The Colonnaides Club at Memorial Stadium was the setting for the 2010 Illinois football awards banquet. Coach Ron Zook honored thirteen graduating seniors and handed out a number of awards for excellence during the bowl-winning 7-6 season.
The big winner was junior running back Mikel Leshoure, who won both Most Valuable Player and Outstanding Offensive Back awards. Leshoure joins a select group of outstanting Illini football players over the years, and he is aware of how special that list is.
"Definitely. It's an honor to be considered an MVP for this team and be put in a category with the rest of those guys."
Leshoure is leaving for the NFL with one year of eligibility remaining. The banquet brought out mixed feelings for him.
"It was a good ceremony. It was good to be back with my brothers. It's a sad moment, but it's an exciting moment also."
Junior defensive tackle Corey Liuget was named a co-captain, and he received the Outstanding Defensive Lineman Award. He is also leaving for the NFL. He explained his reasoning.
"It's a big step for me and my family. I feel like I accomplished everything at the University of Illinois. I had a pretty good season."
Liuget has a chance to be a high draft choice, but he won't let positive publicity detract him from being in top condition for the NFL combine.
"I've been hearing some good stuff, but I'm gonna keep training and doing the things that got me where I'm at right now."
Junior Martez Wilson was named Outstanding Linebacker, and he is also leaving early for the NFL. He talked afterward about how his experiences at Illinois prepared him for his future.
"I made the decision based on my accomplishments that I had since I was at Illinois. I learned a lot at the University of Illinois. I matured a lot both as a man and a player. I felt deep down it was my best decision. I think I'm ready to take that next step."
Former Illini great tight end Doug Dieken was the recipient of the Monsignor Edward J. Duncan Service Award for outstanding contributions through the course of his life after college. The Wright Commitment to Excellence Award was given to senior offensive lineman Anterio Jackson, who overcame many hardships to earn a scholarship and graduate from the UI.
Junior tight end Zach Becker earned the Scholar-Athlete Award by maintaining a 3.83 grade point average in Kinesiology. Senior lineman Randall Hunt won the Service Above Self Award, while Ryan Palmer, who played half the year with a broken hand and an Achilles problem, was given the Bruce Capel Award.
Illini seniors Travon Bellamy, Aaron Gress, Chris James, and Clay Nurse shared the I Believe Key Contributor Award for their roles in helping head coach Ron Zook develop the Illini program from an extremely low point to a bowl-eligible team in their years on campus. The four co-captains were Liuget, Martez Wilson, Jeff Allen and Eddie McGee.
Allen was given the Offensive Lineman Award; Tavon Wilson earned the Outstanding Defensive Back Award; Anthony Santella and Nathan Bussey earned Outstanding Special Teams Awards; A.J. Jenkins was given the Outstanding Wide Receiver Award; Jake Kumerow was given the Offensive Scout Team Award, while Austin Teitsma was honored on the defensive side.
Senior Eddie McGee was given the Red Grange Award. Most Improved went to redshirt freshman defensive tackle Akeem Spence and receiver Jarred Fayson. Rookie of the Year went to redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. Scheelhaase spoke in glowing terms about the future of the Fighting Illini offense.
"We're excited. When you come off a bowl win like we have, you really want to work hard for next season. I think the talent is there.
"Mikel obviously had a good season last year, but the work he put in during the off season made him the player he is. We're gonna have a bunch of guys work as hard this off season. If we can do that, we can do some awesome things in our conference and nationally next year. We're looking forward to it."
Junior running back Jason Ford won no awards, but there will be pressure on his shoulders to take over where Leshoure left off. He promises to work had to make that happen.
"I'm real excited for next year. As Mikel goes onto the next level, I'm gonna try to take over for him and have a great season next year. I'm gonna work hard to try to get there.
"I'm gonna do some of the same things he did last summer, workouts and stuff like that. I think it's a great opportunity for me."
Looking out from the Colonnaides Club onto the snow-covered Memorial Stadium and Zuppke Field reminded of the cold, wintry weather outside. But there was much warmth and good cheer inside as the Illini celebrated a successful season that ended with a big Texas Bowl win over Baylor.