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.

Monday, August 30, 2010

It's Game Week!

The long three weeks of Camp Rantoul is now history and classes have started at the University of Illinois, so that can mean only one thing: Let There Be Football! Ron Zook leads his Fighting Illini football team into the Edward Jones Dome this Saturday to battle the Missouri Tigers in what amounts to the final installment of the State Farm Arch Rivalry between the two schools. The series hasn't exactly been kind to the Illini, as they have been defeated by Missouri every time in the five year history of the series. So, in a sense, you can say that the Illini are kind of glad to see this rivalry come to an end. The Illini have undergone a lot of changes since last season ended, so you may not recognize what you see on the field come Saturday. Several new coaches, as well as a host of new players will make their debut, and to add insult to injury, literally have had some bad luck with players getting hurt coming out of camp. First there was offensive lineman Corey Lewis, who sustained an injury in spring ball and will miss the entire season. Then, safety Supo Sanni, who was penciled in to start in the secondary for the opener, fell victim to an injury of his own and will miss the season as well. Next to go down was tight end/fullback Zach Becker, who sustained yet another stress fracture in his foot, the third such injury to sideline Becker since his high school days at St. joseph-Ogden. Becker is likely to miss up to 3 weeks, but said he might be back for the Ohio State game. If that wasn't enough to make you shake your head, sophomore cornerback Terry Hawthorne hurt his foot, and will miss 4-6 weeks. According to reports that have surfaced within the past week, Hawthorne had this injury during Camp Rantoul and neglected to say anything about it, hoping it would get better on its own. According to Zook, prior knowledge of the injury could have prevented any further damage and kept him playing instead of looking from the sidelines.

So, where does these chain of events leave the Illini? Consider this: some offensive players are now moving to the defensive side of the ball in order to fill needed spots for the opening game. Converted wide receiver Jack Ramsey is now playing cornerback, and running back Justin Green will also be switched to the corner position. Ironic as it is, Green was recruited by Ohio State as a defensive back and was rumored headed there before the Illini stepped in and offered him a chance to play running back, which he wanted to do. So, it is no suprise that Green was a logical choice to make the switch. Freshman wideout Steve Hull will also switch sides of the ball and play safety in place of Sanni. This puts the secondary on a thin basis, and no doubt the Missouri offense will try and test the Illini early and often. Blaine Gabbard, the Tiger quarterback, had a great game last season against Illinois and all signs point to the same type of success happening.

It is apparent that the Illini get off to a good start this season, because another lackluster start like they have had the previous few seasons (the Rose Bowl year nonwithstanding), will simply not be good enough. The natives are getting restless in Illini Nation, and a 1-2 or even 0-3 start out of the gate may put some people over the edge and the calls for Zook's head may get louder still. Not saying that this will happen, but it is entirely possible for the Illini to go down to St. Louis on Saturday and get pummeled again, then come home with their heads between their legs and get beat by SIU. Momentum is key here, and a slow start to the season will kill any hopes of getting to a bowl. These latest injuries certainly do not help matters any, but we will just have to wait and see what transpires as a result. At this point, it's anyone's guess.

The Big Ten is set to announce the conference divisions on Wednesday night, and the Big Ten Network will cover the announcement live on its channel beginning at 6:00 pm central time. Be listening to WGCY or go online to listen around the world at for the latest regarding this. So much speculation has been generated by this, and it is almost time to find out what will be the result. In the meantime, did I mention it's Game Week?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Getting Defensive - Literally

It is often said that defense wins championships. Judging from the performance of the Fighting Illini defensive unit the past couple of seasons, that might stand the reason why you don't see too many championship trophies in the football office complex. The Illini will look somewhat different on defense this season, and leading the charge is Vic Koenning, who takes over the defensive coordinator duties and also coaches the defensive backs. Koenning comes from Kansas State, where he spent last season coaching the Wildcats as a co-defensive coordinator. Koenning has been a head coach in the past, taking the reins at Wyoming from 2000-2002. He inherits a defensive unit that gave up a lot of points in 2009, and at some times last season, it didn't matter how many points the offense scored because the defense would give up just as many, or in some cases, even more. Koenning has vowed to change the philosophy of the mindset that people have about the state of the defense.

