Spring Report Card: Illinois

The first half of ASU's 2011 schedule certainly has its challenges and a road game at Illinois is one of the reasons for that. InsideIllini.com writer Jack Lyman gives Sun Devil fans an early glimpse into an opponent which should provide one the stiffest tests ASU will face this season.

Quick Facts

Head Coach: Ron Zook (7th year)

Illinois Record: 27-45

Overall Record: 50-59

Returning Lettermen: 31

Off. 15, Def. 14, ST 2

Lettermen Lost: 13

Offense

Returning Offensive Leaders

Passing: Sophomore Nathan Scheelhaase 6'-2", 195

155-264, 1,825 yards, 17 touchdowns, 8 interceptions

Rushing: Nathan Scheelhaase

185 carries, 868 yards, 5 touchdowns

Receiving: Senior A.J. Jenkins, 6'-0", 190

56 receptions, 746 yards, 7 touchdowns

The Illinois offense should be excellent this season, assuming there are no injuries to key personnel. Four experienced offensive linemen return, an excellent sophomore quarterback now has a year under his belt, the receivers are developing well, and there is a bevy of running backs capable of helping.

Illini coach Ron Zook considers the offensive line to be a strength of the offense. Upperclassmen Jeff Allen, Jack Cornell, Hugh Thornton and Graham Pocic are returning and they continue to demonstrate the importance of experience and maturity.

"Between the offensive line and the secondary, there was probably as much improvement as anybody. I feel very good about the offensive line. We can be every bit as good as we were last year. And I think we'll have more depth."

Strongside tackle Corey Lewis is a letterman, but he missed last fall and this spring with knee surgery. He hopes to be back by Camp Rantoul or shortly after. In his absence, freshmen Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic shared the position during spring drills.

"I think those two freshmen tackles are gonna be good," Zook suggests. "We get Corey back, so now we've got a lot of guys who can play, which keeps them fresh. I feel pretty good about that."

Tyler Sands has developed sufficiently to be a capable backup at both center and guard. Guard Andrew Carter was making progress at guard until a concussion ended his spring. More depth is needed, but at least offensive line coach Joe Gilbert can count on 8-9 players.

Tight end was manned capably by Evan Wilson, Eddie Viliunas and Justin Lattimore. Wilson and Viliunas are stronger and heavier now and are decent blockers. And they are now trusted more in the passing game than last fall.

Senior Zach Becker sat out the spring to prevent recurrence of stress fractures in his feet, but he appears healthy and ready to contribute. UI coaches are excited about the potential of freshmen Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse.

The receiver corps was depleted this spring by the injury absence of leading receiver A.J. Jenkins (pictured) and freshman Darius Millines. While they were missed, their absence gave others a chance to prove themselves.

Freshman Ryan Lankford became a go-to receiver this spring, and his speed is highly valued. Classmate Spencer Harris was consistent all spring. Senior Fred Sykes got most of the attention before an injury reduced his effectiveness.

Walk-on Jake Kumerow made a number of excellent plays and may have earned playing time. Tall freshman Anthony Williams played a lot on the outside but didn't see many balls thrown his way. Three incoming freshmen will join the mix this summer.

Zook summarized the receiver corps from the spring.

"I think they've all stepped up. They've all made big plays, and they've all made mistakes. I think once you get them all together, I think they'll be a very talented group.

"The thing you're losing a little bit is the leadership. You develop that over the summer and when you get to Rantoul. When you lose guys like Eddie (McGee), Jarred Fayson and those guys, they were great leaders. But I think talent-wise were gonna be in good shape."

There were only two scholarship quarterbacks this spring, but both Nathan Scheelhaase and Miles Osei made it through the spring without injury. Incoming freshman Reilly O'Toole will receive a crash course this fall in case he's needed.

Osei showed definite improvement, but he still relies on his legs and doesn't always stay in the pocket long enough to find receivers downfield. His accuracy improved, but more is needed for Illini coaches to play him extended minutes. The lefty has difficulty throwing when rolling out to his right.

So it is imperative that Scheelhaase remains healthy. He improves day by day, seeing more and doing more. He now stays in the pocket longer, and he is trusted with play-action passes. His accuracy is better, and he is learning to trust more of his offensive weapons in the passing game.

Zook reminds that Scheelhaase was an effective passer late last season also.

"When people talk about improving the passing game, they sometimes refer back to the beginning of the year when we didn't throw quite as well.

"The last six games of the year last year; we led the Big 10 in scoring. We had 44 points a game the last six games. There were certain games there wasn't a need to throw the football. In the bowl game, Nate completed his first 13 passes. I think he was 19 for 24 for over 200 yards."

Scheelhaase is a coach's delight. He is an athlete, a leader, a student of the game and a winner. But as Zook reminds, the passing game depends not only on the quarterback, but also the offensive line, backs and receivers.

