Saturday, April 2, 2011

Football Preview: Illinois

2010 Record: 7–6 (4–4), victory over Baylor in Texas Bowl.

Buy low, sell high. Ron Zook is a commodity trader’s dream (and not only for his intensity); every time his value seems to run a little low, his teams rebound. Every time expectations rise above the bare minimum, his price plummets. If only pork bellies were so predictable.

Fired after two and a half disappointing seasons at Florida and left to fester for the remainder of the third, Zook’s problem was never success in the major games—it was the Mississippi States of the world that led to his demise. Taking over an Illinois team that had cratered under Ron Turner, Zook’s first two editions of the Fighting Illini were little better than Turner’s last two, though there were signs that things were beginning to turn around. Arrelious Benn and Martez Wilson were only the two most prominent examples of Illinois’s newfound recruiting prowess under Zook (no one has ever doubted his recruiting ability). The 2006 team lost most of their games, but the losses weren’t quite so embarrassing; #1 Ohio State was given a fight in Champaign, Zook won his first conference game (and probably ended the John L. Smith reign of terror in East Lansing) and, for the first time in almost half a decade, Illinois at least looked like a major conference program, even if the wins weren't quite there yet.

Still, no one predicted what followed in 2007: 9-3, wins over ranked Penn State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State teams, and Illinois’s first Rose Bowl berth since 1983. Never mind that the Illini were destroyed by the obviously superior USC. 2007 was a success.

Buy low, sell high. The 2007 team lost Rashard Mendenhall to the NFL draft but returned much of the rest of the team. Despite improving statistically, the team slipped to 5-7 and missed the postseason entirely. These things happen; the close games that all seemed to turn out Illinois's way in 2007 ended as losses in 2008. With nearly the full team returning in 2009, there was plenty of cause for optimism. Sell high; Illinois slipped even further in 2009 to 3-9, with only a lopsided victory over Michigan salvaging the season. Juice Williams, Arrelious Benn, and most of what little offensive firepower existed would be gone following the season, either to the draft or from lack of eligibility.

Given all that, few expected much from the 2010 Illini, especially while breaking in a freshman quarterback and two new coordinators. Buy low. After a plucky losses to Missouri and Ohio State, Illinois stomped Penn State in Happy Valley, dominating in all phases of the game at a stadium that Illinois has enjoyed little success historically. After similarly lopsided victories against Indiana and Purdue, Illinois sat at 3-2 in the conference with three winnable games remaining.

Sell high. First there was the 67–65, triple overtime loss to Michigan. There’s no shame in losing to Michigan in Ann Arbor (even Rich Rodriguez’s Michigan), but that was followed with a loss at home to moribund Minnesota. Buy low: Mikel Leshoure fulfilled his manifest destiny, running west for 330 yards at Wrigley Field against Northwestern after an unprecedented ESPN Gameday appearance for the match between the in-state rivals. Sell high: two weeks later, Fresno State, the fourth best team in the WAC, defeated a listless Illinois team with a little help from an awful field and an iffy call or two. Buy low: A toss-up on paper, Illinois suffocates Baylor’s explosive quarterback Robert Griffin III and wins 38–14.

Given that history, predicting the 2011 Illinois season would be easier if the expectations were clear. The 2010 team was young, but that team also lost three players (Leshoure, Wilson, and Corey Liuget) likely to be selected in the first two rounds of the NFL draft. Still, the Leaders Division is the softer of the two Big Ten divisions this coming season, and with Ohio State’s gold pants related troubles, Illinois has fewer question marks at quarterback than any other team in their grouping. Even better, Illinois earned all four of their conference wins in 2010 by 20 points or more, while three of their four losses came by single digits (and the fourth was by eleven). No one is demanding conference championships from this team yet, but a little consistency would be nice.


