Coming off of a 38-14 win over Baylor in the 2010 Texas Bowl, Ron Zook and the Fighting Illini are looking for bigger and better things as the 2011 season begins. Looking at the defensive side of the ball, a couple of key departures and some position switching has left more questions than answers as Camp Rantoul wraps up and the team begins preparation for their first
regular season game of the season. Gone are stalwarts Corey Liuget and Martez Wilson, and the absence of those two players leave a gaping hole for defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. Stepping over the line of scrimmage to the defense is former offensive tackle Craig Wilson (right, #79) into Liuget's spot, and so far the switch has been one that produced some early dividends. According to Koenning, he should have made the switch with Wilson last season to let him play behind Liuget to give him some experience instead of him learning on the job. Also on the D-Line are Akeem Spence and Whitney Mercilus, two players who saw significant action last season. In the bandit position is Michael Buchanan, who also saw quite a bit of field time a year ago.
The linebacking corps sustained a major hit with the loss of Wilson to the NFL last season, but should return several key players to make up his absence. Trulon Henry moves up a little bit, but will still be essentially be playing his safety position, just a little closer to the line of scrimmage. Ian Thomas also returns at the (Mike) linebacker spot, while sophomore Jonathan Brown and redshirt freshman Houston Bates will battle it out at the (Sam) linebacker position. The (Will) linebacker spot will be flanked by Earnest Thomas for the meantime while Ashante Williams, who is currently suspended for an off-the-field incident, continues to try and get back in Ron Zook's good graces.
The secondary is perhaps one of the deepest areas on the entire roster,where between seven or eight players could contribute at any given moment. Terry Hawthorne (right #1) leads a talented
group of defenders at cornerback, and even though the job is his to lose for right now, Justin Green and Miami Thomas are battling for time on the field. At the other corner spot, Tavon Wilson is the odds-on favorite, with Jack Ramsey a more than capable backup in case something happens. The safety positions are still up in the air, but as of right now, Henry will occupy one of those spots, with Steve Hull battling Supo Sanni for the other side. Patrick Nixon-Youman will spell Henry if the need arises.
The area of special teams looks to be set, and even though the Illini will be starting 2011 with a new punter, due to the graduation of Anthony Santella, all appears to be safe at that spot as well. Derek Dimke will handle the placekicking duties, where he excelled last season. Dimke has been consistent since he arrived at Illinois, and this year appears to be no different. The punting situation was cloudy at best when training camp began, but cleared up significantly during Camp Rantoul when senior Matt Eller left the team when it was apparent that he would not be the starter come opening day. That nod will go to an incoming freshman, Justin Duvernois, who won the job outright. That led to Eller's decision to leave, and will also mean that Dimke could serve as a backup to Duvernois should something happen. Handling the punt return duties will be either Hawthorne or Ramsey, while Darius Millines and Troy Pollard will be returning kickoffs. Now, this personnel could very well change as the days leading up to the first game get closer.
Speaking of the first game, the Illini will welcome the Red Wolves of Arkansas State to Memorial Stadium to officially kickoff the 2011 season this coming Saturday (2:30 pm, BTN). The Red Wolves are coached by Hugh Freeze and finished the 2010 season with a 4-8 record. The Red Wolves are led by their quarterback Ryan Aplin, who completed 61.5% of his passes a year ago, and threw for nearly 3000 yards and 21 touchdowns. Arkansas State plays in the Sun Belt Conference, and have not played the Illini since the 2002 season. The Illini hold a 2-0 edge in the series, both games being played in Champaign.
It's been quite a lengthy off-season, but it is finally game week! Let the speculation begin in earnest. It's time to settle this on the field!