Big 10 Roundup: Illinois

Once fall practice starts for the Illinois football team, a total of twenty returning starters will be on hand for head coach Ron Zook. However, it will be the influx of some new players that Zook will be counting on to help turn the fortunes of a team that went winless in the Big 10 conference in 2005.

One area where vast improvement is needed for the Illini is at quarterback. Starter Tim Brasic returns, but most observers expect him to face a major challenge from incoming freshman Isiah "Juice" Williams. Brasic was inconsistent in 2005. His 61.1 completion percentage and 420 yards rushing were offset by his meager total of 11 touchdowns. Williams will arrive on campus in the fall with a strong an arm and quick feet. He may not be the starter on opening day against Eastern Michigan, but many expect Zook to treat him much the same way he treated star freshman Chris Leak at Florida and work him into the lineup slowly over the first few games. Unless Brasic starts quickly, it would not be a surprise if Williams was starting by the Big 10 opener at home against Iowa.

The strength of the entire Illinois team is its deep group of runners. Senior Pierre Thomas will enter the fall as the starting tailback. He rushed for 664 yards and five touchdowns in 2005. He will again share time with senior E.B. Halsey (349 yards and one touchdown in '05) and sophomore Rashard Mendenhall (218 yards in '05). Mendenhall is the fastest and most talented of the three, and his playing time could increase as the season wears on.

Illinois spread offense utilizes three wideouts and no fullback. Last year's leading receiver was a rather unheralded true freshman named Kyle Hudson. The diminutive (5-foot-11 165 pounds) Hudson caught 31 passes for 469 yards (15.1 avg.) and one touchdown in 2005. He managed to juggle football and baseball this spring and showed his commitment by not missing a single football practice or meeting. He is faster than he looks and has magnificent hands. Fellow sophomore Derrick McPhearson is Illinois most talented WR. He battled injuries in 2005 and never really managed to make an impact. The coaches expect him to be a standout this year. Another sophomore, Jody Ellis, will enter the fall as the third WR, but he will face stiff challenges from the likes of junior DaJuan Warren and incoming freshman Chris James, who was a high school teammate of Notre Dame recruit Demetrius Jones.

One area that should be improved is the offensive line. Akim Millington (6-6 320) is the starter at left tackle. Millington was slated to start at left tackle at Oklahoma last year, but left the program right before the season started for personal reasons. The Sooners loss is definitely Illinois gain. He will anchor the line along with right tackle Charles Myles (6-6 320). Millington and Myles give Illinois some NFL type linemen, something they have lacked for years. Matt Maddux (6-3 310) and Martin O'Donnell (6-5 300) will man the guard spots, and holdover Ryan McDonald (6-5 300) will be the center. Illinois line is plenty big and more talented than it's been in years. However, depth is a huge concern as there are no real experienced backups.

In 2005, the Illini may have had the worst defense in all of college football. New coordinator Vince Okruch takes over a unit that yielded a school record 435 points last year. Big plays killed this team, as they allowed a staggering 15 touchdowns of 30 yards or more. They ranked 109th in turnover margin, 117th in rushing defense and 115th in total defense. There is nowhere to go but up in 2006. Up front, tackle Chris Norwell returns. He was one of the bright spots on last year's defense. He is big (6-foot-6 290) and has a nasty disposition and looks to be one of the Big 10's best. Spring practice didn't yield much help to this beleaguered unit as starting end Xavier Fulton injured his knee and missed most of the spring. Redshirt freshman Doug Pilcher filled in for Fulton and showed a non-stop motor and an attitude similar to Norwell's. Converted TE Will Davis also turned heads in the spring with his outstanding athleticism and natural pass rush skills. The tackle spot next to Norwell is unsettled and there doesn't seem to be a clear standout among candidates Josh Norris, David Lindquist and Tremayne Walker.

Linebacker is a bit more stable. Returnees J. Leman and Brit Miller will man two of the starting spots while the third will go to JC transfer Antonio Steele. Steele has NFL bloodlines and he should provide the defense with the speed it's been sorely lacking.

The secondary is somewhat experienced but also got torched repeatedly last year. Opponents completed 66 percent of their passes last season with 27 touchdowns. Strong safety Kevin Mitchell is the best player in the defensive backfield. 2005 starter at free safety, Justin Harrison, fell behind JC transfer Justin Sanders in spring drills. Both corners return in 2006, Sharrif Abdullah and Alan Ball. Both are going to face major challenges for playing time from newcomers like freshmen Vontae Davis and Dere Hicks. Davis' brother Vernon was picked in the first round of April's NFL draft by the 49ers. Hicks is a prep school product who enrolled in January. Another highly touted freshman, Chris Duvalt, will push for playing time in the fall as well.

Kicker Jason Reda returns but the Illini must replace departed punter Steve Weatherford. Freshman Kyle Yelton is expected to win the punting job, but he struggled through spring practice.

Overall Illinois is one of the youngest teams in the country. Zook has improved the level of talent on the roster in his year and a half on the job but there is still a long way to go before this team is ready to contend in the Big 10.

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