Position by position breakdown: Illinois vs. Missouri

Juice Williams, 7, rushes in the spring football game at Memorial Stadium, Saturday, April 21, 2007. Juice rushed for 40 yards but lost 20 in the preseason scrimmage. Erica Magda

Juice Williams, 7, rushes in the spring football game at Memorial Stadium, Saturday, April 21, 2007. Juice rushed for 40 yards but lost 20 in the preseason scrimmage. Erica Magda

QUARTERBACKS:

Sophomore Juice Williams begins the year as the full-time starter, looking to improve on his 39.5 completion percentage from a year ago. His strong arm and running ability have coaches and fans hoping for more. Missouri’s Chase Daniel threw for 3,527 yards and 28 touchdowns in 2006. The 6-foot Texan has more experience and has already proven his worth.

ADVANTAGE: MISSOURI

RUNNING BACKS:

Rashard Mendenhall carries the full-time running burden for the Illini offense this year. The junior split time with Pierre Thomas and averaged 8.2 yards a carry last year, finishing the year 12th in the Big Ten in individual rushing. The Tigers’ Tony Temple ran for more than 1,000 yards last season, which was good enough to finish second the Big 12. Mendenhall’s day has finally arrived and he should alleviate some of the pressure off Juice.

ADVANTAGE: DRAW

WIDE RECEIVERS:

The Illini receiving corps scored a big addition when Ron Zook landed highly touted freshman Rejus Benn to join Kyle Hudson and Joe Morgan. Williams’ targets should allow him to improve on last season’s receiving average of 156.5 yards a game. Missouri’s William Franklin, Danario Alexander and Tommy Saunders combined for nine touchdown receptions last season. Franklin caught 48 passes for 829 yards.

ADVANTAGE: MISSOURI

OFFENSIVE LINE:

Center Ryan McDonald anchors a line that helped the Illini capture the Big Ten rushing title. Xavier Fulton moves from the defensive line to help bolster a unit that allowed 30 sacks in ’06. The key to the Illini’s success may ultimately rest on the line’s shoulders. Three Tigers will make their first collegiate start Saturday, but center Adam Spieker and left tackle Tyler Luellen have started a combined 63 straight games.

ADVANTAGE: DRAW

SPECIAL TEAMS:

Jason Reda was perfect from 40 yards and closer and he showed he can kick in the clutch during the Illini’s victory in East Lansing, Mich., last season. Zook used four punters, including receiver DaJuan Warren, last season and does not appear to be set on his starter. Missouri’s Jeff Wolfert hit 17 of 19 field goal attempts and like Reda is a Groza Award candidate.

ADVANTAGE: DRAW

LINEBACKERS:

Butkus Award candidate J Leman solidifies a strong linebacker corps that includes the experienced Antonio Steele and Brit Miller. Leman led the Big Ten with 12.7 tackles per game a year ago. Missouri’s Brock Christopher and Sean Weatherspoon make their first career starts at linebacker this Saturday.

ADVANTAGE: ILLINOIS

SECONDARY:

Safeties Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison have started a combined 45 games for the Illini and helped the defense allow the 38th fewest yards in the nation last season. Vontae Davis stepped in as a true freshman and broke onto the scene against Eastern Illinois and turned heads against the Buckeyes’ Ted Ginn Jr. Opposing quarterbacks will try to avoid his side. Strong safety and co-captain Cornelius Brown leads a Tiger secondary that allowed 185.69 passing yards and 19 passing touchdowns in 2006.

ADVANTAGE: ILLINOIS

DEFENSIVE LINE:

Senior tackle Chris Norwell has started 33 games in three years and is just five starts away from setting an Illini defensive line record. Defensive end Derek Walker led the team with 5.5 sacks and is paired with sophomore Doug Pilcher who last season impressed as a redshirt freshman. Missouri lost defensive ends Brian Smith and Xzavie Johnson, who had 31.5 and 15.5 career sacks respectively.

ADVANTAGE: ILLINOIS

HEAD COACH:

Ron Zook is 4-19 in two years as Illinois head coach and some have questioned his in-game management, but his ability to recruit players to Champaign has been praised. Missouri’s Gary Pinkel is two games over .500 with the Tigers and 110-72-3 in his career. Zook won an SEC title in 2003 while head coach at Florida and recruited 22 of 24 starters on Florida’s 2006 national championship team.

ADVANTAGE: ILLINOIS