The StoryThough the Fighting Illini's 2-9 2006 season was superficially as dismal as 2005's 2-10 debacle, a quick glance at the scorelines indicates that Ron Zook and company made progress towards credibility in the second year of the Redacted Era. Though both teams managed just one Big Ten win, the mewling babes of 2005 were outscored by preposterous margins: 61-14 against Michigan State, 35-7 against Iowa, 63-10 against Penn State, 40-2 (2!) against Ohio State, etc. etc. etc. All told, the average score of a 2005 conference game featuring Illinois was Illinois 12, Vague Competence Or Better 44. Illinois was a traveling bye week. (Naturally, Michigan had rotated off the schedule just in time for the Illini to hit their nadir.)
The 2006 team was prone to flail about as well, but if things didn't exactly get respectable, at least many of Illinois' games were still in doubt past, oh, the first quarter. In possession of a newly clueful defense finally old enough to see R-rated movies, Illinois was competitive. The average margin of a 2006 Big Ten game featuring the Illini was Illinois 22, Vague Competence 30. It's still not good to lose by an average of more than a touchdown, but when the alternative is losing by more than four, well...
This all would have been virtually unnoticed progress towards a Motor City Bowl berth if Ron Zook's recruiting mojo hadn't kicked in in a major way. Already sporting a wildly athletic and equally erratic freshman quarterback and patient VHT at tailback, Zook locked down a couple of recruits that could have gone anywhere they wanted. Wide receiver Arrelious Benn and linebacker/defensive end Martez Wilson both got the coveted fifth star from the recruiting services, then decided to don day-glo orange for four years. Some impressively large men backed that up; Rivals dispensed four stars to a couple offensive linemen and two defensive tackles. It was a class that wouldn't have looked out of place at Notre Dame, Michigan, or Ohio State*. Cue mild bout of media hysteria and a sudden piling onto the Zook Express, destination: the Insight Bowl.
Strangely, this seems a reasonable projection. Nineteen starters return for the second straight year. The Zookian talent influx probably a year or two away from serious contribution but a few players will slot in right away and radically upgrade things, Benn foremost among them. Many of Illinois' woes last year are unlikely to repeat, especially the comically awful punting and hugely negative turnover margin. SMQB, linked above, calls Illinois "a veritable perfect storm of upward mobility," and it's true. Illinois is movin' on up. The only question is how much.
*(It wouldn't have looked good or anything -- the back end was thick with two-stars and marginal three stars -- but it probably wouldn't have caused fans to pile into the streets bearing "The End Is Near" sandwich boards. Except for those fans that always do that.)
Last YearJekyl: the 10th-best rushing game in the nation. Hyde: the 105th best passing game, and the absolutely positively worst in the whole country in efficiency terms. Worse than Buffalo. Worse than Temple. Worse than FIU. Worse than any school you care to name. Freshman Juice Williams and veteran Tim Brasic took turns scarring what remains of the Illinois fanbase by flinging wounded ducks skyward or, more likely, directly into the turf. Wide receivers played hide and seek behind defensive backs, emerging only to blink a couple times in the sun, drop a pass or two, and announce six more weeks of Illini football winter. The most commonly called play appeared to be Chicken With Its Head Cut Off. Things were bad. They were not good.
The net was more Hyde than Jekyl, as the Illini finished 88th in scoring offense despite a decent performance in total yardage. Sadly for Illini fans, this actually represented an uptick from 2005.
QuarterbackRating: 2. One person who had no role whatsoever in returning the "fight" to the -Ing Illini: starting quarterback Isaiah "Juice" Williams. Yes, you expect true freshmen ripped from high school and deposited directly onto the playing field to struggle. But no, you do not expect them to complete under 40% of their passes and throw as many interceptions as they do touchdowns. Williams was the worst Big Ten quarterback in a decade. He has many excuses for this -- bad wide receivers, questionable offensive line, true freshman thing -- but not enough. He must improve radically for the Illini to approach respectability.
