Final Spring Analysis: Time Is Now For Illini

We have now seen the last Illinois football we will see for almost four months. When the Illini resume in August at Camp Rantoul, the clear goal will be to prove the memorable 2007 season was no fluke? So how will they do? Strengths and weaknesses after spring? The following is a position-by-position breakdown of the Illini with spring drills concluded..

Quarterback -- Obviously, the most important improvement must come here. Juice Williams is the clear starter, Eddie McGee still the clear backup. They hope to dress Jacob Charest every game, have him warm up with the team every game, but still redshirt him. That is the goal.

The obvious key is Juice. He is the leader -- this is now his team. He also is the main offensive weapon because other than handoffs, he is critically involved in every play -- quarterback runs, option plays and passes. Two of those things he has done very well since he got to Champaign.

But he must pass better. He has been told that. He will not be babied, not face-to-face, not in the media, not in the locker room. He is expected to pass better. He went from completing 39 percent as a freshman to completing 57 percent as a sophomore. Now he must get into the mid-60s.

Most importantly, he has to hit the open guy. The wide open guy. Because this offensive plan and Mike Locksley's play-calling will have some receivers running wide open. Always has. But they haven't been great at hitting them. And the receivers haven't always caught it. All of that has to change.

If Juice doesn't make great, tight throws when there is only a tiny window and he has to thread the needle, that is fine. That may not be who he is. But when a guy is running open, he must hit him. Every time. Without Rashard Mendenhall breaking off 20 yard runs left and right, Juice is the key.

Running back -- This position is one of my three concerns. Daniel Dufrene is very fast, very tough and a solid player. There are far worse starting tailbacks. But I'm not sure he's special. His vision, balance and center of gravity, the three things that make the great ones great, are just OK.

Troy Pollard, on the other hand, has terrific vision, balance and ability to lower his pads. He is a natural runner, the most natural on the team. But he is not big and is not fast -- not nearly as fast as Dufrene.

Mikel LeShoure looked a bit overwhelmed -- as you would expect -- during spring and I've never seen Jason Ford, so I don't know what to expect. Bottom line, Dufrene and Pollard have to play as well as they can. Dufrene has to do a better job of finding the holes; Pollard has to stay healthy. That is critical.

Wide reciever/tight end -- Slowly but surely, Illinois is going from having an embarrassing lack of receivers for three seasons to a pretty nice corps. Arrelious Benn is a superstar in the slot -- big, fast, tough, sure-handed. Jeff Cumberland is still a bit inconsistent, but he is starting to get it and at 6-5, 244 and very fast, he is a nightmare matchup for defenders. Tight end Mike Hoomanawanui is a load at tight end. All three of them will be NFL players.

The key is finding two or three to complement them. If Brian Gamble, a second slot receiver, can stay eligible, he is a very good option. He is very quick, nifty enough to find seams in zones and to beat man coverage underneath. He also is extremely tough, runs great routes and may have the best hands on the team.

Chris James is currently the other starter outside, but was only so-so during the spring. Speedster Chris Duvalt will push him for that spot -- the converted corner is green, but extremely fast and showed big play potential at times.

Add outside receivers Cordale Scott and A.J. Jenkins and slot receiver Jack Ramsay to the mix as true freshmen and the group has a chance. For the first time since Zook has been there, a legitimate chance to be special.

Offensive line -- This the second of my concerns. I do believe if the five starters stay healthy it will be a pretty good group. Xavier Fulton will be an all-star left tackle in his second season there, Jon Asamoah could be a very good right guard and Ryan McDonald is very steady at center. Eric Woolford is a terrific coach who will get every drop out of them.

But left guard Randall Hunt and right tackle Ryan Palmer, although both talented and good, hard-working kids, are first-time starters. The backups -- Craig Wilson, Jack Cornell, Eric Block, Brandon Jordan, Graham Pocic -- have virtually never played.

