The Illini football team begins spring practice on Tuesday, March 28, and it will hold its annual spring game on April 22. Illini fans are approaching the spring with intense curiosity as they look for the improvement necessary to make their beloved football team a winner.
There is no question that Ron Zook has instilled hope for the future with his unbridled optimism and his excellent recruiting. But results on the field in the fall depend heavily on the amount of improvement the team makes between now and then. And since the Illini were at the bottom of the Big 10 Conference last fall, much improvement is needed.
Illini players have been working hard on their strength and conditioning in the offseason, and reports from observers are encouraging. Lou Hernandez is getting rave reviews for helping Illini players gain significant amounts of strength through his training program. Of course, all other Big 10 teams are also working hard in the weight room, so we must wait until fall to see if we have gained more than our competitors. But it appears the Illini will be significantly stronger this fall than last. And with the input from some athletic newcomers, we will likely be faster overall as well.
It can sometimes be difficult to evaluate a team in the spring since it operates with fewer players than the fall when the new recruits join the competition for playing time. And we must practice against each other, so any success on one side of the ball may mean weak play on the opposite side of the ball. But there are some key position battles that will be worth following. There will be plenty of opportunity for individual players to demonstrate an ability to upgrade their positions over the recent past.
Offensively, the Illini need a major improvement at the quarterback position. Unfortunately, spring ball may not give us the answers we seek. Usually, having a returning starter at the position is a good thing as maturity and experience are vital in leading a team to victories. The Illini do return their starter from last fall in Tim Brasic, but he has not distinguished himself in the offseason. In fact, Brasic is expected to miss at least the first week of practice due to punishment for academic deficiencies.
The Illini need a confident quarterback they can trust to lead them against the strong foes on the upcoming fall schedule. Brasic did a decent job of surviving the pressures of being a first year quarterback last fall, but he is not yet able to build upon that beginning. He needs to prove to the coaches and his teammates that he deserves their support and has the skills to excel when needed most. He needs all the repetition he can get, so missing some practices is a severe setback.
If Brasic is not the answer, the Illini will have to go with a rookie. Quality Big 10 opponents love to defend against a rookie quarterback and will blitz him silly until he either collapses or beats them. In recent years, Illini quarterbacks have not demonstrated the playmaking skills needed to make defenses pay for their gambling, aggressive play. Rookie quarterbacks often have difficulty slowing time down enough to see their options clearly while under duress. So even with good skills, rookies often struggle. Supreme confidence is needed at the position.
Other scholarship quarterbacks already on campus include Kisan Flakes, Paul Blalock, and Billy Garza. Flakes has also not enamored himself to the coaching staff due to a legal problem that prevented him from competing with Brasic last fall. But he has the arm strength and quick feet the coaches prefer. He may be on a short leash this spring, but Kisan has the skills to give Brasic a run for his money. His main drawback, besides a lack of experience and understanding of the offense, is his short stature, which makes it difficult for him to see over tall linemen.
Blalock also has excellent arm strength; both he and Flakes have much stronger arms than Brasic. And he is also a good runner. But he is just a first-year player who lacks experience and knowledge of the offense. Billy Garza has less arm strength and foot speed than his competitors, and he struggled last fall with throwing accuracy. He will need much improvement this spring to show he is ready to compete. Spring practice will be a time for one or more quarterbacks to rise to the challenge and emerge as leaders for a team that desperately needs quality leadership from the position.
Illini fans and coaches alike are excited about two incoming freshmen quarterbacks, Isiah Williams and Eddie McGee. Both have extremely strong arms and excellent running skills, and both are as tall or taller than the other quarterbacks on campus. But neither can practice with the team this spring. So if either gets significant playing time this fall, Illini offensive coordinator Mike Locksley will need to simplify the offense considerably to help him survive all the complexities of the college game. Both Williams and McGee are exciting but extremely raw, so one must hope that an older quarterback emerges this spring so the youngsters can be permitted to develop at their own rates.
Running back is still the Illini's strength. Pierre Thomas and E. B. Halsey have shared the position for three years, and they will be excellent senior leaders for the Illini. Neither has blinding speed, but both have assets that make them valuable. Pierre has become a fan favorite for his tackle-breaking, aggressive style. And he is extremely strong, especially in the legs, owing in part to pushing cars around during the summers in high school. Halsey is versatile and can be used to good effect in the passing attack as well as the running game.