The key question facing the Illini this season: will he? Many are projecting a quantum leap; I am skeptical. Quarterbacks who start from day one are rare in college football, but there have been a couple that provide some indication of their average learning curves. Notre Dame's Brady Quinn was awful for the bulk of two years before a breakout junior season. Meanwhile, a sophomore Chad Henne's numbers actually regressed after a fine freshman year before his own junior year breakout. There are a lot of secondary factors here -- the introduction of Charlie Weis' ineffable genius, Michigan's injury-wracked and Braylon-free 2005 -- but I watched a lot of both quarterbacks and the overall impression they left is that they weren't actually any better in their second year than they were in the first. Contrast that to the guy Illinois fans are probably hoping Williams turns into, Troy Smith, who was a disaster in his first year as a starter (until the Michigan game, yes, now let us never speak of this again) before exploding as.... a junior. A redshirt one, even.
All these quarterbacks have the following in common:
- It took them two or three years in college before they were any good.
- None of them had anywhere near as far to go as Williams.
Tailback & FullbackRating: 4. There are going to be a lot of kids on this team that make you shake your head and wonder "why the hell are you at Illinois?" but junior Rashard Mendenhall is the only one who volunteered for the Illini experience without being entranced by Ron Zook and his mysterious charm. His recruitment may be the most inexplicable of them all. An OMG shirtless sort of high schooler, Mendenhall signed up to get his butt kicked on two awful teams and did so fully cognizant that the only position on the field at which Illinois had a modicum of talent was the one he happened to play. So he didn't even get to start on either of Illinois' two-win wonders. That was Pierre Thomas' job. (The Illini also featured scatback EB Halsey both years, though more heavily in '05 than '06. Mendenhall emerged as the second back on the depth chart last year.) Both Thomas and Halsey are gone. It's Mendenhall's job.
And... um... this could be a situation in which Illinois does not rebuild, but reloads? Mendenhall did not see the ball with much frequency as either freshman or sophomore, but his 30 extra carries last year turned themselves into 422 extra yards. Mendenhall's YPC leapt from a respectable 4.5 to a frightening 8.2. You are probably suspicious of things like Eastern Illinois and Ohio inflating totals, but this line...
...did not come against The Easterling Illini or the Bobcats or even Northwestern (5 for 113!) but Penn Frickin' State, possessors of last year's #7 rush defense and a stingy group indeed. And that was a close game throughout thanks to the comic stylings of Anthony Morelli; no garbage time this. Though I asserted Penn State's run defense to be way overrated in the PSU preview, that's an impressive total against anyone with a pulse.
There are other, less salutary lines:
Those are against Wisconsin and Ohio State, respectively, and you can mentally insert something like eight carries for six yards if you desire to hypothesize a 2006 Michigan-Illinois contest.
So Mendenhall is not a miracle worker but, as a highly touted recruit who has posted encouraging numbers in the face of stiff odds (he plays for Illinois!) and shown the ability to be a breakaway threat in college, he is more likely than any other new starter in the conference to be an immediate star. The one complicating factor is Williams, who will steal carries, threaten no secondaries, and invite opponents to crash into the box, receiver wrested from the Irish or no.
Wide Receiver & Tight EndsRating: 3. When your leading receiver has 30 catches for 403 yards and the NCAA's official website claims his name to be "Klye" Hudson, you know you have issues. Some of Williams' freshman struggles lie at the feet of this unit, which couldn't get open short or long. And even when they did it didn't always matter. Between them the Illinois receivers were charged with 46 drops a year ago, seriously denting Williams' already paltry completion percentage.
Like much about Illinois the past two years, youth played a major role in incompetence. Hudson was a sophomore last year, second-leading receiver Jacob Willis a JUCO who had never seen I-A playing time, tight end Jeff Cumberland a true freshman. Jody Ellis and Derrick McPhearson, who caught nineteen balls between them, were sophomores. Only Jajuan Warren was an upperclassmen. That experience figures to pay off, although Ellis and McPhearson were booted for an audacious heist on Fake St. Patrick's Day, -- Illinois is weird -- which dampers things a bit.
But nevermind all that. While the returners will be marginally better, it's all about the Benn, um, -jamins. [note to self: please revise this horrible sentence, then slap self.] Freshman Arrelious "Regis" Benn -- the new blood at Illinois digs its nicknames -- was a DC-area uber-recruit and Notre Dame lock a year ago at this time; now he's the most inexplicable piece of Ron Zook's inexplicably monster 2007 recruiting class and #1 on the depth chart with a bullet. Benn enrolled early and tantalized 10,000 Illini fans by catching five passes for 145 yards and a touchdown in the spring game.
