Thursday, September 30, 2010

Tough Test

The Big Ten season is upon Ron Zook and his team. First up: Ohio State. That will be a tough test. The Illini D will have their hands full with Terrelle Pryor and his offense. And Nathan Scheelhaase and Mikel Leshoure will be challenged to run on the Buckeyes defense.

But anything can happen on any given day. If the Illini are on, the Buckeyes are off, and the crowd is in full force, the upset is possible.

Go Illini!



Monday, September 27, 2010

On the O-Line

The Illini offensive line is solid. Literally. The starters range from 305 to 315 pounds, and they stand 6'5" to 6'7". And the backups are similar in size. These big boys are the key to allowing Nathan Scheelhaase and Mikel Leshoure shine. Thus far, the Illini have gotten an average 229 rushing yards per game, and 130 passing yards. But they've also racked up their share of false start penalties, and they've allowed Scheelhaase to be sacked 5 times. They have room for improvement, but they have potential to help the Illini win a few more games.

Jeff Allen is a junior from Chicago. He leads this unit in starts, and has been a key to the Illini rushing success over the last two seasons. He was named to the Sporting News second-team Freshman All-America in 2008.

Hugh Thornton, a sophomore who lived in Idaho before playing his high school senior season in Oberlin, Ohio, is at guard. Despite the strained neck he suffered against Northern Illinois, he was expected to return to start against Ohio State. However, after being arrested on Sunday for his part in a bar fight, his status on the team is questionable. He's had discipline issues before, and to date Zook hasn't announced is decision on how this incident will be handled. Link
Named one of the most improved offensive players during spring ball, redshirt sophomore Graham Pocic, is the new Illini center. Pocic is from Lemont, Ill., and he saw action in most games last season. Although center is a new spot for him at this level, Coach Zook expressed confidence in him. And so far this season, the snaps haven't been quite as sloppy as some other FBS teams...

Randall Hunt, a 5th-year senior from Hightstown, N.J., starts at guard. He also spent a season at Valley Forge Military Academy before enrolling in at the University of Illinois. Hunt has steadily gained experience during his time in Champaign, and he started in 11 games last season.

Another 5th-year senior, Ryan Palmer starts at tackle. He played in 11 games as a redshirt freshman, but a broken foot in 2008 kept him out for the heart of that season. From Canton, Ohio, Palmer says he is coming off his best off-season this year.

The OL has worked to build chemistry as a unit, but they are a bit non-traditional, since Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino lists strong-side and weak-side linemen in his depth chart instead of left guard, right tackle, etc. His line flips to either side of the field as needed for a play.

Let's hope they can continue to open holes to allow the Illini running game to keep moving during the Big Ten season.

Go Illini!

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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Thin Secondary Holding Up

The Illini defensive secondary has (again) been hit hard with injuries. Two projected starters are out: safety Supo Sanni with a torn Achilles' tendon and cornerback Terry Hawthorne with a stress fracture in his right foot. Hawthorne should return when his foot heals, but Sanni is out for the season.

Safety Travon Bellamy, from Greenbelt, Md., has truly emerged as a leader in the backfield, as he currently is tied for second-most tackles on the team with 24, including a sack. He received a medical redshirt in 2007 due to a shoulder injury, and during his senior season of eligibility he is pursuing a graduate degree.

Sophomore Justin Green, from Louisville, Ky., was moved from running back to cornerback just before the season to strengthen the secondary. Green was recruited for defense coming out of high school, but he wanted to play running back, one of the reasons he choose Illinois. However, he's played well on the defensive side of the ball, with 19 tackles to date and solid pass defense. He's tied for first in both pass break-ups and pass deflections, with 4 each.

Trulon Henry, a safety in his junior year of eligibility, has taken a non-traditional route to the Illini secondary. The older half-brother of former Illini star Arrelious Benn, Henry is taking advantage of his second chance at football -- and an education. Henry was arrested and served time for his role in a robbery. After serving 5 years, he enrolled in a junior college -- College of Dupage in the Chicagoland area. Now married with a daughter, Henry is working hard to take advantage of these opportunities. And he's doing well, with 19 tackles so far this season, including 1 for loss.

