Illini fans finally have reason to hope

Tim Cronin

With breakouts

Illinois football fans have suffered through five straight losing seasons, nine losing campaigns in the past 11, and have witnessed only one conference win at home in the past four years.

Yet Fighting Illini fans have bought more than 34,000 season tickets. They believe the turnaround promised by head coach Ron Zook is just around the corner.

How long it will take to negotiate that corner - and the ability of the Illini to take it without skidding further into college football’s gravel trap - is unknown. But Zook has recruited well since arriving in Champaign, especially last winter, when he landed a class that caused others in the Big Ten to all but accuse him of cheating.

His players are the first to defend him.

“Why can’t Illinois go after the top players,” linebacker J Leman said.

Why not Illinois, indeed?

That attitude is what Zook has been selling since he replaced Ron Turner, whose program went from the heights of a Big Ten title and Sugar Bowl berth in 2001, to the depths of a 1-11 season in two short years, a collapse so complete even now heads shake when it’s recalled.

A lack of talent was the reason. Turner failed to recruit well. So far, Zook has lived up to the reputation he built quickly at Florida. Now, the question that was never fully answered in Gainesville pops up in Champaign: Can he coach the players he’s recruited?

All those Illinois season-ticket buyers seem to think so, because they’re not coming to eyeball the ongoing construction site known as Memorial Stadium. (While the stadium’s capacity will be 57,078 this season, the Illini haven’t hit the usual 69,000 capacity since hosting Michigan in 2002.)

There were some signs last year that the Illini were rousing themselves from the long slumber. A road win at Michigan State, the first victory in Big Ten play in 11 games. Playing No. 1 Ohio State even for a half before yielding by a 17-10 margin. The development of raw freshman Isiah “Juice” Williams at quarterback.

Zook saw the signs, and thinks his team can build on them.

“We got to the point last year where we feel we can win,” Zook said. “Now, we’ve got to go and win. We’ve got to take the next step.”

That begins with Williams, whose freshman mistakes should be behind him.

Williams’ 2006 numbers - 39.5 percent completions, nine touchdown passes and as many interceptions, along with 576 rushing yards and two touchdown runs - don’t explain his potential, but game tapes do. He can wing the ball more than 60 yards on the fly, dashes through potential tacklers like an eel weaving around coral reefs and has the ability to change the complexion of a game with one play.

Last year, that frequently came because of a fumble or interception.

“He is focused, he is excited, he is confident,” Zook said, adding that improvement is expected from the Chicago Vocational grad who has lowered his body fat to 5 percent while jumping to 230 pounds.

Williams’ ability to do anything at any time means his linemen have to be on their toes.

“We know he’ll be scrambling,” guard Martin O’Donnell said. “Our coaches harp on it: ‘Stay on your block until the echo of the whistle.’ ”

If that gives Williams an extra tenth of a second to escape, it could pay a dividend in the form of 15 extra yards.

It is too much, of course, to pin all of Illinois’ hopes on the feet and arm of a sophomore quarterback who has started in just nine games. Williams will need plenty of help.

It arrives at tailback in the person of Rashard Mendenhall, who succeeds Pierre Thomas. Mendenhall rushed for 640 yards last year, when the Illini unobtrusively led the Big Ten in rushing. It also arrives at receiver, where Kyle Hudson returns as the leading receiver and is joined by freshman Rejus Benn, who has bounced back from a shoulder injury suffered in training camp.

There’s also help on defense, beginning with Leman, whose 152 tackles last year included 19 behind the line of scrimmage. Alongside is Antonio Steele, who made 85 tackles last season, and freshman Martez Wilson may also see more action than first-year players usually see at linebacker.

But Illinois’ big defensive problem in recent years has been pass defense, as last year’s 2,187 yards of passing allowed shows. If that improves, and if the Illini stop giving opponents the ball on the opponent’s 38-yard line, the average starting position of drives against Illinois last year, the Illini have a chance to improve rapidly on their last several seasons.

If the improvement is instant, a 4-0 start is possible, beginning with Saturday’s opener against Missouri in St. Louis. If it takes longer, well, Illinois fans have been waiting a long time already.


2006 record: 2-10 (1-7 Big Ten, T-10th)

Head coach: Ron Zook (3rd year at Illinois, 4-19; 6th year overall, 27-33)

Returning starters: 20 (9 offense, 9 defense, 2 special teams)

Lost starters: 4 (2 offense, 2 defense)

Returning lettermen: 46 (22 offense, 21 defense, 3 special teams)

Lost lettermen: 17 (12 offense, 4 defense, 1 special teams)

Key returnees: QB Isiah Williams, WR Kyle Hudson, LB J Leman, DT Chris Norwell, K Jason Reda.

Key losses: RB Pierre Thomas, RB E.B. Halsey, CB Alan Ball.

Key game: Sept. 29 vs. Penn State. Illinois could be 3-1 entering, but beating the Nittany Lions would be the first big win since Zook arrived.

Key question: Will Williams’ maturation at quarterback offset the loss of experience at running back?


Sept. 1: Missouri at St. Louis, 2:30 p.m.

Sept. 8: Western Illinois, 6 p.m.

Sept. 15: at Syracuse, 11 a.m.

Sept. 22: at Indiana

Sept. 29: Penn State

Oct. 6: Wisconsin

Oct. 13: at Iowa

Oct. 20: Michigan

Oct. 27: Ball State, 11 a.m.

Nov. 3: at Minnesota, 7 p.m.

Nov. 10: at Ohio State

Nov. 17: Northwestern