Two Steps Forward.......Three Steps Back.

Two Steps Forward.......Three Steps Back.
The rebuild of the Illinois football program continues as they drop a tough 34-31 loss in overtime to Purdue.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

It's Game Week!!!!!

School is in session, the Illini have been practicing, and those three little words signify that the football season is about to start: It's Game Week!! On Saturday afternoon, the Illini will raise the curtain on year 3 of the Ron Zook era, his most promising season yet, when they take on the Missouri Tigers at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. The Illini, who are coming off a 2-9 season a year ago, have brought in some quality players and as this season begins, renewed hope abounds in all directions. Coach Zook met the media for his first of many weekly press conferences, and gave an update on several hot topics thus far. Chris James, who was injured at the Camp Rantoul scrimmage earlier in the month, is set for surgery next week and is more than likely out for the season. He keeps telling Zook that he'll be ready for the Northwestern game and a bowl game (did I just say that??), if the opportunity presents itself. Other notable injuries for week 1 are minimal, with fullback Russ Weil and defensive back Justin Sanders questionable, but both gametime decisions at this point. Zook is excited about the prospects of a successful season, and says that the team's mindset is much different this time around than last year. The defense returns virtually intact from last season, and for players like J Leman, Antonio Steele and Chris Norwell have been on another level in pre-season practices. Normally in the past, the Illini have had multiple backs behind the quarterback, but this season Rashard Mendenhall will be doing the bulk of the carries, with brother Walter expected to see action as well. Aurellious Benn is back and healthy, and although only a freshman, exhibits some stellar qualities. Juice Williams is much more ready as this season begins, and according to Zook, "is like a sponge, soaking up any advice he can to make himself better". The one thing that concerns Zook more than anything is the special teams, which was a nightmare a year ago. There is no clear cut favorite for the starting punting job, but Zook says he will take a pair of kickers down to St. Louis and see what happens from there. The opponent on Saturday, the Tigers, are coming off an 8-5 season in 2006, which included a 39-38 loss to Oregon State in the Sun Bowl. The Tigers are led by quarterback Chase Daniel, whom Zook compares to New Orleans Saints and former Purdue signal caller Drew Brees. Daniel was 5th in total offense in the country a year ago, and Zook also knows that the Tigers have an explosive offense that can put a lot of points on the board. They are a well-coached football team and will make you beat them in order to be successful. In other words, they are not a team that makes the kind of mistakes that beat themselves. Game time on Saturday is set for just after 2:30 pm and it will be televised by ESPN2.
Ticket sales for the State Farm Arch Rivalry have been brisk in the last 10-14 days, and they are expecting around 60,000 for the contest. According to St. Louis Convention & Visitors' Bureau representative Jack Crogan, there are a lot of other events going on around the football game. There is a blues fest near Laclede's Landing, and the Cardinals will be playing all weekend at Busch Stadium. All in all, it should be a fun-filled time for everyone that makes the trip down to see the Illini in action.
Basketball season doesn't officially begin for another couple of months, but already Bruce Weber has some personnel issues to deal with. Last week the Jamar Smith verdict was handed down, and the decision was made for Smith to redshirt the 2007-08 season, stemming from the DUI in February that seriously injured teammate Brian Carlwell. Weber's news got a bit worse when it was announced that freshman Quinton Watkins will not be enrolling at Illinois for the fall semester, due to some academic issues. Watkins, who was on campus this summer, returned to his native California to sort out his issues. This leaves Weber thinner at the guard spot, and he will rely on Chester Frazier to lead the charges. The Illini have been practicing as a team for the past week and a half because this weekend they will be making a short trip to Canada to play in a tournament. This tournament will give Weber a chance to see some of the new players in action, but unlike most pre-season events, players that are candidates to redshirt may not play in the tourney. If a player sees action in Canada, they are not able to take a redshirt for the upcoming season. This may affect such players as Mike Tisdale, who still is mulling the decision. Fellow freshman Bill Cole will not play in the tourney due to injury. Cole hurt his shoulder in practice and is expected to miss 2 weeks. Other than players being sore from conditioning drills, everything seems fine and with more bodies present this year, practice time should be more plentiful for everyone.
Well, with the launch of the Big Ten Network this week, it appears that the fall sports season is in full swing. Please feel free to leave any comments about the Illini and their first game against Missouri. I would be interested in hearing what people have to say about this year's team.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Let's Get It Started!!!

