Illini Football Hires Paul Petrino as Offensive Coordinator

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By Paul Schmidt

Get ready for some shootouts.

Remember this season when it seemed as though the defensively-challenged Illini would only win games by scores of say, 40-38? And when the offense proved feeble at the beginning of the year, how the season unraveled?

Yeah, that won’t be a problem with Paul Petrino as offensive coordinator.

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Live! From the Press Box! It’s the Illini Football Exchange!!

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By Paul M. Banks and Paul Schmidt

10:30 AM – YAWN.  What in the world are you doing here now??  Even Red Grange Statue is still sleeping….and he stands on one leg!  In front of Memorial Stadium!!!

Anyway, PB and I will be back here in roughly 4 hours bringing you all the news that’s fit to print from the aforementioned Memorial Stadium, maybe with some campus stories earlier than that (You ever stand in line at a Follett’s on game day?  Yeah, I didn’t think so…).

So sit back and relax, maybe read why Paul and I are so disappointed in this football season.  Or check out my college picks against the spread.  I call this week my own personal “Battle to get to .500.”  If mediocrity can’t drive us, really, what can??

And don’t forget, we’ll see you in 4 hours!  I-L-L!!

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3:00 til game time: Shockingly, the weather is crappy here at beautiful Memorial Stadium, but it’s sold out!  Well, at least in terms of ticket sales, anyway…it’s probably about 2/3rds full by my estimation.  Some space shuttle action here today.  Woo.

Late prediction is a Penn State route, 31-7.  On the plus side, Illinois gets on the board for a score in Big Ten play…on the down side, they get killed again and a fan base revolts….PS

Illinois 0, Penn State 0, 10:13 left 1q
Interesting start to the game, and special teams are failing the Illini early.  TERRIBLE kick catch interference penalty by Jeff Cumberland and then terrible positioning from Jarred Fayson on the ensuing punt left Illinois backed up to their own three-yard line, when they could have had Penn State similarly backed up.  The Illini offense has shown some early life, but two stupid mistakes that are becoming symptomatic of the Ron Zook era. PS


Illinois-Penn notted up at 0, 6min 1st qtr

My prediction is closer than that. I’ll say PSU 26-17. But that score again is only that close, because I think ILL will score a lot in garbage time. At least Juice is now throwing ahead of his receivers instead of behind them, so that’s progress right? Well it’s a start. JoePa are doing a great job taking away the deep ball. He’s had to go all check-downs and safety valves

Clay Nurse is having a big game again..early at least he’s getting to the ball. Not many guys on ILL def we can say that about. Clay Nurse is a great name for an emo punk band. Maybe an indie emo punk band. “Dude I saw Clay Nurse when they were openers and unsigned 5 years ago man. Now they’re all corporate sounding man..since they play arenas these days. Clay Nurse sold out”

PMB

Illinois 0, Penn St. 0 1:41 left 1Q
The Illini defense deserves some credit for their start to this game, as they’ve done a really nice job of shutting down a good, if not great, Nittany Lion offense.  They’re dynamic, and they do have a lot of weapons, but so far they aren’t looking anything other than shaky.

It’s difficult, at this point, to say whether or not they ARE just shaky or whether or not the Illini D is playing UP to their competition.  Either is possible (though the former is more likely).  No turnovers yet though for either side.

Something that is slightly depressing is that I’m thinking the Illini offense is looking lively, and that’s simply based on the fact they have 64 yards of total offense in the first quarter….PS


Illinois 0, Penn State 0 End 1Q
Well, for Illinois fans, you have to feel as though the first quarter was a success.  You’re not down two scores already, you don’t look overmatched, and, for the first time this season against FBS competition, it looks like your team showed up ready to play today.

The offense has been a little sketchy, but don’t underestimate the effect of the wind and weather on today’s game.  Illinois really didn’t effectively throw the ball into the wind, and Penn State’s Darryl Clark had a lot of trouble throwing the ball WITH the wind.  It looks as though the running games of both teams are going to be extremely important this afternoon. PS

Penn State 7, Illinois 0 11 min 2nd qtr

Well, there you go, the first major offense of the day, as PSU’s 2nd back Stefon Green breaks off a 52 yd TD run. At least Illinois bottled up Evan Royster. the rain has been on and off, I agree that this battlefield’s contest will not be decided in the air, but on the ground. It’s a shame…cuz Juice Williams and Darryl Clark are essentially very similar. both dual threat QBs that have led their team to a Rose Bowl…both got destroyed by USC in that Rose Bowl. I was hoping for total offense show between the 2 today PMB

Penn State 7, Illinois 3 7:16 left 2Q
A beautiful pass over the middle to Rejus Benn (remember him??) for 49 yards — more than doubling Benn’s receiving yards for the season — set up first and goal for the Illini.  Who promptly gained one yard and had to kick a field goal.

