Illinois: 2010 saw the Illini go 7-6 with an impressive bowl win over Baylor. Though the season ended on a high note there were plenty of disappointments from blown opportunities for a much better record. Illinois blew games against a very mediocre Michigan, and Fresno State on the road, and a horrible Minnesota squad at home. Though they only graduated five seniors from the 2010 team, their biggest losses come in the early departures of three junior standouts, running back Mikel Leshour, defensive tackle Corey Liuget, and linebacker Martez Wilson. Liuget and Wilson are the biggest shows to fill as they were the heart of the Illini defense. Wilson garnered first team all-conference honors, while Liuget received second team. Together they helped Illinois to the 22nd ranking in creating turnovers with 27.
Offensively the Illini appear to have found their quarterback in the person of dual threat Nathan Scheelhasse. Scheelhaase, seeing his first action as a redshirt-freshman finished with a respectable 58.7 completion percentage that included 17 TD’s and 8 INT’s. He also was effective as a runner, rushing for 868 yards and 5 touchdowns on 185 attempts. It may come as a surprise to some, but Illinois has led the conference in rushing three times since 2006, and finished second once. Their five year per game rushing total is the best in the conference, besting Wisconsin by almost 7 yards. The loss of Leshour to the NFL will be difficult to replace but not impossible as junior Jason Ford and RE freshman Bud Golden are capable of shouldering much of the workload. With four starters returning to an offensive front that paved the way for 246.1 yards per game average, the Illini running backs should not experience a significant drop off in production. Of the four Illini offensive linemen returning, two received honors for their performances. Tackle Jeff Allen received second team and honorable mention by the media and coaches, respectively. Center Graham Pocic receiving honorable mention from both. The top two in receptions return, A.J. Jenkins and Jarred Fayson at wide receiver, while lightly used Evan Wilson holds down the starting TE position. The Illinois offense is under the guidance of Paul Petrino, brother of Arkansas head coach Bobby, and considered to be just as innovative offensively
Defensively much of the credit has to go to defensive coordinator Vic Koenning for the improved play of this unit. Having Wilson and Liuget didn’t hurt, but overall the Illini defense made huge improvement in all defensive categories. They were averaging a very respectable 16.8 points per game prior to the Michigan debacle where they surrendered 67 in a triple overtime loss. The Illini return 6 starters from last years defense, with the defensive line and linebacking units requiring the replacement of two players each. The secondary returns three from a unit that recorded 11 interceptions. Akeem Spence appears ready to take over for the departed Liuget. Spence was named to the freshman All-America team by the FWAA last year having been credited with 45 tackles, 4 TFL’s and 1 quarterback sack. The other returning starter is junior Michael Buchanan who plays a hybrid DE position. Buchanan registered 40 tackles, 5.5 TFLS, and 2 sacks, 2 pass breakups, and one fumble recovery. These two form a good nucleus to what will be a very young but talented front line. Ian Thomas is the lone returning member of the linebacking trio, and was fourth on the team in tackles in 2010 with 67. Sophomore Jonathan Brown has the inside edge to earn a spot after having saw action in 12 games as a true freshman last season. Similar to the defensive front the linebackers will be another young unit. The majority of the returning experience resides in the secondary with returning starters sophomore Justin Green at CB, and junior safety’s Trulon Henry and Tavon Wilson. Henry and Wilson received All-Big Ten honorable mention by both the media and coaches, so their leadership and experience should provide benefits.
Special teams took a bit of a hit with the graduation of punter Anthony Santella, taking with him his 44.8 yard average. He placed 19 of his 64 punts inside the 20 yard line and forced 9 to be fair caught. Expect Illinois to lose a little in the field position game in 2011. Place kicking is in the capable hands of junior Derek Dimke who garnered second-team All-Big honors by the coaches after making 24 of 29 field goals and all 43 of his extra point attempts for a total of 115 points. Dimke also connected on a career long of 52 yards against Missouri.
Outlook: I’ll give credit to Ron Zook for realizing it was best that he delegate his authority and allow his coordinators to handle the majority of the game day decisions in 2010. Zook is a terrific recruiter, but just seems to lack that ingredient that distinguishes great coaches from mediocre. With a solid coaching staff assembled 2011 should usher in another bowl season. Based on their schedule they should at the minimum finish with 7 wins during the regular season. The potential to win ten will depend on three swing games, Arizona State, Northwestern and Penn State. Win those and their most likely losses will be to Ohio State and Wisconsin. I have the Illini going 5-3 in the conference with wins over Northwestern, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan and Minnesota, and losses to Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin.