Illinois Fighting Illini (2000: 5-6)
Updated: Tuesday August 07, 2001 1:44 PM
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Coach and programAfter the Illini's sterling 1999 season, coach Ron Turner received a cluster of phone calls from NFL teams wondering if he was interested in a head-coaching job.
Last year though, his phone stopped ringing. The reason? Turner's Illini squad finished with a 5-6 mark, which was particularly disappointing after the 8-4 record in 1999 and a 3-0 start in 2000. Scoring wasn't the problem, though. Sure, the Illini averaged just 26.7 points per game, down from 32.3 in '99. But, on most Saturdays, nearly four touchdowns per game is enough scoring.
The problem was defense. The Illini allowed 232.5 rushing yards per game, the highest total allowed by any Big Ten team and 113th out of 114 teams. They were eighth in the conference in total defense (412.5 yards per game).
Those numbers and the 61 points allowed by the Illini in the 2000 season finale against Northwestern cost defensive coordinator Tim Kish his job. Unlike Kish, who preferred the bend-but-don't-break approach, the Illini's new defensive coordinator Mike Cassity uses more of an attacking, pit-bull approach to defense. Cassity will install a scheme with some of the elements of the old Buddy Ryan "46" defense: A blitzing style of defense with seven or eight guys in the box mixed with lots of aggressive man-to-man coverage with big, physical cornerbacks on the outside.
"The biggest change that you'll see defensively is we're going to be much more aggressive," Turner said. "I feel good about our defense."
If he is saying the same thing by the time he sits down to Thanksgiving dinner, then Illinois will be going to a bowl game for Christmas. And Turner's phone figures to be ringing again.
OffenseThe potential is there for the Illini offense, with seven returning starters and one of the nation's best quarterbacks in senior Kurt Kittner (6-3, 212), to be as explosive as it was in 1999, when it averaged a school-record 32.3 points per game. But they will need a return to form by Kittner, who was inconsistent last season.
In fairness, Kittner's productivity was hurt by the fact that the Illini's ground game struggled and that a freak off-season leg injury to his go-to receiver Brandon Lloyd (6-2, 176) took away his best option.
Despite those obstacles and the fact that Kittner missed the season finale against Northwestern because of injury, Kittner still completed 58.2 percent of his passes (173-of-297) for 1,982 yards, 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 10 games. With the speedy Lloyd back, Kittner figures to continue to post gaudy numbers.
Fullback Jameel Cook left school a year early for the NFL and will be sorely missed. With Cook gone and junior backup Carlos Lattimore (6-1, 215) battling knee problems, sophomore Carey Davis (6-1, 218) takes over as the starter.
The Illini have a nice one-two punch at tailback in shifty senior Rocky Harvey (5-9, 183) and powerful junior Antoineo Harris (6-1, 222). The duo combined for 1,455 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2000.
The return of speedster Lloyd from a broken leg has brought wide smiles to faces of Turner and Kittner. The reason? Lloyd automatically makes this group better. Lloyd, who set school freshman receiving marks in '99 when he caught 30 balls for 511 yards, suffered a freak injury and missed all of last season.
Juniors Greg Lewis (40 catches, 544 yards, six touchdowns in '00) and Aaron Moorehead (30, 520 yards, four touchdowns), both former walk-ons, are also back.
The offensive line suffered big losses in Marques Sullivan and Ray Redziniak, but does return three starters in senior center Luke Butkus (6-4, 290), senior left guard Jay Kulaga (6-5, 300) and junior right tackle Tony Pashos (6-6, 315).
Defense and special teamsThe line was decimated by injuries and other factors last year. In all, the team lost five defensive linemen, and as a result was manhandled up front -- giving up a Big Ten-worst 232.5 rushing yards per game.
Ultra-quick rush end Fred Wakefield (team-high nine sacks and 21 tackles for loss) is gone, but senior end Terrell Washington (eight sacks, 17 tackles for loss in '00) and senior tackle Brandon Moore (6-3, 280) are both experienced hands.
Linebacker is the least tested group on the team; five of last season's top six have exhausted their eligibility. Only junior Jerry Schumacher (6-3, 235) returns and while Turner likes the potential, he is naturally wary of newcomers.
In order to play that aggressive scheme with seven or eight guys in the box, Cassity needs in-your-face cover corners.
Junior Eugene Wilson (5-11, 183), an honorable mention All-Big Ten pick last season after grabbing four interceptions, has secured one cornerback spot. The other starting spot will be manned by either converted quarterback Morton or Mike Hall (5-10, 175), a juco All-American from Bakersfield, Calif.
Steve Fitts (6-0, 201) will concentrate only on punting after an erratic season when he handled both the punting and place kicking duties.
Bottom lineWith the return of the speed demon Lloyd from a broken left leg that sidelined him for the entire 2000 season, Illinois might have the league's second-best collection of skill players, behind Big Ten preseason favorite Northwestern.
Illinois senior Kittner looked like Kurt Warner in '99, but slipped a bit in '00 because he was throwing primarily to two former walk-ons. With Lloyd and the maturation of fellow sophomore Smith, the receiving corps will be much improved. The one-two running punch of Harvey and Harris is killer and the offensive line returns three starters.
While scoring points won't be any trouble, stopping other teams might continue to be. A new coordinator in Cassity and a more aggressive scheme should help some, though. How much? It could mean another win or two in '01, which would spell a return to a minor bowl for '01. After a 5-6 record in '00, that would be reason enough to pop the champagne in Champaign.