Juice Williams also became the total offense leader at Illinois with the Benn pass. Which proves just how meaningless that record really is.  LONG LIVE KURT KITTNER! PS

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Penn State 7, Illinois 3 2:28 left 2Q
Penn State is driving and just got an unfortunate call on an incomplete pass that they challenged, because the catch looked pretty good from where we were and on replay.  Perhaps just not enough to overturn the call.

However, that may not matter as the Illini can’t seem to stop the Nits when they throw the ball.

Nice play by Donsay Hardeman over the middle on a deep ball though, and Illinois holds and will take over on their own 1 yard line with 1:31 remaining in the half. PS

PSU 7, ILL 3, 33 sec in half

Those were some good YACs there by Rejus. And now the pass sets up the run. Juice QB draw this IS what we signed on for. This is why we came down here on a 100 degree in August for Media Day to see offense like this drive, or the last one. PMB

Why did they just play Garth Brooks “Friends in Low Places”? not really a football song. more like a drinking with pick-up trucks and gun racks song…

Dufrene looked almost Pierre Thomasesque on that run. Sort of.

I love this ref, and his authoritarian announcements. He’s the college Ed Hochuli.PMB

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Penn State 7, Illinois 3 HALFTIME
Wild end to the first half as Penn State got a looooong run back on an interception on the last play of the half.  Stephon Morris made that run back everything that it was, because the Illini had that pretty well contained around midfield.

Of course, he could have taken it back to the house and it wouldn’t have mattered because of the block in the back, but still.

All in all, if you’re an Illinois fan, coach, player or whatever, you have to feel really good about that first half of football.  Solid job on defense (if not spectacular) and a nice effort on offense that got the Illini over 200 yards of offense in the first half.  Arrelious Benn has 84 receiving yards already, continuing his assault of Penn State over his career here.

The rushing attack has been adequate for the Illini, but they’ve made their bones passing the ball and running an occasional option pitch.  That’s what the offense needs to look like in the second half to remain successful.

Also, as a side note, the hurry-up was a nice addition this far, and has really kept Penn State on their heels thus far.  PS

Penn State 7, Illinois 3 13:50 left 3Q
Quick post to say that the Illini kick coverage has been excellent today.  Typically Penn State has moved the ball out of that field position easily, but still, it’s nice to start them backed up.

Nice 21 yard carry from Darryl Clark, easily the most confident he has looked with the ball today.  Nits at midfield. PS

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Penn State 7, Illinois 3 11:49 left 3Q
And the Illini get an all important hold!  Wayne Ellington came in out of nowhere on Penn State’s Derek Moye and put his hat right on the ball to force a fumble, and Evan Frierson made the recovery.  It’ll be first and ten Illini on their own 30.

It’s also important to note that this is the Illini’s quarter WITH the wind…look for Juice to come out passing early and often this quarter. PS

Penn State 7, Illinois 3 9:14 left 3Q
What looked like it could be good for the Illini has turned very, very bad…

First, the Illini’s last drive was 4 plays for -5 yards.  Ouch.

Then, on 3rd and 6 in Penn State territory, their QB, Daryll Clark, ran a designed QB draw for 51 yards, deep into Illinois territory, and now the Nits are knocking on the door.  A complete swing of momentum at Memorial Stadium, and it is very, very quiet in the stands here. PS

Penn State 14, Illinois 3 6:34 left 3Q
And as quiet as it was about a minute ago, you could hear a pin drop now.  The crowd doesn’t even look like it is moving.

The score came on second down, a one-yard vertical dive from Daryll Clark, but the damage was truly done on his 51 yard scamper just three plays before.  It was the longest run of Clark’s career.