Junior Tavon Wilson is a second-year starter in the secondary, and leads the team with 2 fumble recoveries. He also has 11 tackles and solid pass defense stats so far this season. He is tied with Green to lead the team in pass defense stats. Another Washington D.C. native, Wilson was raised by his grandmother after losing both his parents as a child.

The secondary is a known weakness on the Illini defense, but the entire unit has shown great improvement under new coordinator Vic Koenning. As the Illini prepare to face the top of the Conference, we will get a better sense of just how much they have improved.

Go Illini!

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Thursday, September 23, 2010

Linebackers Start Strong

At the heart of the Fighting Illini defense, the linebackers have consistently been on top of their opponents. Their tackling has been solid, and they have done a good job of getting into the backfield for negative yards.

Here's a bit of background on the starting LB group:
Senior Nate Bussey, from the Washington D.C. area, went to high school with former Illini and current NFL players Vontae Davis and Arrelious Benn. A high school QB, Bussey converted to safety and then to OLB during the spring of 2009. So far this season, he's racked up 19 tackles, including 2.5 for a loss and two hard back-to-back hits on Mizzou's T.J. Moe (you may remember the second one, which made Moe lose his helmet).

Ian Thomas,
a redshirt junior from Berwyn Heights, Md., finished last season as the team leader in tackles, and ranked 10th in the Big Ten. That was after stepping in at MLB after Martez Wilson was hurt. On a personal note, he also helped care for his mother after she suffered a brain aneurism. Thomas is off to a strong start this season, playing opposite Bussey and tied for second in tackles on the team to date with 24 (4 for loss) and a fumble recovery.

Chicago Simeon standout Martez Wilson, has recovered from the herniated disc in his neck that kept him out of all but the opening game last season and earned him a medical redshirt. That makes him a junior in eligibility this year. Expectations for Wilson are high, and he's set lofty personal goals, as well. He's come a long way since he first took over at MLB during the spring of 2009. And so far he leads the Illini with 25 tackles, 3 of those for a loss.

A couple others in the LB rotation include senior and junior college transfer Aaron Gress from California and redshirt sophomore Justin Staples from Ohio. Staples as 10 tackles, including a sack, and Gress has 3 tackles.

This group has been hitting hard. Keep it up, guys!
Go Illini!

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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Meet the D-Line

So far, the Illini defense appears to be much improved over the 2009 edition. Much of the change likely can be attributed to new defensive coordinator Vic Koenning.

Here's a look at who Koenning has put on the line:
Corey Liuget
, a junior from Miami, was expected to be a leader on the D-line this season. So far, he has proven to be legit (also the correct pronunciation of his name). He actually dropped weight this season, which has helped him move more quickly. A 4-star recruit, he started a couple games as a freshman, and played all last season, starting four games. As a freshman, he ranked 5th in the Big Ten in fumble recoveries. To date this season, he's got 3 tackles for loss including a sack, and he's often one of the Illini jerseys around the football.

Whitney Mercilus, a redshirt sophomore from Akron, Ohio, took over a starting role after Michael Buchanan was suspended. Mercilus had 8 tackles in 11 games last season, and 3.5 were for loss. So far this season, he has 6 tackles -- two for loss, including a sack. He's got great potential this season and beyond.

Senior Clay Nurse, went to high school in Beltsville, Md., after immigrating from Georgetown, Guyana. He offered some insight into the new defensive mindset during spring ball, after earning all-Big Ten honorable mention in 2009. Nurse is starting at Bandit after Buchanan's suspension. He has yet to reach the level he played at much of last season, but his leadership and work ethic has helped change the defensive culture.

Akeem Spence
is a redshirt freshman from Fort Walton Beach, Fla. Spence is off to a solid start this season, as he has recorded 6 tackles, including a sack, in his first three games at this level. And he will improve with experience.

Redshirt sophomore Glenn Foster of Chicago is a key part of the D-line rotation so far.

