Monthly Archives: August 2010

Scouting the Opponent: Missouri (Part 1)

    

     After months of waiting and speculating on how the 2010 football season will turn out, game week is finally here. Today marks the beginning of a weekly series in which I will breakdown Illinois’ opponent throughout the week. I’m going to look all aspects of the matchup and then ultimately give you my prediction, feel free to give yours as well.

     For the last time in a while, the Illini will start off against rival Mizzou in the Arch Rivalry game. Missouri has owned the series since it was moved to St. Louis in 2002, but the Illini are looking to end the current contract on a high note.

Overall Series: 16-7 Missouri

Last Matchup: Missouri 37, Illinois 9 (2009)

Background: The Illini and Tigers first played each other back in 1896 in St. Louis. The Illini came away with the victory 10-0. The two teams have played sparingly over the past century in home-home series, until moving the game to St. Louis in 2002. The Arch Rivalry has been very successful in St. Louis, despite the Illini’s 0-5 record. This year’s game is the last one on the current contract, making it unknown when the two will play again.

Missouri

Best Player in Program History: Kellen Winslow, TE (1976-1979). One of the best tight end’s in football history was an All-American for the Tigers in 1979. Winslow was taken in the first round by the San Diego Chargers and is in both the College Football Hall of Fame and Pro Football Hall of Fame.

My Favorite Tiger: Chase Daniel, QB (2005-2008). As much as I hated watching him tear up the Illini, I couldn’t help but enjoy watching Chase Daniel play. Being a high school QB at the time, I couldn’t stop dreaming of playing in a system like Missouri’s with Chase Daniel.

My Most Hated Tiger: Sean Weatherspoon, LB (2006-2009). After hearing his “squeeze the Juice” comments last season, I don’t think any Illini fans liked this guy. Only problem was, he was right.

Favorite Illini-Mizzou Moment: Vonte Davis’ blocked punt for a TD (2007). After deciding at the very last minute, Southey and I made the trip to St. Louis for the game. Our tickets were on the Missouri side, right on the 15 yard line, a perfect spot to see Vonte fly through and spike the punt out of the air. (the end of the game would be my worst moment, 40-34 Mizzou).

Reasons to Like Mizzou:

1. The Golden Girls. No, not Joe Pa’s favorite show, but the Missouri University dance team. Need I say more?

2. It’s fun to play your rivals. I like nothing better than to start the season with a rivalry game like the Illini and Tigers have been doing the past five years. Opening up against Western Illinois is safe, but pretty dang boring.

Reasons to Hate Mizzou:

1. Illini 0-5 vs. Mizzou the past 5 years. Like I said, it’s fun to play a rival, but when you consistently lose to that same team and watch the same fans rub it in your face every year, things get heated. Just ask Missouri fans how that was in basketball until last season. This game is personal.

2. Quinn Synder, Missouri basketball coach (1999-2006). I know, this is supposed to be about football, but how can I resist when you put “hate” and “Mizzou” in the same sentence? Synder was like John Callapari’s little cousin. Both earn the title of cheating slime-balls.

Reason to Laugh at Mizzou:

1. The Missouri football team sure has kept Columbia police busy this summer. Linebacker Will Ebner received a DUI this offseason and is not on the depth chart for this Saturday’s game. O-line coach Bruce Walker was arrested for DUI as well. Top that off with starting running back Derrick Washington’s sexual assault accusation, and you have the Cincinnati Bengals of the NCAA.

-Derek Piper

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Nightmare on 1st Street

    

     Sitting less than one week away from the kickoff of the 2010 season for the Illini football team, Ron Zook could not have imagined a worse time to be hit with the misfortunes this past week has brought. First, we learn that newly named starting tight end Zach Becker will miss the first three games with a stress fracture in his foot. Then troubled defensive back Walter Aikens was dismissed from the university on the same day. Two days later, news that starting safety Supo Sanni was lost for the season with a torn Achilles surfaced. 
    

