BSB Opponent Preview: Illinois

The new-look Illinois Fighting Illini serve as No. 2 Ohio State's first Big Ten opponent of the 2010 season when they host the Buckeyes on Saturday afternoon. Find out about the team's new quarterback, coordinators and a standout running back in this preview, which also includes depth charts, game results and more.

Saturday, Oct. 2
Noon ET, Big Ten Network
Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Ill.

The Fighting Illini
Head coach: Ron Zook, 46-54, eighth season (sixth season at Illinois, 23-40)
2009 record: 3-9 (2-6, 9th Big Ten Conference)
Series mark: Ohio State leads 62-30-4
School location: Urbana-Champaign, Ill.
Enrollment: 41,298
Colors: Orange and Blue
Stadium: Memorial Stadium
Fight song: "Oskee Wow Wow"

Illinois Players To Watch
QB Nathan Scheelhaase: The redshirt freshman will have the ball in his hands with a decision to make on a lot of plays. A dual-threat quarterback, Scheelhaase has rushed 40 times for a 5.1-yard average through three games and passed 57 times, and his mobility is one of his strengths. He's also described as an accurate, poised passer, but he doesn't have the best of arm strength.

"You watch this kid on tape, he looks like a senior out there, kind of how he controls the huddle, how he controls the offense," OSU linebacker Ross Homan said. "He's making audibles here or there. It's definitely not the usual redshirt freshman quarterback you're going up against."

RB Mikel Leshoure: On the plays Scheelhaase gives it up, there's a good chance the ball is going to Leshoure, and with good reason. Having rushed for 7.1 yards per carry in his last nine games, the hometown kid from Champaign is one of the conference's most explosive backs. Ohio State's safeties must be ready because Leshoure can go the distance at any time.

"He's very, very powerful," Homan said. "Very good balance. Some runners, the first contact, they go down, but this kid, the second contact, the third contact, he's still running hard, still moving his feet. You have to wrap up on him."

LB Martez Wilson: It feels like Wilson has been around forever at Illinois, but he's still only a junior after missing almost all of 2009 with a neck injury. He's taken some time to get comfortable upon his return to the field, but the stat sheet shows he's now acclimating just fine – his 25 tackles lead the team and he has a forced fumble and a sack.

"Martez does things you don't see in a lifetime," Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said.

CB Travon Bellamy: A senior, Bellamy is the most experienced member of the Illini defense, having played in 38 career games and started 14. Bellamy can play both safety and cornerback, giving him plenty of knowledge and a deep skill set. So far this year, he has 24 tackles, four tackles for loss and two pass breakups, showing he can play against the run and the pass.

Sept. 4, Missouri (in St. Louis), L 23-13
Sept. 11, Southern Illinois, W 35-3
Sept. 18, Northern Illinois, W 28-22

Projected Starters (12 on offense)
QB 2 Nathan Scheelhaase, 6-3, 195
H-Back 5 Mikel Leshoure, 6-0, 230
FB 35 Jay Prosch, 6-0, 250
WR 8 A.J. Jenkins, 6-0, 185
WR 10 Eddie McGee, 6-5, 210
WR 11 Jarred Fayson, 6-0, 215
TE 89 Evan Wilson, 6-6, 240
WT 71 Jeff Allen, 6-5, 305
WG 72 Hugh Thornton, 6-5, 310/61 Tyler Sands, 6-5, 305/73 Jack Cornell, 6-3, 315
C 76 Graham Pocic, 6-7, 305
SG 66 Randall Hunt, 6-6, 315
ST 78 Ryan Palmer, 6-7, 310

DE 85 Whitney Mercilus, 6-3, 265
DT 94 Akeem Spence, 6-1, 305
DT 93 Corey Liuget, 6-3, 300
Bandit 97 Clay Nurse, 6-3, 260
WLB 38 Ian Thomas, 6-0, 205
MLB 2 Martez Wilson, 6-4, 250
SLB 18 Nate Bussey, 6-2, 220
CB 31 Travon Bellamy, 6-0, 205
CB 26 Justin Green, 5-11, 195
FS 9 Trulon Henry, 6-2, 225
SS 3 Tavon Wilson, 6-0, 205

K 13 Derek Dimke, 6-0, 180
P 87 Anthony Santella, 6-2, 190
KR 26 Justin Green, 5-11, 195/19 Jack Ramsey, 5-11, 200
PR 19 Jack Ramsey, 5-11, 200

Five Fast Facts
1. Illinois has good special teams, as punter Anthony Santella's 48.9-yard average is second in the country and Derek Dimke has made all four field-goal attempts, including a 52-yarder.

2. Ohio State has won seven in a row in Champaign, but the last four victories have been by 10 points or less.

3. Leshoure, the team's starting running back, and his family delivered turkeys and hams to a pair of homeless shelters last holiday season and hope to make it an annual event.

