Joe Pasquali, our resident college football analyst, is back with some more of Big Ten team previews. Can Illinois rebound from the “Ron Zook era”?
Last season was a Jekyll and Hyde season for Illinois to say the least. After starting 6-0 and getting ranked as high as 15, the Illini lost their last 6 before beating a dismal UCLA team in the Fight Hunger Bowl. Yes, that was an actual bowl game… Anyways, after the firing of master recruiter/terrible strategist Ron Zook, and hiring Toledo’s Tim Beckman, Illinois is ready to rebound. Their conference schedule is brutal, with trips to Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio State, but my guess is Illinois will end up bowling. This team has too much talent on defense and some very winnable home games.
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase had a roller coaster year along with the rest of the team, starting out hot and garnering national attention to then only fade down the stretch. In his last five conference games Scheelhaase threw for one touchdown. For Illinois to improve in 2012 they will need more consistent play from their mobile quarterback. Up front the line should be more solid this year as Illinois returns two good starters in center Graham Pocic and guard Hugh Thornton. Behind them Donovonn Young will get most of the carries after splitting time line 2011. Outside Illinois will be without playmaker AJ Jenkins. Juniors Spencer Harris and Darius Millines are expected to try and pick up the slack. Also, you have to watch out for any offense with a player named Fritz Rock. That’s awesome.
The bright spot for Illinois in 2011 was on defense, where the unit put up crazy numbers and kept the Illini in most games. They were 15th nationally in points against (19.6 per game) but even more impressive was the pressure they put on opposing quarterbacks. Illinois racked up 3.15 sacks per game last year, more than any other Big Ten team. Though 16 of those came from All American and now Houston Texan Whitney Mercilus, Illinois returns enough defensive playmakers to be a force once again. Even though Illinois is switching to a 3-4 defense, Akeem Spence will be a force to reckon with up front. Linebackers Michael Buchanan and Jonathan Brown both are returning starters and had impressive seasons. The secondary is physical, fast, experienced, and only lost one starter from a year ago.
Special Teams (C)
A host of underclassmen are after the special teams’ positions at Illinois this year. Front runners for the kicking position are Taylor Zalewski and Brennen VanMieghem. Both have pretty cool names and both redshirt freshmen. Justin DuVernois returns at punter after a less than stellar freshman year only averaging 38.3 yards a punt.
This will be the first year for all three major coaches at Illinois. Head Coach Tim Beckman comes from Toledo where he enjoyed a MAC conference title in 2011. Billy Gonzales will be the offensive coordinator after working as an offensive assistant at LSU and Tim Banks takes over the defense after being co-defensive coordinator at Cincinnati. All have decent resumes, but only time will tell for this lot.
2012 Win/Loss Prediction: 7-5 (4th in Leaders)
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