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Mendenhall, Benn, Zook Earn Big Ten Honors
Mendenhall becomes Illinois' first-ever Offensive Player of the Year and Benn earns the Illini's first Freshman of the Year award since Simeon Rice in 1992.
Zook and the squad are celebrating the biggest turnaround in college football this season. After posting two wins in 2006, Illinois has improved to 9-3 and a second-place finish in the Big Ten. Illinois also is the only team in the country to defeat two top-5 teams. Zook has the Illini bowl-bound for the first time since 2001. He is Illinois' first conference coach of the year honoree since 2001 when Ron Turner won the award.
Four Illini players Mendenhall, senior left guard Martin O'Donnell, senior linebacker J. Leman and sophomore cornerback Vontae Davis were awarded with first-team All-Big Ten honors. Mendenhall and O'Donnell were part of the outstanding rushing offense that led the Big Ten and ranked sixth in the nation. It became the first-ever Illinois team to top the 3,000-yard rushing mark in a season and is second on Illinois' rushing yards per game list. Mendenhall was responsible for 1,526 of those yards, breaking Illinois' single-season rushing record in the process. He scored 18 touchdowns and averaged 6.2 yards per carry. He ranked 10th nationally in rushing and third in yards per carry. He also broke records for most 100-yard games in a season, total touchdowns and rushing scores in a season. O'Donnell and the line also led the conference in sacks allowed with fewer than one per game, which also was a school record. Illinois' total offense also surpassed the 5,000-yard mark for only the third time in Illinois history.
Leman, the heart and soul of the defense, once again led the team in tackles and for 16 straight weeks dating back to 2006 also led the Big Ten leader. He posted double-digit tackles in nine of 12 games and caught runners behind the line for 9.5 tackles for loss, leading the Illini rushing defense to a top-25 ranking. Davis was the youngest semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, which is given to the nation's best defensive back. He had 63 tackles, three for loss, four interceptions and eight passes broken up. He ranked sixth in the Big Ten in both interceptions and PBUs.
Three Illinois juniors, defensive end Will Davis, offensive tackle Xavier Fulton and center Ryan McDonald, took second-team honors.
Fulton and McDonald are another two starters from the record-setting offensive line. Davis ranked fifth in the Big Ten with 9.5 sacks. He led the team and ranked fifth in the Illinois record books. Davis also had 12.5 tackles for loss and seven quarterback hurries. He led a defensive line that averaged over three sacks per game and 6.5 tackles for loss per contest.
Senior safety Kevin Mitchell, senior defensive tackle Chris Norwell, senior placekicker Jason Reda and sophomore quarterback Juice Williams all were named to the honorable mention All-Big Ten list.
Mitchell was Illinois' leader with five interceptions, ranking third in the Big Ten. He also had 11 passes broken up, which ranked second in the Big Ten. Reda led the Big Ten with a 93.8 field goal percentage, also a school record. He made 15-of-16 field goals, eight of which were over 45 yards. He is one of only three kickers in the nation to hit three 50-yarders this year. Norwell led the Big Ten in fumbles recovered and broke the school record for starts by a defensive lineman. Williams became the only Illinois quarterback to pass the 1,000-yard career rushing mark and improved to 57 percent passing, throwing 13 touchdowns and rushing for another seven.
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