The crowd isn’t even getting up for “Heyyyyyyyy Baby…” with the band…they sound defeated right now.  Let’s hope the Illini have more fight. PS

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PSU 14, Illinois 3 3:25 3rd qtr

Is that the same Wayne Ellington from UNC hoops? and the NBA Draft last year? Ever since ESPN started banging us over the head with Greg Paulus coverage, the idea has popped into my mind. Mehhhh. This game flew by in the 1st half. Getting more blah as it goes on though. Illini are getting hard to watch on offense PMB

Lions are running it right down Illini throats right now. UI running game? looks decrepit PMB

start of 4th qtr. Penn State 14, Illinois 3

PSU is right near the Illini goalline. A TD here pretty much seals the deal. Cuz an 18 pt lead in a game like this, is like a 40 pt lead in a regular game. PMB

TD State 17-3 now 14:28. And you can put a bow on this….Juice Williams HAS STILL NOT THROWN A TD PASS THIS SEASON! And we’re getting to Mid October!

Remember when Jim Everett of the early 90s L.A. Rams didn’t throw a TD pass until like week 8 or something crazy like that one year? And Wayne Gretzky didn’t score a goal for the Kings until unexpectedly late into the season? But still scored ahead of Everett, that’s how this feels? PMB over to you PS

Penn State 21, Illinois 3 12:43 left 4Q
I guess this is how that feels, PB, but I thought that those Rams teams won some games.  That’s not exactly the greatest example.  At least I don’t think.  Plus I think they had Eric Dickerson or Jerome Bettis or someone at running back…they had people who could score for them.

Right now, the Illini don’t.  Another uninspired 3 and out for the Illini, and Penn State just picked up 22 yards on their first play from scrimmage on the ensuing drive.  To put that in perspective, that’s more yards than the Illini have in the entire second half — only 16 for Illinois.

It should be mentioned that Ron Zook, at halftime, said that that last drive of the first half, the way it all went down, was deflating.  That should have been a tip for how the Illini were going to come out in the second half — Deflated.

Also, Penn State outgained the Illini 208 yards to just eight in the third quarter.  An all-around fail for the Illini.

This is going to wrap up our in-game content…I will be back with a post game summary and some comments from the presser.  For now, this is shaping up as another Illini debacle.  Truly a stomach punch for the team and the fans. PS

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Penn State 28, Illinois 10 8:46 left 4Q
Ok, I lied….but Juice just threw his first TD pass of the season.  I had to check in.

Of course it was against Penn State’s second string…and they were in a prevent defense…but still!  His first TD pass of the year!!!

AND IT’S OCTOBER!!!!!!!!!!

Oy. PS

Penn State 35, Illinois 17 FINAL
Sooo…I guess the Illini showed some life in the final minutes with the wind at their backs.  That’s great.  What I was looking for today was some life.  In the end, it didn’t really matter, because they fell to 0-2 in Big Ten play, effectively ending the Big Ten season before it began.

All in all, the defense played pretty well, but was hung out to dry by an offense that didn’t wake up until the fourth quarter.

Again, from Champaign, your final was an underwhelming 35-17 victory for Penn State, effectively keeping them in the Big Ten race.  PS

Illini Tailback Situation Part 2 Daniel Dufrene Troy Pollard

Illinois Ohio St football

By Paul M. Banks

Heading into this season the talk about the Illinois Fighting Illini program, certainly offensively at least, was about the passing game; and the stellar group of receivers that were allegedly one of the best position groups in the nation. There were lots of questions about the defense and the running game- the latter of which took a big step backward last year. Illinois lead the Big Ten in rushing in ’06 and ’07.

But after Saturday’s phantasmagoria, no one’s raving about Juice Williams and Arrelious Benn anymore, the defense seems even worse than anyone’s lowest expectations, and the tailback situation is more unresolved than ever.

The Illini truly have a rotation of four guys at the position, with no real bonafide starter. The depth chart hierarchy is far from established. The injury bug bit both Daniel Dufrene and Jason Ford, the two guys who shared starting duties last season. Dufrene dressed in St. Louis, but didn’t play. Ford touched the ball once, as he nursed an ankle injury.

Illini Head Coach Ron Zook has repeatedly said that you don’t need to have a legitimate number one/go-to-guy at the position, and that it’s perfectly fine to go with a “tailback by committee” approach. And in certain situations (say for instance you have solid depth and talent at almost every other position) that scenario could work. But with a total disaster within every component of the team Saturday, in a game in where the Illini were heavy favorites, finding a dependable and reliable ball-carrier would be a great place to start picking up the pieces. Illinois needs to show that the program can recover from the early departure of Rashard Mendenhall.