Anchoring the defensive line will be returning starters Clay Nurse and Cory Liuget. Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence, and Daryle Ballew will also see quite a bit of action up front. The linebacking corps has potential and want to get the reputation back as being known for Illinois producing great linebackers. Back after an injury last season is Butkus Award candidate Martez Wilson, who looks ready to resume his fine Illini career. Ian Thomas and Dustin Jefferson are also expected to contribute heavily, as is Justin Staples and Nate Palmer. Early in training camp, a true freshman has emerged at the linebacker spot in Jonathan Brown. Brown has looked very good thus far, and could very well challenge some of the veterans at the two-deep spot before the season begins. Senior Aaron Gress will also see significant playing time, as will freshman Austin Teitsma, who reminds me a little bit of Brit Miller.

Probably one of the deepest areas of the entire defense lies in the secondary, where there are several players vying for just a handful of positions. Returning starters Tavon Wilson and Nate Bussey anchor this group of players, while Terry Hawthorne and Supo Sanni also will be on the first team defense. Miami Thomas, who has battled injuries during his brief Illini career, hopes to make it an entire season healthy, but after having surgery on both knees the past couple of seasons, is a step slow and therefore, may not contribute as much as originally planned. Also expected in the mix are Joelil Thrash, Ashante Williams, and Travon Bellamy. Walt Aikens, who had some off the field issues that led to a suspension earlier in the summer, has been cleared to practice for the time being, pending the University investigation into the reason why he was suspended. Therefore, the jury is out whether or not he will be there to contend for any playing time. Junior college transfer Trulon Henry, who happens to be the older brother of NFL rookie Arrelious Benn, is expected to start at one of the corners, and even wears the same number as his brother. In talking with him before training camp, he actually wanted to wear number 6, but Chris James had that one already spoken for, so he turned the number upside down and went with 9. Also looking to fit into the mix are Patrick Nixon-Youman and late signee Fritz Rock. As deep as the secondary is, the main concern is whether or not these individuals will be able to make the plays to keep the offense in games.

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past few years, you realize that the defense has been very porous over the previous seasons, and expectations are not very high as the team continues their Camp Rantoul session. Heading into the Missouri game each season, one wonders when they will turn it around and start the season on a winning note.

Coming next week, a look at the special teams units and a full report on the goings on at Camp Rantoul as the Fighting Illini wrap up training camp and head back to campus to begin classes for the 2010 Fall Semester.

Friday, August 13, 2010

2010 Fighting Illini Football Preview - Part 1

In the weeks leading up to the start of the 2010 season when the Illini play in St. Louis against the Missouri Tigers, I will be heading up to Camp Rantoul several times to look at the current Illini squad and offer my take on what I see unfolding. Here is the first such installment after taking in workouts earlier this week. What follows is the offensive preview for the upcoming season:

The offense that Illinois trots out on the field on September 4th at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis will look vastly different than squads of the past. Gone is Juice Williams, and for a lot of Illini faithful, the consensus is good riddance. Enter Nathan Scheelhaase, a redshirt freshman from Kansas City, Missouri who is much smaller than the aforementioned Williams, but apparently more mobile in the pocket. Experience will be an issue with Scheelhaase, as he is one of three quarterbacks on the roster that has never thrown a collegiate pass. Backing him up are true freshmen Chandler Whitmer and Miles Osei, the latter of which seems likely to redshirt this season. Don't be surprised to see Eddie McGee take some snaps as well, as he worked out under center a little last week.

