Senior quarterback Juice Williams is working to make his final year his best one. He likely took on too much responsibility last year, to his detriment. But he has an abundance of talented receivers, depth and experience at running back, and an offensive line that has potential.
Williams does get beaten up during the course of a season as he carries the ball 10 to 15 times a game. Fortunately, the Illini finally have sufficient depth at quarterback to counter most health problems.
Junior Eddie McGee is still learning consistency in the passing attack, but he is faster than Williams and is a threat to score every time he carries the ball. And if Williams remains healthy, the Illini can afford to use the 6'-4" McGee more frequently at receiver since redshirt freshman Jacob Charest and freshman Nathan Scheelhaase both have tremendous potential.
Williams won't have to force his passes into Arrelious Benn all the time this fall. He has Florida transfer Jarred Fayson, who is almost as big as Benn and is lightning quick, to keep defenses honest and prevent double teams on Benn. And the other starting receiver is Jeff Cumberland, the huge senior who may be ready to come into his own.
Backing them will be speedy senior Chris Duvalt, lettermen sophomores A.J. Jenkins and Fred Sykes, improving Cordale Scott, exciting redshirt freshman Jack Ramsey and junior Chris James all fighting for playing time. And freshmen Terry Hawthorne and Steve Hull arrive with glowing credentials and are supremely confident they can contribute in their first year.
Tight end should be an asset as well. Senior Michael Hoomanawanui has always been a devastating blocker, but his receiving skills are improving. And he has a solid backup in sophomore Hubie Graham, who gained valuable experience last fall. Redshirt freshman London Davis and rookie Justin Lattimore will provide sufficient competition to prevent complacency among the starters, and Lattimore may be a deep threat.
New Offensive Coordinator Mike Schultz worked all spring to improve the running game, to balance the pass with the run. He has four experienced running backs from which to choose. Senior Daniel Dufrene, sophomores Jason Ford and Mikel Leshoure and redshirt sophomore scatback Troy Pollard all can make plays and should be much improved.
Dufrene has speed and experience and has become consistent on swing passes. Ford and Leshoure have both lost weight and gained needed experience, and they can use their strength to improve inside running. Ford is an explosive leaper and can fly over the top of linemen on short yardage as well.
Pollard is finally healthy again, and he can provide a necessary contrast in running styles. He has the best moves on the team and is difficult to corral in the open field. Incoming freshmen Justin Green and Bud Golden will also compete for playing time. Green is especially intriguing since he was a Kentucky 100 yard dash champ and is considered one of the fastest players on the team.
Entering freshman Greg Fuller is the first true fullback recruited by Ron Zook since he arrived at Illinois, and Fuller will be given every opportunity to win the position. He is known for his blocking ability and speed for his size. Walkon Zach Becker played there last fall as a freshman, and he is available if necessary despite playing some at tight end in the spring.
Senior star Jon Asamoah and redshirt senior Eric Block anchor the center of the offensive line and should provide excellent protection for Williams as well as openings for the inside running game. They are both intelligent, experienced and good leaders.
Sophomore Jeff Allen improved by leaps and bounds last fall. He struggled at times as one would expect of a true freshman. But he has proven to be an outstanding athlete now that he has transformed his body. Allen is stationed at the important left tackle spot, and he should provide Williams consistent protection against all the talented speed rushers the Illini will face.
Redshirt junior Ryan Palmer made tremendous strides this spring at right tackle. Injured half the fall with a broken bone in his foot, Palmer is healthy again and stronger and quicker than before. He played well enough there to move Allen to left tackle.
The other starter going into the fall is Randall Hunt at left guard. Hunt should be ready to contribute in his fourth season. He has the size and maneuverability necessary for the position, and he has made important improvements in his consistency. He held off the competition from highly rated redshirt freshman Graham Pocic all spring.
Pocic will be an early alternative if needed on the line. Sophomore Corey Lewis can play either tackle spot and may see time at both. He is consistency away from being a starter. Sophomore guard Jack Cornell is another squadman looking to crack the top 8. Tackle Craig Wilson is improved as well. The second string center spot is uncertain, but redshirt freshman Tyler Sands played there in the spring before being injured.
Freshmen linemen usually redshirt, but Hugh Thornton and Andrew Carter are both especially athletic for offensive linemen. If they can learn the system and techniques quickly, they can provide some depth.
Schultz wants to establish the running game and may use more two-tight end and power "I" formations than his predecessor. When the Illini offense is functioning smoothly, the running game will set up what could be a devastating passing attack, and vice versa. If the Illini can keep defenses guessing as to what is coming next, they can have a decided advantage.
If the Illini can reduce turnovers, move the chains consistently, show strength in short yardage, and take what the defense gives them, their offense can prove to be as strong as any have seen at Illinois in many years.