Here are two of the candidates that could try and play the same role that Mendenhall did in ’07.

Daniel Dufrene and Troy Pollard

5-11, 205 pound senior Daniel Dufrene has without a doubt showed the most talent of all the four candidates. He’s also BY FAR the most accomplished. He’s mostly known for his controversial 80 yard run in the Illini’s big win over at #1 Ohio State in 2007. Because the run ended with a fumble out of bounds, and depending on who’s side you’re on…maybe the ball should have been OSU’s? The huge upset was one of four games in which Dufrene has rushed for 95 yards or more.  In a perfect world, Dufrene would be the unquestioned starter, as he has the most talent and speed burst, and he’s averaged 5.8 yards a carry during his Illini career.

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What’s kept him from being the feature back, isn’t really clear. It’s been said that he’s missed games because of arcane off-the-field issues, being in the coach’s doghouse, and mysterious health problems. He has had some injury issues, missed time for personal reasons and it’s rumored that he’s fallen out of favor with members of the coaching staff, at times. “It’s just up to the coaches. I probably did something in the game or in practice that they didn’t like and that kept me out of the game. Ultimately I just have to do what I have to do to stay on the field,” Dufrene said when asked this veru question at Illini Media Day. So we can’t exactly answer why he’s never carried the rock for 25-30 times in a game. 

 

His career single game high for carries is 19. Perhaps a self-fulfilling prophecy keeps him from becoming the feature back- people (rightly or wrongly) think he can’t carry the load, and thus he’s never granted the opportunity.

Dufrene has a lot to prove and goals to accomplish once he reaches the field this season. “Pretty much, I just want to show my toughness at handling things better than I did last year, and just being more of a leader to my fellow running backs and the whole team,” he said. Conversely he defines his best assets as “Just my vision and my speed, and also my leadership on the field. I played the Rose Bowl and in other big games so I know how to handle things a little bit better than the freshmen and sophomores would, because they weren’t here. The year we went to the Rose Bowl it was a long season, and it was a grind, and they gotta understand that.”

In order to get better, Dufrene does have a couple of specific RB role models in mind. “Adrian Peterson, or even Marshawn Lynch, I really kind of like his running style, also. Even Jahvid Best out at California, anyone I can pick up little things from, and learn from and make myself better, that’s what I do,” Dufrene told me.
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Troy Pollard has had to fight off a lot of injuries taking a medical redshirt in ’07 and missing half the season in ’08. He has been explosive when actually on the gridiron, averaging six yards a carry during his illini career. And he averaged 7.6 on Sat as he led the team in rsuhing. I asked him about what he brings to the table “vision, cut back ability,” he responded. And also what he needs to work on. “Pass-blocking, I’m not really that big,” Pollard answered. Perhaps he’ll contribute more this season? as he’s finally healthy. “I feel like I can make all my cuts, I’m feeling 100%”

Orange Juice (Williams) and Champaign

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The Juice Williams Interview/Profile Part 1

By Paul M. Banks

On May 10, 2005, Urban dictionary made “juice” the Urban Word of the Day and defined it as such “Respect and credibility on the street. A.K.A. Sauce “I can’t be seen with them – they don’t have juice.”

Sounds like another word for power, connections, a big time reputation- something a star quarterback at a large, Big Ten University would have. But University of Illinois quarterback Isaiah John “the kids call him Juice” Williams didn’t get his name on the southside of Chicago’s mean streets, or because he has juice from his teammates. (and to play the most high profile position in all of sports, having juice is a must) Williams was dubbed “Juice” by his grandmother because of his large size as a child. “I was kind of big … you know, big and juicy, I guess.” Williams nearly died at birth due to his large size of 13 pounds and 8 ounces. Today, he’s large within the Illinois and college football record book.

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He enters his senior season with 6,405 career passing yards, fifth on the Illinois all-time list. He ranks 14th on the Illinois all-time rushing list and is the first non-running back in Illini history to top the 2,000 yard career rushing mark. Juice is third on the Illinois career total offense list with 8,455 yards.

