Analysis: Why Has Illinois Been So Good

Four games and a major question remain for the Illinois football team. The question, a clear one. Who are the Illini? An elite team ready for primetime, that can line up and beat the best of the best? A team full of classic overachievers that have willed their way to become a national story? Or something in between? Some answers lie below.

Step one in any such exercise is analysis of the roster. Simply, would other coaches trade rosters with the Illini? Lloyd Carr, Jim Tressel, Brett Bielema, Joe Paterno, Gary Pinkel, others. If you asked them right now, would they prefer their roster or that of the Illini? The answer probably is no.

So how about by position? From my view, running back Rashard Mendenhall, wide receiver Arrelious Benn, linebacker J. Leman, cornerback Vontae Davis and placekicker Jason Reda would be starters at most programs in the nation. Maybe not all, but most.

In addition, most teams would find a place for defensive linemen Chris Norwell, Will Davis and Derrick Walker and linebacker Brit Miller. Either as spot starters or backups. Offensive linemen Ryan McDonald, Xavier Fulton and Akim Millington would make most two-deeps. So would safeties Kevin Mitchell and Jason Harrison. And defensive end Doug Pilcher.

But that is about it. Five players who could start for the elite teams. Another 10 or so who could be backups.

So how in the world has Illinois beaten Wisconsin and Penn State? How have they played Missouri and Michigan so close? How did they get to 18th in the nation at one point? The answers are many.

SPEED -- That is the key reason Illinois has closed the gap. Their players, as a whole, aren't as good as most of the teams they play. But they may be faster. They are getting faster and faster in a league in which brawn, not blaze, is king. That means they match up well with many teams.

Players like Vontae Davis and Will Davis, not heavily recruited, are among the fastest at their positions in the country. Linebacker Antonio Steele and cornerback Dere Hicks are not great players. Illinois will be better next year when 'Tez Wilson and Travon Bellamy are in those spots. But both are very fast for their positions. So they outrun some mistakes with speed.

Further, many other players, although they are not yet stars or even starters, are faster than Illinois has had before at their positions -- receiver Joe Morgan, linebacker Wilson, defensive end Jerry Brown, special teams ace Nate Bussey, tight end Jeff Cumberland. All of those guys can improve as players, but are very fast. And the Illini keep getting faster each recruiting season. And better.

COACHING -- Yep, believe it or not, that ol' Ron Zook fella who so many said couldn't coach has authored one of the best coaching jobs in the nation. Only the 10-6 loss to struggling Iowa is a blemish.

Zook's teams have beaten Wisconsin and Penn State, two teams with better rosters, barely lost to Michigan and Missouri, two teams that are clearly more talented. And rolled teams like Indiana and Syracuse that have similar rosters.

By cleverly using option plays, sweeps, counters. wide receiver screens and slants, Zook and offensive coordinator Mike Locksley have moved the ball consistently despite having only two playmakers -- Benn and Mendenhall. They have taken care of the ball in the red zone so that one of their main weapons -- Reda -- has been able to make a difference.

Defensively, they have creatively called blitzes and mixed coverages, used Vontae Davis against the other team's best receiver; matched up Walker and Will Davis against slower offensive linemen and put Leman in position to make a bunch of plays.

SPECIAL TEAMS -- One of Zook's late off-season hires was assistant Mike Woodford, a special teams ace. Zook and "Woody" have combined to make Illinois' special teams among the best in the land.

Consider, Reda is 10 of 11 on the season with two kicks of 50 yards and a number over 40; Benn and Vontae Davis have had long kickoff returns that greatly affected games; they have blocked two punts already. And they have covered kicks wonderfully.

There have been a few breakdowns -- a punt return for a score against Missouri; Hudson's fumbled punt return and Morgan roughing the punter against Michigan. But overall, this group has been good.

OFF-SEASON -- Strength coach Lou Hernandez put this team through the most rigorous off-season program most of these guys ever will see in their lives. They lifted, ran, grinded like never before. And Lou made them compete with each other in various individual and team drills It paid off.

ENOUGH IS ENOUGH -- The players had had enough. None of them had ever been to a bowl. All of them had to deal with being one of the worst teams in the nation, or at least the Big Ten, every year. They were sick of it.

So they worked harder than ever. In games, they get off the blocks just a second faster than the opponent. They get their pads just a little lower. They hold on to tackles a little longer. They hit just a little harder. All of which makes a difference.

And when they got a taste of what a win may feel like, they lowered the boom with an intensity that said we don't ever want to go back. That keeps you playing hard until the final gun.

So you add it all up -- speed, coaching, special teams play, ridiculously hard off-season progam and the intense will to win bred from not wanting to have sand kicked in their face any longer -- and you have one of the nation's best stories.

Are they good enough to keep it up? Who knows? Their roster is lean enough they could lose to Ball State, yet their will to win and element of speed are such they could upset Ohio State.

Mostly, they are starting to smell a bowl trip. Starting to realize they can beat anyone. And with future recruiting shaping up the same, before long their roster not only will be faster than other teams, it will be better.

Then what?

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