Illini hopeful for improvement next season

By Courtney Linehan

As Illinois football closed the 2006 season, head coach Ron Zook reiterated a point he’s made throughout the season: close isn’t good enough.

“We’ve made great strides, and sometimes you miss the fact of how far we’ve come,” Zook said after Illinois’ loss to Northwestern on Nov. 18. “Obviously, we have that far to go yet.”

The Illini finished 2-10 overall and 1-7 in the Big Ten. It was a season defined by nearly complete performances which only twice – once against southern neighbor Eastern Illinois and again in an upset of conference foe Michigan State – resulted in victories. Looking at Illinois’ lineup last August, it was obvious the team would bear the burden of an underclassmen-heavy roster.

Illinois started several freshmen, most noticeably a rookie quarterback with little experience but a cannon of an arm.

“As he gains experience and the game begins to slow down more and more for him, he knows where to go with the ball, he’ll get better and better,” Zook said of quarterback Juice Williams. “He’s got a long way to go, and he’ll be the first one to tell you that, but I don’t think there’s any question he’ll be one to improve.”

As the Illini failed, time and again, to connect on passing – Williams completed just 4-of-18 passes in the season finale at Northwestern – the offense began to turn toward a trio of running backs proven to produce a much-needed spark. E.B. Halsey, Rashard Mendenhall and Pierre Thomas each started at running back at some point in the season, with Mendenhall and Thomas turning into team heroes as they gave Illinois its few shots of hope. Mendenhall, a sophomore, rushed for 161 yards at Penn State and closed the season with 113 yards against Northwestern.

Thomas, a senior who broke Illinois’ career kickoff return yardage record, ran through the 100-yard mark against Eastern, Michigan State, Indiana and Purdue.

He capped his career with a touchdown against Purdue on Senior Day.

“I really tried to add to the program, add my abilities, do the best job I could to get this program going,” Thomas said. “It’s not just a one-man team, everybody’s got to go out there and do their job. I feel like I went out there and did my job as best I can.”

While Illinois’ offense struggled, the defense showed a complete turnaround from previous seasons.

The Illini held No. 1-ranked Ohio State to its lowest total offense and fewest points of the season. After allowing nearly 500 yards of total offense each game last season, Illinois averaged around 300 yards in 2006.

A large part of the defensive improvement can be credited to linebacker J Leman, who led the team in tackles and earned First Team All-Big Ten honors last week. Leman was twice named the conference’s Defensive Player of the Week, after racking up a career-high 19 tackles against Ohio State and then breaking that record with 22 tackles against Northwestern. Leman led the Big Ten and ranked second in the NCAA with 152 total tackles.

“I think we have a chance to be a top-10 defense next season, and that’s not big talk. I think we can be a top-10 linebacker core, and that’s not just big talk either,” Leman said. “If we’re going to turn this thing around, it’s going to start on defense.”

The Illini now have nine months before opening the 2007 season against Missouri on Sept. 1, 2007. In that time, Memorial Stadium will receive a facelift as the first phase of its massive renovation gets underway. Even though he is two recruiting classes into his tenure, Zook says he will work on improving the look of Illinois’ lineup as well, sticking to the game plan he’s promoted since his first day on the job.

“We’ve got to get on the road and get some more student athletes in here who can help our program continue to improve,” Zook said.