University of Illinois Fighting Illini Season Football Preview, Part 1

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By Paul Schmidt

The 2009 University of Illinois Fighting Illini football team is likely to be something of an enigma.  It seems that any time expectations are heaped upon the school, they never live up to those expectations, and when they have no one thinking highly of them they tend to over-perform everyone’s opinions.

Does that mean that this year’s team will fail, again, to make a bowl game as many experts are projecting the Illini to a middle of the pack finish in the Big Ten?

Hopefully, this preview can answer some of those burning questions. First we’ll go over why Illini fans should be optimistic, the offense, and then tomorrow preview why they should be nervous (the defense).

OFFENSE


There will be one thing that will never be said about the 2009 incarnation of the Fighting Illini — they couldn’t score.  This team will boast one of the nation’s highest scoring offenses and will be one of the most
juiceentertaining teams to watch in the country every Saturday.

Things will begin and end with Isiah “Juice” Williams. One of two Illini dark-horse Heisman candidates, Williams has to have a great season for the Illini to go far. The question on the minds of many Illini fans is whether or not we’ll see the Juice of his sophomore season (that guided the Illini to the Rose Bowl) or whether it’ll be the inconsistent Juice of 2008.

For his part, Williams is focused on the company line for the upcoming campaign.

“We all have to do our job, gotta count on the next man to do their job, and you gotta have all the parts of the machine really come together and operate,” Williams said. “Once you do that, that’s when you get the passing yards, and the rushing yards, and the W’s most importantly.”

Consistency is obviously a big key for Williams and one of the things he needed to work on as a QB was his touch — as in acquiring one.

“My problem was my first two years I really didn’t know a lot of stuff that was going on, so I did what I did best — throw it as hard as I can,” Williams said. “Obviously, that really hurt pass percentages, and hurt a few receivers’ hands. Once I got into the offense and started to understand the position and the concepts that we were trying to run through each play, I was able to go out there and really throw it.”

Williams’ ability to ‘really throw it’ will be made all the easier with an incredible group of wide receivers that may be the nation’s best.  Not among the nations’ best — they very well could be the most talented group of wide receivers lining up in college football.

Arrelious “Rejus” Benn headlines the talented group as the Illini’s other darkhorse Heisman hopeful, but the talent hardly stops there.  Florida transfer Jarrod Fayson looks to step in and contribute immediately, and offensive coordinator Mike Schultz likes what he sees of the young man. benn

“Jarrod is really a big strong kid,” Schultz said. “He’s a great route runner and has great hands. He’s not a guy that will beat defensive backs deep, but he can definitely get by them and stop and come back.”

Benn and Fayson will be joined by A.J. Jenkins, Jeff Cumberland, Chris Duvalt, Cordale Scott and Fred Sykes, along with much-heralded newcomer Terry Hawthorne.

The biggest challenge is going to be on Schultz this season as he is tasked with getting everyone enough catches to keep the entire receiving corps happy.

“I got a way to keep everyone happy, but I’m not telling anybody,” Schultz said with a laugh. “Right now we have everyone learning a couple positions, both at wide and split ends.”

With all of the concentration on the pitch-and-catch combinations, this is a team that in 2007 led the Big Ten in rushing and had one of the most prolific rushing attacks in the nation.  Now, Rashard Mendenhall was a big part of that, and he has been in the NFL for a year already, but there still is a lot of talent in the backfield.

Setting aside the obvious speed threat of Williams running when he can’t find someone open to pass to, the Illini will feature three talented players in the backfield.

Daniel Dufrene, Jason Ford, and Mikel LeShoure will all split time at running back, as Illinois head coach Ron Zook has repeatedly said that he not only doesn’t think that a team has to have a featured back, but that he feels all three will be able to contribute given the situation.

Dufrene, however, may emerge as the most important runner for the Illini as last season he led the Illini in yards-per-carry, despite having a season marred by personal troubles and some injuries.