Illinois HC Ron Zook answered some questions and surprised Big Ten observers last season by bringing the Illini back into the bowl picture after back-to-back losing seasons in 2008 & 2009. Zook’s squad recorded a key late-season win against Northwestern in Chicago’s Wrigley Field to get bowl-eligible with 6 wins in the regular season and lock up a trip to the Texas Bowl. A rout of Baylor in that game made life much easier for the oft-maligned Zook while at the same time marking a coming-of-age for budding star QB Nathan Scheelhaase.

The Illini attack set a school record for scoring and led the Big Ten in rushing, gathering momentum in the second half of the 2010 season. Illinois scored 42 ppg and generated 449 ypg in the last seven contests a year ago. Soph Scheelhaase was at the center of the offensive development as a redshirt frosh a year ago, averaging 243 yds. in total offense in the last six games. Scheelhaase wasn’t asked to do a whole lot early in the year beyond handing the ball to RB Mikel LeShoure, but the rapidly-maturing QB completed 61% in the last eight games of the season. Scheelhaase threw 13 of his 17 TD passes in the final 7 contests, with just one interception in that string. The soph from Kansas City finished with 868 YR (4.7 ypc) and grew into a team leader. LeShoure (5th in the nation in rushing in 2010) opted for the NFL rather than return for his final season of eligibility, but the Illini faithful feel 235-pound senior Jason Ford is capable of giving the offense a similar ground threat. Ford has gained 4.9 ypc and scored 19 TDs over the last three seasons, although he’s carried the ball 20 times in a game just once in his career. Ford was held out of contact in spring and then suffered an embarrassing run-in with the law in late April when he was arrested for driving with a suspended license.

The offensive line should be improved, as the “big uglies” return four starters including second-team all-Big Ten T Jeff Allen. An additional bonus up front is the return of 6-6, 305-lb. T Corey Lewis, who was being penciled in as a starter before being forced to sit out the season after injuring his knee in the spring of 2010. Last year’s leading receiver, A.J. Jenkins (56 catches), missed spring work as well, but he’ll be expected to put together a monster season as the lead receiver for an improved Scheelhaase. Zook has a knack for recruiting and developing tight ends, and 6-6, 240-lb. soph Evan Wilson should prove an effective target after contributing 10 catches and a pair of scores in starting 11 games as a true frosh a year ago.

The Illini defense absorbed body blows when LB Martez Wilson and DT Corey Liuget both decided to follow LeShoure and turn professional a year early. Four of the top six tacklers must be replaced, so Zook’s recruiting prowess will be tested. A pair of potential run-stuffers remain on hand, as 305-lb. DT Akeem Spence was a frosh all-America last season and senior Craig Wilson (6-5, 320) made a successful move from offense to defense in spring. RS frosh LB Houston Bates was coveted by LSU before Zook scooped him up, and Bates (6-3, 245) could be a solid replacement for Martez Wilson.

Respected defensive coordinator Vic Koenning could make some major advancements with his secondary, which ranked a mediocre 61st a year ago in allowing 220 ypg passing. Jr. S Supo Sanni (6-3, 220) and CB Miami Thomas are both healthy again after injuries, and they join potential all-Big Ten CB Terry Hawthorne plus last year’s starters CB Justin Green, S Trulon Henry and S Tavon Wilson. Hawthorne missed five games last season with injuries, but was named to the frosh all-Big Ten team in 2009. This deep, competitive unit will give opposing QBs a much stiffer test in 2011.

Summary: Zook has a young team that’s just coming into a potential peak season. Pressure from the athletic department forced a shakeup of the staff last season, and the addition of d.c. Koenning and o.c. Paul Petrino proved productive as well as prudent. Zook is confident the team can build behind Scheelhaase, who he says, “will do nothing but get better.” The Illini have covered 9 of their last 10 as an underdog, and Zook’s squad appears to be a go-with in most situations despite losing a core of players to the NFL. With eight home games and a relatively easy conference road schedule (at Indiana, Purdue, Penn State and Minny), Illinois will be in the hunt to represent the “Leaders” in the Big Ten Championship at Indianapolis.

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