Midway through Illinois' embarrassing 3-9 season in 2009, athletic director Ron Guenther promised there would be a shuffling of the coaching staff. When the dust settled, sixth-year head coach Ron Zook found himself surrounded by six new assistants -- including a new offensive coordinator (Paul Petrino) and defensive coordinator (Vic Koenning), who were promised the chance to run things as they saw fit.
Petrino and Koenning used Illinois' 15 spring practices to speed up the installation of their systems. And while there were the anticipated learning-curve issues that come with extensive changes, Zook headed into the offseason excited about the way his coaches and players attacked the problem areas.
"If there's one thing that kind of stood out to me this spring, it's the demanding part," Zook said. "When we demand something, we're getting it. That's maybe one of the issues that we weren't getting it before. When you say you've got to get something done, we're getting it done and we're holding them to the fire. I think that's what's important. And I think the relationship with the coaches and the players, it's really been a lot of fun this spring. ... Deep down they love being coached the way they're being coached and demanded to do things the way they're being demanded to do them on both sides of the ball. It's been a breath of fresh air for me."
But it's going to take a lot of breathing and a lot of demanding to turn around a program that has a lot of question marks. The offense lost three NFL draft picks (WR Arrelious Benn, RG Jon Asamoah and TE Michael Hoomanawanui) along with four-year starting quarterback Juice Williams and center Eric Block.
Redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase, a dual-threat quarterback, took a solid lead in the derby to succeed Williams, but he betrayed his inexperience by throwing two interceptions in Illinois' official spring game. His maturation process will be a continual theme in the fall, as will that of his receiving corps as no one returns with more than 16 catches.
As for Koenning's revamped defense, he found himself complaining during the spring about things as remedial as his players' tackling technique and their odd penchant for demonstrative celebrations after the most mediocre plays. He found some building blocks (including junior defensive tackle Corey Liuget), but several of his potential playmakers avoided contact in the spring to allow injuries to heal.NOTES, QUOTES
--Though Illinois stunk in so many facets of the game during its 3-9 campaign in 2009, the offense still found a way to finish 17th nationally in rushing with 200.4 yards per game. There's a good chance the Illini will equal or better those numbers in 2010, even though Juice Williams (507 yards, four TDs) has been graduated and the scheme has changed from the spread option to more of a pro-style attack.
Why so optimistic? Because likely new QB Nathan Scheelhaase's ability to run the ball is at least as good as Williams', while junior tailbacks Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford are a striking combination that figures to allow Illinois to play a fresh runner at all times. Leshoure, a battering ram who uncorked a 75-yard touchdown run in Illinois' spring scrimmage, posted a team-high 734 yards and a 6.8 average in 2009. Ford, who also runs with a low center of gravity, produced 588 yards and a 6.1 average in 2009.
--With just 36 turnovers forced in the last two seasons, Illinois ranked among the nation's least prolific teams in that crucial category. Sixth-year head coach Ron Zook wanted to see his defensive improve its takeaways during spring ball and they did just that. The trend certainly carried over to the official spring game as the defense piled up four interceptions and three fumble recoveries in 93 plays.
"The one thing we've done defensively is we've gotten a lot more turnovers than maybe we've seen in the past," said Zook, mindful his Illini forced just 16 turnovers in 12 games last season. "Which is good for the defense. Obviously the offense has got to take care of the football. We can't have turnovers."
QB Nathan Scheelhaase -- He started spring ball in a dead heat with sophomore Jacob Charest and early enrollee Chandler Whitmer, but this redshirt freshman from Kansas City seized control of the competition for three reasons: He has the best mobility, the best leadership skills and made the most plays. While the coaching staff didn't anoint Scheelhaase as the starter, he's certainly the clear leader to start the Sept. 4 opener against Missouri.
WR A.J. Jenkins -- Everyone expected the junior to transfer after a dismal 2009 season (10 catches, 123 yards), but the Floridian eventually decided to stay and he wound up becoming the biggest standout in offensive coordinator Paul Petrino's receiving corps. He shared the most improved offensive player award with C Grahm Pocic.
C Graham Pocic -- After trying unsuccessfully to break into the lineup at tackle and guard, this four-star recruit shifted into the middle of the line and earned a starting job. He could be Illinois' center for the next three years.