Running the ball shouldn't be an issue for the Illini, as they return their top 4 rushers from a year ago. Led by Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford, the ground game seems poised to continue its greatness under new offensive coordinator Paul Petrino. When Petrino was introduced as the new OC last spring, he unveiled his philosophy to "Feed The Studs", or FTS as he so mildly put it. With horses such as Leshoure and Ford, that shouldn't be a problem. Also returning to the mix is Troy Pollard and Justin Green, who are both fully healed and should be ready to contribute. Added to the mix is redshirt freshman Bud Golden, who may be asked to fill in on certain situations.

On the receiving end of things, gone is Arrelious "Regus" Benn to the NFL, but a stable of speedsters remain. Catching the ball may be the toughest part with this group, and here's hoping that Scheelhaase can get the rock to them. Chris James, Jarrod Fayson, and A. J. Jenkins anchor the cast returning for one more go at it. It was Jenkins that was here, then all but gone from the program, then back again. He said that it was the philosophy of the new offensive coordinator that played a huge part in his decision to return to the team, and thinks he can catch a lot of passes as a result. Added to the mix of this talented group are Fred Sykes and true freshman Steve Hull, as well as a pair of players from the Sunshine State with blazing speed, Darius Millines and Ryan Lankford. Head Coach Ron Zook has said early on that several true freshmen may see action in the beginning of the season, and those two speedsters in particular may be among the ones that see action early. Rounding out the receiving corps are the tight ends, which can be used in several different capacities. They can block on the line, come out of the backfield as an H-Back, or go for the occasional pass as well. Early favorites at the position include local product Zach Becker, Justin Lattimore, and London Davis. Becker appears to be the favorite right now, and said that he will either come out of the backfield as a fullback, or be used in the tight end formation. Whatever the situation calls for and the coaches want, Becker is willing to contribute in any way that he can.

Of course, it all starts up on the offensive line, and those horses pave the way for the glamour position players to do their jobs. The O-Line is experienced, and should give Scheelhaase plenty of time to work. Jeff Allen and Randall Hunt anchor a line that has a lot of upside, and with Ryan Palmer, Hugh Thornton and Graham Pocic returning as well, should bolster the rotation pretty well. Add Corey Lewis and Craig Wilson in there as well, and you have some much needed depth for this group, that will need some breathers every now and then, especially early in the season when the temperature is still an issue. The offensive line has taken some heat in the past for not allowing Juice to move in the backfield like he was meant to do, but hopefully that mindset has passed and this year's group can put that behind them and move on to bigger and better things.

It is hard to predict how a team will do by simply watching them in training camp, but for a team that finished 3-9 a year ago, the prognosis is not rosy. There are a lot of undecideds about this particular Illini team, and as it has for the past few seasons, will begin on a neutral field against the Missouri Tigers on Labor Day Weekend. The excitement level has been there for the past 2 meetings, but soon has leveled off considerably once the lights went down and the team returned to reality. This year, the expectations are not nearly as high, so there is room for some optimism. The defense will play a huge role in that, and next week, I will break down the defense group by group and assess what needs to be done in order for the Illini to start the season off on a winning note. Until then.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Big Ten Football - Let the games begin!

Now that the calendar has turned to August, most people's attention turn to the gridiron and the start of football season. Unless you are a fan of the Chicago White Sox or St. Louis Cardinals, this season cannot come soon enough. This season's Big Ten football campaign promises yet again to be another competitive one, with the usual band of suspects near the top regaining that status. The season officially kicked off on Monday and Tuesday with the Big Ten Media Days at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place in Chicago. All 11 coaches, as well as commissioner Jim Delaney and director of officials Bill Carollo were available to the media for interviews. The top 3 teams, as selected by the attending media contingent, for the preseason included Ohio State, Iowa and Wisconsin in that order. No surprise that the Illini were nowhere near that list, and what follows is a brief snippet of all 11 coaches and their prospects on the upcoming season.

