SOR.com is going to breakdown what the Illini present this weekend and what to expect from them as individual players, both as offensive and defensive units. One thing that needs to be kept in mind is that this team fought hard to defeat Rutgers last year, while implementing a new system around a new staff. Furthermore, Zook & Co. are some of the better recruiters in the country. Talent-wise they are significantly improved when compared to 2005.
Breaking Down the Personnel on Offense
QB- The Illini will use 2 QB's this weekend. Tim Brasic, many of you will remember. He is the young man that guaranteed a victory. And after getting pummeled in the first half, he was gritty enough to deliver on that claim. He is not one to beat you with the long ball, but he makes quick decisions and is tough as nails. He has the chin of a prize fighter. He has the ability to look better this weekend because he has now been in Zook's system for over a year and has some legitimate options to get the ball to.
The 2nd guy that they will utilize is Isiah "Juice" Williams (image seen to the right). Isiah was a national recruit and one of the more sought after kids at the position. If you review his Scout.com HS video, one will notice a cannon for an arm, big time size and impressive running ability. The question with Williams is whether he adjusted to the speed of the game and the multiple packages that will be thrown at him. He will eventually be "the man" on this team, but that point is not likely upon us yet. He provides enough of a shake-up at the position, however, that RU will have to scheme for the young man.
RB- EB Halsey and Pierre Thomas were both major recruits out of high school. And they played like big-time players last year. This will be a homecoming for Halsey and you can anticipate he is looking forward to putting on a performance similar to that of 2005. And the most bally-hood of the backs is Rashaad Mendenhall. In 2005, Scout.com had him listed as a 5-star recruit and as the #6 RB in the country. He looked dangerous in the US-Army All-American game. In watching some of his collegiate highlights, he has power and speed and has that feel of being a legit threat.
WR/TE- The Illini receivers were quite average last year. Entering the year, their savior was expected to be then freshman and former Florida Gator commit Derrick McPherson. McPherson suffered an injury during last summer and missed the opening game. He should be their biggest threat. Out of high school, he was a 4-star recruit and the #8 prospect in the land. Kyle Hudson reminds me of a smaller Tiquan Underwood. He is a lanky 6'0" guy who can jump out the gym. He is explosive. He led the Illini last year with 31 catches and 470 yards. DeJuan Warren is the elder-statesman of the group. He has solid size, is not particularly fast, but has good hands. He is their 3rd down, possession guy. Jody Ellis is a nice athlete and gave RU some trouble last year. Illinois also added three 3-star recruits with the prior recruiting class. The TE's will be role players.
OL- They return their top 5 OL, have 1 convert DT and gain 1 transfer OL, Akim Millington, who is arguably the best player on the team. As I recall, Akim played alongside Davin Joseph at Oklahoma two years ago. And he had the look then of a big-time NFL-level player. He is 6'6", over 300 pounds, and is built like a truck. The guy can move. At OG, Jr. Martin O'Donnell is a former 4-star recruit who started as a true freshman. Ryan McDonald played in the RU game last year as a freshman and was overwhelmed. What sort of improvements he has made over the year remains to be seen. Matt Maddox was one of the top recruits out of NJ a few years ago and like Halsey, also makes a homecoming trip. He is a very good OL talent. Charles Myles moved over from the DL and will play OT. He remains a bit of an unknown.
Breaking Down the Personnel on Defense
Before Ron Zook became the former head coach at Florida, he was strictly a defensive guy. He came to Florida after serving as the DC for the New Orleans Saints. Prior to that he either served as a DC or defensive assistant in the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs and in the college ranks with Florida, Ohio State and Virginia Tech - that makes for an outstanding defensive resume. The man understands how to build a defense, and more importantly, how to recruit one. His team will show size and speed, but also youth. This team, talent-wise, will look like one of Greg Schiano's younger units. No wonder Zook made the comment earlier in the week "We are trying to get to where Rutgers is at as a program". He is well aware of what Greg Schiano has created at RU. But don't let their youth underestimate them. They have speed and athleticism.
DL- Sirod Williams and Derek Walker both played DE last year as freshmen and both showed glimpses. They are big (in the 270 range) and very fast for their size, but raw. How fast they can expedite the growth curve will determine their success. The X-factor at the position will be Melvin Alaeze (image shown to the right). Melvin is one the most special talents at the DE position to come out of the NE in quite some time. He was dropped by Maryland for off-the-field issues, and Zook decided he was worth the risk. This is Melvin's first ever game. He could come out and play like an NFL first rounder right out of the gate, or he can be a dud. More likely, due to this being his first game, Alaeze will show glimpses of his future stardom and continue to progress throughout the remainder of the year. But, he is certainly one young man everyone in Rutgers Stadium will have their eye's on. Standing in at 6'6" and 290 lbs Chris Norwell has a very lean built and is very active in the interior of the defense. The other DT's will be a rotation by committee.
LB- The linebackers are led by heady Jr. J. Leman, who will play the Mike spot. Leman made a number of tackles against RU last year. He could be described as their rugged, throwback style of LB. He is a good football player. So Brit Miller is a 6'1" 230 lb guy who has speed and can run sideline-to-sideline. Because of his ability, he was thrown into the fire as a true freshman last year and now is expected to be one of their steady guys. JC transfer Antonio Steele is considered their undersized guy that makes plays because of exceptional speed. He won the job over returning contributor Anthony Thornhill.
DB- The two safety positions return veterans in Justin Harrison and Kevin Mitchell. Harrison has been one of the better DB's over the years for the Illini. He did not play against RU last year due to an injury. Both are considered to be good players against the run and will play important roles as the Illini prepare to stop RU's bread-n-butter. Senior Alan Ball will start at one CB position, and according to reports out of Champagne, he had a very good camp. Shariff Abdullah will most likely start at the other CB spot. This is the young man who is most famous to RU fans for trying to catch Brian Leonard on that Leonard leap and run. The guy who has made a lot of noise as a true freshman is Vontae Davis. He is a physical specimen and it runs in the genes - he is the little brother of Vernon Davis.We encourage fans to discuss the upcoming Rutgers-Illinois game, set for ESPN2 at Noon (Sep. 9th, 2006) - and other aspects of Rutgers Athletics - on our message boards.