His 475 pass completions and 909 pass attempts both rank fifth on the all-time list, he’s also thrown 44 career touchdown passes, third in school history. Oh, and as you might have heard 1000 times before, he attended the same school as former Illinois and Chicago Bears legend Dick Butkus. At Chicago Vocational High, Juice was an honor student.

Former Illini QB Kurt Kittner holds a lot of the records that Juice is poised to break, and as the team’s current radio color analyst, he remains close to the program. “We’ve had a few conversations. Kurt is a great guy, he’s not too worried about me breaking the records, if I’m able to, he’s fine with it. A compliment to the type of mentor he’s been to me, he loves Illini football,” Juice said about his interactions with Kittner.

In the bigger picture, Juice realizes that these records are just numbers. Instead he wants his legacy to be something else.kurtkittner

“I want people to say that Juice was one of the best guys to ever come through here, as far as leadership, being the captain, being the playmaker, being the role model, and being a great human being, not only just around campus but around the community…helping out youngsters, being a positive influence in other people’s lives…on the field, hopefully I can say that I will be the all-time leader in passing, passing yards, rushing yards by a QB, those things would be huge.  In order to get to that point, you have to do things as a team…fulfill team goals and the individual goals will come after that.”

Williams knows that the most important thing for him to do as a quarterback is be the “field general,” to be almost James Bondlike- staying calm and composed when dire situations arise. “Keep your head…a majority of quarterbacks know that when things start going on around them, people start talking, things start to tank. It’s just the quarterback mentality to let everything go and just stay focused and go from there, once you start paying attention to everything negative going on around you, you kind of lose sight of what you’re trying to do, so I just block everything out and just go,” Williams stated.

Of course, Williams has not had this healthy attitude during his entire Illini career. At Big Ten Media Day I asked him if he ever had read some criticism of himself online and gotten offended, thinking “hey, now that’s just not true.”

“I used to do it all the time my freshman year and part of my sophomore year, but you got to get over it, if you look at it too much, you read the blogs, the newspapers, all the negative criticism it takes a toll on you…even outside of football when you’re walking around, I’ve kind of let it go and learned from it,” Juice responded.

The flow of negative press is even more constant in today’s world of Web 2.0 and social media. Juice discussed not being online with Facebook, Twitter etc. too much. “You have to in order to be happy with your life, you got to get away from that,” Isaiah John Williams said.juice2willimas

Last year, the team slipped back a big step, going from a 9-4 BCS season to a lackluster 5-7, could the added media attention and pressure have had something to do with it? Perhaps the bright lights and constant TV cameras of the Big Ten Network’s Illinois Football: the Journey have had something to do with it? “I don’t think it hurt us at all. I think that it gave us an opportunity to showcase what goes on behind the scenes within our team.  It gave guys an opportunity to go out there and represent this University well. I think it was very beneficial to the program. Unfortunately we weren’t able to get the job done on Saturdays, but I don’t think having the cameras around had anything to do with it. I keep all the copies…of course the season didn’t go the way we wanted to, but you’ve gotta have all the videos for when you get older so you can show your kids, and your grandkids and your friends.  Especially with my daughter cause I can say, ‘Hey, you were on TV too.’ You have to have that stuff around,” Juice answered.

That was 2008. In 2009 Juice will get his final opportunities at collegiate glory. “We have to do our job. You have to count on the next man to do their job, and the next guy and the next guy, and you have to do yours, and all the parts to the machine really have to come together and operate. Once you do that you know, that’s when things start happening. You start getting the rushing yards, you start getting the passing yards, but most importantly, you get the W’s.”

Despite their awful record last season, Illinois was not a bad team. Almost all their losses were by narrow margins and came at the hands of teams that eventually played in the postseason. “Anybody who plays this sport is going to lose by just one or two points a few times and you can get very upset at that. But you have to just keep your cool and learn from it,” Williams said.

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Tune in tomorrow, where I’ll post part two of this exclusive. It will feature Juice thoughts on working out with Philadelphia Eagles QB and Chicago native Donovan McNabb, his thoughts about going on to the next level, and much more.

Exclusive with the Nation’s Best WR Arrelious “Rejus” Benn

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The University of Illinois Wide Receiving Corps will be among the best in College Football this year. In this four part series, Paul M. Banks interviews and profiles each of the top four Illini pass catching threats.

