Illinois well-positioned for 2011
By Herb Gould email@example.com
Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning and offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino are two of the reasons Illinois got back to a bowl game this season and have a solid foundation for next season. | University of Illinois
HOUSTON — It was a curious experiment that Illinois athletic director Ron Guenther concocted in his football lab, but it produced some pretty positive results.
Defying an angry chorus of Illini followers who wanted coach Ron Zook fired a year ago, Guenther responded by allowing Zook to revamp his staff and give it another college try.
And Zook responded by presiding over a team that reached a bowl for the first time in three years, then pounded on favored Baylor 38-14 on Wednesday. That gave Illinois its first bowl victory in a meager three appearances since 1999.
The final record of 7-6 won’t excite outsiders. But the infusion of six new coaches had the Illini poised for a lot more than that until a lack of defensive depth contributed to a head-scratching loss to Minnesota and a game that got away at Fresno State.
If Illinois doesn’t botch those opportunities . . . well, the point is, an athletic director who’s looking for reasons to keep a coaching staff might attribute those setbacks to roster depth. And Guenther has to be encouraged.
The bottom line is, Illinois’ two new coordinators, Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning, are immensely talented mentors who upgraded the team in a big way on both sides of the ball. If the overall recruiting hasn’t lived up to the Pied Piper reputation Zook acquired at Florida, the Illini are on decent enough footing, all things considered, to move forward in 2011.
The offense figures to return eight starters. Two senior linemen depart, and it will be surprising if junior Mikel Leshoure, who blossomed into a record-breaking tailback, comes back.
The defense is likely to return seven or eight starters. Two seniors, end Clay Nurse and linebacker Nate Bussey, will depart. And two juniors, tackle Corey Liuget and linebacker Martez Wilson, might declare for the NFL draft.
Either way, the key will be for Illinois to keep growing under Petrino and Koenning, who come up with great game plans and coach up their players to execute them.
Forward progress won’t be an easy task. The Illini haven’t had back-to-back winning seasons since 1989 and 1990. But the ingredients are there.
They start with quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who completed his first 13 passes against Baylor, the first time any Illinois quarterback has opened 13-for-13.
Once again, Leshoure, who ran for 184 yards and three touchdowns, grabbed the spotlight. But what Scheelhaase brings would be more difficult to replace.
‘‘We don’t have that many seniors leaving,’’ Zook said. ‘‘That’s the great thing. We may lose a couple of guys because they come out [early], but we have a great nucleus coming back. We have a quarterback coming back that is going to do nothing but get better. And we have a pretty good running back if Mikel decides not to come back in Jason Ford.’’
And with another year to prepare, Koenning is determined to develop enough depth to get the Illini off the defensive roller coaster they rode this fall. To guard against seeing his key defenders get worn down by Baylor, Koenning substituted liberally and was pleased with the way the backups responded.
‘‘The depth issue is something we’ve got to fix,’’ he said. ‘‘You do that with recruiting.’’
Another reason Illinois ought to enjoy continued success is its 2011 schedule. After getting burned by overly ambitious nonconference scheduling, the Illini open with four consecutive home games against Arkansas State, South Dakota State, Arizona State and Western Michigan.
The tricky part of this Illinois equation is that Petrino, who wants to become a head coach, figures to be out of Champaign sooner than later. And Koenning also will have advancement opportunities.
If Zook can keep coming up with winners when assistants leave, he’ll make Guenther’s decision to keep him look good.
And if Illini football has trouble keeping things going, that won’t be anything new.