Non-Conference Preview -- Part 1

With the season opener only days away, I'm going to break away from my Big East preview series. This is the first in a four part series beginning with a look at season opener Illinois. I'll review lost starters, expected replacements, and incoming recruits.

ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI PREVIEW


In 1997, Illinois shared with Rutgers the ignominy of a winless season.  While Rutgers continued to flounder under former Head Coach Terry Shea, Illinois progressed under former Head Coach Ron Turner.  In 2001, Illinois won the Big Ten title and earned a Sugar Bowl bid (the Rose Bowl was hosting the national championship game).  But Turner was not able to sustain that success.  Subsequent recruiting classes off that Sugar Bowl appearance did not make the impact that one might reasonably expect.  Illinois crashed to 1-11 two years later.  With the program in decline, the writing was on the wall for Turner.  The Illini strugged with a weak non-conference schedule and then opened the Big 10 season with consecutive losses.  Only a win against fellow cellar-dwellar Indiana spared Illinois from a winless Big Ten season.  Illinois fired Turner immediately after the season concluded and quickly hired former Florida Head Coach Ron Zook, who has coached both in college and the NFL.  Zook, a strong recruiter, starting recruiting right away.  He also has attempted re-energize the Illini fan base, already enthused by a Final Four basketball appearance. 

Zook has a big rebuilding job.  Illinois lacks talent, as witnessed by only two All-Big Ten selections (and one was a punter).  The Fighting Illini are a young team with only 7 seniors and 13 juniors on the two-deep, made younger still by Turner's force-feeding true freshman into the breach without redshirting them.  Illinois is a young team, as second year players – recruited off a 1-11 season – are pushing members of Turners two post-Sugar Bowl recruiting classes off the depth chart.  That is not an indicator of a healthy program.   The Illini were bad on both sides of the ball last year.  Zook obviously needs to upgrade the talent level in Champaign.  It is not realistic to expect his first recruiting class to make a decisive impact this season.  Zook returns 13 players – plus both kickers – from a demoralized team.  Don't be surprised to see an infusion of youth in the starting lineup.  Here's a look at the struggling Illinois Fighting Illini. 


OFFENSE

Illinois lost only five starters from a sputtering offense.  Last season, the Illini employed a very conservative west coast offense that Rutgers fans would recognize – run, run, short pass.  While at Florida, Zook operated a spread offense that deployed a 3WR set as its base formation but also used 4WR, 2TE, and pro-set formations.  Zook is faced with a quandary.  The no-huddle spread offense is his preference – 3WR, TE, and RB.  But his offensive talent is concentrated in the backfield.  A one-RB spread offense would keep the best talent off the field.  Therefore, don't be surprised to see Illinois operate predominantly out of the pro-set formation to put his best players on the field.  Zook will likely implement the spread offense more slowly until he has the talent to staff it.  Illinois' 2004 offensive statistics are summarized below:

  • 153 rushing yards per game (#62 of 117 in Division 1A)
  • 185 passing yards per game (#85 in Division 1A)
  • 338 total yards per game (#86 in Division 1A)
  • 22 points per game (#88 in Division 1A)


Zook returns nearly intact his backfield, the strength of the Fighting Illini team.  Backup FB So Brock Bolen (11 carries for 51 yards plus 2 receptions for 12 yards) transferred to Louisville.  Starting TB Jr E.B. Halsey (111 carries for 461 yards and 5 TDs plus 19 receptions for 109 yards) returns.  As does backup TB and leading rusher Jr Pierre Thomas (152 carries for 893 yards and 8 TDs plus 14 receptions for 95 yards and one TD), who is the more prolific runner.  Starting FB Sr Jason Davis (49 carries for 230 yards and one TD plus 41 receptions for 340 yards and 2 TDs), who was the Illini's second leading receiver, is a multi-purpose threat ala Rutgers' Brian Leonard.  Former backup SLB So Russ Weil, who was switched to FB, will fill the unexpected vacancy created by Bolen's departure. 

Illinois lost the core of its OLine with the departure of four-year starter RT Bucky Babcock plus three-year starter and 4th round NFL draft choice (Buffalo) C Duke Preston.  Backup RG Jordan Kruger apparently was not invited back for a fifth year.  Two-year starter and former RG RS Jr Matt Maddox, who was switched to center, is the veteran of the OLine.  Starting LT RS Jr J.J. Simmons and starting LG RS So Martin O'Donnell also return to give Zook an experienced left side.  Former backups RT RS So James Ryan, who was switched to RG, will slide into Maddox's vacated slot.  RS Fr RT Ryan McDonald beat former backup LT RS So Jim LaBonte, who was switched to RT, for the starting job.  Former backup LG RS Jr Andrew Burk, who was switched to LT, and backup C RS Sr Kyle Schnettgoecke are the only other experienced backups.  RS So LG Ben Amundsen and former DT RS Jr Bryan Truttling, who was switched to RG, will complete the second unit.  Zook has an experienced left side but the right side is very green.  The second team is also inexperienced – even the returning backups. 

