Coach:Ron Zook (13-23 in three seasons; 36-37 in six seasons overall) | Staff In 2007:9-4 overall, 6-2 in the Big Ten (tied for second in league) | Highlights Returning starters: Offense—6. Defense—7. Special teams—1 | Depth Chart Key losses: Offense—RB Rashard Mendenhall, T Akim Millington, G Martin O'Donnell, WR Jacob Willis. Defense—SS Justin Harrison, LB J Leman, FS Kevin Mitchell, T Chris Norwell, LB Antonio Steele. Specialists—K Jason Reda.
Final 2007 Rivals.com ranking: 21st | Complete Final 2007 Rankings
THE SCHEME: Coordinator Mike Locksley is continuing to tweak his spread-zone offense as his talent matures. The Illini also use many traditional sets to maximize a roster that's starting to teem with ability at many positions. This has been the Big Ten's premier running attack in each of the past two seasons. The passing attack? Woof. It ranked last in the conference and 110th in the nation. Third-and-long is an adventure. Locksley plans on balancing the offense this fall.
STAR POWER: With tailback Rashard Mendenall – the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year – off a year early to the NFL, the spotlight swings to quarterback Juice Williams. He has shown glimpses of fulfilling the massive hype he brought with him to Champaign in 2006. Williams is built like a linebacker, can run like a tailback and throw the ball as far as any quarterback in the nation. The key is for him to fully comprehend the nuances of the position. The goals: improve his 13-to-12 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 57.3 completion percentage.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Keep an eye on true freshman tailback Mikel LeShoure, a big, physical back who enrolled early and went through spring drills. LeShoure is a strong runner between the tackles. He also has soft hands, making him a threat out of the backfield as a receiver. Playing time definitely is available.
IT'S HIS TIME: Junior tight end Michael Hoomanawanui could emerge as a big-time threat. He occasionally has flashed some ability, but he needs to be a consistent weapon in a short-passing game that will be emphasized. Hoomanawanui could become a favorite target on third downs, and his size (6-5/265) makes him a mismatch in the secondary. He caught just five passes last season, but two went for TDs.
STRONGEST AREA: Locksley thinks this will be his best receiving corps yet, and sophomore Arrelious Benn is the leader. Benn lived up to his advance billing as a true freshman last season when he caught a team-high 54 passes for 676 yards and two TDs and ran 32 times for 158 yards en route to earning Big Ten Freshman of the Year accolades. Look for Illinois to be creative in finding ways to get Benn, who had offseason shoulder surgery, the ball. Junior Chris Duvalt has been a revelation since moving from defensive back in the spring. He's a burner. Check out Jeff Cumberland, who is 6-5 and 247 pounds; the former tight end could be a monster weapon in the red zone. And a few newcomers will make noise.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Mendenhall rushed for 1,681 yards and 17 TDs last season, then bolted for the NFL. The competition will be fierce to replace him, headed by Daniel Dufrene. He flashed big-play skills last season as a backup with 294 yards, including a 100-yard game in the Illini's win at Ohio State that featured an 80-yard jaunt. Troy Pollard made strides last season before suffering a season-ending injury against Indiana and redshirting. Everyone is excited by freshmen LeShoure and Jason Ford, the leading career rusher in Illinois prep history.
OVERVIEW: It's vital that this offense continues its evolution as it looks to balance a great rushing element with a consistent aerial game. The components are in place for Locksley to make it happen. It all rests on Williams. He has become more of a student of the game, and it's time for him to become more "quarterback" and less "athlete." With Mendenhall gone, this is Williams' team. He has to lead.
That's the number of victories Illinois improved by in 2007. The Fighting Illini won two games in 2006 and nine last season. It was the greatest single-season turnaround in school history.
THE SCHEME: The Fighting Illini use a 4-3 alignment that offers varied looks. An increase in speed and athletic ability means the defense won't have to gamble much with blitzes and stunts. Still, this is a defense that can get creative with coverage schemes and blitz packages to keep offenses guessing.
STAR POWER: There may be no better cornerback in the nation than junior Vontae Davis. Coach Ron Zook calls Davis the most talented defensive back he has been around. The problem? Davis doesn't always play with passion. Zook relegated Davis to second-team status in the spring to motivate him. If Davis, the younger brother of former Maryland star tight end Vernon Davis, is locked in and enjoys a banner junior season, don't be shocked if he leaves early for the NFL.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: With openings at both safety spots, the opportunity is there for Donsay Hardeman, considered the No. 7 junior college transfer in the nation. Hardeman, a 6-2, 220-pounder, is a big hitter who can cover lots of ground. It's vital the new safeties are strong in coverage.