DTs Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster -- If senior starter Josh Brent doesn't regain his academic eligibility, then these youngsters must be crucial parts of the tackle rotation. Foster is a sophomore who converted from defensive end while Spence, a redshirt freshman, is a 6-foot-1, 305-pound fireplug that's almost immovable.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We've got to mesh together better. We've got to be there for each other, know exactly what each other is going to do. That's built throughout the summer." -- Redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase offering his offseason plans to the Champaign News-Gazette.STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
2010 OUTLOOK: After serving as the Big Ten's most disappointing team two years in a row, the Illini are trying to build their way back into bowl contention with completely new looks on both sides of the ball. New offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, younger brother of Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, has installed the family's multiple offense. New defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, who turned around Clemson and Kansas State in recent years, has installed his style that plans to be an eight-man front with lots of bells and whistles. The Illini must play an inexperienced quarterback and there are several question marks on defense as well, so a .500 season likely would be considered successful enough to save Ron Zook's job.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: When Petrino was introduced as the new OC, observers figured his more traditional style (complete with huddles and quarterbacks under center) wouldn't be the best fit for Juice Williams' heir apparent, Nathan Scheelhaase. Reputed as a spread-option wizard with his fleet feet, redshirt freshman Scheelhaase turned out to be the best of the three QBs this spring and figures to start the Sept. 4 opener against Missouri. Since he has yet to take a varsity snap, Scheelhaase will rely heavily on tag-team junior running backs Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford. These bruisers combined for 1,322 yards, nine TDs and 6.4 yards per carry in 2009. Jarred Fayson and Jack Ramsey are the top returning receivers with 16 catches apiece, while there will be at least two new starting O-linemen. Projected starting left tackle Corey Lewis suffered a torn ACL in the spring game and will miss the season.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: If starting defensive tackle Josh Brent can't regain his final year of eligibility (he flunked out after the fall semester and retreated to the local junior college to get right), then the Illini must find at least two defensive linemen and two safeties for a defense that surrendered 30.2 points per game last year. Koenning's plans call for a "bandit" that's a hybrid pass-rusher/coverage linebacker, but there aren't a lot of players who fulfill the qualifications. Wiry sophomore-to-be Michael Buchanan could handle that marquee spot eventually. Junior DT Corey Liuget and senior DE Clay Nurse show flashes of brilliance while MLB Martez Wilson boasts the athleticism to become a huge factor. One key question: Can junior Tavon Wilson and sophomore Terry Hawthorne develop into above-average at the corners? Zook lauded Wilson's spring-ball showing.
SCOUTING THE SPECIAL TEAMS: Junior kicker Derek Dimke took over for Matt Eller late last season and maintained his edge in spring ball. He has converted all five of his field goals and all 12 extra points in his career. Punter Anthony Santella is back for his fourth year as a starter. He has improved his average each year as he posted 41.3 yards per boot in 2009. Illinois has been poor returning punts and kicks the last two years, but cornerback Terry Hawthorne should be an upgrade on both return platoons if given the opportunity.
--DT Lendell Buckner and S Walter Aikens, a pair of defensive underclassmen, were arrested during spring ball at different times for the same incident. Buckner, who redshirted his freshman year in the fall, was suspended indefinitely after being arrested on suspicion of residential burglary. Aikens, who started a handful of games as a true freshman and seemed on target to start this fall, was suspended after being arrested April 23 for possession of stolen property.
--MLB Martez Wilson (neck surgery) and CB Miami Thomas (knee surgery) were limited to individual drills during spring ball as they continued their recoveries that cost them virtually all of the 2009 season. Wilson will be a likely starter in the fall while Thomas should be no worse than the third corner.
--Junior DT Josh Brent flunked out of school and switched to nearby Parkland Junior College in an attempt to regain his eligibility. If Brent pulls through he'll likely regain his starting job, but Illinois likely won't know his fate until fall camp nears.
--S Garrett Edwards decided not to return for his final year of eligibility. Edwards was Illinois' most experienced safety with 16 starts over the previous two years.
--RB Justin Green broke his ankle midway through spring drills. It's too soon to know whether he'll be ready for fall camp. As Illinois' top speed back, though No. 3 overall on the depth chart, he fills a niche for the Illini.
Previous Report: 04/28/2010