Illinois football coaches and players are eager to begin spring ball. After a week off for spring break, they are refreshed and excited about the prospects for the 2011 season. Illini fans are also looking forward to the football season, but many questions must be resolved before they can see their expectations come to fruition.
The offense has a number of returning starters, but it did lose star running back Mikel Leshoure to the NFL draft. In addition, two senior lineman have graduated, and tackle Corey Lewis will miss most or all of spring ball as he continues recovery from knee surgery. Two starting wide receivers must also be replaced.
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has a year of experience under his belt and should be improved. Will he be able to incorporate a consistent pass offense into fall game plans? Can he stay in the pocket long enough to find open targets? Can he stay healthy despite running the ball frequently?
Backup Miles Osei is a redshirt freshman and the only other quarterback on scholarship. Can he improve enough for offensive coordinator Paul Petrino to have confidence in him as a backup to Scheelhaase? Will his passing accuracy be sufficient for what the Illini want to do?
What happens if he or Scheelhaase suffer an injury this spring? Will walkon backups make the Spring Game competitive if one or both are missing?
Jason Ford is the heir apparent to Leshoure. The senior has played well at times in the past, but can he become the difference-maker Leshoure proved to be? Will he be able to keep his weight down and his ankles free of sprains? Will backups Troy Pollard and Bud Golden be able to provide needed depth?
Upcoming sophomore Jay Prosch proved to be an outstanding fullback last fall. Will he be able to add receiving and perhaps a carry or two to his repertoire? Will senior Zach Becker find his feet pain free finally so his versatility can be utilized as a fullback/tight end? Is walkon Chris Willett able to provide depth at fullback?
Leading receiver A.J. Jenkins returns for his senior year, but two other starters and a backup all graduated. Jenkins should continue to be the go-to guy. But with talented upcoming sophomore Darius Millines sidelined for the spring with a stress fracture in his foot, depth could be a concern.
Will upcoming sophs Ryan Lankford and Spencer Harris continue to refine their games and fulfill their potential? Will senior Fred Sykes remain a valuable option? Can tall redshirt freshman Anthony Williams gain sufficient strength to challenge at an outside receiver? Will converted tight end Justin Lattimore find a home at receiver? Will walkon Jake Kumerow, recipient of a scout team award last fall, earn playing time?
The offensive line has a strong starting point with center Graham Pocic, guards Jack Cornell and Hugh Thornton and three year starting tackle Jeff Allen. But who will play the strongside tackle in Lewis's absence? Can either or both of redshirt freshmen Simon Cvijanovic and Michael Heitz provide depth at tackle, with one being a starter by default? Can walkon Nate Swanson be of any help, or will he be cannon fodder for the defense?
Depth at all line positions is a question mark. Can Tyler Sands improve his flexibility enough to be a consistent backup at both guard and center? Will undersized Jake Feldmeyer be able to handle the center position? Can any of guard candidates Andrew Carter, Alex Hill and Shawn Afryl provide depth at a young age?
Some of the biggest questions this spring pertain to competition between offensive and defensive lines. Will the first string defensive line dominate the second string offensive line? If so, the Illini offense will be difficult to evaluate and optimism in the defensive front may be premature like in 2009. Will the first string offense make mincemeat of the second string defensive line? If either of these scenarios occurs, a lack of depth will become obvious.
The defense could dominate this spring, but it will sorely miss tackle Corey Liuget and MIKE linebacker Martez Wilson, two potentially high picks in this year's NFL draft. Can anyone replace those two? Likely not.
Akeem Spence earned freshman All-American honors at the other tackle spot. Is he versatile enough to take on Liuget's role? Can converted offensive tackle Craig Wilson find his niche on the d-line? He certainly has the size and athleticism for the role.
Can Glenn Foster be moved back to his natural defensive end, or will his quickness be needed on passing downs replacing Liuget? Can redshirt freshmen Austin Teitsma (pronounced Tights-ma) and Jake Howe prove ready to help? Will the Illini be able to get something from senior walkon Wisdom Onyegbule?
Defensive end loses Clay Nurse but has several bodies there. Is Whitney Mercilus finally ready to be a starter there? Most think he will. Will Foster compete with him? If not, can either Tim Kynard or D.J. Woods develop into reliable backups? The Illini are two-deep in lettermen at Bandit. Will Michael Buchanan and Justin Staples continue evolving into that important hybrid position?
Senior Ian Thomas moves back to MIKE after a year at WILL. He lacks the size and range of Martez Wilson, but he is experienced and comfortable in the middle. Can upcoming soph Brandon Denmark provide sufficient depth there?
Will soph Jonathan Brown and redshirt freshman Houston Bates be ready to take responsibility at WILL? Brown has some experience and natural skills, and Bates has potential. Are they mature enough to handle it?
The Illini lost SAM linebacker Nathan Bussey to graduation, and his backup Ashante Williams played sparingly due to injuries. Will Williams be ready to become a starter? Can redshirt freshman Earnest Thomas live up to his promise?
Will someone like Ean Days work out if moved there? Several players may get tryouts at the position including Russ Ellington, back on the team after trying tight end.
The defensive backfield should have more depth this year, but there are still plenty of unanswered questions. For instance, will injured Supo Sanni be ready for any work this spring? He was a safety starter when he tore his Achilles tendon last preseason. Will Trulon Henry be a good enough leader at the other safety to allow Tavon Wilson to move back to his preferred corner spot?
Steve Hull should be improved at safety after getting a baptism of fire there last fall. But is he ready for significant action? Redshirt freshman Fritz Rock is an unknown quantity. Can he and Days, if still at safety, provide quality depth there?
Cornerback will have more experienced depth than anytime in the last 2-3 years. But does quantity equate with quality? Terry Hawthorne, Tavon Wilson and Justin Green have all started games at corner. They could be outstanding.
Pat Nixon-Youman helped out at corner, safety and nickel last fall and might repeat that role this year. Will he be able to continue his progress from hip surgery and play with confidence? Jack Ramsey moved from receiver last fall and has finally settled at cornerback. Will he fit in there? Will Miami Thomas finally resolve his injury problems, learn the defense and begin to reach his potential?
Placekicker is in great hands with Derek Dimke. Will former starter Matt Eller stick around for his redshirt year and continue to compete for a starting spot? Or, might he try his foot at punting? Is there someone else capable of serving a backup role in an emergency?
Punter could be the biggest question mark of all. Illinois lost it's All-Big 10 punter Anthony Santella to graduation. Will walkons Brad Janitz and Pat Dunn be able to speed up their punts and still kick accurately consistently? Or, will the Illini need to draft incoming freshman Justin DuVernois for the position come fall?
The Illini could have a winning season this fall, especially with a more favorable schedule and 8 home games. But spring might not give us a full glimpse of how that team will look. Many youngsters need to develop rapidly, injuries need to be kept at a minimum, and the go-to players must live up to their reputations. Most of all, new leadership must emerge.