The Illinois football team had two opposite directions it could head after it's Texas Bowl game. A loss would have given them three straight losing seasons, no way to begin an off season conditioning program. The Illini players work hard all year long, but it is harder to push oneself past previous limits when previous efforts have gone unrewarded.
But now they all have an extra bounce in the step, an optimism that something even better might lie just down the road. They see a bright light at the end of a proverbial tunnel, and it is growing closer. It makes all the hard work worth it and encourages repetition. Winning the bowl game gives everyone confidence and encouragement.
Plus, the Illini will benefit from fans eager for their autographs or to congratulate them. It makes going to class easier as criticisms will be replaced with smiles and words of encouragement. Every day seems a little brighter when you win your last game of any season, especially a bowl game.
So now the question is, will Illinois be able to build on this good beginning? Will returnees be able to sustain or improve upon the 2011 season? It is too early to provide a full analysis as there may be some attrition between now and next fall, especially if a couple talented juniors enter the NFL draft a year early. But an early look can prove beneficial.
Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino is salivating over the possibilities for next season. He loses two starting linemen and two receivers, but he has 8 returning starters counting place kicker Derek Dimke. He will have an experienced quarterback in Nathan Scheelhaase, who improved as the season progressed and shows excellent promise for further growth. That is a great starting point.
Miles Osei and Chandler Whitmer are youngsters who can provide good depth and compete for playing time with Scheelhaase. And while it is advisable to avoid discussion of entering freshmen until after they have signed scholarship tenders in February, Reilly O'Toole appears capable of competing early as well.
There is uncertainty at running back if Mikel Leshoure leaves early for the NFL. The record-setting back will be missed if he leaves, with no one presently on the roster with his overall abilities.
Jason Ford will be a quality replacement, assuming he keeps his weight in check. He doesn't have Leshoure's quickness, but he can bang for tough inside yards and break contain on occasion. Troy Pollard has another year of eligibility, and he can provide a change-of-pace contrast for Ford. Bud Golden is also in the mix, and the Illini hope to sign a couple running backs.
Freshmen started at tight end and fullback this year, and both Evan Wilson and Jay Prosch asserted themselves well. Both have bright futures. Eddie Viliunas and Justin Lattimore provide tight end depth, and it is hoped Zach Becker will return from stress fractures in his foot that kept him out most of 2010.
Petrino is excited about his receiver corps despite the loss of Jarred Fayson and Eddie McGee. A.J. Jenkins was the go-to guy all year, and freshmen Darius Millines, Ryan Lankford and Spencer Harris surpassed upperclassmen for playing time this season.
Redshirt freshman Anthony Williams had a good year for the scout squad. His 6'-4" height should be an advantage. Fred Sykes is a competent receiver as well. Jack Ramsey and Steve Hull were both moved to defense and may remain there. Receiver is a priority in this year's recruiting class.
The offensive line loses two but gains one. Ryan Palmer and Randall Hunt graduate and will be missed. But tackle Corey Lewis is nearly healthy after spring ACL surgery and should be more than adequate replacing Palmer. Hugh Thornton rotated with Hunt and Jack Cornell at guard and should move right into the starting lineup.
Tackle Craig Wilson played on special teams and has one more year to put things together. He backs up Allen. Other upperclassmen who may help include Tyler Sands and Andrew Carter. Freshmen Michael Heitz, Simon Cvijanovic, Alex Hill and Shawn Afryl may need more time in the system. Depth must be developed before next fall and could be a trouble spot.
Defensively, nine starters return assuming stars Corey Liuget and Martez Wilson return for their final years of eligibility. Defensive end Clay Nurse must be replaced, but Whitney Mercilus saw extensive playing time this year. Tim Kynard also shows potential there.
Akeem Spence supported Liuget at tackle and had an outstanding first year. He was named a freshman All-American. He benefitted from teams double-teaming Liuget. Glenn Foster appears next in line after Liuget, assuming his shoulder problems don't limit him. Daryle Ballew is an oft-injured journeyman who can plug a gap when healthy. Redshirt freshmen Austin Teitsma and Jake Howe impressed onlookers this fall.
Michael Buchanan appeared to win his starting Bandit job back by season's end. He has support from Justin Staples. Both still have much to learn at the position, but they have ability and experience. Brandon Denmark saw time as a true freshman at Bandit, but he has the speed and ability to help at linebacker if needed.
Martez Wilson and Ian Thomas are the two inside linebacker starters, and they are outstanding. Wilson could be an All-American if he stays for another year. There could be depth issues at the inside backer spots, but freshman Jonathan Brown played extensively this year and appears to have a bright future. Redshirt freshman Houston Bates has a relentless motor but needed a year to learn a new position. And Denmark could help there.
Senior Nathan Bussey is graduating, and so is backup Aaron Gress at outside linebacker. Ashante Williams has experience, but an injury limited his effectiveness late in the year. Redshirt freshman Earnest Thomas has potential to help there also, but the Illini need to develop more depth there.
The defensive backfield was depleted this year due to injuries and other problems. But all starters except cornerback Travon Bellamy return. Tavon Wilson is the leader. He switched from corner to safety and performed admirably despite minimal experience at the new position. It is uncertain whether he stays at safety or returns to cornerback.
Trulon Henry played adjacent to Tavon and performed well all season in his first year at Illinois. The junior college transfer lacks great speed, but he is intelligent and a good leader. Receiver Steve Hull moved to safety and gained valuable experience, assuming he stays there.
Expected safety starter Supo Sanni should be healthy by next fall, but his participation in spring ball remains uncertain after Achilles surgery. Freshmen Fritz Rock and Ean Days both toiled on the scout team. Spring ball will be a chance to see if they can provide depth next fall.
The Illini have two speedy corners returning in Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green. Hawthorne broke a bone in his foot, and he wasn't at full strength the rest of the regular season. He appeared healthy in the Texas Bowl and could eventually be a pro player.
Green, a former high school sprint champion, was thrown to the fire without practice upon moving from running back. He should be much improved next year. Pat Nixon-Youman is a backup with experience, but there is minimal depth at the two corners. Ramsey could help if he stays there. A true freshman or two may need to come through next fall.
Dimke has another year as an undergraduate to add to his outstanding kicking totals. He tied the single-season Illinois field goal kicking record in 2010 and handled all kickoffs. His leg is powerful and accurate.
The punting situation is another story. All-Big 10 punter Anthony Santella graduates. Redshirt freshman walkon Brad Janitz and entering freshman Justin DuVernois will compete for the job next fall, but neither have the experience provided this season by Santella. There may be another walkon or two added to the mix.
Illinois coach Ron Zook is always willing to play freshmen if they are ready, and several known commitments have a chance to help if they learn things quickly. But it is better to wait until they sign on the dotted line before penciling them into the depth chart.
The Illini have 8 home games next season, including the first five. The nonconference schedule is much more favorable than the last two seasons, with Arizona State the major challenge. They play Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin at home and don't play Michigan State, Iowa or Nebraska. It is setting up as a schedule favorable for a run at a conference championship.
Optimism is high, but much can happen in a year. The Illini will have much more promise if Leshoure, Liuget and Martez Wilson all return. Injuries always play a role. The Illini need their top players as healthy next year as they were this season. And a few newcomers will be needed to provide depth.
The team has a year's experience with the new schemes brought in by Petrino and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. It has confidence and momentum, and it has a rejuvenated fan base. With hard work in the off season and some good fortune, 2011 stacks up to be one of the best at Illinois in a long time.