Illinois Fighting Illini Season Preview
Ron Zook is coming off an impressive Texas Bowl victory over Baylor and the 7-6 season has Orange Crush fans dreaming for bigger things. Zook has had his way for recruiting athletes at running back, defensive line and linebacker. Zook has had productive years when his signal caller plays well.
The last two BCS Bowl appearances the Illini made, they had two signal callers by the names of Juice Williams and Kurt Kittner leading them. Being able to to go up in the press box at Memorial Stadium they had Kurt Kitnner framed in the 2001 ESPN Magazine Cover. It just goes to show how much they love the success they have achieved and that Champaign really does love their sports.
Looking for a frame of his own would be soon to be sophomore Nathan Scheelhaase.
He has six other starters returning on offense, which is headlined by wide receiver AJ Jenkins. Scheelhaase is their true star however. He can flat out scoot for a 6’3”, 195-pound string bean. Jenkins was his main target as he hauled in 56 passes for 746 yards and 7 TDs.
The former Mr. Missouri QB only had 17 passing TDs a year ago, but that number may get closer to 30 with two of his top targets back as well as his starting running back Jason Ford.
Big Ford Truck
Ford is a bulldozing 6’0”, 235-pound (he has trimmed down and should be a tad lighter) behemoth that can shed tackles with ease. Troy Pollard and Bud Golden will contribute as backups but the loss of first round draft pick Mikel Leshoure will be a tough void to fill.
Jeff Allen is a solid Big Ten lineman that should gives plenty of room for Scheelhaase to either run or pass. The line returns three of five and it should enable the offense to come flying out of the gates with no Missouri squad in the way. They open up with Arkansas State and South Dakota State which should be two easy wins.
The offense will be improved with Paul Petrino (Bobby’s bro) back for his second season and his ability to spread defenses out will only help the Illini develop their offense.
The defense has six returning starters but the loss of Corey Ligiut up front will be really tough to replace. The Illini had a solid defense a season ago because of the push and the relentless pressure they brought up front.
They were stifling against the run, ranking 32nd and allowing a pedestrian 130 yards per game. Akeem Spence along Michael Buchanan are two of the horses who will be expected to anchor the line.
Spence was a Freshmen All-American a season ago as he started all 13 games while notching 45 tackles and 4 tackles for losses. He is a chiseled 6’1”, 305-pounds that has a non-stop motor.
The linebacker unit has been vastly underrated the past few years with studs at the middle linebacker position. From Brit Miller to Martez Wilson and to now Ian Miller, the Illini have not lacked the playmaker up front.
They may not have all the NFL studs that some of the premier Big Ten programs have, but they certainly have underrated, tough, gritty players on defense.
The secondary has been very talented through the years as well and this year is no different. One of the most underrated players in the Big Ten is safety Supo Sanni, who was injured at the end of summer (Achillies tear) and ended up redshirting.
A physical 6’3”, 220-pound safety can lay the lumber on passes over the middle and help out in the running game as an extra man in the box. Terry Hawthorne and Tavon Wilson are tremendous Big Ten corners that will have a ton of success in any type of coverage.
This Illini team is very talented and they should only improve in talent. However, the loss of Mikel Leshoure at running back could hurt in more ways than one. They used him as a receiver, blocker and as their bellcow.
The schedule is manageable, but they must knock off at least one bowl caliber team to reach a bowl game of their own. Northwestern at home is a winnable game since it is Homecoming on the first of October. Also, the third game of the season against the Sun Devils of Arizona State will be a true test right out of the gates that will help determine how the season will fare for the Zooker and the Illini.
Predicted Finish: 6-6, 3-5
Predicted Bowl: Little Ceasers Bowl vs. Northern Illinois
Predicted order of finish in Big Ten: Fourth in Leaders, Ninth Overall