4. Head coach Ron Zook has Ohio ties. He was on Ohio State's staff as defensive backs coach from 1988-90, a span in which Illinois was 3-0 vs. OSU. Zook is also a native of Loudonville, Ohio, who attended Miami University.

5. Illinois has outgained OSU in the past three meetings, 341.7 to 334.0 yards per game.

Offensive Personnel Report
Zook was able to lure coordinator Paul Petrino away from his brother, Bobby Petrino, from the Arkansas to take over a retooled offense now quarterbacked by Nathan Scheelhaase.

Through three games, it has been a heavily rush-based attack out of a more pro-style offense than Buckeye fans might be used to. Illinois has 133 total carries against 61 passing attempts, meaning 68.6 percent of plays have been runs.

"Their linemen are extremely good and their runners are downhill runners with good speed, so we're just going to have to stop that run game," OSU defensive lineman John Simon said.

That fits in with the skills of Scheelhaase, a former four-star prospect from Kansas City, Mo., in the class of 2009 who has inherited the reigns in his redshirt freshman season. His best attribute is his speed, and though he's an accurate passer he does struggle with arm strength.

"He's very, very strong mentally," Zook said of Scheelhaase, who started watching film in second grade. "Mental toughness is obviously very important for the quarterback. The one thing I think you're going to see with Nathan is he's not going to make the same mistake twice."

The son of former Iowa defensive back Nate Creer, Scheelhaase has rushed 40 times for 204 yards (a 5.1-yard average) with a touchdown. He's completed 31 of 57 passes (54.4 percent) for 380 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions.

His backups are senior Eddie McGee and true freshman Miles Osei, though McGee's full-time position is wideout. In his career, McGee is 59 for 114 (51.8 percent) for three touchdowns and five interceptions, two of which he has thrown this year in three attempts. Osei was a two-star prospect last year from Mount Prospect, Ill.

Leading the rushing attack is Leshoure (6-0, 230), one of the most explosive backs in the Big Ten. After averaging 6.0 yards per carry on 143 rushes in his first two years, the junior from Champaign dropped seven pounds in the offseason and has come back strong. He ranks seventh in the nation with 132.7 yards per game, piling up 398 yards and three scores on 58 rushes for 6.9 yards per carry.

The team's top backup is the powerful Jason Ford, a 6-0, 235-pound junior who has bulled for 64 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries. The change-of-pace back is another junior, Troy Pollard (5-8, 190), who has eight carries for 33 yards.

Illinois also is happy with the play of its fullbacks, including true freshman Jay Prosch. An offensive lineman and linebacker in high school in Mobile, Ala., Prosch is the starter and is backed up by sophomore Chris Willett (6-2, 235).

For years, Illinois has talked of its depth out wide, but much of the damage this year has been done by two players in senior Jarred Fayson and junior A.J. Jenkins. The latter is leading the team in every receiving category with 12 catches for 190 yards and two touchdowns after considering a transfer closer to his hometown of Jacksonville, Fla., this offseason.

A Florida transfer, the 6-0, 215-pound Fayson has eight catches for 46 yards. Described as a team leader, McGee has only two catches for 28 yards and missed the NIU game on Sept. 18 with a sprained ankle. He is expected back for the Ohio State contest.

Junior Fred Sykes (6-0, 190) is the only other wideout with multiple catches, having hauled in two passes for 22 yards. Also providing depth are senior Chris James (6-0, 195), true freshman speedster Darius Millines (5-11, 180) and sophomore Jack Ramsey (5-11, 200), who has been moved back to wideout after switching over to defensive back during camp because of injuries at that position.

A rash of injuries have hit the tight end spot, but the Fighting Illini might have projected starter Zach Becker (6-3, 250) back for the OSU game after the junior missed the first three games with a stress fracture in his foot. Junior Russell Ellington, a converted linebacker who made 42 tackles last year, has also missed time while recovering from a shoulder injury.

In their stead, the Illini have given starters to true freshman Evan Wilson and redshirt freshman Justin Lattimore (6-3, 220). Projected as a big-play talent, Wilson has one grab for 34 yards, while Lattimore has a 33-yard TD grab.

Even after losing projected starter Corey Lewis to an ACL injury in the spring, Illinois is set at offensive tackle with junior Jeff Allen and senior Ryan Palmer. The team's best lineman, Allen has started 24 consecutive games. The Illini flip-flop the tackles based on the play, and Allen is listed as the weakside starter. A Canton (Ohio) GlenOak product, Palmer is an experienced hand playing his best football and mans the strong side.

In the middle, Illinois turns to sophomore Graham Pocic. A four-star prospect coming out of high school, Pocic played in 10 games last year as a redshirt freshman and was named the co-most improved offensive player in the 2010 spring for Illinois.

Oberlin, Ohio, native Hugh Thornton has started 10 straight games, including the first three at weakside guard, but might miss the game after an off-field altercation this past week. If he does not go, Illinois could turn to junior Jack Cornell or sophomore Tyler Sands.

