By Mike Castiglione, Associate College Football Editor
2009 SEASON IN REVIEW: Hoping to rebound from a five-win season the previous season, the Fighting Illini stumbled out of the gate in 2009, dropping six of their first seven contests. The only win during that span came at home against
Illinois State of the FCS in week two. Illinois did show some resilience with
a 38-13 trouncing of Michigan on Halloween, followed by a 35-32 triumph at
Minnesota the following week. But the momentum would not carry any further, as
the Illini lost their final three contests for a forgettable 3-9 finish. As is
always the case in college football when a reputable program underachieves,
head coach Ron Zook has heard the cries for change.
"I don't think there's any question I have something to prove," Zook said at
the Big Ten's Media Day. "I think that's why you're in this profession. It's
"And you have to win, and we have to go do that."
OFFENSE: Zook lured Paul Petrino from Arkansas to run the Illini offense.
Under Petrino, Arkansas ranked eighth in the nation last year with an average
of 37 ppg. He'll look to the running back tandem of Mikel Leshoure (734 yds,
6.8 ypc) and Jason Ford (588 yds, 6.1 ypc) to continue to produce. Those two
headlined a rushing attack that ranked 17th nationally in 2009 with 200.4 ypg.
Four-year starting quarterback Juice Williams is no longer around, leaving the
job to redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase, who dazzled with his mobility in
the spring to win the job. Wideouts Jarred Fayson and A.J. Jenkins are back
after both missed a chunk of 2009 with knee injuries, and both will have to
step up with top wideout Arrelious Benn leaving early for the NFL.
Although three starters return to the offensive line, they must learn a new
system where they are identified as weakside and strong side, rather than left
or right. The system requires the linemen to flip-flop sides throughout the
DEFENSE: Defensively, Illinois returns seven starters, and four of its top
five tacklers from a year ago. Leading the way is linebacker Ian Thomas, who
registered a team-high 95 tackles in '09. At defensive end, Clay Nurse earned
honorable mention All-Big Ten honors after leading the squad in tackles for a
loss (10.5), highlighted by a four-sack effort against Minnesota. But beyond
those two, there isn't much firepower on that side of the ball.
Linebacker Martez Wilson averaged 6.6 tackles per game in '08, but he was lost
for the season after suffering a herniated disc in his neck during the opener
last year. Zook hired Vic Koenning to try and overhaul a defense that ranked
last in the Big Ten in total defense (403 ypg), scoring defense (30.2 ppg) and
virtually every other major defensive category. In four years at Clemson,
Koenning helped the Tigers' D to a top-25 ranking in scoring defense, total
defense, and pass efficiency defense. He'll look to improve the takeaway
department, as the Illini managed only five interceptions last year.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Anthony Santella is a three-year starter at punter, while
juniors Matt Eller and Derek Dimke have split the kickoff and field goal
duties the past two seasons. Santella averaged a career-best 41.3 yards per
punt last year. Dimke took over as the primary field goal kicker for the final
three games, converting 5-of-5 attempts.
OUTLOOK: Since taking Illinois to its first Rose Bowl in 24 years back in
2007, Zook has led the team to an 8-16 record over the past two seasons.
Unfortunately for Zook and the Fighting Illini, the 2010 schedule doesn't look
very forgiving as they'll take on eight bowl teams from last year. Still, the
head coach said during Big Ten Media Day that he isn't feeling any added
pressure to get the job done.
"No, I don't, to be honest with you," Zook said. "I think everyone that stands
up here has got pressure. Obviously some of us have more than others. I think
the thing that you try to do is you do the best you can do."
If another five-win season is the best Zook can do, it's very possible that
come next year, it'll be more than just the coordinators who are shown the