"Nathan Scheelhaase has improved as much as anybody on this football team. Not only has Nathan improved, but Paul (Petrino) and Jeff (Brohm) know what Nathan does best.

"Improving the passing game is not always just Nathan. Guys have to catch the ball, and they have to get yards after the catch and make big plays. We've got to make sure we protect Nathan.

"With the things he can do with his legs, you have to add that in there. He goes back for a pass play, and he gets flushed from the pocket. If he runs for a first down, to me that's a pretty good passing game."

The Illini began the spring with three quality running backs vying to replace the graduated Mikel Leshoure. Jason Ford lost weight and showed more quickness. Troy Pollard was impressive, having his best set of practices since his freshman year. And Bud Golden ran with confidence and force.

However, none participated in the Spring Game. Ford strained a ligament in the back of his knee halfway through spring. He tried to practice after that, but he wasn't as effective. Ford has the most experience, and he was impressive when healthy. But with frequent previous injuries, his durability is a question mark.

Pollard was held out as a precaution after a mild concussion. He should be an excellent change-of-pace back this fall. He even showed an ability to move the pile despite his short stature. Golden suffered a strained ligament in his foot.

Ean Days was moved from defense to help out at running back, and he proved a workhorse. Lacking great speed, Days showed good inside vision and a willingness to pass protect. He provides depth there.

The Illini are also excited about incoming freshmen Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson. Those two will be given plenty of opportunity to earn playing time. The Illini want to use multiple backs, and they hope to emphasize the running game like last year. Whoever wins the starting berth at running back will earn it.

Jay Prosch is a tremendous young blocker at fullback. He shows an ability to run and catch passes as well. He was an unknown last year, but now he is considered one of the squad's best players. Walkon Chris Willett appeared capable in a backup role, and Becker will help there also.

The Illini could have an explosive offense this year, especially if their skill players come through and Scheelhaase and the offensive linemen stay healthy.

Defense

Returning Leaders

Tackles: Senior Ian Thomas, 6'-0", 235, 67 tackles

Sacks: Junior Michael Buchanan, 6'-5", 235, 2.0 sacks

Interceptions: Senior Trulon Henry, 6'-1", 215, 3 interceptions

Zook saw growth in his defense during spring ball.

"Our number one goal was to not give up big plays. I think we made progress there. And I think we're a much better tackling football team than we were last fall. We worked on it every day."

Zook feels the biggest improvement came in the secondary, now lead by former NFL secondary coach Mike Gillhamer.

"I think the secondary is one of the most improved groups on the team. We've got some depth there. And we've got a lot of guys that have made improvement there, not only technique-wise but confidence-wise. Hammer's done a great job with those guys."

There was minimal depth in the secondary in 2010. Tavon Wilson, Trulon Henry, Justin Green and Travon Bellamy handled nearly every snap, and they tired late in the season and in the fourth quarter of games.

Cornerback Terry Hawthorne helped some, but he wasn't fully recovered from a stress fracture in his foot. Safeties Steve Hull and Pat Nixon-Youman were inexperienced and also had injury concerns. Safety Supo Sanni sat out the year with a torn Achilles tendon.

Now, all but Bellamy return. Wilson moved back to cornerback, giving the Illini three excellent corners. Converted receiver Jack Ramsey gained a comfort level on the field side, and he began to play with abandon late in the spring.

Fifth year senior Miami Thomas completed his first spring practice free of injury since his freshman year. Henry, Sanni, Hull and Nixon-Youman give a two-deep look to the two safety spots. Five rookies will join the competition this summer. Zook likes the look of the secondary.

"I really do. You've got a bunch of guys that can win for you."

Zook realizes how important an addition Gillhamer has been to the program.

"The thing that's really been fun for me to watch is to watch them watch Coach Gillhamer. I told them, 'Here's a guy that's been coaching your position in the National Football League for the last seven years. If you have aspirations of getting there, he knows how to get you there and what it's gonna take.'

"It's really been fun to watch. Those guys are all ears and trying to do everything he asks them to do. He's done a great job with them. He and I coach exactly the same way and think the same things. I like what they're doing right now."

The linebacker corps misses Martez Wilson, who appears set to go high in the NFL draft. Three of the four scholarship linebackers in the spring are freshmen, meaning there could be growing pains. Fortunately, experienced senior Ian Thomas (pictured) has returned to full health and began to serve a leadership role in the middle.

Thomas is a natural middle linebacker, and it is hoped he can have as good or better year than two years ago, when he also played MIKE. Backing him is Brandon Denmark, who is woefully lacking in experience at the position.

Denmark was an outside linebacker in high school, and he saw playing time at Bandit last fall. He has good height at 6'-3", and he has nearly the quickness of Martez Wilson. But he still is uncertain where to go when. Thomas may need to stay healthy and take most of the reps until Denmark can prove consistently reliable.

