Coach Ron Zook and has staff hope to learn a great deal about their new personnel mix during spring drills, which start today and run through April 19.
March 26, 2008
Even though preparations for Illinois' 2008 football season are well underway, with winter conditioning and 6 a.m. workouts already in the books, the Fighting Illini begin the more visible phase of work today with the start of spring drills. This afternoon's workout is the first of 15 scheduled between now and April 19, when fans will descend on Memorial Stadium for the annual spring game. Chicago-area fans will be able to check out the 2008 squad April 12, when the team scrimmages at Lemont High School in Lemont, Ill., the alma mater of freshman lineman Graham Pocic. Both of those events are to start at 1 p.m.
As spring drills begin, we have attempted to address what we felt might be fans' most Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ). Here goes...
Running back Rashard Mendenhall had a very productive junior year, one that made him the school record holder for rushing yards in a season and marketable for the National Football League draft. With his departure, the starting job at running back is now up for competition. Returning this season at the position are junior Daniel Dufrene and redshirt freshman Troy Pollard. Dufrene showed signs of brilliance last year as he put together his first 100-yard rushing game in Illinois' upset of No. 1 Ohio State. For the season he played in all 13 games and averaged 6.3 yards per carry. He was responsible for the longest play from scrimmage of the year with his 80-yard run at OSU. Before suffering a season-ending injury against Indiana, Pollard logged some playing time, which showed he has what it takes to be a great Big Ten back. He recorded 148 yards in just three games, averaging 6.4 yards per rush. Two running backs join the squad as true freshmen this year. Mikel LeShoure is a hometown hero from Champaign Centennial High School and enrolled early in college to participate in spring practice. In the fall, the Illini will see the Illinois high school career rushing record holder in Jason Ford from Belleville, Ill.
Thirteen offensive and defensive starters return for the 2008 season, as does the starting punter. Among the returning starters are junior quarterback Isiah "Juice" Williams, three offensive linemen and the 2007 Big Ten Freshman of the Year wide receiver Arrelious Benn. Defensively, three members of the defensive line, one linebacker and both cornerbacks will be back for 2008. Illinois' returning starters are: Xavier Fulton (LT), Ryan McDonald (C), Jon Asamoah (RG), Michael Hoomanawanui (TE), Isiah "Juice" Williams (QB), Kyle Hudson (WR), Arrelious Benn (WR), Derek Walker (DE), Will Davis (DE), David Lindquist (DT), Brit Miller (LB), Vontae Davis (CB) and Anthony Santella (P).
With the departure of consensus All-American middle linebacker J Leman and outside linebacker Antonio Steele, the Illini will have the task of finding replacements for two starting positions for the 2008 season. The lone returning starter is senior Brit Miller who has played both in the middle (2005) and outside (2006, 07). The job of the coaches will be to find which three linebackers will be most effective. Among those players in the mix are Miller, who had 62 tackles, eight for loss and five passes broken up last year. Another option in the middle is senior Sam Carson, who has backed up the position for the past three seasons. He played in all 13 games last year and had one tackle for loss. With the exception of Miller, sophomore Martez Wilson and senior Rodney Pittman return with the most experience on the outside. Wilson improved throughout his true-freshman season, recording 29 tackles, two sacks and two additional hurries. Pittman made one start and posted two TFL. Others looking to fit into the competition are redshirt-freshman Ian Thomas and sophomore Dustin Jefferson.
For the past two years it has been the Illini rushing offense atop the Big Ten statistics at the end of the season. In 2006, Illinois averaged 188 yards per game behind the running of Pierre Thomas, Rashard Mendenhall and quarterback Juice Williams. The Illini improved on that number in 2007, posting 256 yards per contest on the ground with Mendenhall, Daniel Dufrene and Williams as the top three rushers. Despite losing Mendenhall's school record 1,681 rushing yards, 49 percent of the rushing offense from a year ago remains intact. The rest of the production came from Williams' 755 yards and seven touchdowns, Dufrene's 294 yards and two scores, Troy Pollard's 148 yards and Arrelious Benn's 158.
While many thought the 2007 schedule was difficult, 2008 looks to be much of the same. Once again the Illini will open up the season in St. Louis against Missouri in the State Farm Arch Rivalry game at the Edward Jones Dome. After a strong finish last year, the Tigers will surely be a top-10 preseason pick. With no let-up in the Big Ten season, Illinois will have to travel to Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin, teams who always boast of hostile environments for their visitors. Ohio State will visit Memorial Stadium in November, where the Buckeyes have won six straight. The Illini also will host Iowa, who has won the last five meetings between the two teams; Indiana, a bowl team in 2007; and Minnesota, a program coming off a strong recruiting season. The final road game for Illinois will be the season finale against in-state rival Northwestern.
