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.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Pregame Blog - Illinois vs. Missouri

Rejoice, college football fans, because your time is finally here! Yes, I'm talking about the opening weekend of the college football season. I'm sitting high atop the Edward Jones Dome anticipating the kickoff of the game between Illinois and Missouri. This game has been hyped like no other in recent memory, with both teams beginning the regular season in the Top 20. The atmosphere in and around the Dome is a festive one, with parties and gatherings going on outdoors, and now that fans are starting to file in, the place is taking on a sort of orange-goldish look. This is a rivalry that has taken on quite a life of its own, and is trying hard to stay along the same realm that the basketball series has done. Both coaches, Ron Zook of the Illini, and Gary Pinkel of the Tigers, are no stranger to atmospheres like this, and they each have their team as prepared for this game as possible. Missouri, which starts the season at #6 in the country, is led by their stellar quarterback, Chase Daniel and a star-studded receiver in Jeremy Maclin. The Tigers like to move it up and down the field, and with an offense as high-powered as this one is, they shouldn't have any trouble doing so. Trying to stop them will be an Illini defense that is getting better the older and more experienced it becomes. Doug Pilcher and David Lindquist lead a defensive front that will get some help from linebackers Brit Miller and Martez Wilson. Offensively for the Illini, Juice Williams returns for his junior year and will have some new bodies to turn to in the backfield. To replace the NFL-bound Rashard Mendenhall, the Illini will counter with a trio of backs, led by Daniel Dufrene and freshmen Jason Ford and Mikel Leshoure. Regardless of the outcome of this game, it promises to be a barn burner and the team coming out on top will have the early edge in the polls. Please stay tuned for a recap of the game coming some time this Labor Day Weekend.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Illini Football Preview - Part 2

With just one week until the first game for Ron Zook in this his fourth season as coach of the Fighting Illini, it's time to get defensive, or more subtle, talking about the defense. It is possible that the defensive unit is even better than they were last year, even after losing J Leman to graduation. Brit Miller returns to anchor the defense at linebacker, and in this his senior season, is poised to do what Leman did last season. On the front line, David Lindquist and Doug Pilcher return, as do Josh Brent and Jerry Brown. One of the newcomers, Reggie Ellis, hails from Washington, D.C. and is one of the now familiar Dunbar High School products to make their way west. At linebacker, Miller will be joined by Sam Carson III and Martez Wilson, who promises to have a breakout sophomore season even better than his freshman year. Russell Ellington and Dustin Jefferson also figure to see some time as well. The defensive back position is one of speed and agility, and is led by Vontae Davis (#1, below), who is one of the top defensive players in the entire conference, if not the nation. You will recall back in the Rose Bowl when Davis ran down the USC ball carrier as if to come out of nowhere to make the tackle. It is speed like this that can give Coach Zook the confidence that similar plays are just around the corner in 2008. Also in the secondary are Nate Bussey, Travon Bellamy, Bo Flowers, Donsay Hardeman, Supo Sanni, and Marcus "Miami" Thomas. This speed and depth will be needed early on, when the Illini battle the Missouri Tigers and their sensation Jeremy Maclin.
The kicking game, suspect a year ago, is a little more clear this time around, but not much. Anthony Santella seems to have the punting job locked up as Camp Rantoul came to an end, but the placekicking game seemed a bit more cloudy. Last season, Michael Cklamovski did some kickoffs, but with the addition of freshmen Matt Eller and Derek Dimke, competition seems to be occuring. When asked the other day which player had the edge coming out of training camp, Zook seemed to think that Dimke was leading the pack, but anything can happen and it will be interesting to see who will be handling placekicking duties when the Illini and the Tigers do battle in the dome. Speaking of which, be sure to listen to morning sports on Fridays before each Illini game for an official preview of the upcoming matchup. Then on Mondays, hear a recap of each game, as well as comments from coaches and players.
Coming into the matchup against Missouri (7:30 pm, Saturday, August 30 ESPN), the Illini find themselves ranked #15 in the coaches poll. This is the first time in several years that the Illini have been ranked in the preseason, and with the Tigers in the top 10, this promises to be a great opening game with the feel of a bowl game, given the teams' lofty rankings. While other teams in the conference may not be playing the same caliber of opponent as the Illini are, the conference seems to be stacked once again with a few teams at the top. Besides Ohio State, the Wisconsin Badgers and the Illini are expected to be at the head of the class, with Purdue and Michigan figuring to be somewhere in the middle.
Activities are continuing to cme together for the Reniassance Celebration on September 6th against Eastern Illinois. A long list of players returning for the event can be found at and this past week it was announced that there will be a panoramic picture from the air, as well as from groud level of the stadium. Fans are encouraged to buy their 'Zook Zone' towels to wave them at the game to create an aura of orange that will mimic past 'Paint The Hall Orange' nights at the Assembly Hall.
So, now that the football season is officially upon us, buckle those seat belts, turn that television to the Big Ten Network (yes, even you Comcast folks!), and get ready for an unbelievable 2008 football season!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

