2011 Illinois Fighting Illini Football

 
Big Ten football fans

Illinois vs Arkansas State Football Preview

 

 

It's last-chance gulch for the Zooker. Of all the teams in the Big Ten without a realistic chance at winning the conference title, the Illinois Fighting Illini have the most pressure by far. If Chicago is "The City of Big Shoulders," Champaign, Illinois, should be called "the town of heavy shoulders" in 2011. Those shoulders will feel a lot of weight when Illinois hosts a team it is expected to beat, the Arkansas State Red Wolves from the Sun Belt Conference.

Illinois coach Ron Zook entered the 2010 season squarely on the hot seat in Champaign. The Illini failed to reach the postseason since their magical run to the Rose Bowl in 2007 and patience with Zook was beginning to wear thin. Always considered a top flight recruiter, Zook revamped his offensive coaching staff and dedicated the team to becoming more ground oriented and physical. The Illini made small gains in a 6-6 regular season that was barely saved with a Texas Bowl win over Baylor. Now with at least a temporary reprieve from the calls for his job (even though he probably should have been fired anyway), Zook’s Illini return 15 starters from last season and hope to build on last year’s success in the new Big Ten Leaders Division.



The Illini didn’t ask quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase to beat teams throwing the ball in 2010, content to simply have the passing game complement the running game and keep defenses honest. In fact, Scheelhaase himself was often a rushing alternative to Mikel Leshoure, chipping in an impressive 868 yards rushing in addition to his 1,825 yards and 17 touchdowns through the air. With Leshoure gone to the NFL, the pressure will be on Scheelhaase to beat teams throwing the ball. When he does pitch the pigskin, he’ll have his leading receiver from 2010, A.J. Jenkins, and sophomore Darius Millines back to catch it. He’ll also have his security blanket in tight end Evan Wilson who should see an expanded role in the offense.

The challenge for Illinois will be replacing Leshoure and replacing two starters along the offense line. The first to get a crack at replacing Leshoure is senior Jason Ford.  For a change of pace back, Zook will lean on redshirt freshman Troy Pollard. The offensive line returns three of five starters and is led by senior left tackle Jeff Allen. Due to attrition, the Illini are both figuratively and literally thin along the offensive line. The coaching staff will be on pins and needles hoping to avoid injury in 2011.

 

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Rebuilding a decent defense from last year will be a tough chore for Zook and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning. Still, few expected Koenning to get as much out of the defense as he did last year, so there’s hope in his ability to coach the defense up again in 2011. The defensive line loses its two anchors from 2010 in Corey Liuget and Clay Nurse, but Zook has recruited the defensive line pretty well in his time in Champaign and while the unit might be young, there is talent. Defensive tackles Akeem Spence and Craig Wilson are a load at 320 and 310 pounds, respectively.  Michaek Buchanan is back as the “bandit”, a hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end. He represents a quality pass rushing threat as well as a capable man in coverage. Ian Thomas is the only true linebacker returning from last year’s unit.

The strength of the defense should be the secondary. Cornerbacks Tavon Wilson and Terry Hawthorne are both talented, experienced cover men that broke up eleven passes between them last year. With the loss of pass rushers in the front seven, the Illini might be forced to be more aggressive with blitzes and that means more man coverage. Wilson and Hawthorne are capable of handling those duties.

The question is this, however: Will Illinois be capable of turning back Arkansas State and handling the rest of its season with a newfound level of maturity that hasn't been seen since 2007 in Champaign?

 

By: Matt Zemek
DFN Sports Senior Staff Writer

 

 

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