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Univ of Illinois Football Preview
by Tom Stryker - 06/18/2006
If you havenâ€™t taken that summer vacation yet, hurry up! Football season is just around the corner.
Beginning today on this site we will take an early look at the teams in the Big Ten. We will mix in some baseball stories as the races move along, but you can count on all 11 Big Ten football teams being previewed here in the coming weeks. Just to show no partiality, we will do the Big Ten alphabetically - starting today with Illinois.
The Illini have nowhere to go but up following a disastrous 2-9 campaign in 2005. And, though Coach Ron Zook will still have to show some patience with his kids, Zook is not a patient mam.
His defense was near the bottom of the nation in all categories last year. His offense was held to 14 points or fewer on six occasions - and his squad lost its last nine games.
No one is expecting the Illini to threaten for the Big Ten title, but there will be improvement.
It will begin in the trenches. Despite having all five starters back, the offensive line has been reworked. For instance, right tackle Ryan McDonald is being switched to center, former center Matt Maddox is going to right guard - and more. Newcomer Akim Millington, an Oklahoma transfer, was impressive in spring ball. He is likely to compete for the left tackle slot.
The receivers, a detriment in 2005, could be a 2006 strength. Consider this: At least four players who caught 13 passes or more return for Zook and the Illini!
Despite some academic difficulties that limited his spring action, quarterback Tim Brasic returns as the Illini signal-caller. Brasic completed 61 percent of his passes last fall, but his interceptions (11) equaled his touchdown passes. Many Illinois fans are looking for the debut of quarterback Isiah Williams, a highly-regarded freshman.
A pair of veteran running backs also return. Seniors Pierre Thomas and E.B. Halsey had decent campaigns a year ago. Thomas ran for 664 yards, while Halsey added 38 pass receptions to his ball-carrying duties.
The players already are in uncoached, voluntary workouts. They follow an offseason that many Illini players spent hard at it in the weight room.
The defense is hoping that strength work will pay off. Vince Okruch (of Colorado) has replaced Mike Mallory as defensive coordinator for the Illini.
Three of the top four tacklers last year were members of the secondary - a stat no coach wants to see. Tight end Will Davis was moved to defensive end to help strengthen the defensive line. But, juniors Alan Ball and Kevin Mitchell return, along with senior cornerback Sharriff Abdullah to lend some consistency and experience to the Illinois defensive side.
Steve Weatherford, a four-year punter, has graduated, but junior Jason Reda, who made 13 of 20 field goals in 2005, returns to help the Illinois special teams.
In addition to help from the veterans named above, Zook will need plenty of help from incoming talent.
The schedule includes non-conference games with Eastern Illinois, Rutgers, Syracuse and Ohio U. The Illini will need to post Wâ€™s in those games to make the year successful.
Illinoisâ€™ first test in conference play is in week four at home against rugged Iowa. In 2006, Illinois does not meet Michigan or Minnesota in Big Ten action.