March 26, 2008

ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI
Head coach: Ron Zook
Last season: 9-4 overall, 6-2 in the Big Ten; lost 49-17 to USC in the Rose Bowl.
Spring practice: March 26-April 19.

It was a rags-to-riches campaign in Champaign last season, but will the good times last? Though the majority of its starters return, Illinois must replace three All-Big Ten players, including star tailback Rashard Mendenhall. Although capable tailbacks remain and good ones are coming in, the emphasis this spring figures to be on upgrading the passing offense, which ranked 109th in the nation a year ago. Here's a look at the Illini as they prepare to begin spring practice.

ILLINOIS
Head coach Ron Zook returns 14 starters from his Rose Bowl team.

RETURNING STARTERS
EARLY ENROLLEES
G Jeffery Allen (from high school), DT Reggie Ellis (high school), RB Mikel LeShoure (high school), DE Whitney Mercilus (high school), OT Graham Pocic (high school), WR Fred Sykes (high school), DB Ashante Williams (high school).

POSITIONS OF STRENGTH

The presence of Benn, a huge big-play threat, gives wide receiver some muscle. Three-fourths of the starting defensive line return, as well as solid backups who have starting potential. The Illini have three defensive ends who started at least seven games last season. Davis and Hicks are returning starters at cornerback, and Davis was an all-Big Ten selection.

HELP IS NEEDED

Three-year starters Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison completed their eligibility, and the Illini likely will have two sophomores starting at safety. All-American middle linebacker J Leman is gone. Miller likely moves from the outside to try to replace Leman, but could that weaken two positions?

KEEP AN EYE ON

G Jack Cornell Jr.: A former three-star prospect, this redshirt freshman could step in to replace departed All-American guard Martin O'Donnell.

DT Reggie Ellis: A four-star prospect who enrolled early, Ellis reportedly already has added about 20 pounds of muscle and is expected to challenge for a starting role. Getting into the rotation at tackle shouldn't be a problem.

CB Marcus Thomas: He's a sophomore who could threaten to take Hicks' starting role. He came on strong at the end of 2007 and had a key interception in an upset of Ohio State and fared well against USC in the Rose Bowl.

HIS TIME IS NOW

Three years ago, wide receiver Jeff Cumberland arrived in Champaign as a four-star prospect, but he hasn't been that productive. He has 28 receptions through his first two seasons, but did get 11 of those in the last four games of '07. He needs to show some consistency.

THE BUZZ

Shoring up the safety spots and finding a big-play guy to replace departed tailback Rashard Mendenhall are vital. But just as important is for someone to take over the leadership roles previously held by Leman, O'Donnell and others who had fought through the lean years. Oh, yeah: Williams improving his passing accuracy would be huge, too.

Olin Buchanan is the senior football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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