Offensive Coordinator – Paul Petrino (2nd year): Illinois’s offense last year had a surprisingly large number of looks, especially considering that quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was only a redshirt freshman. Despite the number of different formations and variations, however, the offense scheme was usually a traditional spread/triple option look (sometimes running the triple option Nebraska-style out of the I formation, sometimes using a more traditional veer look from the shotgun) with some easy passes mixed in for Scheelhaase to keep defenses honest. About 70% of plays ended up as rushes, though that number also includes sacks and scrambles that were intended to be passes. Look for that ratio to end closer to 60–40 this season with the loss of Leshoure and the development of Scheelhaase as a passer. Illinois finished an almost-exactly median 58th in the country on offense according to Football Outsiders, with a 49th ranked rushing offense and a 73rd ranked passing offense. Don't be surprised if those numbers flip this season with the overall ranking remaining similar, though an improvement through the air for Scheelhaase could loosen defenses on the ground as well.

Quarterback—Illinois was dangerously thin at quarterback last season, with redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase taking the vast majority of snaps, senior Eddie McGee getting occasional change-up and gadget looks (and somehow throwing four interceptions in seventeen (!) passes). True freshman Miles Osei was the primary backup, and four star recruit Chandler Whitmer (also a true freshman) wore headsets on the sidelines. The assumption by many n Champaign was that Whitmer would be the true backup should Scheelhaase be injured for any significant length of time, but that otherwise the staff would try to preserve his redshirt. That turned out to not be true; despite "Elite 11" status and a four star pedigree, Whitmer transfered following the season for fear of not seeing the field behind similarly-young Scheelhaase. There's a silver lining for Illinois fans in this--Scheelhaase is pretty darn good--but depth is always nice.

The Fighting Illini are in a similarly precarious position this year, except at the starting position, where Illinois can feel better about its chances right now than any other team in the Leaders Division. Scheelhaase was certainly a run-first quarterback last year, though his accuracy and decisionmaking improved as the year went along (just one interception in the final seven games/119 attempts). Though he was mostly limited to short throws—opponents should especially look for the shallow crossing route, which Petrino deployed frequently—the offense opened up a bit against Baylor, where Scheelhaase showed nice accuracy on the deep pass. Arm strength will probably always be the main concern with the young QB, and only very seldom were the sidelines challenged last year.

Running Back—The most significant loss on offense will be junior Mikel Leshoure’s defection to the NFL draft. Averaging 6 yards a carry and running for almost 1700 yards, Leshoure was the focal point of the team, especially as the season wore on. Illinois will be looking to a combination of Jason Ford, Troy Pollard, and Bud Golden to replace Leshoure. Ford is a huge, bruising back lacking great breakaway speed; reports are that he has entered camp about 15 pounds lighter, and while all "weight" reports are always provided optimistically in every training camp, no one yet knows whether that will improve his speed while he retains his ability to punish defenders. Pollard is a smaller scatback with an almost inhuman amount of hair; look for about 75–100 carries out of him this season.

The wildcard is Golden, a redshirt sophomore with prototypical size and the recruiting pedigree (high three star/low four star, depending upon the service) to perhaps step forward this year. Ford was the presumptive starter two seasons ago and the main backup last season, so the position is his to lose, but he is not so secure that it cannot be taken from him.

Wide Reciever--Perhaps the weakest position on offense for Illinois last season, the Fighting Illini return starter A.J. Jenkins but lose Jarred Fayson to graduation. Neither was outstanding last year, but Jenkins was Scheelhaase's favorite target by the middle of the season amd a decent Big Ten starter. Their rapport from 2010 may help the passing game, especially early in the season while Illinois looks for a consistent second option.

All of Zook's teams at Illinois have featured multiple wide receiver combinations, and last year was no different despite the change in coordinator. Fred Sykes, Jack Ramsey (if not moved to defense), Darius Millines, and Ryan Lankford all figure to see some playing time, as may true freshman John Ferguson at the slot receiver position. None is a clear favorite at this point, though the staff was rather bullish on Millines as last season wore on. Any one of those players may step up, but it is equally likely that none will. A failure at wide receiver could hamper the transition away from a Leshoure-centric offense in 2011.

Tight End--One of the big changes to Illinois's 2010 offense was the use of a tight end. Not the particularly effective use, mind you, but nonetheless, after wasting now-NFL TE Michael Hoomanawanui in 2009, the commitment to using a tight end in most sets was a marked change. Freshman Evan Wilson recorded ten catches; look for him to double that this season. Also look for Zack Becker to move back and forth from fullback to tight end, providing some versatility to the offense. Walk-on Eddie Viliunas will get some looks in the spring as well.

