Three-Game Analysis: More Good Than Bad

Maybe, just maybe, it was a good thing. Maybe it was good that Illinois struggled against a 24-point underdog and almost lost. Surely, the Illini were embarrassed. But if the needed wakeup call comes without having to suffer a loss, all the better. All of which leads to a first quarter evaluation of Ron Zook's team -- the good and the, well, not so much.

Let's start with the good. There is much of it.

Juice Williams. Yeah, he wasn't his best last week. But the junior quarterback truly has come into his own, passing like crazy when Missouri took away the run and running like crazy when Eastern Illinois took away the pass. Great coaches want their quarterbacks to take what the defense gives.

Daniel Dufrene. Many, me among them, weren't sure this little guy could step into Rashard Mendenhall's considerable shoes. And while he may not ever be a first round draft pick, the junior is a fine anchor to the all-important Illinois running game.

He runs low, tough, is fast and durable. With Troy Pollard banged up he is so is just what the team needed. Which leads us to ...

Mikel LeShoure. Most never dreamed this bulldozing 240-pound freshman would be a factor as a runner this soon. But after learning the ropes and seeming a bit tentative as an early entrant into spring practice, LeShoure had an incredible off-season, came in in great shape, and is the backup running back.

Michael Hoomanawanui. Before he was a 6-5, 260-pound blocking tight end. Now he is a 6-5, 260-pound blocking and receiving tight end. Next he will be an NFL player.

Dere Hicks and Vontae Davis. Hicks is a better cornerback than I ever thought he would be; Vontae was supposed to be good and he may be even better. In the past, Vontae would free lance, forget his assignments, then make up for it with incredible talent. This year, he is doing what he is coached to do. It shows.

Anthony Santella and Matt Eller. Santella, the punter, came into his own in the Rose Bowl. It was that day the transfer from Utah went from being the most recent guy to attempt to be the Illini punter to a solid, college punter.

Eller, a redshirt freshman walk-on, won a heated battle with Matt Brandabur and incoming freshman Derek Dimke, and looks like a solid, steady, strong-legged placekicker despite being a freshman. He already has made kicks of more than 50 and 40 yards and his only miss came from 39 yards directly into a nasty 50 MPH wind.

Now, the areas that need work.

The safeties. These guys have taken a lot of criticism, but it is important to point out that with three seniors playing almost every snap, this year's guys just haven't played much. They will get better.

By mid-season, most of the work will come from some combination of Travon Bellamy, Bo Flowers and newcomer Donsay Hardeman, who hasn't played yet because of injury. But don't count out gritty Garrett Edwards, who is battling for one of the jobs.

Linebacker depth. Brit Miller has been OK, Martez Wilson isn't there yet, but improves every game. After that, it is a concern. Rodney Pittman was better in the spring than now. He needs to make more plays. And they have to find some depth -- Sam Carson, Russell Ellington, Ian Thomas. Somebody has to emerge as a clear fourth linebacker.

And perhaps the biggest concern -- consistency. In fairness, all teams are asleep at the wheel sometime during their seasons. Southern Cal last year lost at home to 40-point underdog Stanford; second-ranked Georgia barely survived South Carolina; Ohio State trailed Ohio late in the third period.

But this team may not have that margin of error. They are talented, but not yet deep. At least not experienced depth. They lack playmakers, so they need Juice, Dufrene, Arrelious Benn, Vontae, rush end Will Davis, to be good all the time.

It also appears the Big Ten is anybody's league. Ohio State is still very good, but clearly beatable. Penn State is the all the talk right now, but hasn't played a good team yet. Wisconsin is tough and physical, but had to hang on at Fresno State. Michigan appears to be rebuilding.

Is Illinois better than those teams? Who knows? But the Illini are in the conversation. Correct a few of those areas of improvement and they will be the conversation. Only time will tell.

Stay tuned.

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