Part 4: Arrelious “Rejus” Benn

Talk about saving the best for last- in the final installment of my interview/profiles of the stellar University of Illinois Fighting Illini wide receiving corp, I profile Arrelious ‘Rejus’ Benn. He’s by far the best Illini receiver in a generation. The 6’2”, 214 lb darkhorse Heisman Trophy candidate has his share of accolades and hardware including:

•    Maxwell Award Candidate
•    Biletnikoff Award Candidate
•    Preseason Third-Team All-American (Athlon)
•    Preseason First-Team All-Big Ten (Athlon)
•    Named Big Ten’s Fastest Receiver (The Sporting News)
•    Rated the No. 20 player in the nation (The Sporting News)
•    Rated the No. 1 wide receiver in the Big Ten (The Sporting News)
•    2007 Big Ten Freshman of the Year
•    2007 Freshman All-American

Almost everyone knows him as Arrelious, but people really close to him call him Rejus. “It’s a nickname that started when I was younger, my father’s nickname was Redus and his real name was Arrelious, so I’m named after him,” Benn said. No word yet if anyone in Rejus’s family is named Kathie Lee (hey hey…thanks I just got in from Champaign-Urbana and boy are my arms tired).

Rejus is from Washington D.C. and prepped at Dunbar, in one of the District’s roughest neighborhoods. He’s come a long way to get here and spoke about the difference between a small town in Central Illinois and the nation’s capital. “It’s been slow, but I like it. D. C. is fast, but it’s always good to get away from the city, and find yourself and just focus on what you need to do…Being in Champaign has really matured me into the person I am and I’ve seen a lot of things from both sides, being in the city and in a place like Champaign.” Despite the distance, his family often makes the trek to see him play. “I always have my mom and younger brothers coming to some games.”dsc026871

Illinois’ schedule will extend much longer this season as bye weeks will be more frequent, and much later, until the regular season concludes with a December 5th home date against Fresno St. “I’m the kind of guy who likes to go out there in the cold and sweat. Get covered with scarves around my arm, I like just going out there and playing the game, and I hope it snows,” Benn said about the Illini’s adjusted schedule, which is an attempt to be much crisper and ready for a bowl game- should they qualify.

Benn has mid 4.4 speed, but still includes speed in his list of what he feels he needs to improve upon; which is pretty much everything: route-running, pass-catching, the whole package as he puts it. So what about his greatest strength? “For me to be able to do all the things I can do, at my size, I’m not your typical receiver,” Rejus answered. And his game has drawn comparisons to one of the best in the business right now. “For me to labeled as the next Anquan Boldin would be a tremendous complement.”dsc02693

And you’ll see Benn this fall on special teams, not just in the offense. “That’s my thing, I like to return kicks. Jarrod Fayson, he’s gonna take care of the punt returns, and I’ll get back there some in case he needs a blow. Mostly though, I’ll be doing kickoffs,”  Rejus said.

Benn currently projects as a top ten, maybe even top 5 NFL Draft pick in 2010, and that stock could rise when you consider how (unlike in all of 2007, and portions of 2008) he no longer has to deal with any nagging injuries. “I think this is the healthiest I’ve been since I’ve been here,” Benn said at Illini Media Day. Obviously, this prompts the question of whether he will forgo his senior season and enter the NFL Draft next off-season. When asked about all the people who assume he’s done with college after this year, Benn said

“The media just does their job. All my focus is on September against Missouri. That decision is for later down the road. I think I would be dishonest if I was thinking about something like that which I’m not, because we have unfinished business here.”

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Last year’s 5-7 season, was a devastating disappointment for Benn and the Illini. Following 2007’s 9-4 BCS “Champaign Campaign,” many experts thought Illinois would take the next step forward- or at least remain where they were. “It’s been on our minds since the end of the Northwestern game, it’s been especially on my mind because I was kind of knocked out of that game we missed out on a lot…I wouldn’t say we’re hungry, I’d say we’re starving in terms of going back to a bowl, we had a taste with the Rose Bowl and now we want to know what it feels like to win,” Benn articulated on the program’s big picture before describing the attitude of this year’s squad in training camp “We got a lot of leadership this year, a lot of guys who have stepped up and taken on the role of vocal leaders on the team.”

