Illinois Preview: Team Redacted
This one isn't quite as extensive. I'm sure you understand.
The Ron Zook era started out well enough with a thrilling overtime victory over Rutgers, but whenever the phrases "thrilling overtime victory" and "over Rutgers" find themselves in the same sentence their buddy "harsh reality check" cannot be far behind. Illinois' did not arrive until the Big Ten opener, but when it did it took the form on an unholy beating at the hands of Michigan State that did not let up until Northwestern handed the Illini their ninth straight loss in the season finale. Over that stretch of eight games, Illinois allowed every team they played at least 35 points, lost by at least 17 points every week, and were obliterated 36-13... by Indiana(!). By the midpoint of the season the only people watching Illinois games were pissed-off Florida fans, who traded tapes of the debacles and watched them intently in pitch-dark rooms full of unpleasant, familiar noises best left unspeculated upon.
Yea, and woe followed him wherever he was suffered to lay his head.
Started on both sides of the ball last year.
It is likely things will improve during Year 2 of the Zook Epoch. One of the reasons the Illini were so bad at... well... everything is that this totally weird "tribute to the seniors" featuring picture after picture of cute babies serves as a fairly accurate assessement of the average age of the team. Illinois returns every starter from last year save fullback Jason Davis, defensive tackle Ryan Matha, and exhausted punter Steve Weatherford. A fair number of those starters were wet-behind-everything freshmen in way over their heads. Strides towards competency are probable, but there's a long, long way from last year's Travelling Bye Week extravaganza and respectability.
Last Year: Not good, but not the defense, either. Illinois managed to finish 47th in rushing yards -- the only stat tracked on the NCAA's team page that the Illini were better than 71st in -- and 72nd in total offense, but how many of those yards were pity yards gained against third-string walkons? Survey says "lots".
Courtesy of The State Journal-Register, Springfield, IL
Rating: 2. Senior Tim Brasic's numbers from last year are surprisingly tolerable on the surface -- a 61 percent completion rate and 424 yards rushing -- but with only 5.9 yards per attempt and 11 interceptions, Brasic didn't generate enough positives to justify the chance of a turnover or drive-killing sack. Some of the blame has to be placed on the offensive line, who yielded a massive 32 sacks last year, but Brasic's just another guy. The bubble-screen orgasm that is the Zook offense has a lot of dead simple throws that tend to drive up yardage and completion percentage metrics without requiring any actual skill on behalf of the quarterback (something Chad Henne benefited from extensively last year). When Brasic attempted something so daring as an actual downfield pass the results were often disastrous.
If things go poorly with Brasic, Zook might say "to hell with it" and insert true freshman Isiah Williams, the jewel of this year's recruiting class. Williams' implausible senior-year stats: 1,441 rushing yards at 21.8 yards per carry and 1,841 passing yards on only 128 attempts with 22 touchdowns and three interceptions. He's guru-approved and potentially the kind of guy who can lift the downtrodden into a state slightly less so a la Antwaan Randle-El. One caution: Williams only completed 56% of his passes as a senior, but it's not like Zook's going to have anything to lose after September.
Rating: 4. Bizarrely deep. Pierre Thomas and EJ Halsey return for their senior seasons but will have to hold off a challenge from sophomore Rashard Mendenhall, who -- get this -- was in the Rivals 100 two years ago. Between the three of them they had 1231 yards on 259 carries (4.7 each) and a fairly astounding 79 catches for only 492 yards (6.2 each). If you needed any further proof of the screen-y hell that is the Zook offense, there it is. Thomas, who got about half of the rushing yards last year, is the proverbial thunder to Halsey's lightning and Mendenhall is a combination of both.
Wide Receivers & Tight Ends
Sophomore Kyle Hudson led Illinois with 31 catches and actually managed to get 15 yards per catch -- there is downfield passing! -- but I'd be lying if I told you I had any idea who he is. Receivers on terrible teams don't often get attention since it's usually focused on whatever grotesque injury is being inflicted on the quarterback this time. Hudson did have a 10-catch, 114-yard performance against Wisconsin but that's probably less impressive than it sounds given the way everyone with a half-functional quarterback diced the Badger secondary a year ago. Still, a freshman Hudson had more catches and more yards than Mario Manningham, Derrick Williams, and their hype entourages. He's one to keep an eye on, especially because you can count the inaccurate references to his valuable role as a possession receiver from their inception.
A rotating cast of other minor contributors has one name of note: sophomore Derrick McPhearson, who ended up at Illinois after an academic sojourn that took him to Virginia's Fork Union Military Academy. The year before McPhearson committed to Florida and then-head coach Ron Zook -- evidence of both considerable talent and questionable judgement. McPhearson missed a few games with a broken leg and finished the year with only 13 catches, but his role should expand greatly as a sophomore.