Here we are forced to perform another heuristic calculus like the one we attempted for Williams above. We know freshman wide receivers, no matter how highly touted, are infrequently immediate stars on the college level. Ted Ginn, Mario Manningham and Derrick Williams were useful players as freshmen, but not stars. (Before you go "yes, but... Illinois!", none of those guys had significant competition in front of them on the depth chart except maybe Manningham if you have a soft spot for Steve Breaston.) Anyone who's into fantasy football can tell you that you avoid NFL wideouts until their third year. So even if Benn is going to end up an NFL first-rounder, indications are his first year will be somewhat underwhelming, especially because his quarterback can't be relied upon.
Survey says: slightly better, but wait 'till next year.
Offensive LineRating: 2. Three starters return to a line that's hard to read from statistics alone. Do you go with the outstanding rush offense (10th) or the hideous pass protection (91st in sacks allowed)? The Human Outlier at quarterback further complicates things. You can't credit the line with all of Williams' rushing yards, since many of them came from unplanned scrambles, but the VY-esque zone read was a major part of the Illinois offense a year ago, so they get some of them. It's hard to blame them for the huge number of sacks conceded for the same reason. So, as per usual with offensive lines, we're left to guess.
The good: three returning starters and one of them is an Oklahoma transfer. The bad: the rest of the starters were leftovers who came aboard during the waning years pre-Zook and had little guru support when they came in. Normally you would discard such things once the guys have seen the field, but no Illinois lineman got so much as an honorable mention from the conference coaches when they were asked to vote on All Big Ten teams. Akim Millington, the OU transfer, is bulky for a left tackle and not much of a pass protector, probably better suited for right tackle but forced into an uncomfortable position because of need. Meanwhile, last year's starter at right tackle, Charles Myles, is out for the year with an injury. The Illinois Scout site gives a frank evaluation of the talent:
I’m a little concerned about this group, frankly. [see?UI's OL coach -ed] told me not to be, but it just takes so long to build the line. I think the young guys – Palmer, Asamoah, others, will be very good in time. But it’s tough to play young guys up front. Among the veterans, McDonald is solid, not great, but reliable. They are hoping O’Donnell is that as well. And I just don’t know what to make of Millington because he is always limping around. This group will take some mixing and matching from Woolford, who is a very good coach, to be all they can be. It will be interesting.Ah, yes, the old Chinese curse: "May you live with interesting lines."
You can argue that last year's Illinois defense was over- or under-rated by the numbers depending on your mood. The "over" case: opposing offenses didn't need to do anything risky because Williams couldn't throw once opponents got ahead -- and they all got ahead -- and could shut up shop with narrow leads. Witness Ohio State's game against the Illini: up 17-3, Jim Tressel decided to cease throwing almost entirely. Illinois was allowed to tee off on the run game and got a lot of stuffs. See below for a more thorough exploration of this concept. Opponents just didn't bother to throw the ball versus Illinois last year.
The "under" case: the Illinois defense was put in horrible situations time and again by turnovers -- Illinois was 117th of 119 in turnover margin, providing a prodigious 35 giveaways to shocked, grateful opponents -- and disastrous punting (also 117th in the country). They were much better than their 91st-ranked scoring defense implies.
Both these things are true. On pure yardage, Illinois was overrated; on pure scoring, underrated. They were probably a mediocre defense a year ago. This is great for the Illini. Mediocre is just fine when you have no guru-approved talent, you're so young you return nine starters to your D, and you bring in freaky stud freaks like Martez Wilson.
Defensive LineRating: 3. There aren't a lot of returning sacks on the Illinois defense (82nd, last year), but that has something to do with a major skew in opponent's run-pass distribution. The rush defense was better than the mediocre 51st the raw numbers indicate since opponents ran all the time against the Illini. The main difference between their rush defense and, say, #15 Ohio State was no so much the average yards per carry (3.3 for each) but the number of rushes attempted: a mere 384 in 13 games against the Buckeyes and a whopping 462 in 12 against Illinois. Meanwhile, opponents tried just 335 passes against the Illini. Naturally, sack totals were depressed.
