Coach: Ron Zook (first season) 2004 record: 3-8 Big Ten finish: 1-7 (t-10th) 2004 I-A offensive rankings: Rushing: 62nd (153.4 ypg) Passing: 85th (184.7 ypg) 2004 I-A defensive rankings: Rushing: 94th (194.4 ypg) Passing: 79th (229.6 ypg)
San Jose State
at Ohio State
Depth Chart: Offense
5 returning starters in red
Frank Lenti Jr.
Depth Chart: Defense
7 returning starters in red
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He sat in the stands as the Illinois basketball team advanced to the Final Four. Ron Zook couldn't get enough of Bruce Weber's team. Unselfish. Gutty. Never quitting. Illinois trailed Arizona by 15 points with four minutes to play in the regional final -- and won in overtime.
That is how Zook wants the Illinois football team to play.
In the final minutes of the Arizona game, Zook watched Weber. He saw the positive body language.
"I told our team after that game, 'How many of you thought we were done?'" Zook said. "It's all about believing. Normal human reaction, they're done. Weber wouldn't let them do it. That's the way we have got to be. Is it going to happen overnight? No. You've got to keep pounding, you've got to keep grinding. You use it as a great example."
Zook, an old defensive coach, knows what kind of offense gives him fits. It's a no-huddle, three- and four-receiver, shotgun attack, the kind he used at Florida. It's the same kind he will use at Illinois, and a drastic change from the pro-style system used by Ron Turner.
The key to the Illini's offense is a quarterback with mobility. He doesn't have to be a sprinter, but he must be able to get away from the defense and gain positive yards when he keeps the ball. Junior Tim Brasic and freshman Kisan Flakes are the best runners of the four. Illinois might wait until just before the opener to pick the starter.
By far, the strength of the team is at running back, with at least five players capable of filling the one starting spot. Pierre Thomas, the leading rusher in 2004 (893 yards, eight touchdowns), has impressed the coaches with both his running and pass-catching ability. E.B. Halsey will help as a runner (461 yards, five TDs), receiver and punt returner.
Though he is short on receivers, Zook does have high hopes for senior Kendrick Jones, the team's leader (47 catches) in 2004.
The line is led by three returning starters -- center Matt Maddox, left guard Martin O'Donnell and left tackle JJ Simmons.
The lack of a pass rush has been a fatal flaw for Illinois the past three seasons. The '04 squad recorded an anemic 12 sacks, the fewest in the Big Ten. In an effort to make the quarterback sweat, Tom Sims' line will emphasize speed. That is good news for Xavier Fulton and Derek Walker, who will likely take a bulk of the snaps at end. At tackle, the Illini welcome back returning starters Chris Norwell and Ryan Matha. Both Norwell and Matha will get an August push from junior college transfer Ismail Abdunafi, who had 15 sacks for Bakersfield (Calif.) College in 2004.
The school that produced Dick Butkus, Simeon Rice and Kevin Hardy is looking for its next great linebacker. Maybe it will be Remond Willis, who redshirted in 2004. J. Leman and Anthony Thornhill are back after finishing sixth and seventh on the team in tackles in 2004.
Morris Virgil and Kevin Mitchell held the starting safety spots in the spring. Justin Harrison, who was out with a hip injury, will also be in the mix. At cornerback, the Illini appear set with Charles Bailey and returning starter Alan Ball.
Few in the league have a better returning punter than Steve Weatherford, who was fourth in the country with a 45.4-yard average last season. The kicking duties will likely fall to returning starter Jason Reda, who hit 7-of-12 field goals as a freshman.
Zook isn't expecting a national title run with his first Illinois team. But the former Florida coach has mentioned the b-word (bowl) a time or two.
"I don't think there's any question we can get it done," Zook said. "If we didn't think we could get it done, we wouldn't be here."
Whoever ends up starting at quarterback will need to limit the turnovers and be productive when the Illini reach the red zone.
The schedule isn't overly taxing, with winnable home games against Rutgers and San Jose State, followed by a trip to Aaron Rodgers-less California. In the league, Michigan and Minnesota are off the schedule, replaced by Ohio State and Penn State.