SI.com 2003 College Football Preview




SI.com's College Football Team Previews - from Athlon Sports

  Illinois Fighting Illini

 
The Lowdown
Coach: Ron Turner (7th year, 31-38)
2002 record: 5-7
Big Ten finish: T-5th
2002 offensive stats:
Rush: 164.0 ypg
(7th in Big Ten, 46th in nation)
Pass: 282.3 ypg (1st, 17th)
2002 defensive stats:
Rush: 190.2 ypg (8th, 96th)
Pass: 230.3 ypg (9th, 79th)
Projected Starters
Offense (6 returning starters in bold)
WR  84  Kendrick Jones  So. 
WR  Ade Adeyemo  Jr. 
LT   73   Sean Bubin   Sr.  
LG  71  Bryan Koch  Jr. 
C   75   Duke Preston   Jr.  
RG  67  Matt Maddox  Fr. 
RT   70   Bucky Babcock   Jr.  
TE   81   Anthony McClellan   Jr.  
QB   7   Jon Beutjer   Sr.  
RB  20  Morris Virgil  Jr. 
FB   24   Carey Davis   Sr.  
Defense (8)
DE   98   Derrick Strong   Sr.  
DT  60  Aaron Hodges  Sr. 
DT   58   Jeff Ruffin   Sr.  
DE   93   Mike O'Brien   Sr.  
LB   33   Joe Bevis   Sr.  
LB   44   Matt Sinclair   Jr.  
LB   27   Ty Myers   Sr.  
CB  22  Sharriff Gillon  Fr. 
CB  Christian Morton  Sr. 
FS   28   Travis Williams   So.  
SS   1   Marc Jackson   Sr.  
Special Teams
13  John Gockman  Sr. 
37  Steve Weatherford  So. 
KR  20  Morris Virgil  Jr. 
PR  31  Brian Brosnan  So. 
2003 Schedule
Aug. 30  #Missouri 
Sept. 6  Illinois State 
Sept. 13  at UCLA 
Sept. 20  California 
Sept. 27  Wisconsin 
Oct. 4  at Purdue 
Oct. 11  Michigan State 
Oct. 18  at Michigan 
Oct. 25  Minnesota 
Nov. 1  at Iowa 
Nov. 8  at Indiana 
Nov. 22  Northwestern 
   #St. Louis, Mo. 
One of these days, Ron Turner would like for the trend to stop. But for now, he wants it to keep going for at least one more season.

In his past five years as Illinois coach, Turner has followed a losing season with a winning one. The Illini were 3-8 in 1998, then 8-4 in 1999. In 2000, they were 5-6, then 10-2 and 5-7. If the trend holds, Turner and Illinois are due for a winner.

"I like the attitude of this team. I like the way the chemistry of this team has developed, and I like the look in the eye of this team," Turner said.

After a rough start in 2002 (1-5), the Illini won four of their last six, with the only losses coming in overtime to Ohio State and at Penn State.

"We came every day like we were shooting for a championship," Illinois quarterback Jon Beutjer said. "We knew how we finished would help us at the start of the next year."

The return of 14 starters and an easier schedule should help, too.

OFFENSIVE KEYS:

A year after changing starting quarterbacks three times, Turner is pleased that his favorite position is settled heading into the 2003 season. Iowa transfer Beutjer is entrenched after a strong finish. He helped the Illini win two of their final three games, the loss coming to Ohio State in overtime.

"I'm looking for him to be more relaxed, feel more comfortable about the offense," Turner says.

The identity of the player at the other end of Beutjer's accurate passes isn't a certainty. Illinois lost its top four receivers, a quartet that combined for 191 catches in 2002. And the running back picture is cloudy, too. Morris Virgil, E.B. Halsey, James Cooper and Franklin Payne are all bidding to replace standout Antoineo Harris. Only Virgil has played when the outcome was still in doubt. At least the Illini have no questions at fullback. Carey Davis is back for his senior season and should be a force as both a runner and receiver.

The offensive line returns three starters, led by senior Sean Bubin. This group helped Illinois top 340 points for just the fourth time in school history. Offensive tackle Bucky Babcock has All-Big Ten potential.

DEFENSIVE KEYS:

The Illini surrendered 30 points or more five times in their first seven games last season. However, the defense allowed an average of just 19.8 points in the final five games with a high of 24 points in the season finale. And with nine players who have started at least one game returning, Turner expects Illinois' defense to be among the best in the league in 2003.

The strength of the unit is at linebacker, where former starters Joe Bevis and Ty Myers are being pushed by Antonio Mason, Josh Tischer, Winston Taylor and future star Cyrus Garrett. Matt Sinclair moves from the outside to middle linebacker, where he likely will lead the team in tackles and shouts of encouragement.

Derrick Strong and Mike O'Brien have double-digit sack potential at defensive end. The Illini want tackles Aaron Hodges, Jeff Ruffin and Charles Gilstrap to keep opposing lines busy.

The biggest defensive concern is in the secondary, where Christian Morton, Sharriff Gillon and Darnell Ray will attempt to replace '02 starters Eugene Wilson and Mike Hall.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

Turner won't settle for a punting unit that was among the Big Ten's worst. Expect Steve Weatherford to gain 2 to 3 yards per punt or be replaced by Matt Minnes. Placekicking is an Illini strength; long-distance expert John Gockman (5-of-7 from beyond 40) is expected to take over for Peter Christofilakos, who left early for the NFL.

FINAL ANALYSIS:

Beutjer is the key. If he can help the inexperienced receivers make big plays, the offense should be able to move the ball. The experience and talent of the offensive line should ease the transition for the receivers and give Beutjer plenty of time to look around. Defensively, Illinois needs big seasons from Strong and O'Brien, who have a chance to double their sack totals from a year ago.

The nonconference schedule includes Missouri, UCLA and Cal. But in the Big Ten, the Illini replace Ohio State and Penn State with rebuilding Iowa and Michigan State. The schedule changes alone should get Illinois six wins and back into the bowl business.

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