IT'S HIS TIME: Sophomore linebacker Martez Wilson (6-4/246) was one of Zook's recruiting jewels in 2006. Wilson often is compared to former Illini great Simeon Rice, and with good reason. Wilson is one of the best athletes in the nation and showed his scary speed last season while working as a gunner on punt coverage. He also ran down Penn State's Derrick Williams on a reverse. Wilson got his feet wet last fall in certain down-and-distance situations. Now he's ready for full-time duty.
STRONGEST AREA: Beware of the line. There's plethora of talent – and depth. End Will Davis is poised for a huge senior season after beefing up to almost 270 pounds. He can't be blocked one-on-one. Doug Pilcher is a blue-collar bookend on the other side, while Derek Walker – who started seven times last season – comes in to bring the heat on passing downs. The staff can rotate four tackles without fear of losing production. David Lindquist is the veteran anchor, but youngsters Josh Brent, D'Angelo McCray and Corey Liuget – a true freshman from Miami – could be stars.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: J Leman and Antonio Steele ranked 1-2 in tackles last season. Both are gone from a linebacking corps that's being overhauled. Their replacements – Wilson and Rodney Pittman – are more talented. It's just a matter of the duo getting in the flow, especially when it comes to dropping into coverage. It helps that Brit Miller will be a veteran presence in the middle. Bottom line: The Illini linebackers are starting to resemble the standout units of the early 1990s that featured stallions such as Rice, Kevin Hardy, John Holecek and Dana Howard.
OVERVIEW: Everyone in Champaign swears this will be a killer defense built on speed and athletic ability. No doubt, Zook has forged an SEC-look to the defense. The increased athletic ability and depth will allow the Fighting Illini to whip most teams playing straight up. The key is improving against the pass. But the secondary's job figures to be easier if a ferocious-looking line is able to mount consistent pressure without help from a blitz.
This unit is littered with questions. Chief among them is finding a replacement for kicker Jason Reda, who had been a steady and reliable option. The likely heir is true freshman walk-on Derek Dimke. Yikes. Anthony Santella's punting debut was met with mixed results. He hopes to build on a great effort in the Rose Bowl. Can the staff continue to allow Benn to return kickoffs, given the iffy nature of his surgically repaired shoulder? Don't be shocked if a young speedster takes over for Benn, whose first college kickoff return went 90 yards for a TD against Penn State. A punt return man is needed with Kyle Hudson off to pursue a pro baseball career.
Few recruit with the passion and intensity of Zook, who quickly has amped up the talent level in Champaign. He also slowly is showing he knows what he's doing on Saturdays from an X's and O's standpoint, though he'll likely never be branded a brilliant sideline tactician by some fans across the nation. Doesn't matter: Zook, the 2007 Big Ten Coach of the Year, is building a solid program amid the corn in central Illinois. A big key to his success has been building a good staff, which he can pay well. His top lieutenant is Locksley, who is equal parts great recruiter/great coach. Running backs coach Reggie Mitchell is a veteran hand who excels at teaching. He also is a top talent scout. Dan Disch and Curt Mallory were hurled into co-defensive coordinator duties last summer, and they excelled in their roles. Another bonus: This is the first time in Zook's tenure he will have the same defensive coordinator two years in a row.
Missouri (at St. Louis)
at Penn State
W. Michigan (at Detroit)
Things are appreciably more difficult than last season. Once again, the season opens in St. Louis against Missouri, a team with BCS dreams. The Illini have lost their past three meetings with the Tigers in St. Louis. The heavy lifting continues when the Big Ten schedule kicks in, as the Fighting Illini open with back-to-back trips to Penn State and Michigan. A late-October visit to Wisconsin also could be frightening. The season-ending game at Northwestern may be Illinois' best chance at winning away from Champaign, and that could prove dicey. That means going 6-0 at home is vital. The problem: One of those games is against Ohio State, which will look to exact revenge after getting dumped in Columbus last season by Illinois.
The program is coming off its first Rose Bowl appearance since the 1983 season, as Zook delivered a breakthrough in just three seasons. Adding to the excitement is a multimillion-dollar make-over of Memorial Stadium appropriately dubbed "Illinois Renaissance." Now that Zook has allowed Illini fans to sip from the chalice of greatness, they want more. And he is prepared to deliver for a program that hasn't had back-to-back winning seasons since 1989-90. This is a young team (no Big Ten school lost more lettermen, 24) bursting with talent. Winning the school's first Big Ten crown since 2001 isn't out of the question, but it's a long shot. Finishing second and nabbing another BCS at-large spot is a possibility. At the least, this team should go to the Capital One or Outback bowls. If it doesn't, it will be a disappointing season.