Star defensive tackle Chris Norwell quietly had an excellent season in the shadow of Branch, Pitcock, Alford, et al, acquiring 12.5 TFLs and 5 sacks to go with 42 tackles. A quick check of his game by game performance shows sacks against Wisconsin and Ohio State and remarkably consistent TFL production (usually from .5 to 1.5 every game) across the board; he was not fattening up on the weak. With the aforementioned headliners gone, Norwell will vie with Michigan's Terrance Taylor and Wisconsin's Nick Hayden for the title of best defensive tackle in the Big Ten.
Junior Nick Lindquist is a former walk-on whose numbers were not as impressive (two sacks, five TFL, 33 tackles) but was a starter on a pretty decent run defense and can't be dismissed out of hand. His job will come under serious heat from the two blue-chip defensive tackle recruits coming in this year. It's DeAngelo McCray that most expect to press most heavily, but local product Josh Brent picked the Illini over Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Michigan; with no depth past the starters both figure to see heavy rotation.
End is deeper but lacks the obvious star. Junior Derek Walker had 5.5 sacks a year ago, but once midseason rolled around his production fell off a cliff. His final sack came against Indiana, and in the last four games of the year his tackle count looks like this: 1, 1, 2, 1. He was but a redshirt sophomore, so improvement is likely. I am less bullish on him than I would be if his sacks had come against teams better than Syracuse, Indiana, Michigan State, and Eastern Illinois.
Everyone admits that the other starter, sophomore Doug Pilcher, is a limited ceiling guy. Zook:
Pilcher, I don’t know how he does it, but he makes plays.Does he? Well, not really, with no sacks and only 24 tackles a year ago. (He did have 6.5 TFL.) As a redshirt freshman that lack of production is excusable, but Pilcher is in the same situation and Lindquist. His job will come under fire from more highly touted kids, among them sophomore Antonio James and redshirt freshman Jerry Brown. Chances are the pass rush from this unit will be spotty.
LinebackersRating: 4. All three starters return to a unit that made a quick turnaround a year ago. MGoBlog promises to overrate this unit as long as it features J Leman, the tackling machine with the Joe Dirt haircut, American flag tie, and it's-an-abbreviation-no-it-isn't first name. You'll just have to live with it. Every year the conference features some who-dat undersized white guy who plays middle linebacker on a crappy team and racks up tackle after tackle after tackle because his defense can't get off the field and their offense can't stay on it; last year it was Leman. The difference between Leman and your typical Kyle Killion type is that Leman's defense was somewhere between good and great against the run. His numbers can't be dismissed as a knack for making tackles eight yards downfield. So we must take them for what they are: ridiculous. Leman racked up 152 tackles, 19 of these for loss and four of them sacks, along with two forced fumbles and four pass breakups. If he had played for old money like Penn State or Ohio State, he's the guy who would have been touring the awards circuit, showing off his American flag tie. The difference is he might well have deserved the trophies bestowed upon James Laurinaitis.
On the weakside, JUCO transfer Antonio Steele is blessed with a kickass name and did come second to Leman's tackle count with 85, five of those for loss. This is probably where Martez Wilson will be deployed, as well. The other superstar recruit from Illinois' 2007 recruiting class comes in around 230 pounds and could end up at either end or linebacker or, more likely, both. Expect him to see a lot of time as a designated pass rusher as he gets adjusted to college life. Lower-level tackles won't be able to handle his totally shirtless athleticism.
There might be an issue on the strongside. Starter Brit Miller's stats were weak. He had just 43 tackles, 4.5 TFL, and a couple probably-fortunate interceptions as the full time starter on the strong side. Sure, there weren't that many left to go around what with Leman and Steele tackling everyone from Antonio Pittman to the cheerleaders, but any sort of normal play distribution should put Miller in position to make a lot more tackles. Theories about a lack of tackles stemming from his removal in the nickel don't fly given the heavy run bias of the opposition. (Is it possible this is a normal thing for SLBs? Shawn Crable only had 37 tackles his own self, though 11 were for loss and 6 were sacks.)