2008 Illinois Football Preview - Part 1

Fans in attendance at the Fighting Illini's annual Rantoul scrimmage on Monday evening were treated to an offensive show that may soon become the norm rather than the exception. And good news for Ron Zook is that nobody got hurt in the process. Rewind one year ago at the scrimmage where wide receiver Chris James (#6, pictured at right) sustained an injury that kept him out the entire season, and receiver Aurellious "Regus" Benn also was banged up, but both of those players came out of this year's event unscathed. The offense looks a bit different starting the 2008 campaign with Rashard Mendenhall now in the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Zook knew he would need to replace those carries to make the offense go and build on last season's Rose Bowl appearance. He may have found a couple of answers to that question. Junior Daniel Dufrene and true freshman Jason Ford (#21 below, right) were impressive to say the least, and redshirt freshman Troy Pollard and another true freshman, Mikel LeShoure, also had plenty of chances. When asked about how the scrimmage went on Monday, Zook did not hesitate when he said that this may have been the best scrimmage that he has been a part of in all his years of coaching. Besides the running game, the Illini also expect to do some damage in the recieving corps. Benn, of course, is back, as well as James, who is fully recovered from the injury, and other players expected to make their mark include returning wideouts Marques Wilkins and Chris Duvalt, as well as Will Judson, who made a couple of nice catches on Monday. Joining this trio will be freshmen A.J. Jenkins and Cordale Scott, two players who figure to be in the mix and could form some interesting formations on offense. The two main tight ends, Jeff Cumberland and Michael Hoomanawanui, also figure to get more involved in the offensive scheme this season.
The offensive line is experienced, with returning players Jon Asamoah, Randall Hunt, Xavier Fulton, Eric Block and Ryan McDonald back for another go. A whole host of freshmen or redshirt freshmen that include the likes of Corey Lewis, Jeff Allen, Jack Cornell, Mark Jackson and Graham Pocic may see some time. As Zook likes to say, there is competition at every position and that could be no more evident than on the offensive line. Pocic, a true freshman that enrolled early, brings a lot of talent to the table and could be a special player before he leaves lllinois. Fans can expect to see more of the high-powered offensive sets that Zook has instilled into his system, and as the recruiting battle heats up for 2009 and beyond, he and the coaching staff continue to bring in the top tier players that can continue what he has begun to build at Illinois.

The Fighting Illini Fan Appreciation Day is set for Sunday, August 17 from 1-2:30 at Memorial Stadium. Fans will get a chance to get autographs of their favorite players, and also meet Coach Ron Zook at the same time. The Illini women's volleyball team will also be on hand to greet fans young and old alike, as well as sign autographs and poster schedules.

With all of this talk about football dominating the past week and a half, there has been plenty of basketball talk as well, with several events that are upcoming that are sure to be crowd pleasers. First of all, "A Night of Legends" is planned for Saturday, September 13th at the Assembly Hall. Deron Williams, current Olympian and Utah Jazz guard, will be one of three players that will have their jersey numbers hung from the rafters of the Hall. A total of 20 men's jerseys and one women's jersey will be honored, and along with Williams, Luther Head and Dee Brown will be honored as well. Other players confirmed to attend the event are James Augustine, Roger Powell, Kenny Battle, Victor Chukwudebe and Sergio McClain. This should be one of the most anticipated events of the season. Season ticket holders get first dibs on tickets for the event, and should any remain from those, the general public will get a chance to order them beginning on August 21 at the athletic ticket box office, or online at Then, on October 11 after the Minnesota football game, the Fighting Illini will hold the world's largest basketball practice, as they unveil a basketball court in the south endzone of Memorial Stadium to begin the 2008-09 basketball campaign. The court, assembled by FlexCourt Athletics of Kewanee, will already be assembled before the football game, so a smooth and seamless transition can occur into the basketball practice. The practice will be similar to the Illini Madness events of the past, with both the men's and women's teams introduced. Three-point shooting and slam dunk contests will also take place. Then, after the scrimmage, the Athletic Department will make available the court to be bid on, so you can take home the actual court used for this event.
Finally, in what will be a huge event for the Assembly Hall, Deron Williams and the Utah Jazz will take on Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls in an exhibition game on Friday, October 17 at 7:30 pm. Tickets for this event go on sale on Saturday, August 23 at 10:00 am at the normal ticket outlets, and range in price from $25 to $70.
Enough Illini sports for ya? Next week I'll preview the Illini defensive alignment as they continue to get ready for their first game in 2 weeks against Missouri.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The question begs.....Are you ready for some football??

