Fighting Illini Spring Football Game Preview

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Now that Mikel Leshoure left the Illini early for the NFL Draft, (and who can blame him really? He will be one of the first three running backs taken next week) Illinois college football is now headlined by sophomore QB Nathan Scheelhaase. It’s his team. And if he continue to makes strides like he did from the season finale to the Texas Bowl, things will be fine.

The 15 extra practices between the Fresno State loss and the 38-14 domination over Baylor did wonders for Scheelhaase as he completed his first 13 passes, played his best game of the season, and easily could have been co-MVP with Leshoure in that game. Even though Leshoure’s game was really quite special.

Something to really keep an eye on Saturday is Scheelhaase continuing to develop chemistry with wide receivers Ryan Lankford and Darius Millines.

But you won’t get to see the heir apparent to Leshoure at the tailback position. Jason Ford will not go Saturday.

By Paul M. Banks

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Also leaving early this year was Linebacker Martez Wilson and defensive lineman Corey Liuget. Liuget is a legit (sorry, had to do that) first rounder and Wilson is looking like a second or third day guy. So in 2011, the Illini will be looking to replace not just their seniors, but three very talented juniors.

DE Whitney Mercilus, is sitting out the spring game as well. However, Mercilus should fill the void at “defensive star with a totally bad ass name” with Liuget now gone.

Former Illini and current NFL players Alan Ball and Steve Weatherford will serve as honorary coaches for the Orange and Blue Spring Game. The game is set for 1 p.m. at Memorial Stadium.

Ball played corner for the Fighting Illini from ’03-06. He finished his UI career with 198 tackles, 8.5 TFLs, two interceptions and 22 PBUs. He was twice named the team’s Most Outstanding Defensive Back (2005 and 2006) and was a team captain and honorable mention All-Big Ten selection in 2006.

Ball was picked by the Dallas Cowboys in the seventh round (237th overall) of the 2007 NFL draft and has emerged as the team’s starting free safety (despite being pretty close to the “Mr. Irrelevant” pick). He registered 46 tackles and two interceptions for the Cowboys in 2010, his first season as a full-time starter, after seeing a gradual increase in playing time over his first three NFL seasons.

Weatherford, a four-year starter at Illinois from 2002-05, remains atop the program’s career punting average (43.5 ypp) and season punting average (45.4 ypp) lists. He’s a two-time Ray Guy Award semi-finalist, a two-time All-American and a three-time All-Big Ten selection, including first team honors in 2004.

Weatherford has been with four teams during his five-year NFL career, with most of his time spent with the New Orleans Saints (2006-08) and New York Jets (2008-current). He has averaged 42.9 yards per punt as a pro and broke the NFL record for punts downed inside the 20 for a season with 42 in 2010.

The 60th anniversary of the 1952 Rose Bowl team and the 20th anniversary of the 1988-92 teams that made five consecutive bowl games will both be celebrated during the weekend festivities.

The Orange and Blue Spring Game is free to the public and parking is also free at the lots around Memorial Stadium.

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

He does a regular guest spot each week for Chicagoland Sports Radio.com You can follow him on Twitter @thesportsbank and Facebook

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