The Illini may be Alright this Year

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By Paul M. Banks

This past weekend, the University of Illinois Fighting Illini got some measure of redemption from their week one DISASTER in St. Louis. The Illini responded from their 37-9 thrashing at the hands of Missouri to rout FCS opponent Illinois St. 45-17 in Champaign. Granted it was against a lower tier team predicted to finish near the bottom of their vastly inferior conference, but the Illini did without the services of arguably their three if not best, most important, players: QB Juice Williams, WR Arrelious Benn, and LB Martez Wilson. Williams, a Chicago native who’s been tutored by another Chicago product and star quarterback, Donovan McNabb contributed just one series before getting hurt. His injury is not supposed to be extremely serious and his return is key, for the Illini to have a legitimate leader.

Williams spoke about what he learned from working with McNabb. “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.

His top-flight receiver in a highly heralded corps is Arrelious “Rejus” Benn, a projected top ten pick in the NFL Draft. But his stock is falling because Rejus has been a total non-factor so far. The Illini receivers have been extremely hyped, and if Benn isn’t 100% healthy then other players like Jeff Cumberland, Jarred Fayson, and Tight End Michael Hoohoomanawananuii (have fun with trying to pronounce that) will need to step up big time. illinois

Illini Head Coach Ron Zook also needs to realize who his starting tailback is. It should be Daniel Dufrene, with Jason Ford as a capable back-up, not the other way around. They’ve battled some injuries as well this young season, so they fit right in with the rest of the team.

On the other side of the ball, it comes down to another well-recruited Chicago product, Martez Wilson, who moves over to Middle Linebacker, and needs to be the “quarterback” of the defense.

“The last two, actually the last three years, our Mike linebacker has led the Big Ten in tackles,” Zook said. “I don’t want to put the pressure on him that he’s not doing a good job if he doesn’t lead the Big Ten in tackles, but he’s a guy that a lot of things revolve around him, with our calls and so forth, and it’s going to be important that he has the kind of year that we think he can.” Wilson was also hurt and missed the last game. But Illinois won in impressive fashion, despite all the key missing pieces, which is a good sign. It’s also a good thing they have this week off- to get ready and healthy for mighty Ohio St. on September 26th.

Illini Tailback Situation Part 2 Daniel Dufrene Troy Pollard

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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%”

Illini Season Preview, part 2: The Defense

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By Paul Schmidt

The Illini defense has been nothing if not maligned in the past two seasons. Criticisms of “not fast enough” and “not talented enough” have echoed through the sports pages, and though the team continues to say that they don’t buy into the negativity, it’s hard to say that hearing the comments don’t create a self-defeating attitude.

With that possibility in mind, the 2009 Illini defense sets out to defeat the self-defeating…ness.  Yes, they are inventing not just new attitudes, but words as well!

The defensive line, last season, was purported to be one of the deepest units in the entire country. The problem was, after a season ending knee injury to Sirod Williams, that depth seemed to kind of disappear, and the vaunted defensive line many times seemed lost.  Williams could be viewed as one of the biggest keys to the success of the defensive line, even if his presence only provides solid depth (though, most likely, he will be counted on for much more than that).

In a recent chat on fightingillini.com, defensive line coach Keith Gilmore was asked about Williams’ presence on the line and what it means.

“I expect Sirod to be a leader and a force on the defensive line,” Gilmore said. “He’s recovered well from the injury and I think he’s going to be a big factor in our success.”

Williams also believes that he is going to be able to come back strong and be an asset to the defense.

“I’m just anxious to do it, to get back out on the field,” Williams said. “My best asset would be against the run block, and using my hands against it, and definitely taking every play seriously. I don’t take any plays off.”

It’s that motor and energy that, at times, the Illini front four seemed to miss.

He won’t be alone in experience on the defensive line, however, as the Illini return another fifth year senior in defensive end Doug Pilcher. Pilcher, who is on the Ted Hendricks (best defensive end) award watch list, has also started since 2006 and, along with Williams, provide leadership for not just the D-line but the entire defense.

The linebacking corps will start and finish with Martez Wilson.  As he goes, so goes the unit, so to speak.  And though Illinois is a school known for its storied history of linebackers, the last few seasons under Ron Zook much of the martez_mich_ffaction in the unit has flowed through the middle linebacker – the position that Wilson is taking over this season.

Wilson certainly has the talent, the speed and athleticism to take over the position. The question is, does he have the head for it?

“Coming in as the middle assignment linebacker I feel confident, I feel great about our defense,” Wilson said. ”I’m looking forward to camp, the first game against Missouri. I’m ready, and I’m focused.”

For his part, Zook believes that Wilson is ready and is counting on Wilson for big things.

“The last two, actually the last three years, our Mike linebacker has led the Big Ten in tackles,” Zook said. “I don’t want to put the pressure on him that he’s not doing a good job if he doesn’t lead the Big Ten in tackles, but he’s a guy that a lot of things revolve around him, with our calls and so forth, and it’s going to be important that he has the kind of year that we think he can.”

The secondary is the group with not only the most turnover (goodbye, Vontae Davis!), but with one of the team’s most injury prone players. Defensive back Miami Thomas, in the mix to start at cornerback or, at worst, be the Illini nickel back, tore the ACL in his left knee and will miss the season.  It was an especially tough break for Thomas, who had to take a medical redshirt last season after tearing the ACL in his right knee.

Hicks returning his forced fumble for a touchdown against Iowa

The unit will push on, however, if a little thinner, and it will be led by senior (and returning three-year starter) Dere Hicks.  Hicks has a knack for the spectacular on the field, as can be evidenced by his spectacular sack-fumble-recovery-touchdown sequence against Iowa, but knows that he and the rest of the defense need to bone up on the basics.

“That comes down to studying films, and knowing your opponents, and knowing where they attack at,” Hicks said. “Every day we probably have to go against the number one receiving corps in the nation – at least I think – and that’s only going to make us better as a secondary.”

Hicks definitely believes the team underachieved last season and is ready to turn things around, with team chemistry being one of the biggest factors.

“We definitely are rallying around each other, with this offseason program, we definitely are working and guys have really come together as a team,” Hicks said. “Last year, we were a team, but we weren’t together, a tight-knit group.  So this year, we’ve really made a point of getting together off the field a lot, go out to eat together, things like that.”

Hicks then said just the thing that should make every Illini fan excited to see the defense, not just the offense, on the field this fall; matching the attitude of an ever more rabid fan base:

“We’re more hungry than ever, man.”