A veteran of 14 career starts, senior Randall Hunt plays on the strong side as a guard.

Defensive Personnel Report
After having a porous defense the past two years, Illinois has shored up some of its problems under new coordinator Vic Koenning. Hired from Kansas State where he was co-defensive coordinator, Koenning is overseeing a unit that is giving up 50 yards and 10 points fewer per game than at a similar point in 2009.

Overall, Illinois is fifth in the Big Ten in yards allowed (333.0) and sixth in scoring (16.0 points) despite a spate of injuries.

Illinois' defensive line paces a squad with seven sacks and 23 tackles for loss that is fifth in the Big Ten at 102.3 rushing yards per game allowed. The voice of the unit and its only senior in the two-deep is Nurse, who moved to the "bandit" rush end position after the first game after sophomore Michael Buchanan was suspended upon receiving a drinking and driving charge.

Checking in at 6-3, 260 pounds, Nurse – who is originally from Guyana and drew up playing cricker – has three tackles this year but led the Illini last year with 10½ TFL, including four sacks vs. Minnesota.

Taking his place on the other end is 6-3, 265-pound sophomore Whitney Mercilus, who made his first career start vs. Southern Illinois and responded with three tackles, two TFL, a sack and a forced fumble.

The backup bandit is sophomore Justin Staples (6-4, 230), a Lakewood (Ohio) St. Edward grad who has 10 tackles and a sack with a forced fumble, while the 6-6, 225-pound Buchanan – whose status has not been determined for the OSU game – had three tackles in the opener.

Former Ohio State recruit Corey Liuget has come into his own during his junior year, dropping nearly 25 pounds to solidify the tackle spot. The 6-3, 300-pounder has 11 tackles thus far, including three tackles for loss and a sack.

Redshirt freshman Akeem Spence – who set the team's power clean weightlifting record during the summer – starts has six tackles and a sack so far at the other tackle spot

In the middle of the linebacking corps, junior Martez Wilson seems to be living up the hype that made him a five-star prospect out of Chicago Simeon in 2007. Coming back from a neck injury that cost him all but one game of the '09 campaign, Wilson is leading the team with 25 tackles to go with a forced fumble, three TFL and a sack.

He's flanked by two quick but undersized players in junior Ian Thomas (6-0, 205) and senior Nate Bussey (6-2, 220). Playing on the weak side, Thomas has been an impact player, compiling 24 tackles, four TFL, a sack and a fumble recovery. A converted safety, Bussey has 19 tackles including 2½ for loss, and his skills allow him to stay on the field in passing situations.

Among backup linebackers, the most playing time has gone to sophomore Ashante Williams, a 5-10, 205-pounder with 10 tackles as Bussey's backup. True freshman Jonathan Brown (6-1, 235), a weakside backer, has five stops.

OSU wideouts coach Darrell Hazell said Illinois continues to play a different style in the secondary despite the presence of new coordinator Koenning.

"They're untraditional in their secondary," Hazell said. "They like to play their corners inside to get extra hats in the box and their safeties outside and try to wall with defenders inside, so it's different than we see all year. You have to make some adjustments."

The secondary has been hurting for players. Before the season, cornerback/safety Walter Aikens, one of the top freshmen in the Big Ten last year, was dismissed after a brush with the law, and starting safety Supo Sanni is out for the year with a torn Achilles' tendon.

As a result, Illinois does not have an interception this year, and the Fighting Illini will still probably be missing sophomore cornerback Terry Hawthorne, who started five games last year but injured his foot in fall camp.

His injury necessitated moving safety Travon Bellamy and running back Justin Green moved to cornerback, where they each started the first three games. Bellamy, a starting safety in 2008, has 24 tackles, four TFL and a sack so far in his senior year.

Green was once an Ohio State verbal commitment and is the brother of former starting Buckeye DT Marcus Green. The sophomore has taken to the corner position well, making 19 tackles with four pass breakups so far.

"It's sort of not fair, is it? He's supposed to be playing corner for us," head coach Jim Tressel deadpanned Tuesday. "He's a great kid. What are you going to do? … He's got all the things that you would love to have in a corner and he had an interception in the game Saturday or two Saturdays ago against Northern Illinois, spectacular play, but he landed out of bounds. He's a talented kid."

Junior Tavon Wilson was supposed to be a starting corner for the second year in a row but was moved to strong safety to help get the team lined up. He's done that well, making 11 tackles and two fumble recoveries thus far.

The starting strong safety is junior Trulon Henry, who entered Illinois from junior college this offseason. The brother of Arrelious Benn, Henry has 19 tackles and a forced fumble.

Redshirt freshman Steve Hull was moved to safety from wideout with all the injuries in the secondary, and the 6-2, 195-pounder has been impressive, racking up nine tackles.

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