As the calendar turns to August, thoughts begin to ponder students returning to school for the fall semester, leaves turning colors and eventually falling, and Yes, I'm talking Illini football. Ron Zook begins his fourth season as Illini coach and expectations are running higher than ever this season as training camp begins. The Illini, fresh off a trip to the Rose Bowl and a 9-4 season, Illinois and Zook have a lot to prove that 2007 was not a fluke. Sunday afternoon was Illini Media Day at Rantoul, and Zook spoke to several media members in attendance, stressing that one good season does not necessarily propel a program to turn the proverbial corner. Zook also said that it is up to this year's sophomore class and incoming freshman class to instill in future recruiting classes that you just don't simply show up at Illinois and go to a Rose Bowl. The upperclassmen that have been with the team two and three years went through some rough times, but all of those subpar seasons ultimately led to the success that the Illini experienced last season. Zook will have the nucleus back this season, led by quarterback Juice Williams and top flight receiver Aurellious Benn. The Illini will have some big shoes to fill with the departure of Rashard Mendenhall to the NFL, but guys like Daniel Dufrene, Mikel LeShoure and Troy Pollard will try to rise to the occasion. With training camp set to begin on Monday, a lot of questions remain in regards to who will be battling who for certain positions, but one thing is clear, with the talent level Zook and his assistants have brought in, there will be talent aplenty ready to wage war for their positional battles.
If you haven't purchased tickets for the 2008 season yet, you might want to act quickly because tickets are going fast. Tickets for the Ohio State game on November 15 and Iowa on November 1 are already sold out, while tickets for the Indiana and Minnesota games are nearing sellout status. Tickets in the horseshoe section are already sold out for the season, due largely in part to $77 for the season package. The first five rows of Memorial Stadium, normally blocked off due to poor sight lines because of players standing on the sidelines, have been opened up for the Indiana and Minnesota games and expect to be gone soon.
September 6th figures to be a landmark day for the Fighting Illini for many reasons. Deemed the Illinois Renissance Celebration and rededication of the renovation to Memorial Stadium, many former Illini are expected to be in attendance. Several former players have already announced that they will be attending the event, among them Craig Swoope, Dana Howard, Joe Rutgens, Kurt Kittner, Rich Kreitling, Mike Martin, Jack Trudeau, Dick Butkus and Don Thorp, with many others soon to follow. The former greats are part of the 10 greatest players at each position, with each group being recognized at one of the 8 timeouts during the game. To further enhance the festivities, the current Illini squad will be donning throwback jerseys for that game.
All news from the Illini nation is not good, however. Oft-troubled shooting guard Jamar Smith, who was reinstated to the basketball program after a school imposed redshirt stemming from the February 14, 2007 accident that seriously injured former Illini player Brian Carlwell, was once again caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Smith was on probation from the incident and last weekend was picked up once again for underage drinking. Coach Bruce Weber issued a brief statement saying in effect that Smith has been dismissed from the team, but would not further comment on the situation due to court legalities. Smith, who was expected to be one of the Illini's best shooters, has had a rough time since the incident involving Carlwell on that snowy night nearly a year and a half ago. And it's a shame too, that the young man has chosen this course for his life. It brings to mind other former Illini players such as Larry Smith and Ervin Small, both who saw their careers come to an end because of bad choices. My hope is that Jamar will decide to get his life back on track and decide that what has happened is not the way he wanted things to go. I do think that Weber made the right decision, and still stand by my opinion that he should never been given a second chance after that first incident.
Upcoming blogs will preview the 2008 Illini football season and the happenings from Camp Rantoul as the season opener draws closer.