There shouldn't be a quarterback controversy in Illinois until 2014.
By: Athlon Sports | 6/6/11, 11:57 AM EDT
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Big Ten PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: Ron Zook, 28-45 (6 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Paul Petrino | DEF. COORDINATOR: Vic Koenning
There is no quarterback controversy at Illinois. Not even close. And probably not again until the 2014 season. Nathan Scheelhaase enjoyed the best year of any freshman quarterback in Illinois history, setting a school record for rushing yards at the position. As a passer, he hit 58.7 percent of his throws with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 17-to-8.
Scheelhaase has plenty of help on offense, starting with tailback Jason Ford, who replaces Mikel Leshoure. Ford gained 480 yards and scored seven touchdowns in 2010. Freshman fullback Jay Prosch started six games and was given plenty of credit for Leshoure’s 330-yard game against Northwestern.
Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino’s reputation as a receivers guru hasn’t been hurt by his time at Illinois. A.J. Jenkins went from 10 catches in 2009 to 56 in his first year with Petrino as his coach. The coaches are counting on him to at least repeat his 2010 performance. Petrino has great expectations for Floridians Ryan Lankford and Darius Millines. Evan Wilson started 11 games at tight end.
Illinois welcomes back three starters on the offensive line. Three-year regular Jeff Allen and two-year starter Hugh Thornton are back at tackle and guard, respectively. Graham Pocic returns for his second year as starting center.
Standout tackle Corey Liuget jumped to the NFL Draft with a year of eligibility remaining. Without Liuget, the Illini will need a big season from Akeem Spence, who earned Freshman All-America honors in 2010. At Bandit (a hybrid end/linebacker position), Michael Buchanan is the team’s returning sack leader with two. The coaches hope to see that number double.
The Illini also took a linebacker hit with an early NFL departure. The coaches know they don’t have anybody like Martez Wilson on the roster in 2011. Senior Ian Thomas is the team’s leading returning tackler.
With the healthy return of safety Supo Sanni and a full season at cornerback for Terry Hawthorne, the secondary will have its most depth in years. Tavon Wilson, who moved to safety in 2010, is back at corner and expecting a big senior season. Safety Trulon Henry led the team in interceptions and was fifth in tackles.
One position (kicker) is as good as anywhere in the Big Ten. Derek Dimke returns after hitting 24-of-29 field goals. But Illinois has to replace all-conference punter Anthony Santella. The best option is true freshman Justin DuVernois. If not DuVernois, the Illini will look to former starting kicker Matt Eller or walk-on Brad Janitz. Millines and Troy Pollard will get the first shot as kick returners. Hawthorne is a strong option as a punt returner.
Ron Zook went from the hot seat to the cushy seat. All it took was a winning season, the first bowl victory at Illinois in 11 years and promise of even better times to come. The promise is expected to be fulfilled in 2011. Some Illini fans are even talking about playing in the Big Ten’s first title game.
Why all the optimism at a school two years removed from a 3–9 record? Start with the offense, which set an Illinois record for points in a season (423) under Petrino in his first-year as the coordinator.
With most of the staff intact and a favorable schedule (eight home games, no Iowa or Nebraska), the Fighting Illini are counting on the school’s first back-to-back bowl appearances in almost two decades.