Rashard Mendenhall returns for his sophomore year after earning a letter as a raw freshman. A high school All-American, Rashard is muscular and fast. Fans attending spring practices should note Rashard's efforts to improve his pass protections and blocking assignments. They should also observe his ability to run hard inside rather than busting everything to the outside. He could outrun high school players by running to the sideline, but he will need to show straight North-South running skill to get more playing time. Rashard has the physical ability, so it should be interesting to watch his progress.
Wide receiver will be a fun position to watch this spring as well. There is no shortage of players, although a couple of last fall's reserves have given up football and some others have not yet shown the strength, speed or consistency needed for the position. Freshmen Kyle Hudson and Derrick McPhearson both lettered last fall, and both have the speed to excite the fans. Dajuan Warren is an upperclassman now, and he should continue to improve. Jody Ellis flashed potential last fall before an injury forced him to the sidelines. And good-looking freshman athlete Greg McClendon will get a chance to impress this spring after practicing as a tight end last fall.
Diminutive Florida A & M transfer Will Judson might become a fan favorite and will get plenty of opportunity to show his skills this spring. If he can block and get separation from physical defenders, his speed may help compensate for his small stature. And second semester enrollee Marquis Wilkins is described as a fast receiver with outstanding moves after the catch. Judson and Wilkins may be a factor both at receiver and on kick and punt returns.
Coach Zook emphasized wide receiver in his recruiting, so there will be even more quality competition this fall. Zook's offense requires a stable of talented receivers to achieve its full potential, and little by little he is accumulating talent. This is also true at tight end, a position that requires speed, pass-catching, and blocking ability.
Unfortunately, tight end is not yet a position of strength. Freshman letterman Will Davis has added needed muscle and may get first crack at the position this spring. J. R. Kraemer, Jeff Sobol, and Jay Ramshaw will all get a chance, but they are inexperienced and need to make big improvement. Spring observers should watch the tight end position closely to see if we have someone already on campus ready to step up, or whether talented freshmen Mike Hoomanawanui and Jeff Cumberland will get the upper hand come fall.
Besides quarterback, perhaps the biggest position of concern for the offense is the line. Last fall, deficiencies in the line made life miserable for Tim Brasic on pass plays, and the Illini running game suffered as well. However, there is at least some encouraging news to begin spring ball. Oklahoma stud transfer Akim Millington is already penciled in at the important left tackle position, and he is said to have pro potential at 6'-6" and 320 pounds. And the other positive tidbit is that big Charles Myles appears to have found a home at right tackle. It could be fun to watch Myles' progress this spring as he learns technique after moving from the defensive line halfway through the 2005 season.
If Millington and Myles can come through, the starting offensive line has a chance to be much improved. Matt Maddox will begin his senior year as a three-year letterman at center, and he will bring stability and leadership to the position. Martin O'Donnell returns at left guard, and he is still highly rated despite having mixed results last fall. Any number of other players will get a chance to take over the right guard spot.
J. J. Simmons returns after starting for two years at left tackle, but complications from offseason knee surgery have set his recovery back considerably. He will probably be unable to participate in spring ball, and he will need to regain lost strength to be effective. If Millington plays well at left tackle, Simmons may get a chance to compete for the right guard spot come fall.
Other upperclassmen who will get a chance to prove themselves this spring include Ryan McDonald, James Ryan, Jim LaBonte, and Ben Amundsen. McDonald and Ryan both started last fall, but both need improvement to regain a starting spot. LaBonte was expected to be a starter last fall before summer back surgery sapped his strength and reduced his conditioning. One of these four players will likely get the starting nod at right guard, although some younger players may have something to say about that as well.
Eric Block played briefly during his freshman season, and his toughness and aggressiveness help him compensate for a lack of experience. He may be Maddox's replacement at center, but he may also get a chance at guard. Redshirt freshmen William Bergen, Trevor Scott and Mike Nabolotny have potential, but they may still need some physical development to compete on even terms with the upperclassmen. And midyear enrollee Randall Hunt, a 6'-6", 300 pound raw freshman, has excellent potential at tackle. Spring practice will help, but Hunt will still likely benefit from a redshirt year unless he can prove too good to sit.
Coach Zook recruited some excellent offensive linemen who will enter school this fall, although it is rare for a true freshman to get playing time due to the strength and maturity requirements of the position. They will help in the future since they all have the quick feet coaches try to recruit.
Spring practice will likely see a number of visitors observing assistant coach Ed Warriner putting his line charges through their paces. Improvement will be critical in any success the Illini have this fall. With a quality offensive line, the Illini can become a threat to any opposing defense.
The defense will be discussed in part 2.