Offensive Line--This unit was the most welcome surprise for the 2010 Fighting Illini; running backs don't go for 1700 yards without effective blocking up front. Pass protection also improved as the year went on, though some of that was from the lower quality of the second half opponents. The line returns four starters, not counting Corey Lewis, who missed last season with a torn ACL (he is also sitting out this spring). This should be a solid (though unspectacular) group again in 2011, but the pass protection (around 8 percent of pass plays resulted in sacks) will have to improve. Fortunately for Illinois, many of the elite pass rushers from the Leaders Division (JJ Watt, Ryan Kerrigan, and Cameron Heyward) have departed.


Defensive Coordinator--Vic Koenning (2nd Year): the emergence of Nathan Scheelhaase on offense was a welcome surprise, but the real improvement came on defense (13th in the nation according to Football Outsiders, compared to 74th in 2009). Illinois runs the 4-3 under that is so much the rage these days, with one undersized DE capable of making the front look something like a 3-4 at times. Lack of depth wore on the squad as the season went on; none of the regular season efforts from the Michigan game onwards was very impressive, though the four week break before the Texas Bowl seemed to reinvigorate the group. The defense returns most of its starters, but loses some major pieces; a decline is likely, though this will remain an above-average group in the Big Ten.

Defensive line—this was the standout group for Illinois last season, with success coming from both expected and unexpected places. First team All-Big Ten and likely first round NFL draft pick might have been a bit optimistic before the season, but Corey Liuget was one of the few bright spots on the 2009 edition of the fighting Illini; further improvement from him was not too surprising. The real shocks came from everywhere else on the line. Journeyman senior Clay Nurse provided consistent pressure from the outside; undersized sophomore Michael Buchanan played the “bandit” DE position with some success after spending the beginning of the season in the doghouse for a DUI arrest; freshman DT Akeem Spence played well enough to make the freshman all-conference team.

The first member of that group, Nurse, has graduated, and the biggest concern for Illinois is that the remaining group will come back down to earth with Liuget’s departure to the NFL. Former offensive lineman Craig Wilson has been moved to DT for the spring. Position changes, especially from offense to defense, are usually a bad sign, but Wilson is a massive body (340 pounds or so) who will be asked to mostly take up space while Spence takes over the Liuget role of generating pressure from the inside. Even if the switch is successful, however, Illinois will need to create more pressure from the defensive end position this season to make up for Liuget's loss. The most likely candidate for that improvement is Buchanan. Whitney Mercilus, who has an absolutely great name for a defensive lineman and played reasonably well as a sophomore last season, will probably start at the non-bandit DE spot. Coaches Zook and Koennig would be delighted if Mercilus could provide something close to what Nurse gave last season.

Linebacker—An improved secondary will somewhat mask the drop-off in pass pressure, but turnover among the linebackers combined with the loss of Liuget will show mostly on the ground. What was expected to be a position of weakness last season ended as a position of strength for Illinois. Five star recruit Martez Wilson finally showed much of his potential after a 2009 season hampered by injuries; Wilson is now gone to the NFL. Solid strongside backer Nate Bussey also departs, leaving only Ian Thomas (likely to slide from the weakside to the middle) left from the corps. Thomas is an intelligent, solid player, and the transition should not be difficult.

The rest of the group is will suffer though. Jonathan Brown saw the field as a freshman, usually in the middle when Wilson needed a rest. He is the most likely candidate to take over one of the outside linebacker spots, though by no means is he assured the starting spot. Russell Ellington, Justin Staples, and Brandon Denmark are also possibilities (Denmark may also see time as a tight end); the two other starters will probably come from that group, with the spot won either this spring or in Rantoul before the season. Look for Illinois to play more nickel than usual this season to mask this weakness. 

Despite the impressive front seven last season, Illinois struggled against more mobile quarterbacks on the ground even while containing the better running backs on their schedule; Illinois coaches remarked frequently that players had difficulty staying within their assignments. With Denard Robinson, Terrelle Pryor, Marqueis Gray, and Dan Persa on the schedule, this could be a crippling problem once again, especially with younger players. Finally, depth is a problem—asking any players beyond the five listed above (and even counting on some of those five) might be dangerous.

