Illinois started out 6-0 and was ranked in the Top 20. Then it lost it’s next six games and barely qualified for a bowl. The 6-0 start and then 0-6 finish was the first time an FBS team had ever done that. In comes a new coach to save the day after Ron Zook went goodbye.
Offense: New coach, new offensive coordinators (third in three years) and a new running back. The constant? Nathan Scheelhaase. Despite going through his third offense in three years, he will be looked upon to once again be the team’s leader. After being more of a scrambler his freshman year, his rushing totals dropped in 2011 and passing yards increased. Scheelhaase threw for 2,110 yards and 13 touchdowns, while rushing for 624 yards and six more scores.
Unlike in previous seasons, the Illini do not have an experienced running back. Donovonn Young returns after a solid freshman season, where he rushed for 451 yards and six scores, but he hasn’t had to be the top rusher and sat out spring ball with a foot injury. His backup is Josh Ferguson, who has also seen minimal playing time.
Despite losing star receiver A.J. Jenkins, who was a surprise first-round NFL Draft pick, Illinois does bring back some season players. Unfortunately Jenkins caught more balls himself (90) than the top three returnees (Spencer Harris, Jon Davis and Darius Millines), who combined for 67 grabs. As long as Milliness stays healthy, he is expected to become the top guy, while Harris leads all returnees with 26 grabs for 226 yards.
Defense: Last year’s defense finished seventh overall nationally and brings back seven starters from that squad, including three of four defensive linemen. End Michael Buchanan and tackle Akeem Spence passed on the NFL Draft to return for their senior and junior seasons, respectively.
Jonathan Brown hopes to continue the string of stud Illini linebackers. He was the leading tackler on the team with 108 last season and is the only returning LB starter.
The secondary brings back a lot of experience, with three starters and another player, Justin Green, who has seen a lot of playing time. Terry Hawthorne, a corner, led the team with three interceptions and returned one for a touchdown in the team’s bowl-game win over UCLA. Free safety Steve Hall is solid, but Supo Sanni will have to overcome his injury problems to stay the strong safety starter.
Recruiting: The Illini brought in some real talent on defense in Ta’Jarvis Fuller, Mason Monheim, Teko Powell and Mike Svetina. Each of those players had over 100 tackles, led by Feller, who had 166 tackles, six sacks, seven PBUs, five forced fumbles and two interceptions in 2011. Michigan running back Devin Church put up gaudy numbers last year as a senior. He finished with a school-record 1,919 yards in 2011, including 938 yards in five playoff games. He rushed for 244 yards and three touchdowns on 33 carries in the MHSAA Division 2 state championship game to lead Brother Rice to a state title.
Schedule: If the Illini are to sneak into the conference title game, this may be the year. Ohio State is ineligible for the conference crown, Wisconsin lost Russell Wilson and three-fifths of their offensive line and Penn State has to recover from the Jerry Sandusky scandal. Unfortunately, the Wisconsin and Ohio State games are on the road. All four non-con games (WMU, ASU, Charleston Southern and La. Tech) are winnable.