Illinois suffered three losses from a receiving corps that wasn't very deep.  Two-year starting TE Andy McClellan (3 receptions for 18 yards and one TD), who was underused in Turner's west coast offense, and starting WR Ade Adeyemo (9 receptions for 135 yards), who broke his leg in Game 4, departed.  As did backup WR Mark Kornfeld (14 receptions for 183 yards), who was a starter in 2003.  Starting WR and leading receiver RS Sr Kendrick Jones (47 receptions for 687 yards and 5 TDs) returns.  Former backup WR RS So DaJuan Warren (6 receptions for 52 yards) beat former backup WR RS Jr Franklin Payne (25 receptions for 214 yards and one TD), who replaced the injured Adeyemo last year, in the starting lineup.  RS Fr Jody Ellis will be the "starting" 3WR and the top reserve.  RS So WR Frank Lenti Jr will be the fifth receiver in the rotation.  Former backup TE RS Jr Melvin Bryant (12 receptions for 111 yards and 3 TDs) will replace McClellan, providing a better receiving threat.  RS Fr J.R. Kraemer will backup Bryant.  Zook lacks depth in receiving corps to round out a two-deep 3WR set. 

Three-year starter QB Jon Beutjer (107 of 188 for 1,082 yards, 8 TDs, and 4 INTs), who missed several games with a rib injury, departed.  Backup QB RS So Brad Bower (57 of 100 for 658 yards, 4 TDs, and 3 INTs), who replaced the injured Beutjer, transferred to Ohio.  RS Jr Tim Brasic, who has attempted one pass in two years, has emerged as the starting QB based upon his high school experience operating a no-huddle spread offense.  RS Jr QB Chris Pazan (37 of 63 for 292 yards, one TD, and 1 INT) is the more experienced player but could not win the starting job.  Zook is putting the new offense in the hands of a former fourth-team QB. 


DEFENSE

Illinois lost four starters from a porous defense that couldn't stop the run or the pass.  The Illini defense is still very young.  Zook apparently has not changed the standard 4-3 alignment he inherited.  However, Zook is expected to deploy his troops more aggressively.  Illinois' 2004 defensive statistics are summarized below. 

  • 194 rushing yards per game (#94 of 117 in Division 1A)
  • 230 passing yards per game (#79 in Division 1A)
  • 424 total yards per game (#97 in Division 1A)
  • 29 points per game (#79 in Division 1A)


Illinois lost its best player – two-year starter (WR in 2003), Second Team All-Big Ten, and 2nd round NFL draft choice (Indianapolis) CB Kelvin Hayden (71 tackles, 4 INTs, and one FF).  Backup FS Taman Jordan (7 tackles and one INT) also departed.  Former backup FS So Justin Harrison (79 tackles and one INT), who replaced the injured starter last year, is currently out with a hip injury.  Former starting SS RS Sr Morris Virgil (78 tackles, 2 TFLs, and 2 INTs) was switched to FS in place of the injured Harrison.  Jr CB Alan Ball (37 tackles), who has 1.5 years of starting experience, also returns.  Former backup SS RS So Kevin Mitchell (16 tackles) will slide into Virgil's vacated starting slot.  Former backup CB So Charles Bailey (17 tackles and one INT) will replace Hayden in the starting lineup.  Former two-year starter Sr FS Travis Williams (27 tackles), whose season ended with surgery for a non-football related hernia, is currently listed as a backup behind Virgil.  Backup CB RS Sr James Cooper (28 tackles, 2 sacks, and one FF), backup CB RS Jr Sharriff Abdullah (4 tackles), and backup SS Kyle Kleckner (5 tackles) also return.  The secondary is the deepest and most experienced unit on the Illini defense but injuries to several starters have raised some questions. 

