2008 Opponent Preview: Illinois

Illinois Offense:
Juice Williams was expected to make a huge leap between 2006 and last year, and while his stats increased considerably, he was still the second least efficient passer in the Big Ten. The redshirt junior has the added benefit of being a runner first, passer second, which should open up more passing lanes, but this didn’t seem to help him enough. Backup Eddie McGee logged significant playing time last year, and the redshirt sophomore is faster than Juice (if not as electrifying).


Illinois Quarterbacks Passing 2007
Name Comp Att % Yds TD Int Yds/Att
Juice Williams 153 267 57.30 1743 13 12 6.53
Eddie McGee 29 55 52.73 444 2 3 5.92
Illinois Quarterbacks Rushing 2007
Name Att Yds TD Yds/Att
Juice Williams 165 755 7 4.58
Eddie McGee 31 186 2 6.00

Unless Williams or McGee manages to make huge strides towards being a better passer, the Illini will continue to rely on their veer-option attack, only going to the air when necessary. Without a talented back like Rashard Mendenhall to take off some of the heat, they will be relied upon to carry more of the load. If they can’t do it, the quarterback position could be a big liability for Illinois in 2008.

Last year’s leading rusher was team leader Rashard Mendenhall. He left early for the pros, and has since said some unkind things about Ron Zook (likely because of Rashard’s older brother, Walter, not getting any playing time with the Illini). Junior Daniel Dufrene, who was a junior college transfer, will start in the backfield this year. Redshirt freshman Troy Pollard, who was injured last year, is the tiny (5-8, 180) speedy type. True freshman Mikel LaShoure, who participated in spring ball, will likely be the third stringer. Paving the way will be redshirt freshman Darius Purcell, as the Illini lost fullback Russ Weil as well.


Illinois Running Backs Rushing 2007
Name Att Yds TD Yds/Att
Rashard Mendenhall 262 1681 17 6.42
Daniel Dufrene 47 294 2 6.26
Troy Pollard 23 148 0 6.43
Walter Mendenhall 4 57 0 14.25
Russ Weil 7 29 0 4.14
Justin Ijel 3 6 0 2.00

Illinois Running Backs Receiving 2007
Name Att Yds TD Yds/Att
Rashard Mendenhall 34 318 2 9.35
Russ Weil 2 34 0 17.00
Troy Pollard 1 10 0 10.00
Daniel Dufrene 3 9 0 3.00
Rahkeem Smith 1 8 0 8.00

Losing Mendenhall is a huge blow. The Illini have tons of production to replace, and very little proven talent to do it. They have a couple of different style of back to give it a try, though I think that they wouldn’t excel even in tandem. Fortunately, Illinois’s unique scheme allows for other players to get a lot of offensive touches, which will help the RBs produce. Pollard was more effective before the injury last eyar, but he lacks the size to be a feature back.

Sophomore Arrelious Benn was Illinois’s go-to target last year, and his lack of touchdowns is more a product of Illinois’s passing ineptitude than any receiving deficiency by him. He broke several tackles to find the endzone against Penn State, and only Rashard Mendenhall was within 20 receptions of his production. True junior Jeff Cumberland is a TE/WR hybrid who typically plays away from the line. The other starting wideout is senior Kyle Hudson. he stands only 5-11, and actually had less receptions last year than DB Brian Gamble. The important departing player here is Jacob Willis. Marques Wilson and Chris James add depth. At tight end, ridiculously-named Michael Hoomanawanui is the starter. Fellow junior Tom Sullivan (my dad lolol) is the primary backup.


Illinois Receivers 2007
Name Rec Yds TD Yds/Rec
Arrelious Benn 54 676 2 12.52
Jacob Willis 22 330 3 15
Jeff Cumberland (TE/WR) 12 243 3 20.25
Brian Gamble (DB) 16 170 1 10.63
Marques Wilkins 3 78 1 26.00
Michael Hoomanawanui (TE) 5 64 2 12.8
DaJuan Warren 7 63 0 9.00
Joe Morgan 3 32 0 10.67
Will Judson (DB) 6 30 0 5.00
Illinois Receivers Rushing 2007
Name Att Yds TD Yds/Att
Arrelious Benn 32 158 0 4.94
Jeff Cumberland (TE/WR) 2 42 0 21.00
Brian Gamble (DB) 8 40 0 5.00

Gamble will probably move to offense full-time now, though I think throwing the ball to a couple DBs shows a lack of WR depth. Benn is clearly the star here, and he is electrifying on punt returns as well. If he is healthier than he was last year, it could be a special year, and his mentions on all-conference lists are warranted. The Illini didn’t lose many peple with a lot of receptions, but that’s because they didn’t have any receivers with a lot of receptions other than Benn. Look for Juice to try to spread the ball around a bit more this year.