Defensive BacksRating: 3. Illinois' jump in pass efficiency defense looks stunning and sustainable (three starters return), but I can't help but glance over the results and be less impressed than I feel I should be. There weren't all that many good quarterbacks in the Big Ten and Illinois missed two of them with Chad Henne and Brian Cupito (laugh if you must, but Cupito was a senior with a ton of experience and several passable targets; the Gophers finished a respectable 38th in passing efficiency) off the schedule. A third, Troy Smith, was directed to hand off for much of the game. Out of conference there was a I-AA foe, Rutgers (69th in passer efficiency), Syracuse (89th), and Ohio (an Illinois-esque 111th). You can make a case that even a bad secondary would have found itself with Paris Hilton numbers -- pretty but shallow -- when faced with that caliber of opposition. Though we can assume the secondary was not awful, it may not have proven itself excellent, either.
In any case, safety is taken care of. Free safety Justin Harrison is will be a four-year starter this fall. Strong safety Kevin Mitchell is entering his third season as a starter. Both are seniors who endured the bloody 2005 season; if anyone in the conference can be called "battle tested" it is these fellows, who have seen more artillery come their way than Blitz-era London. One assumes there will be few errors. The flip side: Harrison and Mitchell have five interceptions and 13 TFLs between them in many, many games. Big plays will have to come from elsewhere.
Corner has one emerging star and then question marks. Vontae Davis was a middling recruit from DC with offers from Virginia, Michigan State, and Maryland who walked right into a starting job last year and performed admirably, earning Freshman All-American honors and picking up a few All Big Ten votes along the way. Though the above-expressed caveats about level of competition apply, indicators are that Davis is for real. Few true freshmen starters preside over a major upturn in the fortunes of their secondary; fewer still did when they got little support from the pass rush.
Past Davis, however, there is uncertainty. The departed Alan Ball was drafted in the seventh round. Travon Bellamy, the nickelback a year ago, is projected to move into the starting lineup in his absence. He did have a couple interceptions in limited time a year ago. Bellamy was a middling three star in 2006 with only one other offer, that from North Carolina, but has outperformed his ranking to date. Maybe he'll be okay; chances are there will be growing pains.
Special TeamsRating: 3. Kicker Jason Reda was very good a year ago, going 15 for 19. On the other hand, punter Kyle Yelton was a disaster, getting two fewer yards than the average Ross Ryan punt but still setting up opponents for 6-7 yards per return. The net result was the nation's third worst net punting average. With redshirt freshman Anthony Santella booming Zoltan-worthy 51 and 59 yard punts in the spring game, if Yelton wants to see the field again he's advised to buy a knife and get some pointers from Mitch Cozad (kidding! stabbing your way to the field is never a good idea, kids! -ed).
The return game was a major sore spot a year ago. Illinois was 111th in punt returns and 72nd in kick returns.
Turnover MarginThe theory of turnover margin: it is nearly random. Teams that find themselves at one end or the other at the end of the year are highly likely to rebound towards the average. So teams towards the top will tend to be overrated and vice versa. Nonrandom factors to evaluate: quarterback experience, quarterback pressure applied and received, and odd running backs like Mike Hart who just don't fumble.
|2006||Int +||Fumb +||Sacks +||Int -||Fumb -||Sacks -|
|-1.25(117th)||10||10||1.75 (82nd)||14||21||2.5 (91st)|
Illinois is a holy lock to improve this radically. Their -11 fumble margin is a huge outlier that can be explained somewhat by their crappy sack numbers on both sides of the ball, but a more experienced Williams will spend less time flailing aimlessly in the pocket and nine starters returning on defense suggests the sack numbers will improve. This should slide towards zero. Improved quarterback experience would normally mean a better INT ratio, but Illinois is in a really weird situation with Williams. Illinois ran the ball 57% of the time last year largely because of his incompetence; this year they'll try to bring that number down. Attempts will go up, Williams will still probably be bad at football, and interceptions are likely to remain high.
