With more returning starters than any other Big Ten team and some tangibles to build on from last year, the Illini have reason to be optimistic.
Ron Zook went 4-19 and had one Big Ten victory to show for his first two seasons as the University of Illinois head football coach.
All along he insisted that things would come together by at least his third season as the coach.
That would be now, and he’s sticking to his prediction.
“We’re excited about this team. We feel like we’ve made some major improvements, and we’re going to put it together this year,” Zook said during Tuesday’s teleconference. “There is a different feel around here; a different attitude. There’s a lot more confidence in this team.”
With more returning starters than any other Big Ten team — Illinois has nine back on offense and nine on defense — and some tangibles to build on from last year, the Illini have reason to be optimistic. The defense was No. 3 in the Big Ten against the run last season and No. 5 against the pass, combining for fifth-best in the league overall. And the offense, led by then-freshman quarterback Isiah “Juice” Williams, led the conference in team rushing.
Of course, there were occasions when that same offense gave a few games away.
“We made some mistakes that cost us. We did some things that we just can’t do this year. But those days are over,” 6-foot-5, 300-pound senior offensive lineman Martin O’Donnell said. “We know exactly who we are and what we can do. This is a different team, and it will show.”
O’Donnell will front the versatile Williams, who can run out of a pass and pass out of a run at will. He spent a good part of the season learning how to keep that type of quarterback safe, and he believes the entire offensive line will benefit from an extra year with Williams.
Williams completed 39 percent of his passes and had nine TDs and nine interceptions last year, but there were signs of greatness to come, especially when he would tuck it under and take off. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound elusive quarterback from Chicago Vocational High School rushed for 576 yards and was one of three Illini backs to gain more than 500 yards on the ground.
Rashard Mendenhall churned up 653 yards rushing and led the league with an 8.2 yards-per-carry average as a backup last season.
In his only start of 2006, Mendenhall carried the ball 14 times for 161 yards in a 26-12 loss to Penn State. He’ll have the starting slot all to himself this season.
According to all involved, he’s earned it.
“Juice is so exciting, and he’s sometimes all everybody wants to talk about,” Zook said. “But it’s Rashard that could be the one lifting this team on his back.”
The former No. 1 recruit in the state broke free for an 86-yard touchdown run against Penn State that day, the fourth-longest run in Illini history. That, Zook said, was just a peek at what the Skokie native can produce if given the chance.
As is always the case in the Big Ten, nothing will come easy to Mendenhall or the Fighting Illini. Especially not this year.
Four of Illinois’ opponents were ranked in the preseason Top 25 polls — No. 5 Michigan, No. 7. Wisconsin, No. 10 Ohio State and No. 18 Penn State — while both Missouri (whom Illinois opens against this Saturday) and Iowa were not far off.
And this team has suffered setback after setback the past six years, making it hard for players and fans alike to believe again.
“We have to learn to forget,” linebacker J Leman said. “A couple of big wins will do that for us.
In 2001, the Fighting Illini went 10-2, won the Big Ten championship and earned a bid to the BCS’s Sugar Bowl under then head coach Ron Turner. The next season, Illinois went 5-7 overall and 4-4 in league play, and it’s been spiraling downward ever since. Turner earned one Big Ten win over the next two seasons before making the change to Zook.
The former Florida Gators head coach is confident this is his team’s chance to break out.
“If this team can play with some consistency, it will take that next step. This is the time. It’s time for us to take that next step,” Zook said. “Losing sticks with you after awhile, and we have to shake it off. The guys have to realize they’re supposed to win, and then they will. We can’t forget how close we were last year. We have to get this program back. We have to do it now.”
Some believe if he wishes to return as Illinois’ head coach, that’s just what he’ll have to do.
College reporter Jay Taft can be reached at 815-987-1382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sept. 1 — at Missouri (in St. Louis), 2:30 p.m.
Sept. 8 — vs. W. Illinois, 6 p.m.
Sept. 15 — at Syracuse, 11 a.m.
Sept. 22 — at Indiana, TBA
Sept. 29 — vs. Penn State, TBA
Oct. 6 — vs. Wisconsin, TBA
Oct. 13 — at Iowa, TBA
Oct. 20 — vs. Michigan, 7 p.m.
Oct. 27 — vs. Ball State, 11 a.m.
Nov. 3 — at Minnesota, 7 p.m.
Nov. 10 — at Ohio State, TBA
Nov. 17 — vs. Northwestern, TBA