Turel Previews '06 Big Ten: Illinois

Josh Turel is going through all the Big Ten teams for 2006. For each he'll detail offense, defense and the incoming recruiting class. Next Up: Illinois

Big Ten 2006 Overview: Illinois

Key Returners: QB Tim Brasic, RB's Pierre Thomas, EB Halsey, Rashard Mendenhall, WR Kyle Hudson, S Justin Harrison, S Kevin Mitchell, DL Chris Norwell, LB J. Leman

Key Losses: DT Ryan Matha, FB Jason Davis, WR Kendrick Jones, P Steve Weatherford

Impact Recruits:

Akim Millington-Oklahoma Transfer-Offensive Tackle

Millington was a star recruit who started his career at Oklahoma and was a developing starter until transferring to Illinois. Should be one of the better tackles in the league and an instant starter for the Illini. He is a January enrollee.

Quarterback Isiah Williams- Scout.com #5 Quarterback, four star recruit.

Williams has a rocket arm and also excellent mobility which can be used in Zook's spread offense. Tim Brasic is the starter for the time being, but Williams could jump into the starters role. "That's one of the reasons I came to Illinois - because I want to have a chance to compete for a starting spot right away, and that's what I plan to do, but I know I'll have to work hard." Williams told Scout.com's Kendric Price in a recent interview.

Linebacker Rahkeem Smith- Scout.com #17 Linebacker, four star recruit.

Given the fact the defense has been awful, an impact player like Smith could help. Smith is a JUCO player who originally signed with Illinois last year but did not qualify. Smith has with good size and speed, which should bolster a corps that needs both.

Punter Kyle Yelton- Scout.com #3 Punter

With the loss of Steve Weatherford, Yelton should be able to step in and take over punting duties.

Tight End Jeff Cumberland-Scout.com #14 Tight End

First and foremost will he qualify? If Cumberland does he should be able to help in some of the multiple tight end packages that might help "hide" his lack of strength right now. I got to watch this young man down at the Akron Scout combine last year and he is as physically gifted as anyone his size. He could be a real weapon if he makes it academically.

Other possible impact recruits:

Defensive End Antonio James-Scout.com #56 Defensive End

I got a chance to watch some Massillon games on tape this year and James sticks out to me as a kid who could make a contribution his first year at Illinois. He is physically polished and has the potential to be a situational pass rusher or maybe a late blooming starter given the lack of depth there.

Defensive Back Vontae Davis-Scout.com #61 Safety

Should add depth and physical play to a secondary in desperate need of playmakers.

Offensive Overview:

Disaster is a fitting word to sum up 2005. Illinois averaged just 11 points a game last season, highlighted by not scoring any points on offense against Ohio State and a three point performance against Purdue, one of the conference's worst defense's. So where do they go from here? Well, there is help on the way. True freshman quarterback Isiah Williams is more talented than last years starter Tim Brasic, however Brasic has one key advantage as of right now-experience. Had Williams been an early enrollee, I might be inclined to give him the edge here but the jury will be out until Williams gets in and starts picking up things. Certainly I think the biggest parallel between the two is arm strength, where Williams clearly dominates. Brasic could hold off Williams until Big Ten play, but I think at some point this season, "the future" will be given the reins of an offense in need of playmaking ability.

In the backfield, the Illini return a host of talent including Pierre Thomas, EB Halsey, and Reshard Mendenhall. Last season Thomas rushed for 664 yards (5.2 average) and five touchdowns. Halsey had 349 (4.2 average) and Mendenhall rushed for 218 yards (4.5 average). I expect Thomas will continue to be considered the starter but will rotate with Halsey and Mendenhall. Halsey will most likely be used more on third downs because he is a solid receiving threat while Thomas and Mendenhall are better in running downs. I expect Thomas to get the most of the action because he has more experience than Mendenhall and is a very fine receiver himself. The Illini must replace Jason Davis at fullback, a declining role in the offense. Look for junior Russ Weil to step in here.