With three starters and eight players with game experience returning on the defensive line, it is the strength of the 2008 defense. Three defensive ends, Will Davis, Doug Pilcher and Derek Walker rotated as starters last season, while utilizing Antonio James and Jerry Brown in reserve roles. The ends combined for 28.5 tackles for loss, led by the 12.5 of Davis. Against Indiana, Davis recorded five TFL and four sacks to earn Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors. Among those tackles behind the line were 21.5 quarterback sacks, which accounted for 48 percent of the sacks by the Illini defense last season. Just three linemen return from the interior, but among those are seniors David Lindquist and Sirod Williams and true-sophomore Josh Brent. Lindquist had seven TFL and 4.5 sacks.
In 2006, true-freshman quarterback Juice Williams was thrown into the Big Ten fire, starting nine games. During that time, he passed for 1,489 yards, but completed only 39 percent of his passes. He only reached the 200-yard passing mark in one game in 2006 vs. Syracuse. But despite the criticism, Williams did show that he was able to convert the big play through the air with 20 passes over 20 yards. One year later, Williams goes from leading his team to one win, to the "Grandaddy of them All", the Rose Bowl and a nine-win season. He passed for 1,743 yards, an improvement of just 250 yards, but his completion percentage rose 17 points and he surpassed the 200-yard passing mark three times. He showed one of his best career performances when he connected for four touchdowns in the air to defeat No. 1 Ohio State. He also managed to maintain that big-play ability with 27 passes over 20 yards.
Under the direction of first-year coach Eric Wolford, the Illini offensive line helped lead the Illini to one of the most productive seasons in school history. Despite having two new starters on the line, the group came together to post the most yards of total offense in a season for an Illinois squad with 5,525 and all-time high in rushing yards with 3,338. They paved the way for Rashard Mendenhall to break the single-season rushing record by an Illini player with 1,681 yards. As an offense, the team averaged 5.6 yards per rush and 6.0 yards per play. Not only did the Illini move the ball well behind the line, but they were successful in keeping opponents' defenders away from the quarterbacks. Through the regular season, the line allowed only 11 sacks in 12 games, which led the conference and ranked among the top-10 nationally.
The Illini squad put together one of the greatest seasons in school history, winning nine games for only the eighth time. Those nine wins marked a seven-victory turnaround from the 2006 season, which was the best in college football last season. Among the big wins were three victories over ranked opponents which marked the first time since 2001, Illinois had defeated as many top-25 foes. The Illini were the only team to record two wins over top-5 teams (No. 1 Ohio State and No. 5 Wisconsin) in 2007. Beating top-ranked Ohio State marked the first an Illini team upended No. 1 since 1956. With such a strong regular season, the team earned a BCS berth, the first since the Sugar Bowl in 2001 and its first trip to the Rose Bowl since the 1983 season (1984 Rose Bowl). The team nearly swept all the conference awards with Coach Ron Zook winning Big Ten Coach of the Year, Rashard Mendenhall earning Offensive Player of the Year honors and Arrelious Benn taking Freshman of the Year. In addition to conference honors, Zook was named the Liberty Mutual National Coach of the Year.
The Illini welcome a school record seven true freshmen early enrollees this spring; they began their collegiate careers in January. Both the offensive and defensive lines had two additions each, as Jeff Allen and Graham Pocic from the Chicagoland area, join the offensive line, and Whitney Mercilus of Akron, Ohio, and Reggie Ellis of Washington, D.C., are early defensive line recruits. On the offensive skill side, running back Mikel LeShoure and wide receiver Fred Sykes will provide spring depth, and Ashante Williams will get early experience in the defensive secondary. In addition to those seven freshman, wide receiver Jarred Fayson joined the squad as a junior transfer from the University of Florida. He will sit out a year due to NCAA transfer rules.
After a very successful 2007 season, the entire coaching staff is intact. Last season, Zook promoted Dan Disch and Curt Mallory to co-defensive coordinators, which was a move that paid off with another improved defense. During the regular season, the Illini allowed under 20 points per game. Mike Woodford joined the staff in the summer of 2007 as the special teams coordinator and he will stay on in that role on a permanent basis. Another newcomer to the staff last season was run-game coordinator Eric Wolford, who led an offensive line to record-breaking efforts. His group paved the way for Rashard Mendenhall to break the single-season rushing record as well as set an Illinois team rushing and total offense mark.
The Illini are in their second offseason of Memorial Stadium renovations. Last season, Illinois debuted a new north endzone seating area for students, which proved to be a 12th man on the field. This fall, fans will see a completed project which will feature luxury box and club seating in the West balcony and main stands. For the media covering the game, it will also mean a new state-of-the-art facility for covering Illinois football. With six months remaining until the season starts, the new additions to the stadium are nearly sold out. Indoor club seats were snatched up last fall and less than a third of the outdoor club seats and three suites are still available.