First on the podium was Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema. Bielema is beginning his fifth season at
the helm of the Badgers, and doesn't feel any immense pressure on being selected as the #3
team in the preseason conference standings. A main knock on Bielema in the past was not
being more media friendly, something he hopes to change this
season. Already during the summer,
he welcomed a television crew into his home for a cooking lesson, and played golf with a writer. Also thinks that the evolution of
social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter have
changed the game a bit, anywhere from keeping track of players to interactions with fans. As far as his expectations for the season, they have a lot of fifth year seniors, led by their quarterback Scott Tolzien. The flux of experience will hopefully mean great things for Bielema and the Badgers this season.

The second coach to take the mike was Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald.
Being the youngest coach in the league, he is once again dealing with another quarterback that has seen limited action in games. In regards to the Wildcats' meeting with the Fighting Illini at Wrigley Field in November, he likes the idea and thinks it will be nothing but a positive boos
t for the program, not to mention a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play on the same field as George Halas and Gale Sayers.Fitzgerald still thinks about the play in last season's Outback Bowl, and how it could have gone differently. But, it was just one of about 50 plays that could have gone either way and the game was more or less forgotten once he got off the plane after returning home.
Next to speak was Illinois coach Ron Zook. Zook, who is entering his seventh season as coach of the Fighting Illini, has faced some intense pressure over the summer, as recruiting took a bit of a downturn and several new coaches were hired to replace ones that were let go during the off-season. Still, Zook remains optimistic that they can rebound this
season said today that this season's team looks better on paper than the 2008 Rose Bowl team. Well, football games are not played on paper, they are played by little men inside your television set. Not sure who said that quote, but it was pointed out to me up in Chicago and I thought that this was a fitting occasion to use it. Quarterback will be a major question, as the top 3 signal callers on the roster have thrown a grand total of 0 passes between them. That being said, Eddie McGee, who converted to wide
receiver from quarterback last season, has the most experience of any player on the roster at that position. Not a good situation to be in, but hopefully Nathan Scheelhaase, who was named the starter earlier in the summer, can mature quickly and be the type of signal caller that he can be.

Speaking of hot seats, the next coach that came to the podium was Michigan coach Rich
Rodriguez. Rodriguez has endured much criticism during his short tenure, mainly because of not getting the job done. The Ohio State-Michigan rivalry is one like no other, and often a coach's legacy is determined by how often they beat the other team. One wonders if Rodriguez cannot get the job done this season, how hot
the seat will get in Ann Arbor. The tradition that Michigan football brings speaks a lot, and Rodriguez said that one of the main concerns of the Wolverine fan base was for the team to win more games, something that he hopes to change. He went on to say that is is never easy as a coach to please everyone, and ever the showman, said that he would choose to go for 2 points almost always instead of kicking an extra point if the game was on the line. Statements like that certainly cannot endear him to the hostile Michigan fan base.

Michigan State's Mark D'Antonio was next on the list, and started off by saying that their team will pretty much evolve around Greg Jones, who was voted as the preseason defensive player of the year by the Big Ten media. The Spartans have a lot of depth returning, and are looking to
improve on a season that saw them go to yet another bowl game.
In D'Antonio's 3 seasons in East Lansing, they have been to a bowl game each and every year. The quarterback returns for Michigan State, Kirk Cousins, and has quite an array of receivers to go to. They return a stable of receivers, as well as all four tight ends from a year ago. The main concern, according to D'Antonio, will be at running back, where they saw five different players last season see action. Once that hurdle is cleared, the Spartans may very well be on the road to yet another bowl appearance.

Indiana's Bill Lynch was next on the dais, and his main concern was finishing games, citing they were about 12 plays from having a great season in 2009 and qualifying for a pretty good
bowl game. The Hoosiers return their quarterback,
Ben Chappell, as well as one of the top receivers in Tandon Doss.
In addition to catching the ball, Doss is down right dangerous on special teams, being the main returner on both punts and kickof
fs. Lynch said that once Doss catches the ball, he is tough to bring down, but getting him the ball will be the main concern. They worked very hard in the spring and summer, and brought in a
couple of junior college transfers at the corners in the secondary, which will no doubt bolster their defense.