Position Switch StartersTheory of position switches: if you are starting or considering starting a guy who was playing somewhere else a year ago, that position is in trouble. There are degrees of this. When Notre Dame moved Travis Thomas, a useful backup at tailback, to linebacker and then declared him a starter, there was no way that could end well. Wisconsin's flip of LB Travis Beckum to tight end was less ominous because Wisconsin had a solid linebacking corps and Beckum hadn't established himself on that side of the ball. Michigan flipping Prescott Burgess from SLB to WLB or PSU moving Dan Connor inside don't register here: we're talking major moves that indicate a serious lack somewhere.
None. Hell, there are hardly any new starters on this team at all.
Dumbest Thing In CFN Preview
He couldn't hit the ocean if he was thrown out of the boat, he was an inconsistent runner who took way too many sacks, and he appeared lost at times as a true freshman, but Isiah "Juice" Williams is one of the Big Ten's rising stars and one of the nation's most dangerous all-around threats.I love these constructions: "This guy sucks... but he's dangerous!" All that's missing is the requisite "if he gets some consistency he'll be scary." The only things Williams was dangerous to last year were his own fans.
This is freshman defensive tackle Deangelo McCray at his prom, at which McCray had a lot more fun than I did at mine. Please note the Illinios vest and bowtie.
An Embarassing Prediction, No Doubt
Best CaseNo matter how much everything goes right for the Illini, Williams is going to be an anchor around their necks. You don't complete 37% of your passes and then become a good quarterback overnight. Don't care he can run. Don't care he was a true freshman. Don't care about receivers. Watched him. Can't throw or read coverages... yet. Improvement is obviously forthcoming but probably not so fast and so thorough as to vault Illinois amongst the contenders. I believe in Menendhall and this Benn kid is a major upgrade, so a much better Williams will get Illinois to pretty good, at which point they'll scare the pants off a couple of conference heavyweights and maybe beat one or two. If all goes exactly right, January is a possibility. 9-3.
Worst CaseBenn's relevance is nigh zero because Williams can't do anything except be a tall Reggie Ball. He manages to improve a little bit, but not much, and the offense is about what it was last year with a long touchdown from Benn here and there and maybe a third down conversion from Williams he wouldn't have made a year ago. The defense remains tough-ish, but still can't find a pass rush. The pass efficiency defense numbers prove somewhat illusory because of a friendly schedule last year; youth at corner hurts.
Still... even the most critical eye leveled at this year's Illini can't predict a repeat of last year. Nine starters return on both sides of the ball; last year's rush defense was for real; Mendenhall and Benn are skill position players anyone would like to have. Illinois wasn't really a 2-10 team last year, nor will they be this year. 4-8 is the bottom.
Final VerdictNo. This is your answer to "will this year see a great Illinois revival?" Williams can improve radically and still submarine his team's chance of having a good offense. My money is on moderate improvement that gets him up to the fourth-worst quarterback in the league. Meanwhile the offensive line is a "work in progress," which means "probably not any good." Williams can mitigate that some with his mobility, but not that much. Benn and a more experienced set of wide receivers will help matters, but Illinois has miles to go before they're even average on offense.
It will be tough to run against J Leman and the rest of the Illinois front seven, but the jury is still out on the pass defense. It was hardly tested a year ago, as teams preferred to run into the maw of the line and wait for Williams to implode. The defensive ends don't look likely to provide much in the way of pass rush, though Martez Wilson will help matters here, and the cornerbacks are still green: no upperclassmen, let alone seniors. They might turn out to be stars... but they'll probably take a step back this year as the level of competition ratchets up a notch.
|9/1||Missouri (@ STL)||Probable loss|
|9/8||Western Illinois||Functional DNP|
|10/27||@ Ball State||Functional DNP|
|9/22||@ Indiana||Probable win|
|9/29||Penn State||Probable loss|
|11/10||@ Ohio State||Probable loss|
|Absent:||Purdue, Michigan State|
An odd configuration, this, with almost no games that figure to be even-steven before the snap of the ball. I guess this is the unconscious expression of my Illinois expectations: they should be a step above the conference dregs for the first time since the Kittner era, but they don't have the talent (or at least their talent doesn't quite have the experience) to make them a major threat. In the end it looks like 6-6 and a Motor City berth to me. I do tentatively sign on the Zook bandwagon starting in '08, though.