Impact players look to shine in 2007

By Jason Grodsky

The start of a new school year brings the hope of the beginning of the turnaround for Illinois football.

The Illini return nine starters on both offense and defense, along with key special teams players. Head coach Ron Zook has Campustown buzzing with optimism after inking a top-20 recruiting class.

If the Illini are to play in late December or early January they will look for key contributions from both veterans and freshmen. With these key players in place, Illini Nation is wondering if this could finally be the year the Orange and Blue climb out of the Big Ten basement and leap into the program’s fist bowl game since its Sugar Bowl appearance in 2002.

With the season opener just four days away, we at the Daily Illini have put together our predictions for this season along with a few players to watch who could be difference makers for the Illini.

Team MVP: J Leman, senior linebacker

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The Champaign native led not only the Illini in tackles last year, but the entire Big Ten, propelling him onto the radar of every offensive coordinator in the Big Ten. While Leman isn’t the biggest guy on the field, he finds ways to make plays and be around the ball constantly. With a solid cast around him on the defensive side of the ball, Leman should back up his breakout year with an even better campaign this season.

Offensive MVP: Rashard Mendenhall, junior running back

Pierre Thomas and E.B. Halsey are both gone, leaving the bulk of the Illini’s rushing attack on the shoulders of Mendenhall. The junior is left with the responsibility of maintaining the Illini’s ground game that finished first in the Big Ten last season. If Mendenhall’s big runs against Penn State and Northwestern were any indicator of his big play ability, the Illini could once again be at the top of the conference in rushing.

Defensive MVP: Kevin Mitchell, senior safety

Mitchell has played in every game following his redshirt season in 2003 and is coming off another strong season last year in which he co-led the Illini in interceptions with two. Mitchell’s leadership in the Illini’s secondary was key last season as the Illini were young and inexperienced on pass defense in 2006. In his final season the safety will be looking to do anything and everything to make sure he isn’t home for the holidays come bowl season.

Special Teams MVP: Jason Reda, senior place kicker

In three years Reda has made 35 career field goals as the Illini

kicker. His 15 field goals last season were a career high and tied him for third on Illinois’ all-time list for field goals in a single season. The Rock Island native has proven to be clutch as well. Reda’s 39-yard field goal at Michigan State last year proved to be the game winner and earned the Illini their lone

Big Ten victory of the season.

Newcomer of the Year: Rejus Benn, freshman receiver

The hype around Benn has been enormous ever since the Washington, D.C. native stepped foot on campus last spring. His large frame and freakish athletic ability will tremendously help the Illini in the passing game that saw numerous dropped passes last season. Although Benn has never played a down in a real game for the Illini, many are chalking him up as the biggest addition to the program in years.

Others to watch: Martez Wilson, freshman linebacker, and Jeff Cumberland, sophomore tight end

Wilson comes in as part of the Illini’s highly touted class of freshmen and was very impressive during summer workouts according to fellow Illini players. The Chicago Simeon graduate will provide the Illini with depth at linebacker and could play a significant role on the Illini defense by the end of the season.

With a season under his belt as the starting tight end, Cumberland as made strides to improve his game this summer and has become another weapon for Illini sophomore quarterback Juice Williams to use on offense and could be a big threat for the Illini in the passing game this season.

2007 prediction: 6-6 (3-5 Big Ten)

The Illini face a very tough schedule this season and have replaced Michigan State and Purdue with Michigan and Minnesota on their Big Ten schedule. While the Illini should be able to hover around the .500 mark this season, they could potentially find themselves in a bowl game if they can spring an upset at home against one of the Big Ten powers like Penn State, Wisconsin or Michigan.