The receivers should be another group with plenty of rotation. Expect DaJuan Warren, Kyle Hudson and sophomore Derrick McPhearson to get the majority of the time in the three wide system. Warren and Hudson are returning starters while McPhearson is a star recruit from 2005 that should move into the third position. Kyle Hudson proved to be the teams top receiver last year, grabbing 31 passes for 469 yards (15.1 average). Warren chimed in with 21 catches for 205 yards. Sophomore Jody Ellis, junior Frank Lenti Jr. and seniors Franklin Payne and Lonnie Hurst are among the others expected to contribute. Replacing Melvin Bryant at tight end will be an open spot for a number of players including sophomore Will Davis, junior Jay Ramshaw and sophomore J.R. Kraemer. Also look for Jeff Cumberland to factor in if he makes grades.

The offensive line struggled last year, not only to open holes in the running game but in protecting Brasic as well. Getting Akim Millington should be a nice boost to this line because he is versatile, and is equally good in pass protection and run blocking. JJ Simmons will likely man the other tackle position if he returns healthy. Martin O'Donnell and James Ryan return at the guards with senior Matt Maddox returning at center. I think Maddox could be one of the better centers in the conference as well. The Illini are hoping another year of experience will help the interior line make some improvement. The depth here will be better than years past with several returners from last years depth chart.

Defensive Overview:

The defensive line returns pretty much intact. Expect Sirod Williams and Derek Walker to man the end positions. I expect sophomore Arthur Boyd to push for playing time as well. Also watch for freshman Antonio James from Massillon. The big question from this group will be…can they rush the passer? I expect at some point, Xavier Fulton will move to defensive tackle but the jury is out on how well he will fit there. He will be tag teamed with Chris Norwell which could make this a serviceable duo. Norwell led the team in sacks (sadly with three), while Fulton showed potential as well. The goal for the front line has to be to create more pressure on the quarterback and keep bodies off the linebackers who can make some plays if given a chance.

Speaking of linebackers, expect J. Leman, Sam Carson and sophomore Brit Miller to start. Many consider Miller to be the teams top linebacker. Leman had 67 tackles last season, Miller recorded 46 stops and while Carson had 20. There is some depth with Remond Willis, Anthony Thornhill and freshman JUCO Rahkeem Smith coming in.

The secondary returns intact as well. Sharriff Abdullah and Charles Bailey Jr. will most likely start at the corners. Senior Alan Ball has been largely inconsistent for as long as I can remember but he did seem to improve down the stretch of last season, could he reclaim his spot as a starter? I certainly think Sharriff Abdullah is the most vulnerable to losing his job. Dere Hicks is a January enrollee but the depth here is extremely thin with a large group of freshman set to battle for time. Ball, Bailey and Abdullah are the only non-freshman on the depth chart. Justin Harrison returns at safety and he may be the teams top defensive back. He recorded 63 tackles last season while fellow returning safety Kevin Mitchell led the team with 78 tackles. The secondary in general lacks speed and the corners have big trouble tackling but the safeties are decent.

Special Teams:

Steve Weatherford is gone, but the Kyle Yelton is one the nations top freshman and he will step right in as the starter. The big question is, how quickly will he adjust? Jason Reda returns, he was 13 of 20 on field goal tries last year. E.B Halsey wasn't very productive as a return man last season, only averaging 4.6 yards on punts and 20.6 on kickoffs.

Overall

Well, this team had some huge issues last season. They weren't even close to winning a conference game but the gap is closing. Ron Zook did a fantastic job recruiting given the horrible season they had. Isiah Williams gives this team a hope for the future as this young man should be able to be a player to build around. The backfield is talented and the line has some potential All Big Ten players in Maddox and Akim Millington. Still there are issues. Isiah Williams, no matter how talented is still a freshman, the receivers have trouble getting separation and Brasic may not be able to take them far. There is room for both doubt and optimism heading into the spring.

Speaking of disasters, the Illinois defense, holy smokes! No pass rush, poor tackling and slow secondary left this unit for dead last year. They return pretty much everyone in the front seven, the question will be are they any better? There are a few newcomers that could contribute as well. The secondary is going to need contributions from the youngsters to see any marked improvement in my opinion. The good news is Zook seems to know where this team needs help and he boosted the speed of the defensive backfield in this years class. Overall, will they win a conference game? It's possible, but it will take a big improvement on both sides of the ball. One thing is certain: the gap is closing between Illinois and the rest of the Big Ten, slowly but surely.


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