What a difference a week can make. Last week, the Illini were beginning Camp Rantoul with a healthy group of players, which were showing signs of growing on the field. Then the annual Rantoul scrimmage took place and just like that, the injuries began to mount. First Arrelious Benn went down, which sent a hush to the crowd in attendance. Benn, the much heralded freshman receiver that has been impressive early on, left the field in an ambulance, but returned later on with his shoulder in a sling. The early word on Benn is that he will be okay and should only miss two weeks at the most. The news was not so promising for fellow receiver Chris James, who may be out several weeks with a possible knee injury. Other notables getting hurt in the scrimmage were Josh Brent, the huge defensive lineman from Bloomington. It was a much different look at practice on Monday evening without James and Benn, but the other receivers will be asked to step up in their absence until they can get back on the field. One wonders if these star players should take it easy in camp, or even don the red jerseys that the quarterbacks use to shield themselves from being hit in practice. Of course, I'm just kidding, but it is a thought.
While the first game of 2007 is still 2 weeks away, it is also nearing time for the Big Ten Network to officially launch. Still working out negotiations with several cable companies, the commissioner of the Big Ten, Jim Delaney and president of the network, Mark Silverman, plan to make a stop in Champaign on Thursday to speak to the local media about the launch of the network and possible programming issues related to the opening of the sports season. I plan to ask my share of questions about these issues. After having switched from Dish Network to Direct TV over the weekend, my problem with seeing the network when it launches has been solved.
Even though it is football season, basketball continues to draw its share of headlines. The 2007-08 basketball schedule was released on Tuesday, and it promises to be a challenging non-conference schedule that could see the Illini lose several games early. The highlight of the front portion of the schedule is a trip to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational. However, before Maui, the Illini will play Hawaii, a trip that Bruce Weber needs to talk to Michigan State coach Tom Izzo about. It was Izzo's Spartans that made a similar trip a couple years ago and fell flat against the Rainbows before faltering in the Maui Invitational as well. Yes, the Hawaii game is a trap game, and the jet lag from traveling such a great distance can affect a team's play. Other highlights on the schedule include the annual border war game in St. Louis against Missouri and Arizona at the United Center. We all know what happened the last time these two teams met in the Windy City. No news yet on Jamar Smith, but a decision should be forthcoming in a few days.
On the recruiting trail, it looks as if Bruce Weber has lost out on yet another player, this one being Scott Suggs of Washington, Missouri. Suggs, who had narrowed his choices to include the Illini, ultimately chose the Washington Huskies to play his college ball at. One wonders if the name had anything to do with the decision. Weber did get another commitment for the 2007-08 class in Mike Davis from Alexandria, Virginia. This brings the class of 2008 to 7 players, those being Mike Tisdale, Bill Cole, Demetri McCamey, Quinton Watkins, Rodney Alexander, preferred walk-on Jeff Jordan, and Davis. Davis should get everything in order and arrive on campus in time to start classes next week. While it is still too early to throw Weber under the bus for missing out on all of these recruits that choose other places to play, this year will be a tell-tale sign. If the Illini falter out of the gate early, fingers will be pointed. Stay tuned.
Back to the schedule for a minute. Illini fans will be circling February 7, 2008 on their calendars. This is the day that Eric Gordon will make what will likely be his only Champaign Assembly Hall appearance. Gordon, who originally committed to the Illini, but soon changed his mind from family influence and a coaching change at Indiana, will be met with a reception that will make Kelvin Sampson's welcoming last season seem tame.
That's about all for this installment of the Illini Guy blog. I welcome your comments about all things Illini, and if you have any questions regarding the football program, please comment on those as well.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

2007 Fighting Illini Preview - Part 2

Greetings from Camp Rantoul! After a few sweltering days in central Illinois, this morning's practice was not bad at all. Amid cloud cover and a fairly steady breeze, the Illini suited up for their first of two paractices on the day. Offensively, the Illini look as good as ever with signal caller Isaiah "Juice" Williams running the team. Juice, who seems to be the clear-cut favorite right now, could eventually get some competition from Eddie McGee or Billy Garza. Mark Venegoni and true freshman Phil Haig are mired too far down the depth chart to warrant any consideration at this time. It was Haig, you recall, that was brought in at the last moment when Clint Brewster was granted a release from his letter of intent, due in part to his father, Tim, becoming the head coach at Minnesota. Running the ball should not be a problem for the Illini this year, as the Mendenhall brothers, Rashard and Walter, return to anchor a back corps that are going without E. B. Halsey and Pierre Thomas, both lost to graduation. Charles Bailey and fullback Russ Weil figure to get some touches as well. What may have impressed me the most though, was watching freshman Troy Pollard scamper. Pollard, who is not very big, can move pretty well and warrants watching this season.

On the receiving end of things, the Illini figure to be in great shape as well. The recieving nucleus centers around true freshman Arrelious Benn, who seems to be adapting to the offense well. If you have not seen this kid play, then it may be worth the price of admission just to see him in action. Benn brings speed and agility that has not been seen at Illinois since the days of David Williams. He has great mobility, as well as great hands, only missing a couple of balls thrown his way in the early practice. Benn reminds me of an NFL receiver already with the way he moves and sees things upfield. Sophomore Joe Morgan, as well as DuJuan Warren and Marques Wilkins also are looking good early on. Will Judson, Jacob Willis, and Frank Lenti Jr. also should get their share of attempts, as will Chris James and two-sport star Kyle Hudson. In talking with people this morning, it appears that Benn may also line up in the backfield, as well as possibly even taking a direct snap or two. Lining up at the tight end position, the two clear-cut favorites right now have to be sophomores Jeff Cumberland and Michael Hoowanamanui, the two main players at the position last year. Tom Sullivan and former basketball player C. J. Jackson may also see time at one point or another.

