Current Illini Mirror Image of 2001 Team

It has been six long years since the Fighting Illini football team played in a bowl game. But if one had slept through those years, waking up to the 2007 team might seem like deja vu. After all, the comparisons between the 2001 and 2007 teams are amazing.

It isn't possible for diehard Illini fans to forget the six years of darkness their beloved football team endured since its Big Ten Championship run in 2001. But the 2007 team in many ways looks and behaves much like that one. Watching this year's team win nine games and go to a quality bowl game might help all Illini heal from the pain that preceded it. It is as if those last six years never existed.

Obviously, the two teams are not identical. Ron Zook is in his third year at the helm, while it took Ron Turner five years to reach a BCS bowl bid. The 2001 team won the Big Ten Championship, while the 2007 team finished second. The 2001 team won ten of 12 games, while the current team is 9 and 3 with a bowl game yet to play. And Steve Fitts, a senior in 2001, was far superior as a punter to 2007's freshman Anthony Santella. But many key performers on both sides of the ball are extremely similar.

First of all, both teams benefitted from a large group of seniors who showed outstanding leadership. The 2001 team had four great captains in Kurt Kittner, Luke Butkus, Brandon Moore and Bobby Jackson. The 2007 teams captains have not yet been selected, but there are several obvious leaders whose importance to their team is equal to their predecessors from 2001.

Offensively, Kurt Kittner was a senior quarterback and had two extra years of experience on Juice Williams. But both quarterbacks displayed playmaker potential that could be relied upon under duress. Kittner had a higher pass completion percentage, while Juice broke quarterback rushing records. But both seemed to play their best when the team needed them most. Kittner had a shot in the pros, and Williams likely will also. Regardless, they are both great college quarterbacks.

Antonio Harris was the starter at running back for the 2001 team. It was his season rushing record that Rashard Mendenhall broke this year. Harris was backed up by small scatback Rocky Harvey, while Troy Pollard showed flashes of being a Rocky clone before being sidelined with a knee injury. Daniel Dufrene and Pollard together combined to give the 2007 team a solid backup.

Both teams enjoyed quality fullbacks. Carey Davis from 2001 is now playing pro ball after excelling both as a blocker and pass receiver. Russ Weil may also get a shot at pro ball due to his powerhouse blocking and all-around play.

Of major importance to both teams was having a go-to receiver that threatened defenses. In 2001 it was Brandon Lloyd, who used great leaping ability to haul in long passes. In 2007 it is Arrelious Benn. Benn's outstanding athletic ability as both a receiver and runner has been invaluable. In both cases, their presence allowed roll-playing teammates to find openings in the secondary and aid the overall passing game.

Lloyd's receiving teammates were of high quality themselves, with Aaron Moorehead, Greg Lewis and Walter Young all getting pro opportunities. The 2007 team may not boast as many future pros, but youthful receivers like Brian Gamble and Jeff Cumberland appear to have many good days ahead of them if they continue to improve. They all benefitted from having superstars in their midst.

The offensive lines of both teams were among their strengths. David Diehl, now an established starter with the New York Giants, was a versatile backup in 2001, sharing time with draftee Sean Bubin. Pro center Duke Preston backed up Butkus, who also got a pro tryout. And tackle Tony Pashos is an established pro lineman. All five of the present 2007 line starters have a chance to play pro ball eventually, and there are some high-quality backups waiting in the wings.

Illinois hired a new defensive coordinator for 2001. Mike Cassity brought an aggressive style that set an Illini record with 40 sacks. Curt Mallory and Dan Disch were named co-defensive coordinators just prior to the start of the 2007 season, and their defense is just two sacks away from tying the 2001 team's sack record.

The sack leader in 2001 was a speed rushing defensive end named Terrell Washington, who was not always a starter but came in on passing downs. The Washington equivalent this year is Will Davis, who is also not a full-time starter but excels on passing downs. The leader of the 2001 defensive line was tackle Brandon Moore, who was switched to the offensive line in the pros. Tackle Chris Norwell, who started more consecutive games than any previous Illini, has anchored the 2007 defesive line and will likely be switched to offense in his pro tryout.

Both teams had outstanding middle linebackers. Jerry Schumacker (2001) and J. Leman (2007) are comparable in many ways, including leading their respective teams in tackles. In both cases, these young men starred despite not having the explosiveness and speed considered ideal for the pro game. Hopefully, Leman will have a better chance at the pros than Schumacker, but regardless both proved to be outstanding college middle linebackers.

Both teams had lock-down cover corners also. Eugene Wilson has had some excellent years with the New England Patriots after starring as a cornerback at Illinois. His 2007 compliment is Vontae Davis, who has outstanding pro potential as well. Wilson's corner teammate was Christian Morton, and Davis' partner is Dere Hicks. Both Morton and Hicks played quarterback in high school.

And both teams had an outstanding pair of senior safeties with a quality backup available. Bobby Jackson and Muhammad Abdullah used intelligence, experience and savvy rather than great speed to stabilize the 2001 defensive backfield, while Bobby's brother Marc played well in a backup roll. This year, Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison, backed by senior Justin Sanders, reminded fans of Jackson and Abdullah and performed a similar function.

The 2001 team used two field goal kickers. Peter Christofilakos handled the shorter kicks and rarely missed, while J. J. Tubbs was inserted for the long kicks. In 2007, Jason Reda combined the best of both those kickers, making 15 of 16 field goals including four of 50 or more yards.

Even the schedule results had some similarities. Both teams lost to Michigan, but they both defeated Wisconsin and Penn State at home and Ohio State on the road. They both also defeated Minnesota and Northwestern.

Recruiting problems were already cropping up back in 2001, forewarning the later downturn. In sharp contrast, 2007 finds Illinois with much reason for future optimism. Whatever led to the depression years of 2001 to 2007, Illinois seems to be on an upward climb that should continue awhile. Perhaps Illini fans can bask in the glory of Illinois' return to national prominence in football and allow the misery of the recent past to fade from the memory banks.

With the many similarities between the 2001 and 2007 teams, it is as if those six intervening years never existed. At least, perhaps the 2007 season is a beginning rather than an ending. If so, each successful season from now on will help heal the wounds of recent failure and give Illini fans bragging rights for many years to come.

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