It's still March Madness, but in Illinois, it's football season. Or spring football season, at the very least. A program that made national headlines in 2007 and took a step back last fall, Illinois opens spring drills Tuesday.
It's still March Madness, but in Illinois, it's football season. Or spring football season, at the very least.
A program that made national headlines in 2007 and took a step back last fall, Illinois opens spring drills Tuesday. The spring game is April 25. The Illini hold a Chicago-area scrimmage at Oak Park-River Forest High School on April 11.
Here's a cheat sheet heading into the spring season.
Q: What's the mood around the program?
A: Last season's 5-7 mark overall and 3-5 record in the Big Ten doused the momentum gained from a Rose Bowl appearance in 2007. With one winning season in his first four years at Illinois, this fall becomes critical for Ron Zook and his program. Limited success on the field likely affected recruiting last winter.
Not coincidentally, Illinois saw a turnover in the coaching staff. Illinois fired defensive line coach Tom Sims and recruited Penn State assistant Larry Johnson as defensive coordinator but didn't land him. Illinois also hired offensive coordinator Mike Schultz after Mike Locksley left to become head coach at New Mexico. In all, the Illini have three new assistant coaches.
With quarterback Juice Williams starting for the fourth season and star Rejus Benn likely to jump to the NFL after this season, the Illini face a transition heading into 2010. It would be good for Zook if his Illini come up with a winner this fall.
Q: What's up with that schedule?
A: Illinois backed itself into a corner and produced a schedule that doesn't fit the season. If there was ever a year when Illinois needed to schedule some wins, it's this year to give Zook a break, play seven home games in front of the luxury-box crowd and give itself a better-than-average chance of reaching bowl season.
Illinois didn't get a break with the Big Ten schedule. The Illini play eight straight Big Ten games without a bye week. With Illinois having an open date on Nov. 21 and Zook's request for an open date in September, the Illini finish with two non-conference games.
The Illini were the only Big Ten team with fewer than seven home games last season. This fall, Illinois plays only six home games, and non-conference dates against Missouri, Cincinnati and Fresno State don't make it easy.
Q: What's the strength of the offense?
A: Although Illinois expects to rejuvenate its running game – which fell from No. 5 nationally in rushing in 2007 to No. 38 last season – the Illini think they can throw it. Returning Illini account for 100 percent of last year's rushing yards and 87 percent of the receiving yards.
Much is expected from Williams, who led the Big Ten in passing (264.4 yards per game) and total offense (324.3) but also threw 16 interceptions. While Schultz must build a relationship with Williams, he must also continue to find more ways of getting Benn more involved. Eddie McGee is the No. 2 quarterback and will likely stay there in the spring rather than work at receiver.
Junior wide receiver Jarred Fayson, a transfer from Florida, will likely become a favorite passing target. Freshman slot receiver Jack Ramsey, a major surprise during Camp Rantoul in August, returns after missing last season because of academics. Tight end Michael Hoomanawanui enjoyed a breakout season a year ago.
Illinois went with a running back committee last season when nobody took over the job. Senior Eric Block returned after petitioning for a fifth year, and he will move from left guard to center. Illinois searches for starters at left tackle and left guard, where Jeff Allen and Randall Hunt, respectively, are the leading contenders.
Q: Does the defense need as big a rebuild as it looks?
A: Yes. The Illini started three senior linebackers in the final game a year ago, lost two talented defensive ends to graduation and must still find answers at safety. The Illini return just five starters on defense.
At defensive end Doug Pilcher returns as a part-time starter; Antonio James and Clay Nurse battle for the other starting spot. Junior defensive tackle Josh Brent, suspended indefinitely following a DUI arrest, won't return until fall, if things go as planned. Sophomore defensive tackle Corey Liuget is the other starter. Senior Sirod Williams will miss the spring while recovering from a knee injury.
At linebacker, Illinois hopes to have a better idea leaving spring ball. Junior Martez Wilson remains the key player. He began last season considered a future star, but his playing time diminished and he missed the last game after violating team rules. Wilson is also recovering from stab wounds suffered in a December fight near campus. Transfer Aaron Gress is a leading candidate at middle linebacker.
Illinois hopes free safety Donsay Hardeman will return this fall from neck surgery, but that's not certain. Otherwise, there's experience but no star at the safety position. Dere Hicks returns as a starter at cornerback. Ashante Williams is a big hitter who was sidelined by academics last fall. Patrick Nixon, who missed last season because of academics, still hasn't passed the NCAA clearinghouse. Cornerback Miami Thomas will miss spring while recovering from shoulder surgery.
Q: Who are the top newcomers on campus this spring?
A: It's basically limited to Fayson and Gress.
Sure, Fayson has been here for a year, but he's now eligible. The transfer arrived on campus last winter and competed during spring drills but sat out the season according to NCAA rules. Fayson is expected to start at receiver and contribute as a punt/kick returner.
Gress signed with Illinois out of College of the Sequoias (Calif.). With instability at linebacker, he's a strong bet to play his way into a starting spot at middle linebacker. The son of a chemist, Gress took Christian missionary trips to Mexico, Thailand and Samoa.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.
Spring practice schedule
Tuesday -- 4 p.m.
Thursday -- 4 p.m.
Saturday -- 2 p.m.
April 7 -- 4 p.m.
April 8 -- 4 p.m.
April 10 -- 4 p.m.
April 11 -- 1 p.m. (at Oak Park-River Forest High School)
April 14 -- 4 p.m.
April 15 -- 4 p.m.
April 17 -- 4 p.m.
April 18 -- 10 a.m.
April 21 -- 4 p.m.
April 22 -- 4 p.m.
April 24 -- 4 p.m.
April 25 -- spring game, 1 p.m., Memorial Stadium
Note: Practices are open to the public. Unless otherwise noted, practices held on the grass fields east of the stadium, the indoor facility or Memorial Stadium.
Illinois football schedule
Home games in CAPS
Sept. 5 -- vs. Missouri, at Edwards Jones Dome, St. Louis
Sept. 12 -- ILLINOIS STATE
Sept. 26 -- at Ohio State
Oct. 3 -- PENN STATE
Oct. 10 -- MICHIGAN STATE
Oct. 17 -- at Indiana
Oct. 24 -- at Purdue
Oct. 31 -- MICHIGAN
Nov. 7 -- at Minnesota
Nov 14 -- NORTHWESTERN
Nov. 21 -- FRESNO STATE
Nov. 28 -- at Cincinnati