Illinois Team Breakdown

Starting today and continuing in the coming weeks, InsideMizzou will take a look at each of Missouri's 12 football opponents in 2009 and break down their strengths and weaknesses on each side of the ball. This week I look at the Illinois Fighting Illini.

Just as they have done the past 2 years, the Missouri Tigers and Illinois Fighting Illini will square off in St. Louis to kick of their seasons. This year's game will have quite a different feel for both teams because neither team figures to be ranked when the season starts. Nevertheless, it could be just as important in determining the path that each will take in 2009.

Starting with the offense:

Senior Juice Williams will once again be the starter at quarterback for the Illini. Williams hasn't lived up to his hype most of the time he has been in Champaign, mainly because of his high interception numbers and lack of consistency. Because of his speed, Williams can still be considered a legitimate threat on offense even when he is not having the best day passing the ball. He has some of the rawest talent in college football for a quarterback, but he has never seemed to put together the complete season that many think he can have. Maybe this is the year. In this matchup last year, Juice threw for over 400 yards and 5 touchdowns against a fairly experienced defense. For this game, the Tigers' young defense could find it hard to contain Williams because of opening week jitters and/or inexperience.

Running back is no doubt the weakest part of Illinois' offense. Returning starter and senior Daniel Dufrene only rushed for about 660 yards last year, partly because of the lack of commitment to the running game by the Illini coaching staff, but mostly because he's just an average running back. Other than Dufrene, there are a lot of question marks and inexperience in the backfield for Illinois, so I don't know what they will be able to do against a Missouri front 7 that looked superb in spring practices. Juice Williams provides a rushing threat, but there isn't a steady running back that the Illini will be able to feed the ball to 25 times per game. This will allow the Tigers to key in on the passing game without worrying too much about what happens on the ground.

While not having much to work with behind him, Williams has great weapons to work with in the passing game. His main target, junior receiver Arrelious Benn is one of the best young talents in college football. Senior receiver Jeff Cumberland is a tight end (6'5" 255) playing receiver who is a serious red zone threat. Last year, he scored 4 touchdowns on only 20 catches for the year. Florida transfer Jarred Fayson is a speedy receiver who could bring an added dimension to the passing game that the Illini did not have last year. Overall, this unit is above average and should give the Mizzou defense a legitimate test in the first week of the season.

The offensive line of the Illini wasn't a problem last year, but this season there could be some questions on the line. The bookends of the line will be a pair of solid 2nd year starters, Jeff Allen and Corey Lewis and the center will be the experienced senior Jon Asamoah. The 2 question marks are at guard because one position will be filled by former center Eric Block and someone with little to no experience will fill the other. This could negatively affect the Illini's ability to run between the tackles, as if they needed any help to have a poor running attack.

Now lets look at the defense:

Last year, the defensive line for Illinois was supposed to be the strength of the defense, but it ended up being a disappointment. This year, 3 new starters will emerge and they look ready to improve on last year's results. The starting defensive tackles look like they will be Sirod Williams and Josh Brent. They have the strength to deal with good interior offensive lines, but they aren't very big playmakers. Although he might not start, there is a lot of chatter that defensive tackle Corey Liguet will be a key part of the defensive line this season. This 3-man rotation at defensive tackle will be a strength of the team. On the outside, defensive end Doug Pilcher has the size (6-5 255) to stuff the run, but he hasn't produced very good pass rushing numbers. Jerry Brown is Illinois' best pass rusher (6 tackles for loss in the 2009 spring game), but he needs to get academically eligible if he wants to help the team this season.

The Illinois linebackers weren't that good last year, but none of the 2008 starters will be returning in 2009. A lot of people are excited about junior middle linebacker and former 5-star recruit Martez Wilson becoming a playmaker for the defense. Other than Wilson, the linebacking corps is full of unknowns. It really is a toss-up when guessing which outside linebackers will be flanking Wilson in 2009, but from what I've read, the best guess could be sophomores Ian Thomas and Russell Ellington. Thomas has speed, but didn't stand out as a freshman in 2008. Ellington is a former receiver (switched at the beginning of last year) so he could see some major improvements on his performance last year as he begins to learn the position more.

Finally, the Illini must replace first round pick Vontae Davis at cornerback, which will be a near impossible task. Losing a talent like Davis will have a rippling effect in the secondary, making everyone else's jobs tougher this season. Dere Hicks, a hard-nosed tackler, will start at cornerback opposite of Tavon Wilson. Wilson was a true freshman last season and didn't fall flat on his face. He has all the attributes you want in a solid #1 corner, but don't expect him to shut good receivers down. This unit has a lot of hard nose workers, so expect them to be solid but not spectacular. Donsay Hardeman is recovering from neck surgery, but if he can come back healthy, he will be a key player at free safety and probably one of their more solid defenders. Garret Edwards has everything you look for in a strong safety: good tackling ability, the ability to cover a lot of ground and a nose for the ball. The secondary could end up being fairly solid, but it could take 4 or 5 games for the players to get in sync with each other.

Overall, this side of the ball lost a lot of starters and it could take some time for them to gel as a unit. Lucky for the Tigers, they get to be the guinea pig for the new Illinois defense.

I expect to see a fair amount of scoring in the season opener because of inexperience on the defense, but I think the Missouri defense will be the better of the 2 teams. This factor will cause Missouri to win, 38-28.

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