Some fans and critics may dwell on the fact that the Illini have lost some key contributors on both sides of the ball. On the other hand, the Illini also have many returning playmakers as well as guys who can certainly fill roles of lost players. Linebacker Jonathon Brown was named to Phil Steele’s preseason All-America fourth team a couple weeks ago, and according to www.fightingillini.com, seven other Illini were named to Steele’s preseason All-Big Ten squads. Brown was a first-team preseason All-Big Ten pick along with center Graham Pocic. Defensive end Michael Buchanan and defensive tackle Akeem Spence were second-team selections while cornerback Terry Hawthorne was named to the third team. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and guard Hugh Thornton earned fourth-team honors.
The important thing to take away from this is that each of these honors was given to a player who starts at a key position for the Illinois team. It is essential to have stars/leaders playing key positions to help the machine that is the team run smoothly. A position that remains a concern for the Illinois football team is running back.
Running backs are so crucial for a team because they help move the chains, set the pace and open up the pass. If defenses don’t have to worry about a running game, they can focus on bottling up Scheelhaase and forcing him to make mistakes with the ball. The Scheel Curtain, also known as the offensive line (anchored by middle-man Pocic), will really have to step up big in order to protect the Haase and make holes for Illinois’ inexperienced running backs. The good news coming from the backfield is that red-shirt Freshman Josh Ferguson had 150 yards rushing with a 68-yard burst in the Orange vs. Blue game a few weeks ago. According to John Supinie, Ferguson said, “It’s really relieving just to play football again, not being in rehab all day every day. It’s been a long offseason. I’m happy to be back.”
We know Illinois will certainly have some questions to answer on offense, but another main concern is whether or not their 2011 top-25 defense in points allowedd (19.6) will be able to stone offenses like they did last season. Although they lose Whitney Mercilus, who led the nation in sacks, Jon Brown returns and was ranked sixth in the nation and second in the Big Ten in tackles for loss per game in 2011 with 1.63 (19.5 total). Spence and Buchanan will command the defensive line while Brown will be right behind them, ready to clog up the middle and break up plays in the backfield. Terry Hawthorne will look to lock down the sidelines and will most likely be matched up with opponents’ number one receivers.
Last year, the Illini ranked 91st overall in passing yards (184), 41st in rushing yards (171), 91st in points for (22.2) and a stunning 15th in points allowed (19.6). The rushing numbers seem surprisingly high and somewhat contradictory to my previous comments, but we all know stats don’t lie. Regardless, if the points for/passing yards improve and those rushing yards/points against stay around the same spots, the Illini are in for a surprisingly successful season.
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