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 27, 2011

Getting Defensive with the Defense - Illini style

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!

Thursday, August 18, 2011


The Fighting Illini football team has begun their annual training camp sessions, otherwise known as Camp Rantoul, on the former Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul. If you are looking at the team for maybe the first time this season, you will undoubtedly notice some differences from last year's team, but at the same time, much of the 2010 squad returns intact. Here now is the first part of a three part preview on training camp, as well as a position-by-position look at the 2011 Fighting Illini.

If there is one thing that is abundantly clear from the start, this year's Illini team should have no problem scoring points, although their workhorse tailback of last season, Mikel Leshoure, opted to turn pro and forego his senior season. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase returns to lead the offense, and after throwing for nearly 2000 yards and running for almost 1000 more as a redshirt freshman last season, is poised to put up even better numbers this time around. While Scheelhaase has the signal calling locked up for the time being, he is being challenged in camp by freshman Reilly O'Toole, who has been having a good first two weeks and taking the majority of the backup snaps. But that doesn't mean that O'Toole will supplant the second string quarterback job from Miles Osei, who has a year of experience under his belt. At this time, there is no sense of burning O'Toole's redshirt just to get him on the field for a few plays. Would the unfortunate circumstance occur of Scheelhaase getting hurt, then you might look to getting O'Toole on the field.

With the loss of Leshoure, the Illini had few options at the running back spot returning, the only real possibility being Jason Ford. Ford came into training camp a few pounds over where Zook and the coaching staff wanted him, but still should see the bulk of the carries this season. However, two freshmen backs are making their case for playing time, as Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson are both having a great training camp and making the tailback position that much more competitive. The situation with Young and Ferguson has caused Bud Golden to leave the program, Golden being pushed down on the depth chart far enough below even Troy Pollard.

The receiving corps will be one of the Illini's strengths this season, as senior A. J. Jenkins leads a talented group of wideouts on the field. Scheelhaase will have plenty of options to throw to, led by sophomores Ryan Lankford and Darius Millines. Spencer Harris, another sophomore, has looked good early on, as has true freshman Jordan Frysinger. Clemson transfer Brandon Clear has also looked good early on, and may challenge Jenkins and some of the others for catches.

The tight end position in the past has been one that has not been utilized by Illini coaches, but since the arrival of offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, they have integrated the tight end into their offensive sets. Sophomore Evan Wilson leads a talented young group of ends that should catch their share of balls. True freshmen John Davis and Matt LaCosse are both showing promise early on in camp, and senior Zach Becker seems to be healed from his injury plagued career at Illinois. Between the tight ends and the wide receivers, Nate Scheelhaase has a lot of options at his disposal.

Part of a good offensive ground and air game is the job the men up front do, and the offensive line is another strength that the Illini will bring into this season. Center Graham Pocic returns, as does guards Jack Cornell and Hugh Thornton. Tackle Jeff Allen also returns for his senior season, and the only question mark on the line is the spot that injured tackle Corey Lewis occupies. In Lewis' absence are two young players, Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic, who will see action until Lewis returns, whenever that may be.

Up next week, a look at the defense, which has some question marks with the departure of two key players that decided to take their game to the next level a year early.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Are You Ready For Some Football......Big 10 Style?

Now that the calendar has rolled around to August, it is time to think about football and other happenings on the gridiron. The Big Ten Conference held its annual Football Media Days last weekend at the Hyatt McCormick Place in Chicago, and as is the case at this time of year, expectations are running high for all of the teams in the league. The conference will have quite a different look this season, as a new member joins the league for the first time since Penn State came aboard in 1990. Nebraska is the twelfth school to enter the conference, and their arrival will make possible the first ever league championship game, set to take place on Saturday, December 3rd at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Four new coaches will also lead squads as the season begins, and one of those is coming into a situation that is unenviable for anyone. But, more on that later. Now, a look around the league to see what everyone is thinking as the season commences.

