#52 Illinois Football Preview

Illinois Fighting Illini

Overall Rank: #52
#9 Big Ten

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2010 Record: (7-6, 4-4)
2010 Bowl: Texas Bowl vs. Baylor (W 38-14)
Coach: Ron Zook (28-45 at Illinois, 51-59 overall)
Offensive Coordinator: Paul Petrino
Defensive Coordinator: Vic Koenning

Returning Leaders:
Rushing: Nathan Scheelhaase, QB, 868 yards
Passing: Nathan Scheelhaase, QB, 1,825 yards
Receiving: A.J. Jenkins, WR, 746 yards
Tackles: Ian Thomas, LB, 67
Sacks: Michael Buchanan, DE, 2.0
Interceptions: Trulon Henry, S, 3

Other Key Returnees: OT Jeff Allen, G Jack Cornell, K Derek Dimke, CB Justin Green, C Graham Pocic, DT Akeem Spence, G Hugh Thornton, TE Evan Wilson, CB Tavon Wilson

Key Losses: CB Travon Bellamy, LB Nate Bussey, G Randall Hunt, RB Mikel Leshoure, DT Corey Liuget, WR Eddie McGee, DE Clay Nurse, OT Ryan Palmer, LB Martez Wilson

Illinois Coach Ron Zook has been on the hot seat ever since his team overachieved and went to the Rose Bowl in 2007. The following two years the Fighting Illini won a total of just eight games. The 2010 season was a big one for Coach Zook and his team responded by reaching a bowl game and actually winning once they got there. The defense has some rebuilding to do, but the offense is full of potential.

Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase had a superb freshman campaign running the Illini offense. He threw for 1,825 yards and 17 touchdowns and rushed for 868 yards with five more trips to the end zone. Perhaps more impressive than his touchdown total, is the fact that he threw just eight interceptions. That is not bad at all for a freshman in the Big Ten. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino plans to open up the offense this season and expects his quarterback to rush for over 1,000 yards. With A.J. Jenkins returning, Scheelhaase has his favorite target back. The Illini will need to find a secondary receiver, but sophomores Ryan Lankford and Darius Millines should be able to step into a bigger role. The Illini also add Clemson transfer Brandon Clear. Tight end Evan Wilson, yet another sophomore, could have a huge season after catching just ten passes for 135 yards and two scores a year ago. The offensive line does lose a couple key players, but Graham Pocic, Hugh Thornton and Jeff Allen are a solid group to build around.

Not long ago it was the Illini defense that kept them in games. Last year the group was in the middle of the Big Ten in most major defensive categories and now they have to do it without tackle Corey Liuget and linebacker Martez Wilson. The loss of Nate Bussey and Travon Bellamy has not garnered as much attention, but those two will be missed as well. The front four is relatively young and junior Michael Buchanan will have to lead the unit. Ian Thomas will slide over to the middle of the linebacker corps to replace Wilson. The senior should fit in nicely, but he will be flanked by inexperienced players who have some questions to answer before they will be handed a starting job. The secondary returns plenty of talent, but things will look a little different. Tavon Wilson is moving back to corner after spending last year at the strong safety spot. That will create a spot for Supo Sanni, who missed last season with an injury. With Terry Hawthorne and Trulon Henry back as well, the secondary will be in good hands, but the front line better get pressure on the opposing quarterback.

The Bottom Line:
Mikel Leshoure split early for the NFL, leaving behind 1,697 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns. That rushing attack really opened things up for Scheelhaase and the rest of the offense. As good as Leshoure was, Illinois still can have a fine ground game with Jason Ford leading the way. Ford rushed for 504 yards and seven touchdowns on 99 carries a year ago and is a power back who can carry the load. If Ford lives up to his expectations and Illinois can find a speed back to compliment him, this offense will be very, very good. And even while the defense takes a little time to adjust, the Illini can outscore most opponents and reach another bowl game.

Projected Bowl: Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl

2010 Team Stats:
Rushing Offense: 246.08 (11th in nation, 1st in conference)
Passing Offense: 151.00 (111, 10)
Total Offense: 397.08 (45, 4)
Scoring Offense: 32.54 (26, 4)
Rushing Defense: 130.77 (32, 4)
Pass Defense: 220.54 (61, 6)
Total Defense: 351.31 (38, 5)
Scoring Defense: 23.46 (48, 5)
Turnover Margin: .62 (22, 4)
Sacks: 1.77 (76, 2)
Sacks Allowed: 1.92 (62, 10)

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