Last year the Illinois Fighting Illini got a bowl win for the first time since 1999, a 38-14 drubbing of Baylor in Houston that kind of resembled their last bowl win, a 63-21 destruction of Virginia. The offense got very hot down the stretch last season, so hot that the unit set new records for points scored and total points.
This year QB Nathan Scheelhaase is up for the Maxwell Award, and the dual threat quarterback made huge strides towards the end of last year. He completed his first 12 passes (including all in the first half) of the Texas Bowl, and tossed just 1 interception in his final 7 games. He set a school record for rushing yards by a QB (858) and had a very solid 17-8 TD-INT ratio. The redshirt freshman no doubt benefited greatly form the extra practices that comes along with bowl prep.
"A quarterback being in the second year is huge for us, we put a lot of pressure on the quarterback, he makes a lot of checks and the line of scrimmage in the run game, just mentally he's so much sharper and that makes him more confident, cuz he can go out there not worrying about making mistakes," Offensive Coordinator Paul Petrino said.
WR A.J. Jenkins will be #1 in the receiving corps (but he’ll need help from Darius Millines and Ryan Lankford, go here for more on that)
Lankford was the team’s most improved player this spring. And if these trends continue, he could become Illinois’ third option. A.J. Jenkins, who had 746 yards and 7 TDs last season, made the Biletnikoff watch list; he’s the #1. Darius Millines, who had a big catch in the Texas Bowl will be the #2. And Lankford who also had a huge 52 yard reception also in the big postseason win over Baylor, will be #3.
Jenkins has made his goals clear on both the team: "12-0, big ten championship, and a big time bowl game" and individual level: 80+ catches, 1200+ receiving yards and 10+ touchdown catches."
"Me being the guy that's trying to be the stud this year I'm looking to have a real big year," said Jenkins quoting Petrino's F.T.S (feed the studs) philosophy.
There isn’t much experience there, as Lankford and Millines combined for just 8 catches, 171 yards. So that probably doesn’t help Illini fans sleep much at night. However, no one benefited more from the 15 extra practices a bowl game gets you than these two receivers, and no one made bigger strides than Lankford in the spring.
When Rashard Mendenhall left the Illinois Fighting Illini with a year of eligibility left in 2007, for the NFL Draft, Illinois suffered the next year. Aside from that whole “planes cannot take down a building” tweets of idiocy and the sponsorship pullout that followed, things have gone pretty well for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Mendenhall.
But for the two years that followed, the running game suffered in Champaign. They struggled to find both offensive balance and an heir to ‘Shard. Until last year when Mikel Leshoure, wearing the same jersey #5, and also in his junior season grabbed the position and broke almost all of those big time single season school rushing records that Mendenhall had just broke in 2007. Leshoure left school early just like ‘Shard and was also a high round NFL draft pick.
What does 2011 hold? Hopefully, history doesn’t repeat. It's Jason Ford's job as he has by far the most experience of any running back on the roster. He’s also been named to the Doak Walker watch list, honoring the nation’s best RB. Troy “Bucket of Hair” Pollard (who has kind of a Daniel Dufrene skill set and running style) will be the second string, but don't forget about freshmen Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young.
"Those two freshmen are pretty good, he (Ford) might not get as many touches (as Mikel did last year). The best thing is, there's a whole bunch of talent there, and there's competition and that makes you be the best you can be," offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said.
Go here for more on Ford
Ford, just like Leshoure last year, is taking conditioning and streamlining his body very seriously.
The coaching staff would like to have him around 232-233, he's above that right now, but he's still under 240. And of course muscle is heavier than fat, so that must be factored into the equation.
"I just want to keep working hard throughout the summer. I’m better conditioned, I’ve lost some weight. I just want to keep doing what I could in the offense. I still played a lot last year and did some good things," Ford said.
Hugh Thornton and Jeff Allen are the most talented in a good OL group.
For a concise season preview go here
Paul M. Banks is CEO of The Sports Bank.net, an official Google News site that generates millions of unique visitors. He’s also a regular contributor to Chicago Now, Walter Football.com, Yardbarker, and Fox Sports
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Tags: darius millines, illini, illini football, illini football 2011, illinois football, illinois ground game, illinois runners, illinois running backs, illinois rushing attack, jason ford, mikel leshoure, mikel leshoure rashard mendenall, Rashard Mendenhall, rashard mendenhall mikel leshoure, ryan lankford, troy pollard