Secondary—While not quite on the level of Michigan’s problems last year, Illinois’s secondary suffered more than its fair share of injuries last season. The opening game lineup against Missouri featured a running back converted on two weeks’ notice starting at cornerback and a wide receiver playing at safety. That Mizzou only scored 23 points was a minor miracle, but the defensive backfield was Illinois's biggest weakness all season. Perversely, those injuries should help this year, since the replacements earned significant playing time. 

And the situation was never quite as dire last year as it may have seemed. The converted running back, Justin Green, was one of the top cornerback recruits in the nation two years ago; he switched his commitment from Ohio State to Illinois for the chance to play in the offensive backfield, but being stuck behind Mikel Leshoure made Green more amenable to playing defense. Terry Hawthorne, who was also hampered by injuries much of the season, will play the other cornerback position. Both were high four star recruits; this is the one position where Illinois can compete with the Ohio States of the conference athletically. The rest of the cornerback hodgepodge from last season will compete for the various slot and nickel positions; the hapless Miami Thomas and Patrick Nixon-Youman are probably cornerbacks 3A and 3B off the bench. Thomas was a strong cornerback when healthy (which, admittedly, was a long time ago); Nixon-Youman played decently last season after a brief departure from the program. Either would start on a few teams in the Big Ten; as backups, Illinois could do much worse.

The situation is somewhat worse at safety, though not for lack of competition. Supo Sanni was lost for the season before the Missouri game last year. Sanni is the presumptive starter at free safety this year, and his return alone will probably improve the group (assuming he is healthy). Converted wide receiver Steve Hull played very well for a converted wide receiver, which is to say that mental breakdowns were a bigger problem than physical limitations; an offseason learning the position will help. Tavon Wilson is the likely starter at strong safety—if he is not moved to linebacker, which is possible though not likely. Wilson has a penchant for taking some unnecessary chances in pass support but has been strong against the run (hence the possible switch to linebacker, though he would be undersized). Ashante Williams and Jack Ramsey are also possibilities (if the latter is not playing wide receiver; he has distinguished himself at neither position), though Williams and Ramsey would have to either take major steps forward.

Special Teams

Kicker Derek Dimke had a very solid season last year, though he did have some yips later in the season. He figures to have a strangehold on the kicking position entering his senior season. The punting spot is wide open after the departure of senior Anthony Santella, who was perhaps the best punter in the Big Ten last season. Justin DuVernois was recruited to take over the position, but specialty recruits are pretty much a crapshoot; there's no idea how he will perform until gametime.


September 3 - Arkansas State
September 10 - South Dakota State (FCS)
September 17 - Arizona State
September 14 - Western Michigan
October 1 - Northwestern
October 8 - @ Indiana
October 15 - Ohio State
October 22 - @ Purdue
October 29 - @ Penn State
November 5 - BYE
November 12 - Michigan
November 19 - Wisconsin
November 26 - @ Minnesota

Missouri moves off the schedule this year, much to the delight of Illinois fans everywhere after four straight season-opening losses. Illinois will play eight home games for the first time in its history, including an out-of-conference matchup with Pac-12 South Division favorite (?) Arizona State. Still, there should be three auto-wins before conference play starts, and games at home against Northwestern and Indiana provide the potential for a soft landing in conference play. Illinois also gets a soft draw from the Legends Division, missing Michigan State, Iowa, and Nebraska while facing Michigan and Northwestern at home and Minnesota on the road. If everything breaks absolutely right, the October 15th matchup at home against Ohio State could decide the Leaders Division, though Penn State and Wisconsin will have something to say about that.

Fearless Prediction

This Illinois team is probably a bit worse than last year's version overall, but an easier schedule and normal performance in close games could mean a better record. This feels like a 7 or 8 win team--one that could easily steal a game against one of the three other strong teams in its division (Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin), though expecting more than one win against that group might be asking a bit much. This is still a Ron Zook team, so there will be a head-scratching loss somewhere; "sell high" suggests it might come at Purdue or Indiana. Anything less than another bowl berth will be a disappointment, and even 6-6 would be a little bit upsetting with this schedule.