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 www.fightingillini.com 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!