89 Illini (The Top Eight) July 31, 2011
So on Friday, a little birdie told me that the Zooker quoted this A Lion Eye post at the Big Ten Media Days. Ok, maybe “quoted” is a little much – I was informed that Ron Zook pulled out a piece of paper at the press conference and read some statistics. Some very specific statistics over a very specific time frame that emphasized a very specific point: our non-conference scheduling over the past three years has not only been atrocious, but monumentally atrocious when compared to our Big Ten brethren. And Northwestern hasn’t played anyone.
But by yesterday morning, I had talked myself out of the statistics being A Lion Eye-based. Anyone could run the numbers and come up with the same stats, right? Maybe he had someone run the 3-year non-conference schedule strength numbers and asked them to exclude all FCS gimme games. Maybe it wasn’t ALE’s big day. But then my step-dad pointed me to this:
Digging into his suit pockets, coach Ron Zook searched for a sheet of paper he felt would illuminate the challenges Illinois faced in nonconference play the last three seasons.
Although the numbers were slightly off, the 82-36 cumulative record of the Illini’s Bowl Subdivision opponents upheld his contention that they have not taken an easy path.
So I ran Stu’s numbers against mine, and I found why the “numbers were slightly off”. I ran the numbers for the regular season records of all Big Ten non-conference Football Bowl Subdivision opponents – Stu included bowl games. And when you include bowl games, my 80-28 becomes Stu’s 82-36. Is it possible that someone else (or the Zooker) ran the numbers for those three specific years, excluded FCS games, excluded bowl results, and listed the schedule strength of those 9 non-conference games for every Big Ten team, compiling a list that finishes with Northwestern’s pitiful 27-81? Nope.
8. Graham Pocic
Want to know how I know we’re gonna run the ball a lot this fall? Because 4 of the 8 most important Illini players have something to do with our run game. And guys like Prosch and Thornton aren’t too far outside the top-10. When your strengths are road-grading offensive linemen, spin-move tailbacks, and fleet afoot QB’s, you run the ball.
And run the ball we will. While Jeff Allen is solid in all phases of the game, Graham Pocic is probably our best run blocker. There were times during scrimmages this spring where he took our two redshirt freshman defensive tackles and sent them flying. And yes, I’m choosing to believe that it’s because Pocic is a beast, not just because the redshirt freshmen aren’t ready yet. Pocic has two tasks over the next 18 months: find himself on the First Team All Big Ten by the end of the 2012 season, and get his blue-chip brother (class of 2013) to come to Champaign.
7. Ian Thomas
As I mentioned earlier, I went back and forth with our linebackers. Jonathan Brown clearly had the better spring, so he should clearly be placed in front of Ian Thomas on this list, yes?
No. This is a “most important” list, as in “most vital to our success this fall”, which makes Thomas the clear winner. Quite simply, if he makes a leap forward in his final year like Martez did in his final year, we’ll be just fine on defense. He has the experience (this will be his 5th season, third as a starter) and the know-how (his second year as a starting inside linebacker in Koenning’s system) – now it’s time for him to make a statement. This can be his defense. He can make the calls and make the plays and get the offense back on the field. Here’s hoping he goes out on top.
6. AJ Jenkins
So not every offensive player on this list is connected to our run game. AJ can make a statement of his own this fall: “this isn’t just a running team”. I’ve expected great things from AJ ever since the Minnesota game in 2008. He adjusted to two balls that day – one a touchdown in the north endzone, the other a deep bomb down the west sideline – that showed us everything we needed to know about his potential.
Last year, he began to act on that potential, leading the team in three categories: receptions, receiving yards, and drag routes that were still successful even though the opponent practiced for it all week knowing it was coming. This year, I’ll set one simple goal for AJ: 844 receiving yards will make him one of only seven Illini wide receivers to eclipse 2,000 receiving yards for their career. Do work, son.
5. Jason Ford
While I have the record book open, let’s see what Mr. Ford can accomplish this fall. Hmm, looks like the record book needs to be updated with Mikel’s stats and such. Ron, if you could get someone on that, please…
My goal for Jason Ford this fall: 1,196 yards. That way, he can tell his grandkids that he finished ahead of Mikel Leshoure and Rashard Mendenhall on the all-time rushing yards list. He’s already 24th – if he found some way to match Mikel’s totals from last year, he could climb as high as #2 all time.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. Without Mikel’s break-away speed, I doubt Mr. Ford will eclipse 1,700 yards this fall (unless we give him a Holcombian number of carries). But that doesn’t mean he can’t be one of the top 3 or 4 tailbacks in the Big Ten. He has the experience, the size, and the skill level to be a very productive Big Ten tailback (and, as of this spring, less of the “size”). If he can take a step forward (a developing theme of this top-8) (as is the use of parenthesis), we can continue our control-the-clock offense this fall.
