Saturday, August 29, 2009

Something Special

For the past couple years, the Illini special teams have adventure. Will 2009 bring improvements?

Coach Zook seems to think there's promise. After two years, punter Anthony Santella will be on scholarship. Punting has not been an Illini strength, but the former soccer player has a positive mindset going into the season. The fan not-so-favorite rugby-style punt could still be used, but Santella's been working on his hang time on regular punts, as well.

Last year the Illini relied on freshman placekickers. This year, as sophomores, Matt Eller and Derek Dimke are set to platoon kicking duties. Eller will take care of field goals and extra points, while Dimke will have kickoff responsibilities. In 2008, Eller set an Illini freshman record with 84 points. He was 15 of 20 on field goals, but once Dimke started handling kickoffs halfway through the season, Eller was 7 of 8.

In the return game, sound decision-making will be key to improve over last year. To make a strong statement in the Big Ten, the miscues and mistakes from 2008 need to become distant memories.

As for coverage and field position, the Illini left plenty of room for improvement from 2008. The speed and strength of this squad should mean that starters don't have to take up the special teams slack like they did last year.

The Big Ten will see plenty of challenging games. The Illini offense should be up for anything, as long as the defense can get them out on the field. But special teams will be critical for success. And it would be nice to see this segment of the team truly become something special.

Go Illini!

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Thursday, August 27, 2009


The Illini should be able to score this season. My questions are focused on the other side of the ball. The defense left a little to be desired last season, and several of the best players from that team have moved on. That leaves several unknowns...

One big change is at the heart of the D. Martez Wilson, a natural athlete, is moving from outside to middle linebacker. Last spring, he still seemed to have a lot to learn. Wilson needs to adjust to his new spot and take over the leadership that has come from that position in the last couple years. The rest of the linebackers have limited experience, but they do have speed. They will need to learn quickly for the Illini to be able to hold their own in the Big Ten.

The D-line is another area where the Illini have limited experience. But they are bigger than they have been in the past. Tackles Josh Brent and Corey Liuget weigh in over 300 pounds. And most of the rest of the line has bulked up, as well. The question will be if they can contain Big Ten offenses...they have a lot to prove.

In the secondary, the Illini already lost Miami Thomas to injury at Camp Rantoul. Dere Hicks returns as a key for this group. But this is a group that allowed opposing offenses to pass fairly well. That will need to change this year for the Illini to move up in conference standings.

The Illini D will need to work hard and gel quickly to force opponents into giving the ball back to Juice's offense. If they can show marked improvement over last season, the whole season will improve compared to 2008.

So answer some of these questions, boys. Go Illini!

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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Take Offense

Summer (was it ever really summer?) is winding down, and college football season is nearly here!

So, what should we expect from the Illini this year?

Let's start with the offense. It could be the best in the Big Ten, according to this preview. And why not?

The Illini led the Big Ten in passing yards last year, and now QB Juice Williams is a senior. He can throw, he can run, and he has experience -- both over-achieving and under-achieving. Expect him to be hungry to win. Eddie McGee has proven to be a capable back-up -- also able to run and throw. Look for him in unexpected places again this season...

The wide receivers are considered the most talented group in the conference. They are led by Benn, a junior, in what could easily be his last season. He is fun to watch, and with a couple years of experience, expect him to excel. Especially since Florida transfer Jarred Fayson will be on the field this year and will take some of the pressure off Benn. Jeff Cumberland is an experienced senior and still a big target. And there are plenty of other guys who are capable of making an impact in any given game.

As for the running game, Daniel Dufrene is emerging as the leading running back. But he won't be alone in the backfield, with sophomores Jason Ford, Troy Pollard and Mikel LeShoure and speedy freshman Justin Green also on the roster. Mark Tupper says that Dufrene undertook a summer workout routine similar to the one Rashard Mendenhall took on before his junior season... Here's hopeing Dufrene gets similar results.

The biggest changes from last season's offense is the O-line. Eager to prove they aren't the offensive "question mark," this is big (310 lbs or so) group. Eric Block, a 5th-year senior, takes over under center. Senior right guard Jon Asamoah was named to the Outland Trophy Watch list, an award given to the best interior lineman in college football. And sophomore tackle Jeff Allen is coming off a surprising freshman season, with experience as a 9-game starter.

All that to say that the 2009 Illini should be fun to watch -- especially when they have the ball. This group should be able to put points on the board.

Go Illini!

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Miller's Time?

With pre-season NFL games underway, could this be form Illini linebacker Brit Miller's time to shine? Miller certainly thinks so. He was a free agent cut by the Carolina Panthers this summer. Mike Singletary (still one of my favorite pro players ever) and the San Fransico 49ers picked Miller up on waivers and are converting him to fullback.

Miller responded by scoring both of the Niners' TDs in a pre-season win over the Broncos. Not typical for a rookie with less than 2 weeks at his position. He has San Fransico asking, "Who is Brit Miller?"

Illini fans can answer that question. He was one of the leading tacklers in the Big Ten in 2008, a solid linebacker with a strong work ethic. He's a kid from Decatur who is doing his best to make an NFL roster.

Even with his impressive debut, Miller isn't guaranteed a roster spot. His chances are helped by an injury to the starting fullback, but he's got a ways to go. I will be cheering for him to get a chance...

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Sunday, August 09, 2009

'09 Training Camp

The Illini football team is headed to Camp Rantoul. The players sound optimistic. I look forward to seeing what progress Martez Wilson has made at middle linebacker, and Benn should be poised for a strong season. The season will be here before we know it...



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