     Yesterday the Illini were hit with yet another damaging blow. Promising starting cornerback Terry Hawthorne will miss between four and six weeks with a stress fracture in his right foot. Hawthorne was expected to hold down the cornerback position now that Tavon Wilson has moved to safety to replace the injured Supo Sanni, but someone else will obviously have to fill that role in the coming weeks.

     Could this week have been any worse for the team that is trying to redeem itself from back to back losing seasons? Well, it didn’t get any better after another story broke yesterday announcing an additional loss to the team.
    

      Tight end London Davis, who was the favorite to start throughout the spring and into Camp Rantoul, has announced he is leaving the team and seeking a transfer to Tennessee State. Davis has not been happy with his place on the depth chart since being removed from the starting role. Davis tweeted about his frustrations saying Friday,

“Man coach moved me to butt back u kno wat butt back is I say coach can I get in the game he said boi get yo butt back.”
    

     It is no secret that this year’s Illini are not built to survive major remakes of the depth chart due to injury and other issues, but that is exactly what is happening. Coach Zook has already begun moving players around like chess pieces to attempt to fill the voids. Wide receiver Jack Ramsey’s switch to cornerback is the latest of many position shifts this week. Sophomore running back Justin Green has also been moved to corner to fill the void left by Tavon Wilson’s transition to safety.
    

     What does this all mean? To be honest, things are already beginning to look bleak for a team that has yet to even play a game this season. The depth chart, especially on defense, was paper thin to begin with, now it seems to have been disintegrated.
    

Coach Zook described his teams misfortunes best saying, “when it rains it pours.”

    For the Illini’s sake, that better be the last rain they see for awhile. Last year’s defense ranked ninth in the Big Ten in total defense and near the bottom of the entire NCAA in turnovers, and now this? The opening day defense will be missing both starting corners and its starting safety against a pass-heavy offense in Missouri. I’m no chemistry major but that doesn’t sound like a formula for success.

*More on the Missouri matchup later in the week

-Derek Piper

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Welcome Back Chester Frazier

 

     Toughness, intensity, leadership. All qualities that the 2009 Illini basketball seemed to lack last season as they failed to reach the NCAA tournament. Who was one player that embodied all of those qualities night in and night out for the orange and blue in years prior? None other than Chester Frazier. Now Frazier is back a familiar place, not to play, but to do everything he can to help the Illini win as a graduate assistant and video coordinator.

     Although he won’t be able to coach from the bench this season, Coach Weber likes the idea of having Frazier back in Champaign to help out the current players.

     “One, he’s a player with these guys and they respect him. He’s somebody they have a great relationship with. He can talk to them.”

     If you ask me, bringing Chester back was a great move. As a player, Frazier could do all the little things, that in reality were not little at all. He was a defensive All-Big Ten selection twice, as well as leading the Big Ten in assists his senior season. Despite being kept from the sideline, Frazier is going to have a big impact, doing the less recognizable things as a coach just as he did as a player. I saw one of those examples first hand today.

     Sitting in my sports management class at 10:00 AM this morning, I saw the door pop open in the middle of lecture and in came Chester Frazier. Frazier, who is now attending classes of his own, was making sure that redshirt freshman Joseph Bertrand was attending class. Do you think Kentucky had a coach checking to see if their players were in class? Obviously not, as they boasted one of the worst team GPA’s in the country last season.

     Frazier should also be very helpful in the video room, which is where he spent many hours, helping him become one of college basketball’s premier defenders. He hopes to instill the same habit in this year’s players.

     “It’s more than physical, it’s mental. Studying your opponent, I mean, a lot of guys don’t watch film, just drilling it into their heads that they need to watch film. Just different things to get them mentally prepared for games.”

     It’s great to see Frazier back on campus and he would also agree. When asked about his allegiance to the university Chester responded, “I bleed for Illinois.” You can’t help but love his passion and intensity for the game of basketball and the U of I. If only I could hear Mike Cation introduce “Chesta Frazzzza” one more time and watch him dive into the huddle.

