2008 Illinois Football Preview
2008 Illinois Fighting Illini football preview
2007 Record: 9-4, 6-2
Illinois Players Drafted:
The Illini are coming off their best season since 2001. Their offense averaged 27.8 points per game last season, and Juice Williams was a big part of their success. Williams, a junior, made strides as a passer last season, but most importantly he became a leader in the huddle. Sophomore Eddie McGee got a look early in the 2007 season when Williams was sidelined by an injury, but Williams returned and silenced his critics. Williams threw for 1,743 yards and 13 touchdowns, and he added 755 rushing yards with seven more touchdowns. His accuracy was much improved last season, but he will need to cut down on the 12 interceptions he threw last year. The dual threat of the run/pass that Williams brings to the offense will be the key for the Illini this season.
Rashard Mendenhall opted for the NFL after his amazing junior season. The Illini would like to have the reigning Big Ten MVP still carrying the ball this year, but Coach Zook and the troops will turn to junior Daniel Dufrene who averaged 6.3 yards-per-carry on 47 attempts last year. Dufrene has big play ability, but it remains to be seen if he can be a workhorse. Redshirt freshman Troy Pollard, and true freshmen Mikel LeShoure and Jason Ford are also in serious consideration to receive carries.
With Mendenhall’s 17 touchdowns gone from the offense this year, the receivers will need to play a bigger role to provide balance. The Illini were the lowest ranked passing team in the Big Ten last season. Sophomore Arrelious Benn had an impressive freshman season and was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. He only had two TD receptions, but led the team in receptions (54) and receiving yards (676). A solid number two target comes in former TE Jeff Cumberland who has made the switch to WR. Senior Kyle Hudson, junior Chris Devalt, and sophomores Chris James and Brian Gamble will battle with incoming freshmen Cordale Scott and Hubie Graham for playing time. There is nice depth for the Illini at receiver, but those who find chemistry with Juice will emerge from the pack.
Three starters return on the offensive line that led the way for the Big Ten’s top rushing attack last season. Seniors Xavier Fulton (LT) and Ryan McDonald (C) are back with junior RG Jon Asamoah. Two sophomores complete the offensive line. RT Ryan Palmer has nice potential with his 6’7”, 300 pound frame. Ryan Palmer will get the first crack at LT. This unit lost mammoth Akim Millington and All-American Martin O’Donnell, and they played an integral part of the running success in 2007. Pass blocking needs to be improved, but that also factors in that Juice Williams can cause sacks trying to make plays with his feet.
On the defensive side of the ball the Illini have six starters returning including three up front. The defensive line is deep and ranks near the top of the Big Ten as a collective unit. Seniors Will Davis (9.5 sacks) and David Lindquist (4.5 sacks) will be relied upon to pressure the quarterback. Senior DE Derek Walker returns, and redshirt freshman D’Angelo McCray is projected to start at DT. Doug Pricher, a junior, and sophomore Josh Brent provide nice options to keep the line fresh.
The Illini lost two gems at linebacker. Leading tacklers J. Lemon and Antonio Steele have finished their careers with the Illini, and one LB is back to start. Brit Miller had 62 tackles last year, and he was a playmaker in the backfield with 7.5 tackles-for-loss. Miller will be the leader at MLB this year, and sophomore Martez Wilson brings speed to the outside. Senior Rodney Pittman should start the season at OLB, but freshman Ian Thomas has made a nice showing and is pushing for playing time.
Junior Vontae Davis possesses shut-down skills at CB, and is also a solid tackler. Davis intercepted four passes in 2007 and made 76 tackles which is more than any other returning defensive player. Junior Dere Hicks is back after a nice sophomore season where he broke up five passes and intercepted two passes. The Illini are young at the safety position and pass defense is an area that has room for improvement.
Sophomore Anthony Santella has settled in as the punter for the Illini. He does not have an overpowering leg, but he has shown flashes of becoming one of the better punters in the conference. The graduation of kicker Jason Reda leaves the position wide open for the taking.
Benn will have the opportunity to utilize his skills on kickoff returns. He returned a kick 90 yards for a TD against Penn State last year. The Illini did not return a kick for a TD in 2006. Kyle Hudson served as the primary punt returner last season, but Chris Devalt may handle the punt returns this year.
With just four wins in his first two seasons at Illinois, Ron Zook had the Illini playing at a level that the Champaign faithful had not seen for years. Zook finally pulled together the talented recruits he has brought into the program a produced wins; the biggest win coming against Ohio State in Columbus. The Fighting Illini will not catch anyone off guard this season as they have built a buzz not only in the conference, but as a top 25 team nationally.
Zook knows that program needs to win consistently. They get the Buckeyes at home this year, but they have to travel to Penn State, Michigan, and Wisconsin. Illinois will win enough games to be bowl eligible this season, and they are a contender to battle for the Big Ten Championship.
> For more Illinois football coverage check out the Illinois offensive and Illini defensive battles for 2008 here at Big Ten Fans!
Illinois Fighting Illini 2008 Football Schedule
August 30 - Missouri
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