What's Next? Proving '07 Was No Fluke

Despite how it ended, it was a season of memories for the Illini and their ecstatic legion of fans. More wins than the previous four years combined. A victory over the nation's top team. And a fabulous foray to the left coast for the first Rose Bowl trip in 23 years. But now the most important and difficult job of all awaits -- finding a way to remain among the elite. How do they do it? Read on.

Too many times, a team that had not been among the best in the Big Ten has had that special breakout season but never followed it up. Illinois went to the Rose Bowl in 1984 and then never returned until this year. But the Illini weren't alone.

In the time since that Illini appearance, five Big Ten teams -- Michigan State (1988), Iowa (1991), Penn State (1995), Northwestern (1996) and Purdue (2001) -- all made an unlikely appearance in the Granddaddy of them all. Did Disneyland, Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Old Pasadena. And you know what else they all had in common? None have returned since.

It could be worse. Indiana went in 1968; the Hoosiers are still waiting for their return trip. Minnesota visited in 1962 -- it is 45 years and counting for the Golden Gophers. And so on. Other than Michigan, Ohio State and, in the last 20 years, Wisconsin, no league team has sustained any real consistent success.

So now the question everyone wants to know: Will the Illini be one and done?

"Our team will be better next year than it was this year," Ron Zook told me. "There is no doubt in my mind about that. Our seniors were absolutely terrific this year -- we couldn't have done this without them. But we still play a lot of young players. A lot. And they all will be better next year than this year. Overall, that will make our team better as well."

So what must happen for the Illini to match this fantastic season with another? A number of things:

1. Replace Rashard Mendenhall. That, of course, is the biggie. Rashard hasn't announced it officially yet, but I think everyone knows he will enter the NFL draft. Competing for his spot will be Daniel Dufrene and Troy Pollard, who played this year, Walter Mendenhall who has an outside chance and incoming freshmen Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford.

But this is about more than finding a starting running back. It means finding a go-to guy, maybe a back, maybe from another position. You knew all year long that Rashard had one or two long ones in him per game, one or two plays that could change the game. Opposing defenses knew that, too. And that affected everything they do. It made them weak in other areas because they were so consumed with Mendenhall. Replacing that stigma is priority No. 1.

2. Improve the passing game. For the first time in the Zook era the pieces really seem to be in place for thats to happen. Juice Williams will now be a junior with more than 20 starts under his belt and an increasingly better feel for the passing game.

Just as exciting is the receiving corps. Starting wideouts Arrelious Benn and Jeff Cumberland and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui have legitimate NFL potential. I'm convinced Chris James, who everybody loves, will be the other starter. Those four players will comprise as good a foursome as their is in the Big Ten. When is the last time you heard that? Ever?

Throw in a signing class that will have at least two first year contributors -- Cordale Scott and A.J. Jenkins -- and a position of weakness could become one of great strength. That is critical.

3. Replace Reda, improve kicking game. It is time for that to become more of a stength than ever, but replacing ever steady Jason Reda will be a real chore. Sophomore Matt Brandabur gets first crack at it, but don't count out walkon freshman Matt Eller, who has the strongest leg of all of them.

The punters still will be Anthony Santella, Kyle Yelton and Jared Bosch, although Santella may have a death grip on the job after his best game of the year in the Rose Bowl.

Mostly, returns have to improve. With a healthy shoulder and a year of experience under his belt, don't be surpised to see Benn returning everything this time of year. That improves the cause immensely.

4. Replace the Man in the Middle. Illinois may never again have a player who plays, hustles, leads and represents the university as well as J. Leman. He meant that much to this team. But it is possible that the Illini will be faster than ever at linebacker.

Dan Disch told me the only given is that Brit Miller will be on the field and Martez Wilson will start on the weakside. I think ultimately Miller, like so many expect, will move inside and Ian Thomas will move to strong side an dwin the job. That would make for a very athletic group. As savvy as Leman? No way. But as fast an athletic a group as you've seen in a long time.

5. Rediscover the intangible magic that fueled the '07 season. It sounds trite, but clearly, that wonderful chemistry, passion, motivation and sense of symmetry this year's team had will be so difficult to replicate. But to repeat, the Illini will have to.

They will have to find a way to play with a chip on their shoulder even though they no longer are considered the weakling on the beach. They must play hard, play together, care about each other, care about the team, just like this unselfish team did the entire season. That is never easy.

All in all, the future is so amazingly bright. The defensive line will be all world, ditto the secondary. If Thomas is ready, ditto the linebackers.

Most importantly, this team isn't afraid. It believes. In addition to have an increasingly deeper roster, the Illini have a swagger, a toughness, a bravado that served them well this season. It is an extention of the feelings of their tough guy head coach, who is a fighter to the end. And a master motivator.

This past year's rallying cry was easy: "We've won four games in two years and everyone thinks we stink. Let's prove them wrong." This year's is just as clear: "Everyone thinks we are a one-hit wonder and will come back to earth this year. They don't believe. Let's make 'em believe."

When I see the roster, see the shape Lou has them in and knowing the freakish condition they will be in come next year, I find myself drinking the koolaid. It's gotten to where I believe. They are making me believe.

Enough that I think the return trip to Pasadena, is unlikely as some believe it is, isn't as far off as you may think.

Illini Inquirer Top Stories