Side Note

     In case you were wondering “where in the world is the o-line position breakdown”, it’s been a busy week being back at school but I will have it up soon. But if it’s any consolation, instead of breaking down the o-line, I’ve been talking to the o-line and I received an interesting bit of information. According to my source, Illinois’ number one wide-out AJ Jenkins has been practicing with a broken hand that he received this past week. I can’t confirm the report, but just thought I’d put that out there anyways.

     If it is true, then Coach Zook needs to call Terminex to get rid of this injury bug ASAP. It’s been reported that safety Suppo Sanni will miss the rest of the season and fullback Zach Becker is out for the first three games, both with injuries. Not a good sign with the thin depth chart Illinois possess.

-Derek Piper

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Illinois Football Position Breakdown: WR/TE

     The 2009 season was suppose to be the year of the receiver for the Illini, having many calling them one of the strongest corps in the conference and even the nation. Arrelious Benn was thought to be one of the two premiere targets in the country, backed by the highly anticipated talent, Jarred Fayson, promising big guys, Michael Hoomanawanui and Jeff Cumberland, and others, but what was anticipated turned out to be quite different from what was seen on the field. The Illini sported an anemic passing attack that ranked 10th in the Big Ten last season, not exactly what Ron Zook hoped for out of his senior QB and hyped up wide-outs. Juice Williams was consistently inaccurate, Benn spent more time in the training room than the endzone, and Fayson amounted only 16 catches the entire season. Whatever the reason, Illinois didn’t get the job done through the air in 2009.

     A few things have changed on the WR/TE depth chart since the Illini took the field in Rantoul 365 days ago. Benn is running routes in Tampa, having been drafted in the 2nd round by the Bucs, “Uh-Oh” and Cumberland are gone as well. Fayson will attempt to live up to his high school success, ranked the 3rd best receiver in 2005, and junior AJ Jenkins, who appeared to be “number 1 wide-out material” this spring, will try to lead a group that was thought to be a strength last year and is now a question mark.

Wide Receiver

Number One: AJ Jenkins, Jr

     After a disappointing 2009 season and all of the turmoil that surrounded the Illini football program this offseason, AJ Jenkins thought seriously about whether playing football at Illinois was in his future. Jenkins decided to stay, passing on the opportunity to transfer, and has not looked back since. Jenkins came into the spring with something to prove, earning co-Most Improved Offensive Player during spring practice. Now, the receiver who caught passes in only five games last season, is the number one guy according to offensive coordinator Paul Petrino. Asked earlier this summer about Jenkins, Petrino said, ” right now if you had to play today, the go-to guy would be A.J. He was the best guy coming out of the spring and the first (few) days of practice.”

Mr. Potential: Jarred Fayson, Sr

     Everyone was ready to see what the receiver from Florida was made of in 2009, after hearing all of the hype and watching the speedster showcase his talents on the practice field, but one year, injuries, and 16 catches later, the jury is still out on whether Fayson can be a big time receiver. The senior doesn’t have many more games to prove he can transfer his production from Friday nights to Saturday afternoons, but the former 5-star recruit will have one more shot in 2010.

     Fayson, who transferred from Florida in January 2008, caught eight passes in the first two games against Missouri and Illinois St, but totaled as many in the other seven games he suited up. Fayson has all the ability in the world, whether he can put it together this season has Illini Nation wondering.

Transformer: Eddie McGee, Sr

     First he’s a quarterback, then strictly a receiver, now somewhere in between, what a crazy time it has been for Eddie McGee since he arrived in Champaign in 2006. McGee has very little experience at wide receiver, catching one pass in each of the Illini’s last four games. Illini offensive coordinator Paul Petrino still likes McGee’s ability, despite his lack of game day reps at wide receiver. “McGee has made big strides at the X position (receiver), particularly with his footwork. There are certain things that he does real well.”

