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Four questions heading into Illini football spring practice

Illinois coaches Ron Zook and Bruce Weber both will hold press conferences on Tuesday. For maybe the first time in his six-year tenure at Illinois, the football coach may field less pointed queries than his basketball counterpart.

But after losing three All-Big Ten players that are expected to be taken in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft – defensive tackle Corey Liuget, running back Mikel Leshoure and linebacker Martez Wilson – Zook’s Illini still have plenty of questions to be answered during spring practice, which starts Tuesday at 7 a.m.

1. Will the Illini maintain momentum of the Texas Bowl win?

For the first time since 2000, the Illini head into the spring fresh off a bowl win, a 38-14 victory over Baylor in the Texas Bowl. Optimism abounds for a program seemingly surrounded with perennial cyniscm. But that was the story after the 2001 Big Ten championship season and subsequent Sugar Bowl bid (a 47-34 loss to LSU) as well as a surprise appearance in the 2008 Rose Bowl (a 49-17 loss to USC). Can the Illini finally break the streak and post back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1989-90? The odds seem in the Illini’s favor given the schedule (eight home games) and a seemingly more open Big Ten race given Ohio State’s suspensions. But we had similar thoughts in 2002 and 2008.

2. Will the offense take the next step in Year 2 of Paul Petrino?

It’s no wonder why Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino received a $50,000 raise – he will make $525,000 next year – following his first season in Champaign. His accomplishments were extraordinary:

–         The Illini set the school record for most points in a season (423) and tied a school record by averaging 32.5 points per game

–         Running back Mikel Leshoure rushed for a school record 1,697 yards

–         Redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase set a school record for rushing yards in a season by a quarterback with 815

Leshoure will not be easy to replace, though Jason Ford is plenty capable and proven and Scheelhaase should ease the rushing burden on the backs. But the Illini offense seems posed for another big year. Three starters return to the offensive line – which looks like the strength of the entire Illini team – in addition to former starting tackle Corey Lewis, who sat out 2010 with a knee injury. Scheelhaase appears to play the part of quarterback/leader but led a passing attack that ranked 10th in the Big Ten. He must avoid the freshman-like, bad games (three interceptions in losses to Missouri and Michigan State). He never will have the strongest arm, but he has the benefit of returning leading receiver A.J. Jenkins to mix with developing, high-ceiling weapons, like sophomores Evan Wilson, Darius Millines and Ryan Lankford.

 

3. Who steps up in the front seven?

The Illini return just three starters in the front seven: bandit Michael Buchanan, defensive tackle Akeem Spence and linebacker Martez Wilson. Jonathan Brown is the only returning linebacker with significant experience, while backup defensive linemen Glenn Foster, Wisdom Onyegbule, Tim Kynard and Darryle Ballew (the foursome combined for 14 tackles last year) must take on bigger roles to fill the holes. Wilson will be missed, but Liuget – possibly a top-20 pick in the NFL Draft – is the tougher spot to fill. Spence, a freshman All-American, could follow in Liuget’s footsteps in a few years, and the Illini might need that for the defense to look more like its early-season self (allowed 124 points over the first eight games) than the late-season collapse (155 points over the last four regular season games).

4. Can the Illini secondary be the strength of the defense?

The front seven may have questions, but the back four starters could be set. Three starters return – safeties Trulon Henry and Tavon Wilson (he could return to cornerback) and cornerback Justin Green – and possibly the team’s best athlete (junior Terry Hawthorne) likely will fill the other spot after having time to return from nagging injuries. The group improved from the 100th-ranked passing defense in 2009 to the 61st last season and helped the team go from an NCAA-worst five interceptions in 2009 to 11 interceptions last season. With four players capable of playing at the next level, the group has the talent to make the jump from average to special.

 

Jeremy Werner is co-host of the “Tay and J Show,” which airs on 93.5, 95.3 ConnectFM and on www.myconnectfm.com. Post your comments below or e-mail Jeremy at jeremy@myconnectfm.com.

 

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