At left tackle, senior Xavier Fulton returns. He started out his career as a defensive lineman, and after redshirting in 2006, he started every game at LT last year. At left guard, there is a battle between redshirt sophomores Brandon Jones and Randall Hunt. Each got a pair of starts last year. At center, senior Ryan McDonald returns. He has started every game at the position for the last two years. Last year he was second team all-conference. The right guard will be true junior John Asamoah, who started there last year as well. At right tackle, redshirt sophomore Ryan Palmer is projected to start. He gained some playing time last year as the second-stringer. The Illini have little depth behind the starters, which will be aided by early enrollments from three incoming offensive linemen.

Sack and rushing numbers are hard to compare for offensive lines when the quarterback is equal parts runner and passer. He skews rush yards upwards on scrambles, and is able to escape sacks with his feet. However, this is a fairly experienced unit, and Ryan McDonald should be their leader. The Illini’s rushing game will be more dependent on the quality of the backs than that of the offensive line.

Offensive Analysis:
Illinois was able to keep the ball on the ground last year, as Rashard Mendenhall and Juice Williams were able to run over many opponents’ defenses. With Mendenhall gone, the focus of this offense is completely on Juice. If he can pass more efficiently, there shouldn’t be that much of a dropoff in Illinois’s offensive output. However, if he is unable to keep defenses honest, the lack of a top-notch back will allow opposing defenses to shut down the Illini. Either way, he will likely remain a running QB first and foremost.

Illinois Defense:

Defensive Line:
Leading the defensive line for Illinois are returning starters Will Davis at defensive end and David Lindquist at defensive tackle. The seniors are the most experienced players in the Illini’s front 4, and Davis was a second team all-conference performer last year. At the other defensive tackle spot, redshirt freshman D’Angelo McCray is expected to start. He is massive at 6-4 330, and is likely to be a big run-stuffer. At the final position is Doug Pilcher. He has started almost every game over the past two years, and has provided good pressure off the edge. The backups are generally young, but they have experience, all having appeared in several games for the Illini already.


Illinois Defensive Line 2007
Name Tackle TFL Sacks
David Lindquist 46 7 4.5
Will Davis 41 12.5 9.5
Chris Norwell 32 3.5 .5
Doug Pilcher 25 7 5.5
Derek Walker 22 3.5 2.5
Mike Ware 14 3.5 2.5
Jerry Brown 9 3.5 2.5
Josh Brent 8 2 .5
Antonio James 7 2 1.5
Sirod Williams 6 1 0

Illinois doesn’t depend on their defensive line to make a ton of tackles, but they di
d manage to get to the QB quite a bit. Their primary purpose is to keep the LBs available to make plays. With a much less certain LB corps this year, it will be interesting to see if that role changes. Illinois lost only a couple linemen, and several of the backups got plenty of playing time last year.

J Leman, All American in both on-field performance and tie selection, is gone, along with fellow senior Antonio Steele. Both started for multiple years, and their losses will be huge. Brit Miller, the only returning starter, is a senior who will be changing positions to take over Leman’s spot in the middle. At the strongside, true sophomore Martez Wilson will take over. He was a very highly-touted recruit coming out of high school, and got some playing time last year. On the weakside, senior Rodney Pittman will take over. Despite his class standing, he has done very little in his career so far.


Illinois Linebackers 2007
Name Tackle TFL Sack Int
J Leman 132 10.5 2.5 1
Antonio Steele 89 5 0 2
Brit Miller 62 8.5 1 0
Martez Wilson 29 3 2 0
Sam Carson III 6 .5 0 0
Rahkeem Smith 6 0 0 0
Anothony Thornhill 4 0 0 0
Rodney Pittman 4 2 1 0
Erique Robertson 3 0 0 0

Unless the defensive line is beastly this year, the ilnebackers should struggle. There is little proven talent to replace Leman and Pittman, and Wilson is the only truly talented ‘backer who has gotten any significant playing time. Miller is a big boy, and Wilson has speed, so they have a good mix of skill sets to defend different types of plays.

