Illinois hosts an Arkansas State team poised for an upset Saturday. With an outstanding recruiting class added to 54 returning lettermen, new coach Hugh Freeze inherits a talented, experienced squad. Six returnees made the all-Sun Belt Conference teams last year, and sixteen different players have been listed as all-conference candidates for 2011.
By the way, Freeze was Michael Oher's coach at Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis, Tennessee. Oher's story was made into the popular movie "The Blind Side," starring Sandra Bullock. She won an Academy Award for her role.
Freeze was offensive coordinator before being elevated to head coach. His offense broke 9 offensive records in 2010 including total offense (4841 yards), total plays, first downs, pass attempts (438), pass completions (266), passing yards (3057), and passing touchdowns (23).
Junior Ryan Aplin (6'-1", 205) broke school records for total offense and passing yards last year and is experienced running his spread offense. He has a bevy of talented receivers including senior Dwayne Frampton (5'-9", 180), who had 69 receptions last year. He is on the Biletnikoff Watch List.
In addition, juniors Allen Muse (6'-4", 215) and Taylor Stockemer (6'-4", 210) both averaged at least 15.1 yards per catch last year. ASU also expects big things from sophomores R.J. Fleming (5'-10", 170) and Carlos McCants (5'-11", 185).
A JC transfer also figures in the mix and could end up being outstanding. Josh Jarboe (6'-3", 215) signed originally at Oklahoma. After an unsettled career that included two other stops, Jarboe is finally settled in Jonesboro.
Running back is by committee. The top two returning senior backs are better in a power game. Derek Lawson (5'-11", 210) had 500 rushing yards in 2010. He has a career 5.6 yard rushing average and needs 551 more yards for 2,000. Senior Jermaine Robertson (5'-11", 230) is also a bruising runner.
The speed threat is sophomore Sirgregory Thornton (5'-11", 190). Thornton averaged 6.8 yards per carry last year. Redshirt freshman Frankie Jackson (5'-9", 185) was ranked the #3 running back in Louisiana out of high school.
There is an abundance of tight ends. Junior Kedric Murry (6'-3", 265) will likely see the most playing time. Junior college transfer Anthony Kincy (6'-0", 232) and frosh Chris Stone (6'-3", 245) are also available.
The offensive line graduated four of five starters, so it will need to be rebuilt. However, it has a good head start in Rimington Watch List senior Tom Castilaw (6'-3", 280). Also likely to see playing time are seniors Delano Moore (6'-5", 305) and Alex Kautai (6'-2", 305) plus junior Eric Allen (6'-1", 300). Five JC transfers bring athleticism to the group. If the line can hold up it's end, the offense should be potent.
Dave Wommack is the new defensive coordinator. He has held similar jobs at several colleges including Arkansas, UNLV, Southern Miss and most recently Georgia Tech. He brings new optimism to a unit that performed inconsistently last year. He has seven starters returning, including four of the top six tacklers, 17.5 sacks and 8 of 11 interceptions.
The defensive line is anchored by senior Dorvus Woods (6'-3", 265), an all conference pick, and freshman All-American Amos Draper (6'-3", 270). Seniors Greg McCall (5'-11", 305) and Alfonzo Simmons (6'-0", 265) see time also, with McCall ahead of Draper.
On the outside, seniors Justin Robertson (6'-2", 250) and Brandon Joiner (6'-3", 255) start, with seniors Elroy Brown (6'-0", 235) and Jeremy Gibson (6'-5", 250) plus junior Tim Starson (6'-5", 255) adding depth.
Senior linebacker and leader DeMario Davis (6'-3", 230) is on the Lombardi Watch List. Beside him is junior Nathan Herrold (6'-3", 235), the top linebacker tackler a year ago.. Junior Nick Nelms (5'-11", 225) and senior Najel Byrd (6'-0", 225) both see action, although redshirt freshman Qushaun Lee (5'-11", 225) is now ranked ahead of Nelms.
Six secondary players started at least one game last year. Senior cornerback Darron Edwards (5'-11", 175) led the team in pass breakups last year. He and safety Kelcie McCray (6'-2", 195) started all games, and McCray is the team's leading tackler.
Others who started at least a game include senior safety A.J. Hills (6'-2", 185) and senior cornerback Darryl Feemster (5'-11", 185).
Bobby Zalud and Brian Davis each made 6 field goals last year. Senior punter Neely Sullivent was fourth in the SBC in punt yards per attempt. Senior returner Rod Hall (5'-7", 165) accumulated 854 kick return yards last year.
The Red Wolves are a dangerous outfit. They may lack depth at spots, but they have an experienced team and a potent offense. They are capable of giving the Illini a good battle. They will invade Champaign with upset in mind.