There are concerns at WILL also, but the two freshmen battling there are excellent prospects who need only experience. Jonathan Brown saw playing time last fall and proved to have instincts for the position. He also had an interception and long return despite being overweight. At times, he was exceptional this spring.

Houston Bates redshirted last fall, although Zook said he kicked himself for not playing him. A high school defensive end, Bates needed time to adjust to a new position. He flashed aggressiveness and sound tackling this spring. He also impressed coming off the edge in blitz situations.

With time, the combo of Brown and Bates could be one of the best at the UI in awhile. The only question is whether their youthfulness will be exploited by opponents early. The Illini will undoubtedly try to get rookies Henry Dickinson and Ralph Cooper ready in case they are needed for additional depth.

Coach Ron West's outside linebackers proved competent if not excellent this spring. Bandits Michael Buchanan and Justin Staples both made plays at that complex position. They both have experience and can build on their previous knowledge. If they remain healthy, they could provide a quality one-two punch at that important position.

The Illini saw Nathan Bussey graduate, but replacement Ashante Williams has experience and began to show consistency this spring. He was named Most Improved defensive player, and with good reason. With continued work, he could be a quality replacement for Bussey.

Redshirt freshman Earnest Thomas backs him, and he has potential there. He began to make some plays late in the spring, but he needs experience. A freshman may get a shot at SAM also.

The defensive line will miss Corey Liuget, a likely first round NFL draft choice. He cannot be replaced. Without him, there are definite pass rush concerns.

Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning may need to mix in a combination of blitzes to pressure opposing quarterbacks. Fortunately, secondary improvement might allow more blitzes as there is more trust in man-to-man coverage.

Senior Craig Wilson was moved from offense to bolster the defensive line. A large, agile specimen, he appears to be an experiment worth the effort. While he lacks technique and the quickness to zoom past offensive linemen in pass protection, he appears to be a good run stuffer who can clog the middle and occupy blockers to provide clear space for linebackers to make plays.

Freshman All-American Akeem Spence benefitted from the double teams on Liuget last year, but he won't have that advantage this season. He was moved to Liuget's three-technique position, which requires more agility and quickness. He can't replace Liuget, but hopefully he can serve a valuable role there. He is working hard to be a leader for the d-line.

Tackle backups are problematic at this time. Austin Teitsma and Jake Howe have potential, but they are freshmen who played other positions in high school. Plus, Teitsma is still undersized at 265 pounds and must continue to build strength and bulk. He has the aggressiveness needed once he gets bigger. Senior walk-on Wisdom Onyegbule made a few plays this spring, and he may see playing time. But like Teitsma and Howe, he has drawbacks that may limit his effectiveness. A rookie may need to get ready quickly to help at tackle.

Whitney Mercilus appeared comfortable at defensive end before smashing his finger in a weight training accident and sitting out the last week of spring ball. He has had two years experience backing the graduated Clay Nurse, and he now has the size and strength to compete. What he lacks in speed, he makes up for it with tenaciousness and intelligence.

Glenn Foster backs Mercilus, and he has the athleticism to do the job. However, inconsistency remains a concern with him. Tim Kynard became a utility man this spring, providing depth at both end and Bandit. He is athletic, so it is hoped he can develop quickly there. Freshman D.J. Woods is improving but may not be ready yet.

Looking on the bright side, there was growth in the defensive line through the spring according to Zook.

"I think we'll surprise a lot of people. I feel pretty good about them. We've got to continue to improve, but I think they will."

Koenning will have his defense playing aggressively and with confidence. If everyone remains healthy, the UI defense could be improved over last season.

Special Teams

Field Goals: Senior Derek Dimke, 6'-0", 180

24-29 field goals, long 52 yards

43-43 extra points

Zook knows the importance of special teams; he spent much time on them this spring as always. With one exception, he is pleased with their progress.

"We've spent a lot of time on the kicking game this spring, and I feel very good with where we are in terms of protection, coverage. Obviously, punter questions still remain to be worked out. I think we're gonna be fine there."

The punter question is not easily dismissed. Last year, Anthony Santella led the Big 10 in punting and gave the Illini great field position repeatedly. He has graduated, and a replacement is yet to be determined.

Converted placekicker Matt Eller has a strong leg, but punting is as much technique as leg strength. It takes years of practice to perfect every aspect of a punt, and he lacks that experience. Freshman walkon Brad Janitz needs to get the ball off faster and, like Eller, needs more consistency to be considered for the job.

Upcoming sophomore Ryan Lankford was tested as a rugby-style punter this spring. Lankford was a one-man-band in high school. He played quarterback, receiver, did the punt and kick returns as well as kickoffs and punts. If he lines up in the backfield to receive the snap, he has the option of punting, running or throwing the ball.