Rating: 3. The line, like everything else, was crap a year ago but this unit has a better excuse than most. The Illini found themselves starting two juniors, two sophomores, and a freshman and were unsurprisingly overwhelmed. This year all five starters return and the Illini can employ the services of Oklahoma transfer Akim Millington, who was projected to be a starter before his sudden departure. Millington will probably boot LT JJ Simmons to the bench and be the line's best player the day he steps onto the field.
They could be okay if things work out, but those 32 sacks in an offense that's pathologically reliant on short passing indicates extensive problems that will probably prohibit a rise to "good."
Last Year: Almost literally non-existent. Behold:
- Rush defense: last.
- Pass efficiency defense: second to last.
- Total defense: third to last.
- Sacks: second to last.
- Scoring defense: third to last.
Rating: 1. I don't care that three of four starters return; the assumption here until proven otherwise is that the Illinois defense will be a mere rumor to opposing offenses. Defensive tackle Chris Norwood's 7.5 TFLs are nice, but that's about it as far as playmaking goes. The true sophomore defensive ends were awful a year ago and will probably be slightly less awf
ul this year, but I'm saving all my miracle points for "Lloyd Carr understands probability"; "Illinois defensive line is half-decent" will have to wait.
I mean, what does it say when you're so desperate for any positive recognition that you grab a straw from freakin' College Football News and slap it up on your website? It means you're no good.
It will always be Burma to me.
See defensive line; I don't care that three starters return. This is what you need to know about the Illinois linebackers: one of them claims to be named "J Leman." No word on whether he plans on fleeing to
Rating: 1. Detroit DePorres' own Sharriff Abdullah is the top returning corner; he is 5'8" and has zero interceptions and four breakups in about two full years of starting. This neatly summarizes the experience of being an Illinois cornerback: it's nasty, brutish, and you're short.
The previous paragraph is not entirely fair, since Abdullah's partner Alan Ball -- also from DePorres -- is both tall for a corner (6'1") and clearly better than Abdullah, but I plead Too Funny To Check. Ball's one interception and five pass breakups are not the stuff of legend, however, and the safeties are reminiscent of Cato June. Cato June before he was a Pro-Bowl linebacker.
Kickers & Coverage
Steve Weatherford's punting leg has been dunked in the sauna for the last time; in his place is some guy destined to be second-team All Big Ten for three years. Looking up biographical details of the new Illinois punter crosses the line from "fun hobby" to "dangerous obsession" and inevitably leads to something like the end of Requiem For A Dream and so will be forgone here, but I can tell you that kicker Jason Reda was 13 of 20 a year ago and banged in a 52-yarder, so he's all right.
Non-Conference: One I-AA meatball (Eastern Illinois) then the thrilling rematch against the Scarlet Knights, a fascinating matchup of the Illini's Easily Movable Object defense versus Syracuse's Eminently Resistable Force offense, and a MAC game they could lose against Ohio.
Conference: Since Illinois is the worst team in the conference Big Ten bylaws mandate that they skip Michigan. Minnesota also misses out on a chance to whack the pinata.
We're Sure About
The defense. The scoreboard operators at Illinois games are going to get a nasty case of George Jetson button-pushin' finger.
We Have An Idea About
The running game. Could be... um... good with the return of all those running backs and the offensive line. It was half-decent a year ago.
We Have No Clue About
The future. As odd as this sounds, hiring Ron Zook looks sort of brilliant. Illinois is no longer recruiting MAC rejects and confused Eastern Europeans. If you believe the gurus, a meaningful number of Zook's first class of recruits could have played for anyone in the Big Ten not named Penn State, Michigan, or Ohio State and Illinois is off to a good start this year. It will take another year or two, but a respectable Illinois is a possibility in the near future.
An Embarassing Prediction, No Doubt
The schedule is wonky enough and the bowls desperate enough that the Illini could wander on to the hallowed ground of some place like Shreveport, Mobile, or Fort Worth to take on the fifth place CUSA team if things fall right. Every starter returns and if some of the Zook recruits live up to their e-clippings in their first year there are enough teams of equal hopelessness -- Syracuse, Indiana, Rutgers, Ohio -- on the schedule that with a ton of luck and a victory stolen from the likes of Minnesota or Purdue the Illini could reach 6-6. But probably not.
Remember last year? This time they lose to Rutgers. 1-11.
The good news: Illinois should improve, possibly quite a bit. The bad news: they could improve quite a bit and still win two games.
Wins: Eastern Illinois
Probable Wins: Ohio
Tossups: Syracuse, Indiana, @ Rutgers
Probable Losses: Purdue, @ Northwestern
No Chance: Iowa, Ohio State, @ Penn State, @ Wisconsin, @ Michigan State
It looks like 3-9, but an encouraging 3-9.