4. Tavon Wilson
I see two paths for Tavon Wilson’s senior season. 1) “I guess with all the moving positions and changing coordinators, he never really found his niche and lived up to the potential he showed when he arrived.” Or 2) “Who knew we had a first-team All Big Ten cornerback playing out of position at safety last year? Does he really have to graduate?”
I’m going with #2. Maybe not first team All Big Ten – the B1G has several great cornerbacks from Wisconsin to Nebraska – but I think he finishes his career with a flourish. All of the potential that he showed in 2009 that was then stunted in 2010 with his move to safety after Sanni’s injury will now come rushing back. I think he’s perfect for the role he’ll play this fall – boundary (short-side) corner for the majority of his time on the field, and nickel corner, taking away the inside of the field and generally creating havoc, when Justin Green comes on for the 5 defensive back look. He’s my candidate for the Nate Bussey senior-year “where did THIS guy come from?” award.
3. Jeff Allen
It’s simple, really. My goal for Jeff Allen: have the best season by an Illini offensive lineman since Martin O’Donnell in 2007. I want to see several articles written that say “the Illini offensive line, led by dominating tackle Jeff Allen, took over the game in the fourth quarter…”
Because this offensive line can take over games. If we can get right tackle figured out, this can be the best Illini offensive line since 2007 (with an outside chance of being the best Illini offensive line since 2002 – which I still claim was better than the O-line in 2001, but I’m way off topic now). And that best offensive line since 2002 can be led by the guy who might be our best tackle in a decade. I’d really like to see him push Adams, Reiff, Wagner, and Netter aside and lay claim to the title of “best offensive tackle in the Big Ten.”
2. Akeem Spence
Yes, #2. If’ we have a successful 2011 Illini Football campaign, it will be due in large part to Akeem Spence taking a step forward. If you were to rank each position on the team in terms of depth, right now I would say it’s something like cornerback – offensive line – wide receiver – linebacker – running back – defensive end – tight end – quarterback – safety – ballboy – cheerleader – defensive tackle.
Here’s another list off the top of my head: defensive tackles we’ve lost over the past 3-4 years. Corey Liuget left a year early, and Josh Brent didn’t make the grades and went to the supplemental draft. But we’ve also lost D’Angelo McCray and Clint Tucker and Lendell Buckner and probably Chris Jones and Reggie Ellis and Ugo Uzodinma and probably Willie Beavers. And there are others that aren’t coming to me right now. Which means the position is thin. Which means Spence HAS to come through. If we’re going to hold the defensive line together until the young guys are ready, it’s pretty much up to Spence.
So that’s why he’s all the way up here at #2. If we’re going to be a successful football team, he has to be the glue that holds the defensive line together. No pressure, big fella.
1. Nathan Scheelhaase
This one was obvious, wasn’t it? And he’s probably stuck at this position for the next two preseasons as well. Which is exactly how he wants it.
He’s the quarterback, the most important position on the team in terms of “we’ll go as far as he takes us”. He’s unquestionably the team leader (as a sophomore). He’s probably the most mentally well-put-together 20 year-old in the history of Illini football. He’s obsessed with getting better. He cares more about his decision making in practice than some quarterbacks care about games. And he’s a bigger Illini football fan than you or me.
Oh, and he’s a great Twitter follow. In case you missed it, this summer he was at the grocery store wearing his Illini Football gear. The bagger in the checkout line saw his clothing and said “Illini football, huh? Scheelhaase is awesome!” He didn’t tell him.
So this is his team. Without Mikel, he’ll have to take a step forward in both phases of his game. He’ll have to take every hit and get back up. He’ll have to take care of the ball. We’ll be a ball-possession offense, grinding out the clock and keeping the defense fresh, which means he’ll have to be deadly accurate on third and four. With a year to study his tendencies, opposing defensive coordinators will be game-planned to stop him, which means his game will need to grow and evolve every Saturday. He’s unquestionably the guy that makes everything click, which brings tremendous “if he fails, we fail” pressure.
And I think he loves it that way.