Illinois coach Ron Zook (right) was the first coach to take the podium in front of the me
dia contingent. Running back seems to be the major concern, as Mikel Leshoure declared early for the draft, leaving the Illini with only one sure back, and due to some off the field
incidents last spring, is even a question mark as their training camp begins. True freshman Donovonn Young might see some action, and even though Zook has not seen him work out, is impressed by what he has heard. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase will lead the offense, and is backed by a veteran offensive line that returns virtually contingent, and as expected, the outlook for the Illini are running high. Coming off of a bowl victory in the Texas Bowl last December, Zook and company will need to fill in someholes left by some key departures for greener pastures in the NFL.

When Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema (right) went recruiting last spring, he didn't intend on finding a quality quarterback like Russell Wilson. Wilson, who is a transfer, was
highly sought after, and according to Bielema, they did an extensive background check on him to make sure that "they weren't bringing a problem into Madison". The Badgers are the odds on favorite to represent the Leaders Division in Indianapolis, and with four night games this season, should have plenty of national exposure. Bielema is especially looking forward to the game at Soldier Field in Chicago against Northern Illinois, citing that a game in the Windy City will be great for the program and could be a boost to recruiting as well.

Purdue coach Danny Hope (right) thinks that the Big 1o Championship game being played
indoors is a great idea, even though all of the venues in the league are outdoors.
Also, it doesn't hurt that the game is being played right down the road in Indianapolis,which if they are fortunate to get there, will have a huge fan following for the game. But, to get that fa
r, the Boilermakers need to get past the likes of Wisconsin and Penn State, and coming into the season with a two-pronged quarterback tandem of Robert Marve and Rob Henry will hopefully get them on the right path. Also, Purdue brough in a new strength and conditioning person in the off-season, so they are in great shape as the season begins.

Perhaps the biggest story of the off-season in the Big Ten, if not the entire country,
was the scandal in Columbus involving several Ohio State players that eventually led to the dismissal of Jim Tressel. Replacing Tressel at the helm of the Buckeyes is assistant coach Luke Fickell (right), who is walking into quite a firepit. Fickell wants to focus on what they have, not what they don't have, and the absence of several key players involved in the scandal is mainly what he is talking about. Before all of this went down, Ohio State probably was the favorite to win the prestigious Leaders Division, but that is no more. In order for the Buckeyes to represent this division, some magic will have to occur.

Indiana has a new coach this season in Kevin Wilson (right), and from all indications early on, it appears that the Hoosiers are moving in the right direction with this new hire. Wilson, who claimed that he has never watched a down of last season's Indiana team, has gotten off to a good start on the recruiting trail, landing highly touted quarterback Gunner Kiel of nearby Columbus, Indiana. Although Wilson could not speak about Kiel due to NCAA rules, he did saythat recruiting has started off on a good path since he arrived in Bloomington. The coaching staff that Wilson has assembled at Indiana will be no strangers to the Big Ten coaching rigors, since 13 of the 15 on the staff have coached in the conference at one point in their careers. Wilson himself coached under the late Randy Walker at Northwestern, so he is very familiar with coaching in the league. Seems like a good fit for the Hoosiers, and it also appears that Indiana may be on the rise as a result.

Penn State was the last team to join the Big Ten back in 1990, and long-time coach Joe Paterno (right) remembers it well being the "new kid on the block". Now beginning his
46th season as coach of the Nittany Lions, a lot of things have changed since JoPa took over in State College, and he is not sure how much longer he will continue to lead the Lions. Health
issues limited him last season, and he hopes that this season will be much better for him. When asked about the various scandals going on in college sports today, all Paterno wanted to say on the matter was that incidents were handled differently back in the "old days". He cited a specific example of disciplining a player without any knowledge from outside influences. With the advent of the internet and other social media outlets these days, that would no longer be possible.

The Legends Division features the other six teams in the league, including the newcomer to the conference in Nebraska. The Cornhuskers are coached by Bo Pelini (right), and he is
excited to be in the Big Ten because that means that they have 11 new opponents on their schedule and they will be traveling to some new venues as well this year. Pelini didn't think that the Nebraska style fits any one conference better than the other, he just thinks that football is football and you settle
the game on the field. One of the players that was represented by Nebraska was their outstanding linebacker Lavonte David, who was one of the top players in the Big 12 last year, and may have been one of the best in the country at that position. Joining the Big Ten will undoubtedly be tough, and the schedule makers did them no favors, since they have a rigorous inaugural season in the conference.

