Key Players for 2009 Illini

Some have been in Champaign forever, it seems. Others just got there. Together, they are key figures in what Illinois coach Ron Zook hopes is a season in which the Illini return to prominence in the Big Ten after a one-year hiatus. So for the 2009, Illini, here are some key guys to watch:

-- Juice Williams. Yeah, I know it's obvious, but can't be omitted. Juice doesn't have to be better than he was when he was good -- because when he was, he was off the chart. But he must be much better than he was when he was bad.

He has to limit mistakes. He has to make the right choices. He has to hit the open guy. He has to play relaxed. So when evaluating him, it isn't the numbers he has to reach, it's the numbers he has to avoid.

If he avoids interceptions -- throws no more than seven; if he avoids fumbles -- loses no more than two; if he avoids low percentage passing games -- if he never has a game under 50 percent, the Illini will have a huge season. Write it down.

-- Matt Eller. Illinois is going to run the football, that much you know. They want to control the clock, a definite change in philosophy from a year ago. They will be in more 24-21 games than before. And Eller will have his chances.

Eller is a very cool customer so he likely will make the ones at the end of the game. That is his makeup. And he was deadly from long range -- 8 of 10 from 40 yards and beyond. But he has to be very good from inside 40 yards, too.

-- Jarred Fayson. I know I keep saying it, but you know Benn is going to have a big year. But if Fayson is equally as scary on the other side, defenses have a full-blown dilemma.

-- Jason Ford. The way Mike Schultz wants to pound the football, a good back is so critical. I just think this guy can be a superstar. Mikel LeShoure will really push him for big back duties. But I have a hunch about Ford. I think he is an all-Big Ten back before he leaves.

-- Doug Pilcher. He doesn't get mentioned much but here is reality -- he is the only legitimate, proven end on the team. The only one. So Pilch, as he is called, has to be a warrior. He has to stay on the field, avoid injuries, be a leader in the locker room for a ridiculously young line. And there is this: he has to rush the passer.

Doug's strength has never been as an edge rusher, it has been as a big, physical, run support end. Not any more. Antonio Jones and Clay Nurse will start out sharing the other spot and will be OK. Pilcher needs to be better than OK. We need to be talking about what an unreal season he is having by mid-season.

-- Dere Hicks. There is so much uncertainty in the secondary, the one proven commodity has to be off the chart good. Miami Thomas is coming back from an injury, Travon Bellamy was hurt last year and really struggled, Tavon Wilson is big but needs to cover better, etc. But Hicks is the constant. He has to be very good.

-- Anthony Santella. Or whoever. Illinois needs him more than ever to step up. Or for someone to beat him out and step up. Again, when you are going to try and be more of a running team than ever, with slow long positions, that means fewer positions. That means field position means everything. You've got to hold your own in the kicking game.

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