Taking the stand next was Purdue coach Danny Hope, who was excited to report that they had over 90 players on campus during the summer workout sessions, so team chemistry will be key going into the season. He talked about the slow start that the
Boilermakers had in 2009, but also added that they finished strong, including a dramatic win over Ohio State in West Lafayette. Regarding expansion of the leafue, Hope said that he
welcomes the idea of new rivalry games, but also wanted the
current rivalry games with Indiana, Illinois and Michigan State to remain intact as well. The Boilers should be well represented at
running back and the receiver position, but the quarterback slot may be another story, as they are inexperienced there.

A fan and media favorite, Joe Paterno, took the podium next, and as usual, had the media in attendance in stitches with his quips and one-liners. Never one to shy away from a question, Joe Pa was cornered with the question that he seems to get every year, when he will step down as
coach of the Nittany Lions. And, the answer that he gives every year, is that he has no plans to retire. After all, he has been doing this for 44 years, and probably will continue until he can no longer coach effectively. When posed with the question of what he think
s about Nebraska coming into the league, he recalled when Penn State came into the league and relished the idea, much as he doe
s now with the Cornhuskers set to debut in 2011. One wish that
Paterno had was if the conference does any additional expansion, that they find a couple teams from the eastern part of the country to cut down on the travel expenses for the Nittany Lions. Sounds like a winner of an idea to me.

Minnesota coach Tim Brewster spoke next, and was very humbled to be following the legend that is Joe Paterno. Brewster, who played his collegiate ball at Illinois, has been trying to
improve the non-conference scheduling of the Gophers, and with USC coming to the Twin Cities this fall, thinks he is well on the way to accomplishing that goal. Often in the past, Minnesota had scheduled a light pre-conference schedule, only to falter down th
e stretch, but with the early cupcake slate, almost assuredly qualified for a bowl game. Brewster likes the idea of quality teams coming into their new home, TCF Bank Stadium, and wants to
show it off as much as possible. On the field, Adam Weber returns behind center and with a good recruiting class in the off-season, looks to get back to a bowl game sooner, rather than later.

Kirk Ferentz hit the podium next, and is second to Paterno in years of service inside the league, beginning his 12th season in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes were picked to finish second in the preseason by the media, and Ferentz understands the lofty expectations that come with that.
Offensively, the Hawkeyes have lost some linemen, but return quarterback Ricky Stanzi to lead the offense, James Vandeburg stepped in last season when Stanzi was injured, but going into fall camp it is Stanzi who will lead them. Ferentz hopes that they can replace some of the depleted linemen to help protect his signal caller. As most of the coaches today concurred, Ferentz likes the idea of expansion, and with Nebraska set to come aboard next
season, is excited of the instant rivalry that will be created from this game. Iowa and Nebraska border each other, and it could very well become a game along the lines of Ohio State and Michigan.

The final coach to speak was Ohio State coach Jim Tressel. Tressel, who is beginning his 1oth season in Columbus, knows that being the preseason favorite comes with a target on their backs. The Buckeyes also have the conference's preseason offensive play
er of the year in quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Tressel knows that they will get everyone's best shot when they play the Buckeyes, and even though they lost a lot of seniors last season, knows that they will bounce back, especially with Pryor leading the offense. Regarding the expansion question, Tressel likes the idea of new rivalries being created, but doesn't think that it will hurt the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry at all.

Later in the day, commissioner Jim Delaney met the media and pretty much gave the idea that there will be a Big Ten Championship game, starting as early as the 2012 season. Details are very sketchy at this point, and more information will definitely be forthcoming once Nebraska officially joins the league next July.

11 coaches, 1 exciting day of speculation. Yes, sports fans, football season is here!