Column: Illinois football fans, get excited

By Dan Berrigan

I believe.

Despite the fact that first year head coach Ron Zook inherited a fixer-upper, I believe this is the year football cracks .500.

It’s tough to see how good (or bad) the team actually is, but Zook has said that he also believes they are better than public perception. The good news for Zook is, unlike Florida, public perception is pretty low, and it won’t take much for him to hurdle the lowered bar this season.

It’s easy to pick on a team that gave up 424 yards-per-game and allowed 30 touchdowns in 41 red-zone situations, so let’s try to focus on the positives -ÿat least until they start playing.

The Zook Offense

Zook admits he doesn’t have the depth for his no-huddle three-receiver offense. He does, however, have a foundation.

Senior Kendrick Jones returns after leading the Illini receivers last season with 47 catches, 687 yards, and 5 touchdowns.

With a strong year from Jones and sophomore wide receiver DaJuan Warren, the Illini can have a good enough passing attack to open the field for their most dangerous offensive weapon – junior halfback Pierre Thomas.

Opposing defenses knew Thomas and fellow halfback E.B. Halsey would combine for 20-30 rushes a game, but they still shredded defenses last season for a total of 1,354 yards and 13 touchdowns. Thomas also led the Big Ten in all-purpose yards with 151.4 per game.

Zook’s offense has unlocked a second dimension to Thomas’ game by splitting him out as a receiver.

“(Zook’s) offense is nice because it includes the option, which is something I have always wanted to run,” Thomas said. “The way the holes open up is amazing.”

Combine the no-huddle, spread offense with the depth at running back, and Zook can easily tire out defenses by the second half, grinding it out on the ground. Thomas said the different running styles of the Illini backs would also help confuse defenses.

The question mark continues to be starting quarterback Tim Brasic. So far, Zook has stood behind the junior, but Brasic is on a short leash.

“He may take the first snap, but that doesn’t mean anything,” Zook said.

While comments like that don’t inspire confidence, Brasic did go 14-of-19 for 148 yards during the scrimmage Saturday with no turnovers.

The New Guys

The horrendous defense of a year ago returns with a few new faces that can hopefully plug the holes. The first of which is defensive lineman Ismail Abdunafi, a former high school teammate of Halsey, who originally was headed to Texas A&M;, but was convinced to come to Illinois.

Abdunafi is badly needed to boost the Illini’s anemic pass rush that registered 12 sacks all season.

How can Abdunafi help?

At Bakersfield (Calif.) College last season, he had 15 sacks and is a five-star recruit according to Scout.com.

Freshman linebacker Rodney Pittman will also contribute to the Illini pass-rush – the Maryland All-Stater had a team-high two sacks Saturday.

So what do five-star ratings and two sacks in a scrimmage say about a team? Nothing. But I still believe, and it will be interesting to see how the recruits develop over the season.

‘Da Coach

After nine wins in three years, reaching .500 this season has to be top priority.

Attendance is in the dumps and most people would rather watch curling on ESPN2 than another Illini football game. But Zook’s fast-paced offense and winning attitude can change all that.

“We want a team that people enjoy watching,” Zook said. “We want to be a competitive team, a team that improves. If we can improve throughout the year, we will be on our way to having a successful season.”

The firing of Ron Turner gave this program the shot in the arm it has desperately needed, but can Zook keep the momentum throughout this season?

I believe.

Dan Berrigan is a senior in engineering. He can be reached at [email protected]