Overall, this group has done a nice job penetrating into the backfield and keeping pressure on opposing QBs. As the level of competition increases with the beginning of the Big Ten season, these guys will be challenged. But if they can control the line, it could be a very exciting season.

Go Illini!

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Saturday, September 18, 2010

Directional Victories

The Illini men's gymnastics team is nationally competitive. I don't know what Coach Justin Spring was up to today, but let's hope he was at Memorial Stadium -- or at least watching the football game. Apparently Nathan Scheelhaase was trying out for a spot on Spring's team today.

I love watching the gymnasts twist and flip through the air. But I have to be honest. Watching Scheelhaase fly through the air made me nervous. I like the QB's commitment to getting the first Illini touchdown going up and over the defender, but Scheelhaase did that a couple more times in an effort to get a few more yards. And unless he knows how to land and fall (like gymnasts do), he's risking serious injury on football field. Nathan, hurling your body through the air looks cool on the highlights, but it's a long season, and we'd prefer you be able to play the whole time.

Aside from Scheelhaase's acrobatics, the Illini had plenty of other moments that made fans nervous:
However, both games against in-state "directionals" showed potential strengths for the Illini as they head into a tough Big Ten schedule.
The Illini needed the wins against SIU and NIU before they head into the Big Ten season. Their conference schedule has a brutal start, with Ohio State coming to Champaign in two weeks, followed by trips to Happy Valley and East Lansing.

Go Illini!

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Friday, September 10, 2010

Opening at Home

After a tough neutral-site battle to open the season, Ron Zook and the Illini will be in Champaign for their 2010 season home opener against the Salukis of Southern Illinois. This is one of those games that the Illini need to -- and should -- win. But given the unpredictability of the college football season so far, nothing should be taken for granted.

Here are a few players to watch:
The Illini have a great record in home openers. In fact, the opener against Illinois State was one of the two home games they claimed last year. They need a win to build on their solid performance in the loss last weekend.

Go Illini!

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Monday, September 06, 2010

It's That Time of Year

...when the air cools, the fields start to fire (meaning the corn starts to turn brown), and football becomes the game of the day. Get excited!

A hectic summer schedule prevented me from spending much time previewing Ron Zook and his 2010 Fighting Illini, but based on what they showed us in the opener, this rebuilding holds promise. I had no idea what to expect, and low expectations, so I was pleased with the 13-3 halftime lead over Mizzou. It's not a good sign when I start cheering, "Go clock, go!" just minutes into the third quarter, but the Illini didn't give up. They put in a stellar first half and didn't completely fold in the second half. This Illini team has something to build on.

Defense: I want to start here because they were such a question mark last season. At the start of the game, the Illini forced a 3-and-out against a proven offense. Yes, Mizzou sputtered throughout the first half, but give the Illini credit for taking advantage of those first-game miscues. A recovered fumble, solid tackles, deflected passes, and more. Despite being thin, the secondary held well in the first half. The linebackers pursued the ball. And the D-line pressured Gabbert well. The second half was a different story, as Gabbert caught his rhythm. But these guys kept playing and hitting hard.

Offense: It looks completely different with a new QB, but Nathan Scheelhaase has potential. He can run, and that fits well into the option offense that the Illini have run the last few years. His arm is adequate, and he's got some good targets. With time and experience, the passing game could become a complement to the running game. (At least once the turnover tendency is cleaned up.) And the running game will be where the Illini have a chance to shine this year. Behind Scheelhaase, Mikel Leshoure has both power and speed. He will be fun to watch.

Special teams: Here's hoping the 52-yard field goal is a sign of what the special teams are capable of. That was a great boost heading into halftime. Kickoff coverage was solid, as was the kicking game itself. Definitely improvement over last year.

I expect that this season will bring moments that are hard to watch, like the Mizzou drives in the second half. But if we can have periods like the long, steady Illini drive in the first quarter, this season could be a pleasant surprise, as the Illini rebuild. The question, of course, is what does Zook need to accomplish to retain his job?

Regardless, I'm excited that football season is here. Go Illini!

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