How Good Will Illinois Be?

At long last, it is here. After another great recruiting haul, exciting spring practice revealing a spectacular freshman receiver, a good off-season workout program and a grueling Camp Rantoul, the wait is about over. It is game week. And with it comes the obvious question from us all – how good will they be?

With that, allow the first prediction column of my short career, complete with key areas, key players, games of note, and of course, a predicted record. It is gleaned from numerous conversations with key figures, following Jack's terrific practice coverage and hopefully a bit of a gut after getting to know so many of these players and coaches in the last year.

The record? Allow me to bury the lead for now. First, let's deal with the team's most critical issues, at least as I see them

Attrition. It is part of the game. Every game at every level. Players get hurt. Players don't make grades. Players get in trouble. But it really is a shame it hit the Illini this year the way it did. Not that there is anything they can't overcome, but the numbers are higher than anyone could have expected.

As coaches put a wrap on the recruiting season last February and got ready for spring ball, they expected that Chuck Myles would start on the line, Travon Bellamy would start at corner, Derrick McPhearson and Chris James would be in the five-man receiver rotation and that freshmen receiver Anthony Morris and running back Derius Hodge would greatly improve the team's speed and athleticism.

As it stands, McPhearson is gone for good, Morris and Hodge didn't make it in yet academically, Myles and James are injured and gone for the year and Bellamy is going to try to play, but a bad shoulder could relegate him to nickel duty for now.

Overall, it's not as if Juice, Benn, Leman or Norwell got hurt. But it hurts nonetheless.

Passing game. Clearly, the most important need for improvement is here. Whether that means Juice throws it better, the receivers catch it better, the line blocks better, or all three, this area could determine just how good a team Illinois fields.

With that said, here is my guess: Juice will be much improved – he'll make some mistakes, miss some open guys, but he will manage the game much, much better. I can tell you coaches are very encouraged, at least with what they have seen so far. I also think Benn gives them a legitimate playmaker, which they haven't had since Zook got there. He's fast, he has terrific hands, he makes plays.

That should make all other receivers better for a number of reasons. Number one, defenses will focus on Benn, sometimes double covering him. Maybe just as important, though, is the fact other receivers will see him make plays and understand it is possible. I've seen that more than I can explain in college football. Good play is as contagious as bad play. And this team really needs someone to lead by example. So the receivers will be much better. The X factor, there, in my mind, is Joe Morgan. If he is ready – boy, oh boy, if he is ready – then everything changes. He is 6-feet-2 and really fast and that would mean Juice has two big time weapons. If that happens, look out.

Which leaves the line. Which is where I'm concerned. We all know Millington, albeit it while hurt, struggled last year and Xavier Fulton is new to the position and still a bit undersized. I think the interior guys are just OK. If the passing game is not good, I think it will be because Juice had to run for his life.

Staying healthy. Yeah, I know, every team worries about this. But I'm not worried about every team, just one right now. So who must stay healthy – pretty obvious, really. If I can have six that are unscathed, give me Juice, Rashard Mendenhall, Benn, Leman, Norwell, Vontae. I'd like others to stay healthy, but I'll start with those six. Any of them go down, it could be a tough year. If there is one more, I'll take Reda. There will be some close games, folks. He will matter.

New guy impact. Really important. If every new guy they are counting on steps up, it will be a huge year. Who are they? Benn, Morgan (I'm counting him as a new guy because he barely played), Fulton, Dufrene or Pollard, Jerry Brown, Brent or McCray (probably Brent), ‘Tez, Duvalt or Hicks. If Benn and Morgan give Juice fast reliable targets; if Fulton protects his back; if one of the other running backs can play; if Brown and Will Davis improve the pass rush; if Brent or McCray become a playmaking interior guy to go with the steady Norwell and Linquist; if Tez gives the linebackers the speed and ferocity it lacks; if Duvalt or Hicks can take one back, then all bets are off. Those guys are that important.

Coaching. I'll give Zook credit, he doesn't duck issues. He told me before spring practice, "everyone is saying I can recruit now, but they also are saying I can't coach. It's up to me and our staff to prove them wrong." Truer words were never spoken. Ron has to make the right choices when it comes down to game-changing decisions; Locksley has to prove he can go with what is working, even if that means keeping his very creative mind in check and pounding the rock if that is what is there; the new defensive co-coordinators have to put their team in position to win.

Special Teams Truly they have to be special. There won't be a lot of room for error here. Reda has to make his field goals. Kickoffs (it will be Cklamovski, not Reda, by the way) have to be deep. Whoever wins the punting job needs to flip the field some. Which means Mike Woodford, who got there so late among the coaching staff, just became a very, very important coach.

OK, OK, that's great, Frank. But about this year?.

I think they are far better than they were in Zook's first two years, far better. I also think the schedule is far tougher – Missouri is added, Syracuse in on the road, Mighigan State comes off and Michigan comes on, etc.

The good news is this team is much, much more athletic than it has been. That is the result of the fact that a number of players recruited by the current staff are prominently featured already. The bad news is this team still lacks the overall speed it will have one day. Derek Walker and Doug Pilcher are disciplined and ready to start, but they don't run nearly as well as Will Davis and Jerry Brown; Leman, Steele and Miller are very, very steady, but Martez Wilson and Ian Thomas have greater upside, just aren't ready. Millington and Fulton and McDonald and O'Donnell are good, older, veteran players; but Cornell and Jackson and Wilson and Asamoah (when he is older) one day will be better.

Saturday against Missouri, the Illini will start 11 players brought into the program by Ron Turner and 13 brought in by Zook (counting kicker and punter). By next year, it will be more like two or three Turner guys, if that, and the rest by Zook. Then you will see the kind of athleticism you have been hearing about all along. When it is a team almost entirely recruited by Zook.

I know, I know, Frank, but what about now, Dude?

OK, I think the Illini are going to go 5-7. How is that? Here is why:

I think Missouri is a tough challenge, a better team than almost anybody realizes. Could be this year's Rutgers, a team that is a national darling getting great pub by November. I also they have their hands full with Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio State, even though two of those are at home. Similarly, I think they are going to beat Western Illinois, Ball State and Northwestern.

If we are right about all seven of those games, that means 3-4 with other five games being toss ups – Syracuse, Indiana, Penn State, Iowa and Minnesota. The tough part – four of those five games are on the road. To me, expecting 2-3 in that stretch seems reasonable. Which gives you 5-7 on the year.

Now, of all of those games, Syracuse is the big one. If they beat Syracuse on the road, then beating Indiana and Penn State in the two following weeks seems much more plausible. Then, by the time Wisconsin came in, the Illini would be 4-1, have a measure of confidence and all bets are off. That is why the beating Syracuse – particularly if they lose to Missouri – is so critical.

So put me down for 5-7. And if they beat Syracuse or Mizzou, I reserve the right to change it drastically.

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