Three players departed from the DLine – three-year starter DE Mike O'Brien (34 tackles, 3 TFLs, and one FR), backup DT Mike Maloney (9 tackles, one sack, and one FF), and backup DT Brian Schaefering (19 tackles, one sack, and 2 FF), who had a year of eligibility remaining. Two-year starter RS Sr DT Ryan Matha (34 tackles and 7 TFLs) and starting DT RS So Chris Norwell (40 tackles and 2 TFLs) return to anchor the interior DLine.  RS Fr DE Derek Walker displaced former two-year starter DE Sr Scott Moss (28 tackles) from the starting lineup.  Former backup DE So Xavier Fulton (6 tackles) will replace O'Brien in the starting lineup.  Former backup DE RS Jr Josh Norris (15 tackles and 2 TFLs), who was switched to DT, will backup Matha inside.  Jr DE Arthur Boyd (12 tackles, 2 TFLs, and one FR) and RS Fr DT David Lindquist are the other new additions to the two-deep.  The DLine consists of veterans who weren't playmakers and inexperienced youngsters. 

The LB corps suffered a big loss wit the departure of three-year starter SLB Matt Sinclair (87 takckes, 8 TFLs, and 4 sacks).  Starting MLB Mike Gawelek (73 tackles, one INT, and one FR) and backup MLB Joe Mele (28 tackles and one FR) also departed.  Former backup SLB So Russ Weil (10 tackles) was switched to FB.  RS So WLB J. Leman (56 tackles, 3 TFLs, and one FF), who displaced the starter late in the season, returns.  Former starting WLB, RS So Anthony Thornhill (54 tackles and one TFL), who lost his job to Leman, was switched to SLB, where he will start in place of Sinclair.  RS Fr MLB Remond Willis will replace Gawelek in the starting lineup.  Sr MLB Josh Tischer (11 tackles and one sack), RS So SLB Brian Grzelakowski, and RS Fr WLB Sam Carson constitute a very green second unit.  The LB corps mirrors the DLine – veterans who weren't playmakers and newbies. 

 
SPECIAL TEAMS

Illinois returns all of its specialists.  First Team All-Big Ten RS Sr P Steve Weatherford (45 yards per punt) gives Zook a weapon in the field position game.  So PK Jason Reda (7 of 12 FGAs and 26 of 27 XPAs) also returns.  Jr TB Pierre Thomas (27 yards per return and one TD) will resume KOR duties again while Jr TB E.B. Halsey (8 yards per return) will handle punt returns.  Special teams may be the best unit on Zook's new team. 


SCHEDULE

Illinois has an 11 game schedule with six home games.  The Fighting Illini play exclusively on Saturdays.  Illinois has a short season, with only one bye week in mid-October and finish the season in mid-November.  The non-conference schedule is balanced with WAC cellar dweller San Jose State, inconsistent Rutgers from the Big East, and PAC-10 power California.  Illinois will play a standard eight games Big Ten schedule.  The Fighting Illini drew a very favorable schedule relative to the Big 10.  Illinois does not play perennial contender Michigan or rising power Minnesota.  Three of the four league road games are opponents against whom Illinois stands no chance regardless of locale – Ohio State, Iowa, and Purdue.  The Fighting Illinois host second division teams Penn State, Wisconsin, and Northwestern.  The home schedule is further eased with visits from Rutgers and San Jose State.  The road schedule has one winnable game – at Indiana.  Illinois has five swing games – Rutgers,  @ Indiana, Penn State, Wisconsin, and Northwestern.  The key to the season is Octobers, when Illinois plays three of its five swing games at Indiana, against Penn State, and against Wiscinson.  Illinois could finish with between one and six wins. 

 

September 3

Rutgers

September 10

San Jose State

September 17

@ California

September 24

Michigan State

October 1

@ Iowa

October 8

@ Indiana

October 22

Penn State

October 29

Wisconsin

November 5

@ Ohio State

November 12

@ Purdue

November 19

Northwestern

 

PREDICTION

I predict the Fighting Illini will finish 2-9 (1-7 Big Ten).  Illinois will drop the opener to more experienced, more explosive, and more talented Rutgers.  The Illini will beat hapless San Jose State.  An eight game losing streak will ensue, including losses in the three crucial October games.  Illinois will salvage its year with a season-ending win against Northwestern.  Zook is going to need time to restock the roster that Turner allowed to decline. 


Coming Next:  Keys to the Illinois Game.  I'll review the five keys to yet another huge season opener.  I'll also identify five key players whose contributions will be essential to a win. 


Please send any comments to dwelch11@comcast.net.  I just noticed an error in my email address hyperlink.  I apologize to those of you who have been trying to email me, to no avail.  The link has been fixed.  Drop me a line at my Comcast address.  I welcome and appreciate your feedback, even if I make it hard to do.  And please put "Rutgers" in the message header because I wouldn't want to miss your email in a sea of spam.  In the meantime, if you would like to discuss the spring camp with other Rutgers fans, please visit our message board.


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