     McGee will use his size and speed to make the transition to receiver a smooth one, but don’t be surprised if you see #10 in the backfield a few times this season. Other than being a backup to Scheelhaase, McGee is also part of a wildcat package, or as the Illini call it, the “DC” package. The elusive DC product will be used as a changeup to keep defenses off balance, and Petrino likes that quite a bit. “It will help take some hits off Nathan, help Eddie be a playmaker. He’s always made plays.”

The Rookie: Darius Millines, Fr

     Arrelious who? That was the message when the new #9 showcased his talents at Camp Rantoul Saturday night. Millines caught a 50 yard TD on the first team defense, and also had 56 yard score that was called back by a penalty. The freshman from Florida looked like a playmaker, kind of like the guy who wore the same uniform the past 3 years, which has me thinking,

The Jersey

maybe it’s the jersey (Disney Channel 1999).

The Rest: Jack Ramsey (So), Chris James (Sr), Ryan Lankford (Fr), Fred Sykes (Jr), and a few others

Strength:

  • Speed: With Jarred Fayson, AJ Jenkins, and a pair of freshman, the Illini have speed for Coach Petrino to utilize in the offense

Weakness:

  • Game day Production: Jenkins and Fayson, who appear to be the top two receivers for the Illini, combined for only 26 catches in 2009.

Tight End

Starter: London Davis, So

     The sophomore from Cahokia only caught one pass last season, a two yard TD against Michigan, but then again, who didn’t score against the Maize and Blue last year? Feel the burn Ann Arbor. Anyways, Davis will have to learn quickly as he will be thrown into the fire right away in the new pro-style offense that Coach Petrino has implemented. Davis has been around, having redshirted in 2008. A good tight end is a quarterbacks best friend, we’ll see if Davis can make the freshman QB’s life a lot easier.

The Rest: Justin Lattimore (Fr, RS), Evan Wilson (Fr)

     Can’t really put much into the strength and weakness category on guys who have had such little playing time. Inexperience is a big factor, but Petrino feels that the position is interchangeable, putting less pressure on one guy to do the job. Tight ends have seemed to excel in the Petrino offense, the Illini hope that stays the same.

Overall Position Rating: C-

-Derek Piper

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2010 Preseason: Bears vs Chargers

     Ahh… preseason football. The time when your favorite team finally goes up against an opposing squad. So much hope and promise, new faces in new places, you can’t help but get excited. That is until all the starters are on the sidelines and you haven’t even drank your first beer, soda, cup of tea, or whatever you like to enjoy with a little pigskin action.

     Bears fans are dying to see what the 2010 crew is going to look like, especially after a disappointing 7-9 record last season. Urlacher is back and looking good. Tommie Harris and Matt Forte are looking for bounce-back seasons, as well as gun-slinger Jay Cutler. Though the outcome in San Diego tonight matters about as much as Cubs playoff tickets this year, here’s a few things to keep your eye on as we get our first look at this year’s team.

  • How does the offense, mainly Jay Cutler, look in the new system? The Chargers defense won’t be bringing it for a full four quarters but I’m interested to see how the scheme fits the personnel on offense.
  • Are Matt Forte and Tommie Harris as good as advertised? The media has put a great deal of hype into these Pro Bowl caliber players this offseason. I’m excited to see what a healthy Tommie Harris looks like, being that we haven’t seen one for three years now.
  • Does the defensive line make some noise early on? Peppers sure got a lot of money to help wreck havoc in the backfield. Let’s see how the investment looks in the early stages.
  • Brian Urlacher. Does he look like the old Urlacher or an OLD Urlacher. All signs have pointed to a strong return. Bears fans should have their eye on one of the best linebackers to put on the uniform.

     Enjoy the game tonight.