The offensive line has been an issue in the past few seasons, and figures to be much improved this season over last. Although no position is safe according to Zook, Randal Hunt, Ryan McDonald, and Jon Asamoah were running with the first team today, while Martin O'Donnell should also figure prominently as well. Akim Millington and Charles Myles, two players that logged a lot of minutes a year ago, filled in, but was not with the regular group.

Defensively, the Illini hope to be much stronger than in past seasons, as their front line became porous, allowing teams to run wild on them. Anchoring the defensive line are veterans Chris Norwell, David Lindquist and Derek Walker, as well as Doug Pilcher. Daryle Ballew, freshman Josh Brent, Will Davis and Clay Nurse may also see some action to spell the front-liners. At linebacker, the Illini once again appear very strong, as they return a lot of players at the position. Brit Miller and J Leman anchor the linebackers, with Anthony Thornhill and Kevin Mitchell seeing quite a bit of action as well. Keep an eye out for Martez Wilson, another of Zook's much hearalded freshman class. Tez, who is built like a rock, is starting to see some playing time in practice, and could become a factor sooner rather than later. In the defensive backfield, some new faces join some veterans to hopefully turn around a crew that gave up more than their share of long plays last season. Chris Duvalt, Justin Harrison, Sam Carson III and Justin Sanders will be the prominent pieces, but look for newcomers Antonio Gully and Bo Flowers to make some noise as well. Dere Hicks and Trayvon Bellamy will also see their share of action early in the season.

Special teams are an integral part of football, and for the Illini to effectively turn the corner like they want to, the punting game needs to improve, and get better fast. So many times last season, the punting tandem of Kyle Yelton and Jared Bosch took the Illini out of games by their poor punting averages. This year, however, freshman Anthony Santella looks to be the frontrunner, and if watching him in practice is any indication, things may in fact get better in a hurry. Placekicking duties will still be handled by Jason Reda, but Matt Brandabur might be called on for situational kicking duties.

In watching practice this evening, it appears that the Illini are "hungry", as evidenced by several scuffles between the offense and defense. A couple of these melees had to be broken up by Zook, and after practice he said that "where sometimes these fracases are good, you don't want to see them get out of hand". Personally, I think that the Illini are growing tired of the mediocre performances, and want to make the move onward. Zook also said that the team got better this evening, but there is always room for improvement. In observing practice, I tend to agree with him that the Illini are definitely on the road and headed in the right direction. So have you been out to practice yet? Tell me what you think!

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Illini Season Preview - Part 1

It's now August, and the question that begs a response is this: Are you ready for some football? As campuses across this land of ours welcome its students back, the gridiron heats up as college football teams take to the field for their training camps. These days, athletes pretty much train all year long, but this is where the men seperate themselves from the boys, both on and off the field. Coach Ron Zook met the media for the first time in 2007 on Sunday afternoon, and the excitement level is hitting a fever pitch, now that the players have all congregated on campus and have settled into their home for the next 2 weeks; Rantoul, Illinois and the former Chanute Air Force Base. Rantoul, normally a quaint town, becomes vibrant in Orange and Blue around this time every year, and as far as the facilities go, Zook couldn't be happier. He thinks this is one of the best facilities he has seen to conduct camp, and that is saying a lot from a man who has been with several college programs, not to mention a few NFL teams as well. The players that I talked to on Sunday seem really excited to get the season off and running. Linebacker Kevin Mitchell, who is beginning his final go-around as an Illini, says that this has been building for a few years now, and this year is the time to take it to the next lever. Fellow linebacker J Leman agrees, and Leman is never at a loss for words. Running back Rashard Mendenhall says that the addition of wide receiver Aurrelious Benn will open up a lot more options for the offense. More on that topic later. The blend of seasoned veterans, as well as some of the first and second year guys, may indeed be the remedy that this team needs to scale the hill and shoot for a bowl in 2007, the team's ultimate goal. Over the next few days, I will be blogging the site previewing both sides of the ball. I will be stationed at Camp Rantoul on Thursday, and will give you my perspective on what I see, as well as point out players that are standing out on the practice field. So what does everyone expect from the Illini this year? Is this the year that we go bowling? Or, are we still a year away? Please let me know what you think, and once training camp has finished, I, too will be giving a prediction of how the Illini will do this season. My next blog will be from Camp Rantoul on Thursday.