I really don't worry about Palmer -- he played a lot in place of Millington last year and he's really pretty good. They've always liked him. But the others are so green it is a concern. And it's not a fair point because they had a lot of injuries, but boy the defensive front dominated them the entire spring. Really dominated them.

Defensive line -- The good news is that one reason the offensive line struggled so much is how good this group is. I truly believe this may be the best d-line in the country. I've seen the great ones at Miami and FSU and LSU over the last 20 years and this one is very much like all of those groups.

The ends, frankly, are ridiculous. When you saw Antonio James scoop up that fumble and return it for a touchdown in the spring game -- sprinting down the field looking like a graceful, wide receiver despite the fact that he is 255 pounds -- did it ever dawn on you that you were watching a THIRD TEAM end. But you were. When the depth chart comes out in the fall, Derek Walker and Will Davis will be the starters and Doug Pilcher and Jerry Brown will be the backups. James and Clay Nurse, starters many places, are third team here.

And even though the tackles aren't as deep, this group will be very good. David Linquist is as solid as they come and Josh Brent has real star value. Add in ultra strong veteran Sirod Williams and one of two young guys -- DeAngelo McCray or Darryl Ballew, there is some depth.

And remember, Reggie Ellis got his feet wet in the spring and when Corey Liguet gets there in the fall, you will see why he was so heavily recuited. He will be in the rotation from game one.

Linebacker -- The bad news here is depth. The good news is, as long as the first guys are healthy, this group will be pretty good. Brit Miller will be All-Conference, Martez Wilson is a year from being a first-round pick and Rodney Pittman had a huge spring. All three are at least 240 pounds, and while Miller is only 6-1, the other two are 6-3 or 6-4. All three can run.

The question regards depth. Sam Carson can play the middle, but isn't very fast. Ian Thomas is extremely strong, tough and fast, but doesn't know where to go yet. He didn't show up in the spring, which surprised me a bit. At least one freshman -- probably Justin Staples will have to help here.

Secondary -- Cornerback will be terrific. Safety is my third area of concern. Frankly, they have to find two guys.

At cornerback, the Illini are in great shape. Vontae Davis is an All-American and Miami Thomas and Dere Hicks are two always-improving players that have staged a terrific battle on the other side. All three will play a great deal of football. And the position is in good hands with three true freshmen -- Ashante Williams, who played in the spring, Pat Nixon and Tavon Wilson providing a bright, bright future.

Safety, maybe not so much. In all likelihood, converted corner Travon Bellamy will start at one safety spot and could be very good.But he hasn't played in a year and when he did, he was a cornerback or a nickelback. He should be fine.

The other spot will go to one of four or five guys -- Nate Bussey, Bo Flowers and Garrett Edwards -- who had their moments in spring, but didn't overly impress -- or a newcomer. The best guess if it is a newcomer is JUCO transfer Donsay Hardeman, who looks like a million bucks, but cost himself by not finishing his degree in time to be in Champaign for spring.

It isn't talked about much, but Kevin Mitchell, Justin Harrison and Justin Sanders, although not very fast, were big, tough hitters, very good tacklers, and rarely out of position. Opposing receivers didn't want to come over the middle. Ever. It is important to find someone who keeps that fear in place.

Speial teams -- I agree with Zook here -- got a good feeling about this group. One good thing is that Anthony Santella, the likely punter, as well as Kyle Yelton and Jared Bosch, all have now punted in front of large crowds. For that reason, they will be much more calm.

Replacing Jason Reda as the placekicker won't be easy, but they have some good options. Matt Brandabur wasn't bad in spring, but Matt Eller has the best leg on the team. And maybe one of the best legs in the league. He should win the placement job unless newcomer Derek Dimke, who also has a big leg, has a big, big fall camp.

Overall, providing there are no surprises in the summer, Illinois could be every bit as good as last year, maybe better. And have maybe an even better season. They need to stay healthy, particularly at some key positions. They need a few newcomers to step up.

Mostly, they need their quarterback to hit the open man. If he does, this could be another season for the ages.

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