-Derek Piper

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Illinois Football Position Breakdown: RB

     Quick question: what team ranked 2nd in the Big Ten in rushing in 2009, just under four yards per game less than Wisconsin? Was it Ohio State with Brandon Saine, Boom Herron, Terrelle Pryor? Penn St with Royster? No and no, it was Illinois. The Illini with their plethora of running backs averaged 200.4 yards per game on the ground last season, and have ranked in the top 5 (in the Big Ten) in rushing the past 3 years . Granted Juice Williams played a significant role in those numbers, the Illini still believe they can pound it out this season.

     There has been a great deal of talk this offseason as to who will be taking the bulk of the carries this fall, but Coach Petrino has been quick to say this is not a one back offense. Mikel Leshoure has been everyone’s pick to be the featured back, but Petrino isn’t ready to stick to one. “We’ll alternate at the running back position, and whoever responds best will be the hammer in the fourth quarter. Everybody is building a resume daily.”

Running Back

The Lead Horse: Mikel Leshoure, Jr

     If I were a betting man, I would bet Leshoure takes the first carry of the season on September 4th and should be rewarded with many more. Leshoure impressed everyone last season, earning All-Big Ten Honorable Mention while only taking 108 carries. Despite his lack of touches in 2009, Leshoure was able to show just how good he can be, leading the Big Ten at an astounding 6.8 yards per carry. The highlight of his season came on the last game of the year, and left quite a lasting impression. Leshoure exploded for 184 yards on only 11 carries against Fresno State, running for two TD’s, and caught another.

     Leshoure has continued to progress this offseason , dropping between six and seven pounds off his frame, producing a body fat percentage of 4.2. That is insane. I wish every Centennial alum was in that good of shape.

Strengths:

  • Strength: As Coach Petrino has said, “his best traits are that he’s strong, and he comes to balance in the hole.”
  • Pass Catching: Take it from someone who threw passes to #5 every day in practice back at CHS, Leshoure is receiving threat out of the back field. He has good hands and is a great check-down option for the quarterback.
  • Sneaky Fast: Many have been quick to point out Leshoure’s lack of break-away speed, but just ask Michigan, it’s there. (career long 70 yard dash, pictured above)

Weakness:

  • Discipline: Leshoure has been suspended twice since he’s joined the team and also got jawed by Jeff Cumberland for supposedly stealing his phone. Sources told me Cumberland was mistaken.

Smash: Jason Ford, Jr

     Jason Ford had a solid year in 2009, boasting the 2nd best yards per carry average in the Big Ten (minimum of 25 carries), second to Leshoure. Despite battling injuries the first half of the season, Ford totaled two 100 yard games, running for 137 yards against Illinois State and added 128 yards to Leshoure’s 150 to pummel the Maize and Blue.

     Ford has come into camp looking good , both physically and from a football standpoint. Coach Petrino has noticed a difference in the running back, “I’m happy with Jason Ford’s conditioning – he’s lighter and better.” A healthy and fit Jason Ford should get back to his 8 touchdown form that he produced his freshman season, and he could even go higher than that.

Strengths:

  • Strength: At 235 pounds, Ford is quite a tough task to bring down
  • Red Zone: Ford has had an eye for the endzone ever since he arrived on campus two years ago. He should add at least 7 TD’s to his career total this season.

Weakness:

  • Receiving: Ford has only 20 career receptions at Illinois, Leshoure and Green will be better targets

Dash: Justin Green, So

     Justin Green made an appearance in all 12 of the Illini’s games last year, only carrying the ball 19 times. Green ran for 2 TD’s, one against Illinois St and Minnesota. The Illini expect much more out of their star recruit this season, who will be coming off a broken ankle that he sustained in the spring. He is expected to be at full strength now, which is a good sign.

     The number one thing that has Illini fans up in arms about Green is his speed. Green was a track star in high school, winning two state titles in the 100 meter dash, oh yeah, and he played football pretty well too. The top rated player in Kentucky racked up 2,000 all purpose yards and 30 TD’s as a junior and had an outstanding senior season as well. Illini Nation hopes the US Army All-American can translate his high school success into colligate production this season.

     It’s a little hard to judge Green’s strengths and weaknesses beyond speed (strength) and inexperience (weakness). We should be better informed on the sophomore’s ability this season.

