Illinois football sizes-up this season’s talent

By Daniel Johnson

Throughout the spring and summer seasons, Illinois coaches have said repeatedly that the defensive line would be the strength of the team. But what does the team think of their coach’s predictions, and if they have to look at the other side of the ball, who is going to standout?

After polling the team in the early days of the season and at Camp Rantoul, it seems that, at least defensively, the players agree with the coaches.

“Our (defensive line,) they work together as one, it’s not really individuals, everyone works together,” defensive back Vontae Davis said Tuesday. “Like, me and Dere Hicks, we’re together as one. But as a group, I would give it to the (defensive line), they put the defense on their back and make plays.”

The Illini offense feels the same, given there is reason to back the coaches and other players up. The defensive line, lead by senior Hendricks Award Candidate Will Davis, helped the Illinois defense accumulate 40 sacks last year, fourth in the Big Ten.

“I feel it’s kind of a cliche in the game of football; you win the game up front on both offense and on defense,” said senior defensive tackle David Lindquist, who had 4.5 sacks in 2007. “Whoever wins that battle usually is going to have a very good chance of winning the game. We feel we have a strong defensive line and a very strong offensive line.”

The offensive line is anchored by fourth-year starter Ryan McDonald at center. While he hasn’t played the position his entire career, his 36-consecutive career starts tie him for fourth in the nation.

“I certainly like to think that we have a lot to do with it,” McDonald said. “Juice has done a tremendous job maturing, going from his freshman year to his sophomore year he got better, too.”

The general consensus, however, was that the team was interested less in individual play, as opposed to team play, and more on working to prove those that doubt the team wrong.

“We’re going to take it week by week trying to get to No. 1 in the country,” junior tight end Michael Hoomanawanui said. “I think after the Rose Bowl, people are doubting us now, thinking we’re one-hit wonders, but we’re out to prove them wrong.”