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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

VERY early brief Spring Preview: Offense

I might more in depth at a later point in time, but here's a quick look at what the Illini are dealing with going into spring ball:

I don't believe that dates/times for spring practice have been announced yet... using the last few years as a guide I would imagine practice will start the weekend of March 22nd or 29th with the spring game April 19th or 26th...

How we did: Pretty well overall. Whether or not we passed the ball well (and we weren't terrible), Juice is the heart and soul of this team (Especially with Rashard gone), and he did an excellent job executing our offense, especially in the run game, last fall.
Who's gone: Mark Venegoni, walkon QB For the last four seasons. Technically he was only a RS Junior, but he participated in Senior Day activities, so my guess is that he is hanging it up.
How much does it hurt?: None. Kudos for four years of service to the program, and it was good to see him get some snaps at the end of the Northwestern game, but this won't affect the product on the field this fall at all.
What we need: If we get a player who is better than Juice, thats great, but with a likely redshirt for any incoming QB, nobody coming in will be helping us next season. Right now we need depth at the QB position.
Who's new: Phil Haig was on the roster last year, but was red shirted, this will be his first Spring Session with the Illini, there are no new QB's joining the team in the spring.
How much can they help?: Hard to tell.
Who's still around: Juice Williams, Eddie McGee, Billy Garza (who *might* not be back), Ryan Baise (walkon)
Who's coming in the fall: Jacob Charest, 3-4* QB from North Carolina, possible heir-apparant to Juice.
What's up for grabs: I wouldn't rule out Eddie making an argument for the starting spot, but in all likely hood the matchup to watch will be Eddie vs. Phil Haig for the #2 spot... (and that may not be much of a competition either, but its a chance to see what Phil's got)

How we did: Really, really good. Let's just say that "" is even harder to type into the address bar... otherwise i might have gone with that.
Who's gone: Big Ten Player of the year Rashard Mendenhall.
How much does it hurt?: uncle! UNCLE!!!!
Who's still around: Daniel Dufrene figures to be the starting tailback for the Illini this fall. Walter Mendenhall only got a few carries this year, but he could see some snaps this fall... Walksons Maurice Haney, Tyler Pacha, and Mike Mucha round out the squad.
What we need: Another Rashard Mendenhall. Failing that, we need a solid power back to compliment smaller shiftier backs like Dufrene and Pollard
Who's new: Mikel LeShoure, 3* from Champaign Centennial High School will be on campus this spring. Troy Pollard (who saw limited action this year before an ACL injury) should be back from his Medical Redshirt.
How much can they help?: Potentially quite a bit... LeShoure has the size to be a power back, and was very impressive in HS... maybe its folks in East Central Illinois drinking too much kool-ade, but he could be something special, regardless, he is certainly more than your typical token "townie" on the roster.
Who's coming in the fall: Althoff sensation Jason Ford will join the team in the summer, he should be competing with LeShoure for significant playing time this fall.
What's up for grabs: With Rashard gone all bets are off, my personal feeling is that we return to runningback-by-committee and we will see 3 or so players get significant minutes this fall... we have 5 scholarship backs fighting for playing time this spring, with Ford potentially entering the mix this fall (and I don't like to talk much about uncommitted prospects, but 5* RB Jamie Harper has Illinois on his radar, and if he commits alot could change.)

How we did: Pretty good, Russ Weil was very solid for the Illini this year, helping greatly in pass protection and especially as a lead blocker.
Who's gone: Russ Weil, which pretty much means about 90% of our snaps at FB this year.
How much does it hurt?: FB isn't exactly the most vital position in our offense, but its nice to have a solid player at the position... added TE depth (more below) should factor in, but we need to replace Weil none the less.
Who's still around: another LB turned FB, Rahkeem Smith, who started for the injured Weil against Northwestern, should be starting this fall. Walkon Nick Levanti is also listed on the roster, but he doesn't have a bio on so I don't know much about him.
What we need: We need Rahkeem to be a solid lead blocker and pound open holes for whatever tailback happens to be in the game... additional depth would be nice at the position, buts its not an area of great concern.
Who's new: Nobody really.
How much can they help?: uh...
Who's coming in the fall: Nobody.
What's up for grabs: Playing time. If Rahkeem proves himself a valuable asset on the field, he will see a good amount of action. If he doesn't, then we probably don't use a FB that often.

