Illini '08: Offense Could Be Explosive

The fininshing touches haven't even been put on a program-changing 2007 season, so the next season seems so far away. Yet, some believe this was only a precursor for things to come. How good will it get? begins to answer the question with a three-part series about the 2008 team. We'll start with a look at what could be a high-flying offense.

QUARTERBACK -- This one is easy. No debate about the starter. The debate is about how good can Isiah "Juice" Williams be now that the light went on down the stretch of his sophomore season.

This year, Juice was 132 of 232 for 1,498 yards with 13 touchdowns 10 interceptions. He completed 57 percent. I said before the season he would be over 50 percent with a few more touchdowns than interceptions, so I believe he is right on course. But that course also would lead to a junior year of over 60 percent with a two-to-one touchdown to interception ratio.

More importantly, though, are the other things he does. With 774 rushing yards, he will be the best dual threat quarterback in the country. And his management of the offense, staying away from delay of games and false starts and unnecessary timeouts, was superb. This guy is for real.

Eddie McGee will again be the primary backup. He was 28 of 54 for 388 yards with a touchdown and three picks, plus he rushed for 146 yards. McGee generally played well when called on.

Yet, don't be surprised if he gets some work at wide receiver in the spring. The guy is too good of an athlete to not be on the field. Can you be the fifth wide receiver AND the backup quarterback? We'll see.

In the spring, redshirt freshman to be Phil Haig will be the third guy, but he will have to work to hold off incoming recruit Jacob Charest in the fall. That is the guy coaches think may be the next great one.

Haig throws a good ball, but started to lose his confidence a bit as the fall went along. He has to regain that. He will be serviceable, but whether he is a potential starter down the road is yet to be seen.

RUNNING BACK -- The key is whether Rashard Mendenhall returns for his senior year after a spectacular coming out season of 1,526 yards as a junior. My guess is that he is gone, although coaches are holding out hope. If he is there, he is the feature back and Illinois begins the season ranked in the top 10. If not, the position gets interesting.

Coaches love their two young backs, Daniel Dufrene (294 yards) and Troy Pollard (148 yards). In fact, had Pollard not gotten hurt, he was on his way to a huge true freshman season. As it is, he will get a medical hardship and have four years to play.

Dufrene has two years remaining and played well. He is small but tough and fast. May not have the upside of Pollard, but will be just fine alternating in the spot.

The inside running likely will come from incoming freshmen Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford. Both will play in the 225-pound range. Ford is faster, but Leshoure may have a leg up because he will enter school in January and participate in spring ball. And other recruits still could be added to the mix, although they probably now won't have Deries Hodge.

WIDE RECEIVER/TIGHT END -- Two important developments give this position great promise. The first was the unveiling of fantastic true freshman Arrelious Benn, who caught 49 passes for 596 yards in his first season. He is big, physical, fast, tough and has great hands. The second of the three years he will be in school should be even more of a breakout year. He could be one of the best receivers in the country.

The second important happening was the late season emergence of 6-5, 245-pound sophomore Jeff Cumberland, a hybrid player with wide receiver's speed and a tight end's body. Now a fulltime wide receiver, he only caught nine balls as he made the transition from tight end, but most of those came in the final third of the season, meaning the light finally came on for him. He also was a devastating runner on reverses and surely will hold down one of the starting spots.

The third starting spot at receiver will be interesting. Sophomore Chris James, who coaches absolutely love, will return from season-ending knee surgery and has the best chance to win the job. After that, it is sketchy. Joe Morgan has numerous off-field problems and may not be brought back -- if he is, he has a real chance. He is 6-2, 190 and may be the fastest player on the team. But he has to get his head right. Coaches haven't yet made a decision about him.

Other candidates are junior Marques Wilkins, who had some good moments but looks to me more like a role player, and an incoming freshman or two.

The two "X" factors I didn't mention are Kyle Hudson (12 catches, 127 yards) and Brian Gamble (14 catches, 144 yards). Both could help the cause, but there is some belief that Hudson will pursue baseball and not return to football and that Gamble will be moved back to defense to try and win a starting job at safety, where three seniors depart.

None of that has been decided yet and the final recruiting season will have something to do with that. But my guess is both of those things will happen.

At tight end, Michael Hoomanawanui will be a great one. He is 6-5, 265, tough as nails, strong, faster than you think and has terrific hands. He will be in the NFL. He only caught five passes for 64 yards, but that number will go way up.

The problem is backups. Right now, there are none. An incoming recruit or two -- possibly Hubie Graham -- must play right away here.

OFFENSIVE LINE -- What an improved group this was under new coach Eric Woolford. It will only get better. The good news is three starters -- left tackle Xavier Fulton, center Ryan McDonald and right guard Jon Asamoah return. All will start again.

The battle will be for the other two spots --right now, backup center Eric Block, Brandon Jordan and redshirt freshman to be Jack Cornell look like good bets to battle for the left guard spot. Just a hunch, but my money is on Cornell. He is 6-6, 320 and coaches think he is going to be an absolute megastar. Will it start this soon?

At right tackle, Ryan Palmer will be hard to beat out. He is 6-7, 305 pounds, tough, smart and played a bunch backing up Akim Millington last year. His competition will come from Mark Jackson, another big, athletic, terrific prospect. My guess is Palmer wins the job.

The good thing, though, is that for the first time, Illinois has legitimate depth here. If Cornell and Palmer do win the open jobs, don't be surpised at all to see a backup line of -- from left to right -- Randall Hunt, Jordan, Block, Craig Wilson, Jackson -- play more than backup offensive linemen typically do. They like all of those guys, particularly Wilson.

Overall, the offense could have a breakout year. A major key is keeping offensive coordinator Mike Locksley, who already has gotten some offers. In the end, though, I think Mike stays.


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