2010 Illinois Football Season: the Official Exit Interview

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Back in June I gave an interview to collegefootballzealots.com previewing the upcoming University of Illinois college football season. I was pretty negative and pessimistic.

And it takes a big man to admit when he’s wrong. So I guess that makes me roughly the size of Jon Asamoah then because I was wrong about a few things. But fresh off a return from the Texas Bowl victory, here’s my exit interview for the same site; recapping the season.

By Paul M. Banks

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1. In our Pre-Season Preview you said that a bowl berth/win would be nice but that it really wouldn’t matter until Illinois posted consecutive winning seasons. Now that the season is over do you feel it was a success, failure or somewhere in-between?

Success all the way, because they aced the mid-term. Now they need to pass the final exam next post-season to complete the course with a sufficient grade. Illinois football has shown a consistent tendency to a.) sometimes play spectacular when no thinks much of them nor extensively prepares for them and b.) epically fail when expectations are placed on them. They haven’t posted consecutive winning seasons since 1991-92, so the pressure’s on now.

2. Ron Zook has been on the hot seat for a while. Where is he right now on the temperature scale?

His seat was as hot as the sight of of an Oregon Ducks Cheerleader before, now it’s more like your average cheer squad member at a mid-major school. The two coordinators acted like a fever reducer, because both of the high-priced coaches- Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning improved their units dramatically.

And like the cliche says, “winning cures everything,” and 7-6 is a decently successful season in Champaign.

“I can remember my senior year, we lost our bowl game,” said Koenning.

“And we were proud to go to the bowl game, but there’s not a better feeling in the whole world than winning it. For coaches, we start having stomach acids, sleepless nights, days and weeks sometimes before a game. And to win makes it worthwhile. And when you lose, it’s a lot of pain, agony and stress, and hours and hours of work and time away from your family and stuff, so when you win it makes you feel like it’s worth it.”

3. Which player(s) was the biggest surprise of the season and on the flipside who was the biggest disappointment?

Mikel Leshoure- I knew this would be his team, especially with a freshman QB and rebuilding the WR corps. And I knew he’d be solid. But I had no idea he’d become Rashard Mendenhall part deux in almost every way possible and break all the major Illini rushing records.

For disappointment, I would say wide receiver Jarred Fayson. When he transferred from Florida he was touted to be a speedy play-maker, but he never amounted to much; in both his years here. In ’09, he was named Athlon’s top receiver transfer and preseason second-team All-Big Ten by Phil Steele Magazine. Yet he scored only one touchdown in Champaign, averaged about 300 yards a season, and never had more than 90 yards receiving in a game.

4. Who are some of the guys that need to step up next year to become major players for the Fighting Illini?

It all depends one which of these three (Leshoure, LB Martez Wilson, DL Corey Liuget) comes back, if any. They’ll lose one, maybe two of these guys. On offense, it has to be QB Nathan Scheelhaase’s team now, and he’ll need A.J. Jenkins to actually be a legitimate #1 receiver to make that happen.

On defense, I expect them to plug in some new starters at linebacker, some “system guys” and they should be fine. However, the talented juniors and sophomores in the secondary (Trulon Henry, Tavon Wilson, Terry Hawthorne- need to set the tone. At least two should develop into all-conference level athletes.

5. In what area(s) does Illinois need to improve on the most this off-season?

That’s easy- pass defense and the passing game. Scheelhaase has a decent arm, but certainly not a great one. He needs to keep going vertical early and often, like he did against Baylor in the Texas Bowl. But he needs help too. Rookie WRs Darrius Millines and Ryan Lankford and tight end Evan Wilson need to keep making plays like they did in Houston.

“I think I told some of you (the media) that those two really improved during bowl practice, and at the end of bowl practice. You saw three freshman make big time plays out there tonight,” Petrino said after beating Baylor in the Texas Bowl.

On the other side, the secondary was consistently banged up all year long. Once they’re healthy, and playing together, this unit’s talent will begin to surface as they play with some cohesion. Provided of course the defensive line continues to be a pleasant surprise in generating pressure. I guess it helps their body of work that Illinois no longer has to face Blaine Gabbert/Jeremy Maclin/Chase Daniel and the rest of Mizzou in the pre-conference anymore.

Paul M. Banks is CEO of The Sports Bank.net , a Midwest webzine. He’s also a regular contributor to the Tribune’s Chicago Now network, Walter Football.com, Yardbarker Network, and Fox Sports.com

You can follow him on Twitter @thesportsbank

He also does a regular guest spot each week for Chicagoland Sports Radio.com

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