the ball. He didn't get the opportunity to make too many plays a season ago, but I like his chances to be a go-to runner when needed. Troy Pollard is another guy that will compete for carries as well.

Illinois' power-I set means the fullback position is also a full-time starter, and senior Zach Becker is Mr. Reliable when it comes to starting, blocking and doing what's needed of a player that paves the way for the tailback.

The receiver position last year had flashes of showing its true potential, but still had problems getting off the ground due in part to a freshman QB starting.

The Texas Bowl gave us a chance to see what this aerial attack is capable of for 2011, and the speed and talent returning in the receiving corps makes the Flying Illini a formidable unit this upcoming season.

Jarred Fayson and Eddie McGee depart due to graduation, but leading receiver A.J. Jenkins is back and better than ever.

The senior speedster was a breakout star after seeing spot duty in 2009. Jenkins has excellent hands and agility, but still lacks the size for a No. 1 receiver. That shouldn't stop him from being one of the more effective receivers in the conference, but the lack of height from Illinois receivers next year is a talking point.

Darius Millines and Jack Ramsey will both get shots at starting in the open receiver position, with Millines being a favorite to take over—but both stand at 5'11".

You'll have to go farther down to find freshman redshirts Alex Harris and A.J. Williams to have the size needed out on the wide side. Expect those two to make an impact next season, along with seniors Fred Sykes and Ryan Lankford.

Tight end makes a starting position as well on the power-I offense, and Evan Wilson had a great season coming in as a true freshman a year ago. Expect him, Eddie Viliunas and Justin Lattimore to all get some time starting when Wilson is on the sidelines.

The offensive line did show its true potential at times; at other times it showed that it still has a ways to go. Second to last in the conference in sacks allowed will have to improve next season. It does serve to mention how well this unit blocked for the rushing attack and that they needed to protect a freshman starting QB as well.

Taking those points into account, the offensive line did well for the most part.

This year's buffet busters will be paced by senior tackle Jeff Allen.

Allen will be the guy O-Line coach Joe Gilbert will look to for leadership and strong play next season, while the front five also brings back both guards in Hugh Thornton and Jack Cornell. Throw in center Graham Pocic, who started all 13 games from a year ago, and the O-Line appears to be a strong unit.

The only problem is that the other tackle position is left open by the move of Craig Wilson from O-Line to defensive tackle. Wilson never seemed to get acclimated with the offense; the senior primarily started on special teams.

That means the other tackle spot is open and up for the taking.

The only other true tackles that have at least been in the program over the last year, are freshman redshirts Simon Cvijanovic and Michael Heitz. It's never a good thing to have to depend upon a freshman to start at tackle, which means Zook could favor an experienced guard to put in place.

With four of five starters back on the offensive line, they won't have problems filling the open spot and helping the new starter along in the early days. Also returning is one of the most accurate kickers in Illinois' history, Derek Dimke—which is huge for an offense that may lack a finishing ability when it gets inside the opponent's half of the field.

It's a unit that has questions that need to be answered, but plenty of talent to continue being a thorn in the side of opposing defenses.

Defensive Outlook

Replacing Corey Liuget, Clay Nurse, Nate Bussey, Martez Wilson and Travon Bellamy is no small task going into next season for the Fighting Illini defense.

It wasn't comforting to see the defense struggle in three of the last four games in the regular season, but seeing how well the defense dominated against a solid offensive power in Baylor does provide some relief for a unit that did do well last season.

For one, the Illini defense was great in the turnover margin, ranking 22nd in the country and 5th in the conference in pass efficiency defense, scoring defense (even with the Michigan scoring fest) and total defense. And the fact that the rushing defense was one of the better units in the conference does provide some life to a starting eleven that has promise.

The only problem is that rushing defense has to replace four of seven starters up front, and it won't be easy.

Let's start with the positives: Michael Buchanan and Akeem Spence are back. Justin Staples, Whitney Mercilus and Glenn Foster are returning as well and will compete for starting spots next season. Craig Wilson could push for playing time at tackle as well.

Here's a negative though: Illinois will have to replace the top-three sack masters from last season (Liuget, Wilson, Nurse). Buchanan is likely to be the guy looked to as the next in line to lead the crew, but he'll need help doing so.

More negatives: Very little experience is back in the heart of the defense with Bussey and Wilson gone. Weak side linebacker Ian Thomas will help, being the second leading tackler back next season.

