Spring Review: Illini Make Huge Strides

It was a critically important spring practice for Ron Zook and the Illini football team and may pave the way for a program to turn the corner. It saw the emergence of fabulous freshman receiver Rejus Benn and devastating freshman defensive end Jerry Brown. Plus the continued development of Juice Williams. By position, we review the Illini team post-spring.

No position was more closely watched than quarterback. And despite all of the eyes, sophomore to be Juice Williams did OK. Said coach Ron Zook, "he made a step forward." So beginning with Juice, we take a position by position look at the Illini.

Quarterback – Juice Williams looks like he one day will be a superstar. At times, he missed open guys. Once in awhile, he still zinged it too hard. But for the most part, Williams began looking like a quarterback. By the spring game April 21, Juice was completing seven of his first eight passes, laying balls in softly when need be, drilling it when need be and developing a quickly found chemistry with fabulous freshman receiver Rejus Benn.

That is the good news. That bad news is that Illinois can ill-afford for him to be injured. Eddie McGee, a lanky-athletic redshirt freshman backup, will be fine in time, but has not played. When he does, he will go through the growing pains Juice experienced last year. With veterans Billy Garza and Mark Venegoni unlikely to factor, true freshman lefty Phil Haig will battle for the third spot when he arrives in the fall.

Keys for the fall – Juice must stay healthy; McGee must get plenty of fall reps and some reps against Eastern Illinois in the second game of the season.

Running back – Rashard Mendenhall is going to be a star. He is up to 224 pounds, still extremely fast and has worked tirelessly on putting the ball away. He will be one of the best backs in the Big Ten. He suffered a bone chip toward the end of spring practice, affording time for his brother Walter to be the feature back. But come fall, the backup spots likely will be contested by true freshmen Derius Hodge and Troy Pollard and junior college transfer Daniel Dufrene. Fullback Russ Weil remains a devastating blocker.

Keys for the fall – Rashard Mendenhall will be healthy; he must learn to take care of the ball. That has been his weakness. And one of the newcomers must emerge in the first two weeks of fall practice as the backup. There must be some separation.

Receiver – Illinois found their star in Benn, the amazing 6-2, 215-pound true freshman. He is fast, strong, athletic and has great hands. He will start, probably in the slot. Now, two more outside receivers must emerge. The best bet is that it will be Joe Morgan and Kyle Hudson as starters, with Chris James and Frank Lenti, the walk-on, next in line. The sixth receiver could be versatile senior DaJuan Warren, based in part on what true freshman Anthony Morris shows when he arrives.

At tight end, Jeff Cumberland is the receiving threat; Mike "HooMan" the blocker. Both will play a great deal.

Keys for the fall – Morgan and the newcomer Morris are the most like Benn. They are the fastest and biggest of the rest. Morgan needs to develop as a starter. Hudson has to get bigger. If so, those three could be a nice tandem. Watch out for Chris James. He is a gamer. Most importantly, these guys must catch the ball.

Offensive line – An injury to Akim Millington and conditioning issues for Chuck Myles gave converted defensive lineman Xavier Fulton and newcomers Ryan Palmer and Randall Hunt plenty of work at tackle, but to be as good as they want to be, the Illini need Millington and Myles at tackle. Left guard Martin O'Donnell emerged as a leader, really catching the coaches' attention and sophomore right guard Jon Asamoah will be a star. Center Ryan McDonald is very solid. Backup guard Brandon Jordan is the most athletic offensive lineman and will be a force in time.

Keys for the fall – The first five guys must stay healthy, including Millington, who has a habit of hobbling off. Myles has to come back in shape, hopefully under 330 pounds. If Fulton can add 20 pounds to his 271 pounds frame in the next four months he could be the top backup at tackle. Jordan could be the first backup at guard.

Defensive line – As expected, the first four are very good. Derek Walker and Doug Pilcher at end; Chris Norwell and overachieving David Linquist at tackle, make for a daunting group. The big surprise was the emergence of redshirt freshman end Jerry Brown, who coaches think may be a first round pick one day. He may be that good. Along with Antonio James and Will Davis, Illinois may be the best combination of ends in the country. All will play.

The concern is at backup tackle, where walk-on Mike Ware has a good motor and converted linebacker Sirod Williams is still trying to grow into his quickly growing body. Those two will help, but the depth must come from incoming freshmen, most likely Josh Brent and DeAngelo McCray. If those two, or classmates Darryl Ballew or Steve Matas can earn playing time, the depth problem is rectified. But some of them have to step up.

Keys for the fall – Two of the freshmen have to be ready to play and have to be a factor. If that happens, the numbers will be pretty good. But other than running back, this is the spot where they are the most important.

Linebacker – The first group will be one of the best corps in the conference. Middle linebacker J. Leman, who missed spring with an injured foot, and outside linebackers Antonio Steele and Brit Miller return intact after starring last year. This group is very good. The key are the backups – Anthony Thornhill did not play well last year and got few opportunities; Rodney Pittman is talented but hasn't made many plays; Sam Carson, the backup in the middle, is a tough kid but cannot run.

Two X factors here are freshmen. Erique Robertson, who came in early and worked at running back most of the spring, is back at linebacker and will battle for time. And of course Martez Wilson, along with Benn the crown jewel of the recruiting class, will play early and often.

Keys for the fall – Wilson, period. He will be trained at two or all three positions. If he is ready, he will be the key backup and give the Illini one more defensive play maker.

Secondary – Like linebacker, the strength of the team. Illinois only won two games last year, but a lot of teams in the country would love to run out this group. Cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Travon Bellamy both will play in the NFL one day and third corner Chris Duvalt had his coming out in the spring game with an 86-yard interception return for a touchdown. He may have the best first step of any defensive back, and he will not start. Starting safeties Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison are not fast, but are solid, solid players.

Keys for the fall – Bellamy must learn cornerback (he played it in high school, so is only one year removed after playing safety/nickelback last year) and must be able to handle being on an island. Duvalt must not get spooked early, now that he will play a significant amount of plays. And a third safety –possibly senior Justin Sanders – must develop to spell the starters.

Special teams -- Placekicker Jason Reda missed all of spring with a severe groin pull, so severe, at one point they weren't sure if he would be back. Now they think he will be back for the fall, but walkon Matt Branadur, handling placements while Reda was out, wasn't bad. If nothing else, that provided insurance in case Reda can't come back.

Regarding punting, Utah transfer Anthony Santella took the lead from walk-on Jarred Bosch in the final two weeks of spring. Sophomore to be Kyle Yelton will be in the mix as well, although appears to be third.

Kickoff returns could be handled by Duvalt and tiny, speedy Will Judson. Punt returns by Benn or maybe DaJuan Warren, who isn't fast, but will always catch them.

Keys for the fall – Have to have a healthy Reda. That is critical. Someone needs to win the punter job early in fall practice, not go down to the wire and have the whole team wondering.

So that is it. Spring is behind them. And hopefully a turn the corner season awaits.

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