The mood was somewhat subdued compared with last season, the product of a disappointing 5-7 season record. But there were some memorable moments. One thing is for sure, Illinois has some young players who have now experienced the pain of an unrequited season. That pain has already begun to motivate them to ensure it doesn't happen again.
Coach Zook reminded everyone that there is good reason for optimism about the future. When he came here four years ago, everyone wanted Illinois to be their Homecoming opponent. Now, the Illini were Penn State's "White Out" game, a tribute to the importance PSU gave to the Illinois game. More work is needed, but the improvement is obvious.
The first award of the night went to alumnus Kameno Bell, who was given the Monsignor Edward J. Duncan Award. Kameno talked about the importance of perseverence in his life. Originally a walkon at Illinois, Bell earned a scholarship and lettered from 1989-91 as a running back, eventually being named MVP his senior season. He was on the Miami Dolphins' roster for parts of four years before returning to school to become a physician. He encouraged the Illini to persevere in all things.
The Wright Commitment To Excellence Award was given to David Lindquist for overcoming obstacles in his life and career. For the fourth year in a row, Ryan McDonald won the Scholar-Athlete Award with a cumulative 3.81 grade point average in Aeronautical Engineering.
Sam Carson won the Service Above Self Award. The Bruce Capel Award for courage was given to Xavier Fulton. Xavier was in on 770 plays at left tackle while playing with two dislocated shoulders and a bad knee. He declined surgery so he could play his senior season.
Florida transfer receiver Jarred Fayson won the Offensive Scout Team Award, and freshman defensive end Whitney Mercilus earned the Defensive Scout Team Award. The Outstanding Defensive Back was Dere Hicks, and Matt Eller and Nate Bussey shared the Outstanding Special Teams Award.
Brit Miller's selection as Outstanding Linebacker was no surprise to anyone. Brit led the nation in total tackles. Linebacker coach Dan Disch had some of the funniest lines on the night in describing Miller. He said Brit was someone who needed to learn things his own way, which proved to be exasperating at times. And Disch said, "He carries his belly proud."
The Outstanding Offensive Lineman award went to junior Jon Asamoah. Coach Eric Wolford said he had to go back and review the season to be certain of the winner. Asamoah recorded 853 total plays on the year. In that time, he missed only two assignments and gave up one sack.
Coach Tom Sims was his usually humorous self in handing out the Outstanding Defensive Lineman Award to senior Derek Walker. He said Derek came to Illinois as someone who dressed conservatively and spoke little, but now "he won't shut up and dresses like a lounge singer."
Juice Williams was the Outstanding Offensive Back Award winner. Arrelious Benn was the easy winner of the Outstanding Receiver Award. Junior tight end Michael Hoomanawanui was named Most Improved, and freshmen Jason Ford and Corey Liuget shared the Rookie of the Year Award.
Team captains, based on a team vote, were seniors David Lindquist and Brit Miller plus juniors Arrelious Benn and Juice Williams.
The senior class had the last say, providing some humorous moments describing some of the funny sayings and unusual moments they remember in their time at Illinois. Perhaps one of the funniest was Brit Miller's rendition of Co-Defensive Coordinator Curt Mallory. Brit likened a comment Mallory made to a Dr. Seuss story that sounded amazingly similar in cadence and rhyme.
It is hard to be celebratory with a losing season. And the Colonnades Club is spread out lengthwise but short widthwise, making it impossible to see the entire affair as a whole. But the seniors went out with a bang, and there was plenty of optimism remaining for future success.