That leaves the middle and strong side open and needing replacements. Ashante Williams is the likely candidate to get a go at strong side, while the middle is up for grabs. Even Frierson, Houston Bates and Jonathan Brown are the three names, along with Evan Frierson, who will compete for the open position.

The secondary did a decent job last year, but middle of the road in passing defense won't cut it for a team that wants to be big time this season.

Safety Trulon Henry was possibly the biggest surprise of the team, starting in his first season from junior college with 64 tackles and three picks. His experience will be looked to as the anchor in the back.

Senior Tavon Wilson will be the other safety who can play nickel back and corner, if needed, at times as well.

Junior Terry Hawthorne is a likely starter at one position, getting the nod in the last three games of the season, while the loss of Travon Bellamy means another spot is open.

Junior Justin Green is probably the best guess to get the start, but you'll also see senior Miami Thomas get a chance to play after fighting through injuries all throughout his career in Champaign.

Having experienced secondary player Patrick Nixon-Youman is a big plus for this team as well.

While there's a ton of turnover from last year's defense, Defensive Coordinator Vic Koenning is a guy that can turn defenses around in a short amount of time. Young, inexperienced guys will be looked upon to step up for those big names that departed.

If those newbies can step in and step up, Illinois will put together a solid defense for next season.

Reason To Be Excited: The Schedule

It was a toss-up between Nathan Scheelhaase and the game slate, and I chose the twelve-game run that Illinois will face.

I'll put it this way: The schedule is the biggest reason behind why the Illini will compete for a title in the Big Ten.

Nebraska, Michigan State and Iowa are all left off from the Legends Division, and six of the first seven games are at home.

The non-conference battle with potential Top 25 foe Arizona State should make for a good warm-up to the conference season, but ASU still has as many questions that need to be answered as the Fighting Illini.

It also helps that the Illini won't start another season losing their first game, as Mizzou is off the slate for 2011.

And here's the other reason why the conference scheduling gods were looking down on the Illini: The four road trips in the Big Ten are IU, Purdue, Minnesota and Penn State.

That's it.

Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State are all at home. Northwestern also comes to Champaign.

Does it get any better than that?

We've seen the Illini dominate in Happy Valley already, which means that they will be even tougher the next time around against the Nittany Lions. That game will make for the biggest road test for Illinois, but outside of that, this schedule couldn't be set up any better for a team that needs a hot start to take into the conference season.

Reason To Worry: Replacing Stars From 2010

It's not too often that you have three big-time players that all decide to bolt for the NFL Draft, especially at a school like Illinois. That's not to say the Fighting Illini develop great players, it's just to say that you wouldn't expect all three (Leshoure, Wilson, Liuget) to depart for the NFL.

Replacing those big names (including Fayson, Bussey, Nurse and Bellamy) means that this team will lack star-power on both sides of the ball in 2011. That means those less-known names will have to become well-known quickly if the Fighting Illini will push for a Big Ten title.

There is reason to believe that those who played behind the stars in 2010 can come in and produce immediately, but it remains to be seen for this upcoming season.

Overall Outlook: 2011

Best-Case Scenario: Scheelhaase becomes a 25 TD passer and makes a push to become one of the best signal callers in the conference. He gets help from a rushing attack that going into the season lacked a star tailback, and the offensive line protects the super sophomore from opposing rushes. The defense takes time to gel in the beginning, but comes together and forms a unit that hovers around the middle- to upper-half of the conference.

Record: (10-2) Leaders Division Champions

Worst-Case Scenario: Scheelhaase stays on track to become a strong QB, but fails to get help from his rushing attack and receiving corps. The defense struggles considerably, losing its star power from a year ago, and has trouble stopping offenses that win in the trenches and are more physical than the Illini.

Record: (7-5)

The minimum expectation shouldn't be enough for Illini fans this year. With the talent returning on offense, and the experience in spots on defense, Illinois supporters should expect this team to compete for a Leaders Division title and play for a spot in the BCS.

It sounds crazy to think this team can make a run at the Rose Bowl, but it's not outside the realm of possibility. If the Fighting Illini can start fast in its non-conference setup, while also protecting the home turf of Memorial Stadium, Illinois can and will compete for a Big Ten title in 2011.

The question will be if the pieces can finally fall into place for a pressured head coach that needs to produce immediately. If that question can be answered, the Illini will be flying to Pasadena next season.

Believe it.


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