Early Look At Fighting Illini Football 2011

Nathan Scheelhaase (Holly Smith)

After a couple down years, the 2010 Fighting Illini football team finished with a winning record and victory in the Texas Bowl. Now in the second year with new offensive and defensive schemes, and with an excellent 8 home game schedule, the Illini are optimistic of a big year in 2011.

2011 Illinois Fighting Illini football team, coached by Ron Zook:

Last season's record: 7-6

Returning starters/letterwinners: The Illini are returning 7 starters on offense plus the placekicker. Six starters return on defense. 42 lettermen return, 20 on offense, 19 on defense and three on special teams.

Key losses: The three biggest losses from the 2010 season were defensive tackle Corey Liuget, a first round selection in the 2011 NFL draft; running back Mikel Leshoure, a second round selection in the NFL draft, and inside linebacker Martez Wilson, a third round selection.

Key returnees: Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is a true leader who should be much improved in 2011. Jeff Allen is beginning his fourth year as starter at left tackle. And three-year letterman cornerback Tavon Wilson provides experience and versatility in the defensive backfield.

Best game: There are several outstanding games on the Illini schedule this year including Arizona State, Penn State, Michigan and Wisconsin. But Illini might be looking to the home game with Ohio State 10/15/11 as being most important. The Illini will have played five home games out of six prior to the Buckeyes, and Ohio State may still be sorting things out with a new coach and new quarterback. Illinois and Ohio State often play close games.

Projected finish: The Illini have a favorable home schedule and momentum from a bowl victory. Eight home games give hope for a special season. Anything less than 7-5 will be considered a disappointment, while 8-4 or better is possible.

Outlook: The outlook for 2011 is excellent, provided the Illini can avoid the injury bug at key positions. They are now experienced with the new offensive and defensive schemes brought in last year, so they can add technique and complexity to their repertoire this year. There is also a lot of leadership to help sustain what Illini fans see as early success against a manageable nonconference schedule.

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