"We worked on the rugby kick," Zook stated. "When you've got a guy like Ryan Lankford back there, who was a pretty good high school punter that adds another threat. He not only has very good ball skills, but he understands setting up blockers and things like that.

"So you have the opportunity to put pressure on the defensive kicking game. This summer, he'll work a lot on it, so I think we'll be a lot better there."

Another possibility is rookie Justin DuVernois. The Floridian has made a good name for himself at kicking camps, but his tremendous high school team rarely punted. Can he face a strong college rush and get his punts off consistently well without fear of the pressure? If so, he could be the answer.

The long snapper job is in the secure hands of Zak Pedersen. Last year, Santella credited him with snaps ideal for punting. He also helped placekicker Derek Dimke enjoy a phenomenal season.

The senior Dimke had an excellent spring despite missing two field goals in the Spring Game. He has a great leg and displays excellent consistency. Zook raves about him.

"I get on him pretty hard out there. But I think Derek has a chance to be the best kicker in the country. I really do. With his work ethic and the way he kicks, he's a pretty special guy. I told him he's got to hit every kick because I don't know how many opportunities he's gonna get this year."

Indeed, if the Illini offense scores more touchdowns, fewer field goals will be needed. Of course, he will still need to hit his extra points, and he handles kickoffs also.

One question mark this spring was finding a holder on placements. Walkon Tim Russell got all the snaps and appears to be more than adequate. He is also the backup long snapper.

Dimke got most of the kicks this spring. Zook explained he wanted Dimke and Russell to work together as much as possible. Nick Immekus and Pat Dunn both showed strong legs when given a chance, but they were typical nervous freshmen according to Zook.

"A little inconsistent. Hopefully we won't need one, but if we need a backup I think we'll be okay there."

Several Illini speedsters are competing to return kickoffs.

"Justin Green can return the ball, Terry Hawthorne can return the ball, Jack Ramsey can return the ball, Troy Pollard can return the ball, and Darius Millines can return the ball. I think we're in pretty good shape with returners."

The same is true for punt returns. Jack Ramsey did most of the work last year, and he had a long return his only opportunity in the Spring Game. Punt returners must be fearless, have great hands and excellent vision. Zook says few are capable of handling the assignment.

"Number one, having a guy that wants to be back there is big. Jack Ramsey wants to be back there. Troy Pollard wants to be back there. Terry (Hawthorne) wants to be back there.

"I think they're all pretty good guys with the ball in their hands. They'll get that opportunity. The guy we have the most confidence in game situations is the guy we go with back there."

Many want Hawthorne returning punts. He is a dynamic athlete with a reputation as an excellent returner. He may get a chance back there, but right now Illini coaches care more about keeping him healthy and making sure he understands his cornerback responsibilities.

All other special team work requires quality athletes who are not already worn out playing their regular positions. It appears the Illini have enough bodies to prevent long runbacks on kicks and punts, as well as block on punt and kick returns. Athletic incoming freshmen will have a chance to prove themselves for special teams in Camp Rantoul.

Summary

As Zook reflects on spring ball, he believes the Illini accomplished what they set out to do.

"Going into the spring, we said we were excited about the stability of where we were. We also talked about the fact our players have to understand we must build on our accomplishments of this past year, and that we continue to improve and get better. I also said there was no reason why we shouldn't improve in all three phases.

"I can say with a lot of confidence that we have made a lot of progress. We are really pleased and happy with the way our players have practiced, how we've gotten after it. I think we've made great improvements this spring. We've got to continue to improve."

Zook is especially grateful there were no major injuries this spring. He believes he knows why.

"The one thing our guys have done, and the reason we're very fortunate with injuries, is they've gone extremely hard. These scrimmages we've had this spring have been as physical as any we've had since I've been here. And maybe as I've had as a head football coach. I think that's a tribute to the coaches and a tribute to the players."

Illinois players are basically on their own between now and the start of fall camp. They will work with Coach Lou Hernandez and his Strength & Conditioning staff, but otherwise they must work hard on their own to prepare for another rugged fall schedule.

"This was the third phase. The fourth phase is the summer phase. That's the one phase that it's gonna be important for these guys to continue to build. The way they've worked, and the way they've attacked this spring, there's no reason to believe they're not gonna continue to improve. So when we get to Rantoul in August, we'll be ready to go."

Illinois appears to have a favorable 2011 schedule, with 8 home games. Zook realizes the opportunity ahead, but he refuses to take anything for granted.

"I don't think there's any question we're excited about where we are. It's cautious optimism. We're gonna play 12 teams that can beat us. We're gonna have to play the way we're capable of playing. There are a lot of things you have no control over.

"But in terms of attitude, in terms of coaching staff, in terms of the way they're working, I think we couldn't ask for any more."


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