Tight End:
How we did: Not exactly a position to rave about, but Hoo-man did his thing... he blocked some, he caught a few passes, got a couple of touchdowns, and his last name confused the living hell out of pretty much the entire Big Ten Network.
Who's gone: Nobody. I suppose we can officially declare Jeff Cumberland not-a-tight end anymore...
How much does it hurt?: a little as far as depth goes, but we have help on the way.
Who's still around: Michael Hoomanawanui, plus walkon Tom Sullivan who found his way onto the field every once in a while in short yardage situations.
What we need:We need someone who can shred defenses catching the ball and still block for the running game. Hoomanawanui is a very solid player, but not quite the dual threat type of player I would like to see us have.
Who's new: Nobody this spring.
How much can they help?: N/A
Who's coming in the fall: 4* Hubie Graham and 3* London Davis, ranked 12th and 51st in the nation per scout.
What's up for grabs: Not much in the spring, tight end could be a contest this fall though.

Offensive Line:
How we did: Most improved unit on the team by a country mile this year. Our blocking for the run game was outstanding, and except for the USC game, Juice was pretty safe in the pocket this year. The USC game exposed our weaknesses, but the unit continues to get better, and should be a strong part of the team next year.
Who's gone: Starting LG Martin O'Donnell and starting RT Akim Millington are both gone.
How much does it hurt?: O'Donnell will be sorely missed, after a lackluster start to his Illinois career, Akim Millington became a pretty solid tackle and will also be missed. Charles Myles ("Big Chuck") is also presumably gone after being injured before the start of his RS senior year.
Who's still around: Three starters: Ryan McDonald (C), Xavier Fulton (LT), and Jon Asamoah (RG) will be defending their starting positions. Randal Hunt, Brandon Jordan, Ryan Palmer, and Eric Block are returning players who look to get significant playing time.
What we need: More depth, more speed.
Who's new: Mark Jackson, Craig Wilson, and Jack Cornell are all coming off of redshirt seasons, and will be competing to move up the depth chart this spring. Graham Pocic and Jeff Allen are both on campus this spring, and will almost certainly redshirt this fall. Pocic, the #16 OT in the nation, is the highest rated lineman in the class.
How much can they help?: TBD. I think Wilson and Cornell especially will be fighting for alot of potential playing time.
Who's coming in the fall: Tyler Sands and Ryan Sedlacek
What's up for grabs: Right now I have Jack Cornell inked to replace O'Donnell at LG and Ryan Palmer (who played 2nd string most of last year) at the RT position. I would expect Craig Wilson and Mark Jackson, in particular, to battle for a starting job as well. This might be one of the hottest competitions this spring.

Wide Receivers:
How we did: Mixed bag. Arrelious Benn is "The Truth", Jeff Cumberland returned from the grave to be a star in the last third of the season, Jacob Willis went from another face on the sideline to someone we are gonna miss. Joe Morgan and Marques Wilkins struggled at times, and Kyle Hudson was on and off as well. Brian Gamble turned out to be the suprise player from the 07 recruiting class, having a pretty solid freshman campaign, but there is a chance he goes back to being a DB next year.
Who's gone: DaJuan Warren, Jacob Willis, and Frank Lenti Jr.
How much does it hurt?: Jacob Willis will hurt... he was probably our best deep threat last year... catching bombs for TD's against Minnesota and Ohio State late in the year. DaJuan found a bit of time late in the year but was largely passed up by the youth movement, Lenti Jr spent all year as the holder for kicks, and did a commendable job at it.
Who's still around: Benn, Cumberland, Hudson, Morgan, Wilkins are the core of the group, with Gamble a possible returner to WR as well. Greg McClendon and Will Judson are also on the roster with walkons Jack Eastman, Kevin Bailey, and Alex Reavy. Also not to be forgotten (and most notable) is Chris James, who was probably the #2 receiver going into last year, but sat out with a medical redshirt.
What we need: Someone to hold onto the damn ball. We got better at it last year, and will likely be better next year.
Who's new: Fred Sykes, a 2* prospect, will be on campus this spring. Jarred Fayson, a 4* transfer from Florida is on campus but will have to sit out the 08 season. He will be a big part of what could be a f*%&ing amazing WR corp for Juice's senior year.
How much can they help?: Sykes is probably a redshirt candidate, and Fayson won't be around until 09...
Who's coming in the fall: Four top-80 prospects. Russell Ellington (3*, #80), Suppo Sanni (3*, #51), Cordale Scott (4*, #37) and A.J. Jenkins (4*, #36). All four of them have a real shot at getting playing time this fall... the incoming class of WR's and TE's is ranked #2 in the nation by
What's up for grabs: Arrelious Benn will be starting at one of the WR slots next year. Thats about all we know. If I had to guess I'd say Chris James and Jeff Cumberland will defending starting jobs leaving the spring game... We will likely work with a 7-8 man rotation this fall... and with the Freshman we have coming in players like Hudson, Gamble, Wilkins, and Morgan need to perform this spring.

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