And the fans are certainly ready for Benn and his teammates to rise. “For Illinois to have not been so good, football wise for a few years, they have a great fan base. Whether we win or lose, our fans are right beside us and I love that.”

Illini WRs Secret Weapon Michael Hoohoomanwanuii

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The University of Illinois Wide Receiving Corps will be among the best in College Football this year. In this four part series, Paul M. Banks interviews and profiles each of the top four Illini pass catching threats.

Part 3: Michael Hoohoomanwanuii

Part 4: Arrelious “Rejus” Benn

Michael Hoomanawanui, Illinois

Height: 6-5. Weight: 274.

Projected 40 Time: 4.73.

Projected Round (2010): 6-7.

Info courtesy of Walter Fooball.com

Tight End Michael Hoomanawanui (Yes, I actually know how to pronounce his name, it’s “ho-ho-mah-now-uh-new-e) or “Ho-Ho” as most people around the Illinois program call him, makes everyday Christmas Day for Illini QBs with his pass catching and route running abilities.

“I’ve really been working on becoming a complete tight end with blocking and receiving. Last year I put it all together and people got to see that, so hopefully I can just build on that and do whatever I can to help the team win,” Ho-Ho said during my exclusive conversation with him Illini Media Day. Last week Michael was named to the Mackey Award Watch List, an honor to be bestowed upon the nation’s top Tight End. He also spoke about the tremendous talent Illinois has at the wide receiver position, possibly the nation’s best.

“In the summer, we had some pretty tough workouts, we pulled together and pulled the team along, coach has just let us let it be our team with all the experience we have…I personally think they’re one of the best in the country, but right now all it is, is potential and Coach has been talking about how we got to turn potential into performance, they’ve been doing great in camp so far, so we’ll see how it translates into performance,” Ho-ho said. If he does go to the next level, who exactly might be his role model? La Lafayette Illinois Football

“Tony Gonzalez, Gates, Olsen, there’s a lot of great guys out there, so I try to take something from each of their games and I’ll be alright,”


Illinois Wide Receivers- Jeff Cumberland

The University of Illinois Wide Receiving Corps will be among the best in College Football this year. In this four part series, Paul M. Banks interviews and profiles each of the top four Illini pass catching threats.

In Jeff Cumberland, the Illini passing game has a big, make that a very big target. “Because of my size, a lot of people other than my teammates don’t know how strong or fast I actually am. But in addition to being physically big, I’m smart I watch film, I know the game, I know the coverages,” Cumberland told me at Illini Media Day.

“You wouldn’t think someone who’s 240, 250 plus could run as fast as me so teams that don’t know when they see me on film and think I’m not that fast, but I’m getting my separation. They might think ‘he can’t run by you, may be he’ll run inside,” the 6’5” senior with approximate 4.6 speed replied when I asked him about his size possibly making him deceptively fast.

During our exclusive conversation I also asked him what larger receivers in the NFL he models his game on. “I would say Brandon Marshall, he’s big strong, has agility, I really look up to him, Andre Johnson too.” cumberland2

Cumberland came into the University of Illinois as a very highly tight end. The recruiting services loved him as he was named PrepStar All-American, the nation’s No. 66 overall recruit by ESPN.com, and a four-star by Rivals.com and Scout.com. He was slow to develop as a tight end his freshman and sophomore years, but when he was moved to receiver in middle of 2007, his career began to blossom as he was extremely productive during the last four games or so.

Cumberland talked about the transition. “There was also a mismatch. When I was at tight end, there were a lot of linebackers covering me, who I can run right past them. I feel the same way playing receiver outside, I’m just as fast as DBs if not faster, and physical.” Last year he was fairly productive, but 2009 looks to be a breakout year for him. Provided there are enough balls to go around in the Illini’s extremely talented receiving corps.

“Something that we all are trying to do is use the chances we get as much as we can. We each have to take as much advantage of the playing time we get because there’s a lot of guys who can step up and perform if you aren’t,” Cumberland stated. Of course, all this depth could be a blessing or a curse- and it depends on how the coaching staff and Illini quarterback Juice Williams manage the situation. Cumberland spoke about the positive potential:

“Rather than one person to get 70 balls and the next person to get 30 balls, you spread the balls out, when you got so many weapons…there’s going to be less double teams and triple teams when they have to worry about everybody that’s out on the field; instead of just one person.”

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.