Illinois signed an impressive group of 27 athletes, with as many as 25 of them arriving this summer to join returnees in preparing for the 2011 season. It remains to be seen how many will contribute next fall, but there is no doubt depth was needed at several positions.
Offensively, the Illini lost offensive line starters Ryan Palmer and Randall Hunt and starting receivers Eddie McGee and Jarred Fayson to graduation. And the biggest loss may be running back Mikel Leshoure, who departed a year early for the NFL.
Spring practices will go a long way toward providing a true glimpse of the 2011 Illini offense, but there are depth concerns newcomers may need to resolve. An early glimpse can begin to answer some of those questions.
The offense revolves around the quarterback position. It appears to be in good hands now that Nathan Scheelhaase has a year under his belt. He has a much better feel for all the complexities of the position, and his passing game should improve with practice. If he remains healthy, the Illini should have a good foundation for a quality offense in 2011.
However, depth at quarterback must be a concern. If something happens to Scheelhaase in the spring, there is only one other scholarship quarterback available to practice, Miles Osei.
The upcoming sophomore prepared as a second stringer throughout 2010, but he saw only three plays of live action. The lefty can both run and throw, but he needs much repetition and experience to provide valuable support at the position.
Numbers will be improved come fall, but only because two untried freshmen will join the mix. Reilly O'Toole is a good one, but he will be behind learning the offense. The two-time 7A state champion from Wheaton Warrenville South arrives with glowing credentials, so there is hope he can pick up the offense quickly.
There will also be a walk-on quarterback who will receive a scholarship next January. Missourian Chase Haslett gives the Illini four competent quarterbacks, but it is hoped he will not have to play this fall. He lacks the high-level experience O'Toole has enjoyed. The Illini should be strong at quarterback if Scheelhaase remains healthy, but the experience void after him is obvious.
Illini coaches hope returnees and newcomers can make up for the loss of Leshoure. At least, there is experience and talent at the position even if none are at the same level.
Jason Ford will be a senior, and he has proven to be a durable back who can get tough yards. The 235 pounder has scored 19 touchdowns in his Illini career, gaining 1362 yards on 277 carries. He also has 27 receptions for 259 additional yards. If he can keep his weight down, maintain peak condition and avoid repeated ankle sprains, he can have his best year as a senior.
Troy Pollard has yet to live up to the potential he flashed as a rookie in 2007 before knee surgery set him back. He is a smaller, shiftier back who can provide a change of pace for the Illini. He will be given a shot to make a contribution in spring practices. Same for Bud Golden, the redshirt sophomore who is not as powerful as Ford or as quick as Pollard.
Two rookies will get shots in the fall. Texan Donovonn Young scored 36 touchdowns as a senior and appears to be a strong inside runner. He won't spread teams laterally, but he has a strong lower body and knows how to maneuver in traffic.
Josh Ferguson is a small but extremely fast and shifty runner out of Joliet Catholic. With more smaller backs proving valuable to major college teams, Ferguson has a chance to surprise. Too small to be an every down back, his speed could prove useful in certain situations.
Part two will discuss receivers, tight ends/fullbacks, offensive linemen, and placekickers.