Crystal Ball: There is no reason why the Illini should drop out of the top 3 in the Big Ten in rushing this season. Leshoure is primed for a breakout year, Ford is healthy and ready to find the endzone, and Justin Green will give defenses the gas. Leshoure will keep the starting job, barring injury, and will be at least 3rd team All-Big Ten (behind Clay and Royster). Ford will still get his carries, especially in the red zone, and Justin Green will be a nice sparkplug.

Overall Position Rating: B+

-Derek Piper

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Illini Football Position Breakdown: QB

Quarterback

Big Man on Campus: Nathan Scheelhaase, Fr (RS)

     One year ago the 6’3 signal-caller from Kansas City was not 1st, not 2nd, not 3rd, but 4th on the quarterback depth chart when the Illini arrived at Camp Rantoul. Now, the freshman who took a total of 30 snaps in camp last season is the man running the show. So far, Scheelhaase has impressed many, not only with his skill set, but also his leadership. “That’s something I’ve looked forward to. It’s a responsibility I’m willing to take. As far as out here on the practice field, I’m doing the same things, taking it all one rep at a time and trying to get better and better whether I’m the starter or not,” says Scheelhaase.

     As for his abilities with the ball in his hands, Illini fans should not have much to worry about. Scheelhaase may not have the rocket arm that Juice Williams possessed, but new offensive coordinator, Paul Petrino, likes many aspects of his quarterback’s game.  “He’s accurate with a quick release, and he’s as fast as any kid we have on this team.” So much for losing the best dual-threat QB in Illinois history, but Scheelhaase will have big shoes to fill if he wants to match Juice Williams’ 10,594 career total yards, a mark that ranks fifth all-time in Big Ten history.

Strengths:

  • Accuracy: An attribute that has been lacking in the Illinois football realm on a consistent basis the past four years. Fans shouldn’t see many balls that sail 20 yards over the intended receiver’s head in 2010.
  • Mobility: Coach Petrino exemplified such saying of Scheelhaase, ” his No. 1 trait is his speed.” A very useful thing to have when the Ohio State’s of the world are coming for your head.
  • Confidence: For a 19 year old kid to survive playing QB in the Big Ten, you need to believe in your abilities. Scheelhaase is confident, as are his teammates in him. “Nate’s good,” now backup QB, Eddie McGee said. “I like Nate a lot. If I didn’t feel Nate could get the job done, I probably wouldn’t have switched (to receiver).”

Weaknesses:

  • Experience: Age may just be a number, but starting at quarterback in the Big Ten is an entirely different animal compared to playing in high school.

Crystal Ball: Freshman starting quarterbacks and the Big Ten usually mix about as well as oil and water, but there are reasons to think it can work for the Illini. Scheelhaase will be a pleasant surprise this season, showing signs of good things to come, but he will make mistakes. More than likely he will go through some growing pains, but as long as Coach Petrino’s offense doesn’t ask too much of the young quarterback, he should do just fine. Scheelhaase won’t set the conference on fire but he should show that he belongs. (Prediction: 1,600 yards passing, 10 TD’s, 7 INT’s, 3 rushing TD’s)

The Reinforcements:  Chandler Whitmer (Fr), Eddie McGee (Sr RS), Miles Osei (Fr)

     The inexperienced starting QB is backed by even more inexperience, much the reasoning behind putting Eddie McGee back on the depth chart. Whitmer is very talented, a 4-star recruit coming out of high school, and will likely be the first one called upon if Scheelhaase is injured or struggles. A month ago, McGee was strictly a receiver, but now Juice Williams’ former backup is back in the mix. McGee is the only QB on the roster with colligate experience and is a nice option to have in case the freshman become overwhelmed.

Overall Position Rating: C+

     An unproven starter with a lack of depth behind him makes for a mediocre rating. The Illini will need good play out of the position, otherwise things will go south fast.

-Derek Piper

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