It is easy to understand why many in the Illini Nation are skeptical about the future of Illinois football. Two straight losing seasons, the second a relative disaster, have left a bad taste in everyone's mouth. A number of top players have graduated or left for the NFL, and there has been a massive shakeup in the coaching staff.
In addition, the 2010 schedule is extremely tough, especially early. Even an experienced team could struggle playing Missouri, Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State among the first six opponents. The latter two are away. Even nonconference opponents Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois are no bargain, nor will away games with Michigan, Northwestern and Fresno State.
It is no wonder some fans have already given up. However, six new assistant coaches were not here last fall and have no negative memories to bog them down. They bring a new enthusiasm to their jobs, and it is hoped that will wear off on the players. It may take awhile for the athletes to forget the past, but learning new systems will at least take their minds off previous miseries.
Spring practices will be filled with story lines. How effective will the new offense be under coordinator Paul Petrino? Will it provide more diversity to keep defenses off balance? Will it combine a strong running game with frequent downfield passing? Will the tight end be more involved? Is there enough talent on the offensive line?
All quarterback prospects are young and lack experience. Will they be able to pick up the new offense and become proficient at it? Are they the kind of leaders needed to motivate the troops on the field? How long will it take them to become competent learning defensive tendencies and how to counter them?
Defensively, will new coordinator Vic Koenning find enough athletes to run his defense the way he desires? Will it be complex enough and disguised well enough to keep opponent offenses guessing? Is there enough experience now to become a strong defense? Can Koenning motivate his players to play with intensity?
Special teams have been inconsistent for some time now. Can Derek Dimke and Matt Eller stabilize field goals and extra points? Can Dimke provide the location and hang time on kickoffs to help the kickoff unit cover effectively? Can Anthony Santella punt his best in his final year?
Will a long snapper be found to replace the graduated Tyler Keely? Can the Illini kick and punt return teams ever produce long touchdown runs while consistently providing good field position?
The Illini usually undergo two weeks of strenuous 6:00am workouts just prior to spring ball as a culmination of their winter conditioning program. This year they added a week. Heavy emphasis was placed on situations that force players out of their comfort zones. After all, they must improve if they want to win. Will the hard work over the winter pay off?
Plus, the coaching staff must evaluate the players for their abilities. The training helped provide a base line for each. It will be easier for the staff to determine everyone's best position after watching performances under duress.
Returning starters are not secure in their positions. None of the new coaches has previous memories of returning players, so everyone has a new lease on life. This may motivate those who received minimal or no playing time last year while providing new competition for those who did.
The new coaches also have incentive to be highly motivated themselves. They must prove themselves, and their future at Illinois depends on them doing their best. If there was any complacency among long-time staffers last year, that was eliminated with all the changes.
The coaches are fired up for spring ball. The players appear to be as well. It will be a work in progress. It will take everyone awhile to relax and have confidence in their assignments. The team will no doubt look better in the fall than the spring.
But spring is the time to install systems and evaluate personnel. More than recent years, this spring could be a memorable one, especially if answers can be found for the most pressing questions.
Separate articles on the offense and defense follow.