Defensive Backs:
Vontae Davis is a very good corner, and the true junior is back after an all-conference season. At the other side is fellow junior Dere Hicks, who started every game last year. Illinois will be counting on several freshmen to serve as backups, which could mean struggles early in the year. At safety, two multi-year starters are gone, and sophomores Bo Flowers and Nate Bussey will step in. Flowers is more mature than most sophs, having played in the minor leagues for a few years. Both safeties have good size, but their backups are also inexperienced.


Illinois Defensive Backs 2007
Name Tackle TFL Sack Int
Justin Harrison 80 0 0 1
Vontae Davis 76 4 0 4
Kevin Mitchell 75 1 5 5
Justin Sanders 57 4 3 1
Dere Hicks 52 1.5 0 2
Marcus Thomas 17 .5 0 1
Tyler Rouse 14 0 0 0
Nate Bussey 9 0 0 0
Bo Flowers 5 0 0 0
Drew McMahon 4 0 0 0
Chris Duvalt 4 0 0 0
Garrett Edwards 1 0 0 0

Two very important safeties are gone for the Illini (as well as their first backup, Justin Sanders). Davis and Hicks are good corners, but there is little depth behind them. Most of the other cornerbacks will be playing in their fifth college game. The defensive secondary has a good chance of taking a step back this year, and with little depth, they will probably be susceptible to exploitation by teams that strive to spread them out.

Defensive Analysis:
Illinois loses a good portion of their best players, aside from Vontae Davis and some of the guys along the defensive line. With new linebackers and safeties, this unit could be suspect. Their passing defense could struggle, though with strong defensive ends a speedy linebacker like Wilson, they seem particularly well-equipped to handle the read-option. Add in the fact that this is one of the few defenses that sees the option on a regular basis, and they could do well against Michigan, unless Steve Threet can excel as a passer.

Special Teams:

Jason Reda departs from the kicker position, leaving the spot for Mike Cklamovski, who was a kickoff specialist last year. Punter Anthony Santella returns. Arreilous Benn was electrifying on returns last year.


Illinois Kicking 2007
Name FGM Att % Long XPM Att %
Jason Reda 16 18 88.89 51 44 45 97.78
Illinois Punting 2007
Name Punts Yds Avg
Anthony Santella 64 2410 37.66

Losing Reda will hurt. He was big-legged and accurate. Santella is a decent but wholly underwhelming punter. Benn should be at least as effective as he was last year if he can stay healthy.

Overall Analysis:
I am personally of the opinion that Illinois ended up being vastly overrated last year, mostly on account of their upset victory over Ohio State. They were a decent team that largely overachieved. Because if this, people will undoubtedly look at their 2008 depth chart and say “lots of returning starters, including QB. They will be at least as good as last year.” I think this is a major mistake (especially since last year’s team shouldn’t be measured only by the 9 games they won). The Illini lost their best player on each side of the ball, and Juice Williams was bad enough last year that there was a quarterback controversy. I see last year as a Penn State 2005 “lightning in a bottle” type year, and think they will be middle of the pack at best this year.

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5 Comments so far

  1. Bob says...

    Great Preview. What are you hearing about Darius Winston? It seems things have been quiet on that front since he de-commited from Arkansas. Or Ark – Kansas as our almost head coach (LM) calls them.

  2. Tim says...

    All is fairly quiet on the Winston front, which can be seen as either encouraging (the last thing he said was that Michian was his new leader) or discouraging (he hasn’t made plans to visit, or said much of anything about Michigan since).

    It will definitely take a while before he commits, and Michigan will have to get him on campus to have a great shot at Winston.

  3. Bob says...

    Thanks. It seems Michigan has a lot of offers out for DB’s right now. Do we have room for all of them and how many should/will we take? (safties and CB)

  4. I know nothing says...

    Winston has not been talking about or to anyone, so it is hard to get any read on him. And if you look at the size of the safties UM is bringing in, LB is where a couple of these kids are going to end up. We still need another CB or 2 and another true S, IMO.

  5. Tim says...

    One thing to keep in mind about S/LBs is that prospects in the Barwis system won’t necessarily gain a lot of weight (unless they want to or the coaches want them to), and guys will get faster, not slower.

    The new regime might be a little more successful keeping guys at the smaller of a tweener set than the old one was.

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