With training camp beyond the halfway point in completion, some interesting battles are being had on Ron Zook's football team. Offensively, there isn't much different, as previously noted, but playing time might become a factor once everyone hits their stride. Defensively, it is a different story. We all know that the Illini have the capability to put a lot of points on the board, but keeping the other team from doing the same may be the difference between a mediocre season and one that is deemed special. Veterans Doug Pilcher and Clay Nurse return on the line, as well as Josh Brent. Brent, as many are aware, had some off-the-field problems that led to his being suspended for a brief time during spring workouts. But, all seems to be well again and he is back in the mix of things. Sirrod Williams also returns, as does Cory Liuget, the outstanding sophomore from Florida. The presence of these behemoths will go a long way towards the success of the defense. Linebacker looks to be a position that will see an overhaul with the loss of Brit Miller to the NFL. Nate Bussey, who played in the secondary last season, moves into the position with Dere Hicks, Dustin Jefferson, Ian Thomas and Martez Wilson. Wilson is the stalwart on defense, and seems to be built even more than he was last season, which can only be good news to Zook and company. To replace Bussey in the secondary, Miami Thomas, Supo Sanni, and a couple of freshmen, Walter Aikens and Joelil Thrash may be asked to step into the fire. Bo Flowers, Russell Ellington and Tavon Wilson will also be there, which provides even more stability. After the annual Rantoul scrimmage last Saturday evening, the offense proved that they will be lethal, with a handful of big plays from scrimmage. Daniel Dufrene broke an 80 yard run on the first play, and later on, Juice Williams hit wide reciever Jeff Cumberland down the sideline for 70 plus yards. It will be plays like these that will make the 2009 edition of the Fighting Illini exciting to watch. What remains to be seen is how the defense will hold up.
Continuing my look at the Big Ten for 2009, this week focuses on the bottom 6 teams, in no particular order. The Wisconsin Badgers are known for their beefy offensive lines, and they may need them more than ever this season. On a team that went 7-6 in 2008, they lost their top rusher, as well as three kee members of their offensive line. Coach Bret Bielema will need to find replacements for those spots to improve on their record from a year ago. Quarterback Dustin Sherer, as well as a couple of his top receivers, so that is not a far-fetched goal.
Northwestern is a team that is hard to figure. The Wildcats are coached by a great young mind in Pat Fitzgerald, but they are going to be without three of their offensive weapons of a year ago when they finished 9-4 overall and 5-3 in the conference. Quarterback C. J. Bacher, tailback Tyrell Sutton and wideout Eric Peterman are all gone, leaving not much in its wake.
Purdue will be under new leadership this season following the retirement of Joe Tiller. All Tiller did in his 12 seasons leading the Boilermakers was take them to 11 bowl games, a tremendous accomplishment for a school that hadn't been to a bowl game for 13 years before his arrival. New coach Danny Hope will inherit a team that lost quarterback Curtis Painter and wide receiver Greg Orton, but returns almost their entire offensive line. For Purdue to have the success that Tiller instilled to the program, that offensive front will need to protect the new signal caller. Indiana might be in for a long season, losing perhaps one of their best players in quite some time, Kellen Lewis, who was a great option quarterback. Also losing their top running back Marcus Thigpen, as well as their placekicker Austin Starr from a team that went just 3-9 overall and 1-7 in league play a year ago, means that a rebuilding year is on the horizon.
The Iowa Hawkeyes return their quarterback from a team that finished 9-4 a year ago, and it will be up to Ricky Stanzi to lead the offense to bigger and better things in 2009. However, replacing running back Shonn Greene will be a question that coach Kirk Ferentz will have to deal with in terms of where the scoring will come from. Iowa has had marked success in the past few years, so being there before may just be the anecdote that they need.
Finally, the Minnesota Golden Gophers return 53 letterwinners from a year ago, including quarterback Adam Weber and receivers Eric Decker and Brandon Green. Coach Tim Brewster, who led the Gophers to a bowl game last year, finished the season at 7-6 overall. Minnesota will unveil TCF Bank Stadium this fall, a brand new outdoor stadium that will replace the Metrodome. Can you imagine football in November, in Minnesota outdoors? Opponents must be cringing at that very thought.
Anyway, that is a look at the conference for 2009. The Fighting Illini open the regular season in about 2 weeks in St. Louis in the annual border battle against Missouri. Should be exciting!
Speaking of exciting, Illinois unveiled their 2009-2010 Men's Basketball schedule on Wednesday, and it is highlighted by the first visit ever by ESPN College Gameday, which will be coming to campus on February 6 when Michigan State visits the Assembly Hall. This is a big deal for several reasons, namely the exposure that the program will get as a result. You see places like Durham, North Carolina (Duke), Chapel Hill, North Carolina (UNC), and even Lexington, Kentucky (UK) being showcased all the time, but Champaign-Urbana? This time you will. Among the other highlights to the schedule are non-conference visits by Vanderbilt and Boise State. The annual United Center game in Chicago, normally in December each year, will be on January 2 of 2010 because of the Fresno State football game on December 5th. The Illini are on the road for the Big Ten/ACC Challenge this year at Clemson, and the Illini also travel to Duluth, Georgia to face the Georgia Bulldogs in the return game from last season in Chicago. The Illini open the regular season on November 13 against newly minted D-I school SIU-Edwardsville. The full schedule can be found by pointing your web browser to www.fightingillini.com
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