89 Illini (Part X) July 26, 2011
6,782 days. Six thousand, seven hundred eighty two days. Care to guess what happened 6,782 days ago?
Illinois appeared in its second consecutive bowl game. Fifth consecutive, actually. But the last time Illinois went bowling the season following a year where Illinois went bowling was 6,782 days ago. Bush was president (the other one), Cheers was still on the air, people still used phrases like “on the air” for television shows, and Nnanna Egwu wasn’t born yet.
6,782 days. 89 Illini players with a chance to break that streak this fall. 8 home games. 1 goal.
Consecutive bowl games.
16. Evan Wilson
This has to be the biggest jump in these rankings. Last year he was #86, I believe. Everything in his high school bio and recruiting evaluations screamed redshirt, yet there he was in the Missouri game, our starting tight end. If he can stay injury free, he can hold the rare distinction of starting every game of his college career. Come to think of it, Wilson and Scheelhaase and Prosch can all start 52 games together. Oops, sorry – 53.
Last year, Wilson caught 10 balls for 135 yards and two touchdowns (Jason Ford’s halfback pass at Penn State and a wide open TD against Indiana). This fall, I think he can double all of those numbers. And I’m really excited about his upperclassman years. He has the size and the athleticism to be a very solid Big Ten tight end.
15. Whitney the Mercilus
If you go to Rantoul to check out a practice, watch Mercilus in defensive line drills. Especially the explode-off-the-line defensive line drills. Last year, Corey Liuget stood out – he was moving 1/32 of a second after the snap. This spring, with Liuget out of the picture, Mercilus stood out. He’s pretty explosive, and defensive ends need to be explosive. I think he’ll have a solid but not spectacular junior season and then a spectacular not solid senior season. With Liuget gone and less pressure coming up the middle, we must get pressure on the quarterback from the edges. The majority of that will, hopefully, come from the Mercilus one.
14. Hugh Thornton
I feel a little bit sad for Hugh Thornton in that the majority of offensive line preseason hype has centered around Jeff Allen and Graham Pocic. “You know, Illinois could have a pretty solid offensive line with Allen and Pocic” – that kind of thing. I’m of the opinion that the preseason hype machine should spit out the following: “You know, with Allen playing next to Thornton playing next to Pocic, that left side of the Illinois offensive line – which switches to the right side on a Petrino whim – is one of the strongest parts of the team. Run behind those three guys with Jay Prosch leading the way and I think I could gain 1,000 yards.”
At least Adam Rittenberg got it right on his ESPN blog. He lists Thornton as the third best guard in the entire conference. He also lists Pocic as the fifth best center and Allen as the third best tackle, so yeah, that side of the line should be pretty solid. In fact, Wisconsin is the only other Big Ten school with players ranked at all three positions.
13. Jay Prosch
I nominate Jay Prosch for the Easiest Illini Player To Cheer For award. He came out of nowhere. He started as a true freshman. He holds team weightlifting records already. And he made a few blocks in the Northwestern game that made Pat Fitzgerald himself drop the arrogance and applaud. Prosch just might be a cult hero by the time he leaves Champaign – he’s that rare combination of strength, speed, and understanding of the blocking game. And the “understanding” part can’t be overemphasized. I’ve watched a lot of Illini Football on tape this offseason. So many times, when Jay Prosch hits the hole, he chooses the correct player to block. So many times, it provided just enough of a hole for Mikel to burst through.
You know how in arena football they let one receiver get a running head start? Well, in Illini football, we have 6 offensive lineman. And one gets a running head start.
12. Trulon Henry
This defense needs leaders. It needs a few seniors to step forward and lead the team towards a second consecutive bowl game. Who better than the Old Man? This is the fifth and final year of someone from his family donning the orange and blue – why not go out in style?
Henry excels in positioning. He’s not a fast guy or a fluid-hips guy. He’s a right place, right time guy. Which is why the slowest guy in our secondary led us in interceptions last year. I had designs on moving him forward to Nate Bussey’s old Sam linebacker position, but the coaches weren’t buying. They want Henry to combine with Supo Sanni, STEVEHULL, and PNY to give us our best rotation of safeties since Mitchell-Harrison-Sanders. I’m hoping that’s what we’ll see.
11. Derek Dimke
Kickers are hard to rank. Something tells me they shouldn’t ever be ranked in the top-10 – I mean, they’re just kickers – but when you look back on a season and realize that two missed field goals could make you 5-7 instead of 7-5, you consider ranking them #1.
Speaking of #1, that’s where Rittenberg ranks Dimke among Big Ten kickers. I might go one further – if he wants to, he can be the top kicker in the nation. Some kickers are deadly accurate but don’t have a big leg, and some have a big leg but aren’t particularly accurate (those kickers are called “kickoff specialists”). Dimke is both. He’s an amazing 29-34 on field goals in his career, and he led the Big Ten in touchbacks last year. If he keeps that up, he’ll probably find himself at the award ceremony at the end of the year as a Lou Groza award finalist.
10. Jonathan Brown
I’ll be honest. I originally ranked him #4 on this list. After the spring game, I was so excited about this kid that I wanted to make a statement – I will put him in the top-5 and declare his greatness to the world before he reveals his greatness to the world.
But over the month that I’ve been cranking through this series, I’ve thought more and more about it, and I think #4 is too high for a true sophomore. (Yes, I’m delusional enough to think that my blog in a tiny corner of the internet would somehow put too much pressure on a sophomore linebacker by ranking him in the top-5.) So, I moved him to #10. Yes, he has to get his anger under control (he was tossed out of a spring scrimmage for fighting – again), but not too under control. I want him to play with a healthy level of Butkus anger. If he can do that, and if he can continue to learn and grow under Vic Koenning, he can lead the team in tackles. He has a nose for the ball. Man – now I want to move him back up to #4.
9. Terry Hawthorne
It is with great sadness that I rank the Black Cat #9. Last year, I had him at #2 and expected big things on defense, in the return game, and even on a few offensive plays. Then he broke his foot before the Missouri game. Then, this spring, he sprained his ankle. Combine that with his broken hand during his freshman year, and you have the reason I lowered him down to 9th: the uncertainty that he’ll ever be 100% healthy.
When healthy, I firmly believe he’s one of the top-10 athletes in the Big Ten conference. The Michigan game in 2009 showed us that he’s ridiculously fast. The 2010 spring game showed us that he can be an electrifying punt returner. The Texas Bowl showed us he can be pretty good when he’s healthy. Here’s hoping – who am I kidding, here’s praying and fasting – that Terry Hawthorne plays the 2011 season injury free.
I want him to make a push for #1 on this list next summer.