Iowa had their share of incidents last season, as the issue with training led to several
players getting sick after the season ended was a somewhat major story. Head coach Kirk Ferentz (right) likes the idea of Nebraska in the league, because it gives the
Hawjeyes a new natural rivalry. The Hawkeyes and Cornhuskers will play a trophy game called The Heroes Game,set for the day after Thanksgiving. The schools share a border, and have been familiar with each other over the years, although they haven't played one another very often. Still, Iowa has to be considered to contend for the Legends Division title with the likes of Nebraska and Northwestern.

Michigan enters this season with a new coach, Brady Hoke (right),
who had a verypositive outlook coming into Ann Arbor. The annual rivalry game between the Wolverines and Ohio State will take on a new look this season, as both schools field new coaches as the season begins. Hoke likes the idea of playing the Buckeyes in the last game of the season, and the possibility exists that the two teams could play again the following week in the title game. Hoke said if it happens, it happens. The Wolverines will once again be led on the field by their scrambling quarterback Denard Robinson, who looks to have another big season in Ann Arbor.

Michigan State head coach Mark D'Antonio (right) brings a heavy heart into the start of this season, as he is a close friend of ousted Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, and thinks it
is "gut-wrenching" to see what is going on over in Columbus. The Spartans have a good chemistry on their team, and according to D'Antonio, that is one of the strong points that they have entering this season. Another strong point is Spartan quarterback Kirk Cousins, who is one of the top signal callers in the league, if not the nation. Michigan State has been known as a bruising football team over the past few years, and D'Antonio hopes that the perceived notion will continue.

Minnesota enters into this season with a new coach as well in former Northern Illinois coach Jerry Kill (right). Kill is no stranger to the Big Ten, having coached against several conference teams during his tenure with the Huskies in DeKalb. Kill plans on using
MarQueis Gray as the quarterback for the Gophers, although he may play some wide receiver as well at some point during the season. Kill doesn't have any specific recruiting needs that he gears toward Minnesota, just players that he thinks can play at that level. From his time at Northern, he recruited athletes that could have played in the Big Ten, but chose to play at a smaller level. This could have contributed to the success that Kill has has against Big Ten opponents over the years.

Northwestern will look to rebound from last season, when they lost their starting quarterback Dan Persa to a broken leg. Persa, who is once again healthy, but not 100%, will
look to anchor an offense that was very prolific a year ago, and had it not been for Persa's injury, may have beaten Illinois at Wrigley Field. Instead, the Illini prevailed, downing the Wildcats 48-27 to
become bowl eligible. Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald (right) knows firsthand what Persa is going through, as he himself broke his leg a couple of seasons ago, so he can help him out in getting back to the way he needs to be. The Wildcats are a senior-laden group, so they will look to finish out their collegiate careers on a high note.

The stars came out in Champaign on Saturday evening, as the Alumni basketball game featuring many former Illini greats took center stage at the Assembly Hall. Some of the greatest basketball players in Fighting Illini history took the court once again, in front of several thousand fans. Fan favorites such as Dee Brown, Deron Williams, James Augustine, Brian Cook, and many others dazzled one more time, and judging by how many former players are still playing either in the NBA or overseas, the level of play was pretty entertaining. Two of the older players in the game, Steven Bardo and Kendall Gill, still look like they could suit up and play with the younger guys. Before the alumni took the floor, the 2011-12 edition of the Illini conducted a scrimmage, one of 10 practices that are preparing them for a trip to Italy against some of the better European teams. With seven new players this coming season, the team will be a young bunch, and the extra practice time will hopefully remedy that situation.

On tap for next week, a trip to Camp Rantoul to check out the Fighting Illini's first week of training camp, preparing for the first football game of the season, set to kickoff Saturday, September 3rd at Memorial Stadium against the Red Wolves of Arkansas State.