After starting the season 6-0, the Fighting Zookers lost their final 6 games, including the season finale at Minnesota. Illinois responded by letting Ron Zook go, and will be coached by interim head coach Vic Koenning before new head coach Tim Beckman takes over.
While bowl games are generally odd in terms of playing time and emotion, they are particularly odd when the team is playing for a lame duck interim coach. Obviously, UCLA is in the same situation, but in terms of previewing the opposition it is fair to say that we'll likely see some surprises.
Vic Koenning is in his second season as defensive coordinator and assumed head coaching duties for the bowl game. Koenning has had success as a defensive coordinator at Troy, Clemson, and Kansas State, and his stint at Illinois has been no different. Illinois is ranked 7th nationally in total defense, which is particularly impressive considering Illinois played no defense before he arrived, and last year played a game against Michigan where Illinois scored 65 points and lost. Koenning does have some head coaching experience, albeit a stint at Wyoming where he went 5-29, but he at least knows what he's doing in preparing the team for the bowl game.
Offensively, Jeff Brohm serves as interim offensive coordinator. Brohm is a former NFL quarterback that started after his playing career ended. He began coaching at Louisville, Brohm's alma mater, under Bobby Petrino. He only came to Illinois this season as a quarterbacks coach.
Starter Nathan Scheelhaase (6-3, 195, So.) had a solid sophomore season, completing 63.6% of his passes for 1,971 yards with 12 TD's and 7 INT's while rushing for 514 yards and 6 TD's. His rushing numbers would be even more impressive but for the fact that sack yardage lost counts against his rushing numbers. He is a good runner and will run the ball often; he averages 14 carries per game (most on team) and would be Illinois' leading rusher without the sack yardage lost.
Sheelhaase will be backed up by Reilly O'Toole (6-4, 220, Fr.) and Miles Osei (6-0, 200, So.). O'Toole attempted 65 passes and played in every game but three, so expect to see the true freshman play.
Starter Jason Ford (6-0, 235, Sr.) has been suspended for academic reasons, leaving Troy Pollard (5-8, 190, Sr.) and Donovonn Young (6-0, 215, Fr.) in line to receive the bulk of the carries. Illinois spread the ball out all year, so the two should fill in just fine. Pollard carried 62 times for 462 yards and 2 TD's while Young carried 75 times for 406 yards and 6 TD's.
At fullback, Jay Prosch (6-0, 250, So.) and Chris Willett (6-2, 235, Jr.) should both see action. Illinois' base set utilizes 3 WR, but they will use a FB.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
Illinois may spread their carries around, but the passing game is a different story. A.J. Jenkins (6-0, 190, Sr.) is Sheelaase's favorite target by a longshot. Jenkins has 84 receptions for 1196 yards and 7 TD's. That's about 40% of the team's total receptions, 52% of the team's total receiving yards, and 54% of the team's total receiving TD's.
Darius Millines (5-11, 185, So.) and Spencer Harris (6-3, 195, So.) also start, but have 17 and 25 receptions, respectively. No other WR has double digit receptions this year. Other receivers that may see action include Fred Sykes (6-0, 195, Sr.), Ryan Lankford (6-0, 175, So.), Brandon Clear (6-5, 210, Sr.) and Anthony Williams (6-4, 210, r-Fr.). Jake Kumerow (6-4, 190, r-Fr.) is suspended for academic reasons and will not play.
At tight end, Evan Wilson (6-6, 250, So.) and Jon Davis (6-3, 230, Fr.) are listed as or starters. Davis has more receptions, 21 to 9, and more yardage, 187 to 89, but Wilson has the edge in touchdowns, 3 to 1.
Illinois allowed 35 sacks and 78 tackles for loss this year, far more than one would expect from a line that starts 4 upperclassmen. The line is very versatile and uses backups at multiple positions.
LT Jeff Allen (6-5, 315, Sr.) is the leader of group, and is backed up by Simon Cvijanovic (6-5, 285, r-Fr.) who starts at RT and will likely take over the LT spot next year. Michael Heitz (6-5, 295, r-Fr.) is the backup RT.
Hugh Thornton (6-5, 310, Jr.) or Alex Hill (6-3, 325, r-Fr.) start at LG, and Jack Cornell (6-6, 315, Sr.) starts at RG. Tyler Sands (6-5, 305, Jr.) is third on the depth chart at both G spots.
At C, Graham Pocic (6-7, 305, Jr.) gets the start and is backed up by Tyler Sands (6-5, 305, Jr.) and Jake Feldmeyer (6-4, 280, So.)
That concludes Part I of the Illinois Fighting Illini preview. Feel free to fire away with any additional comments and be sure to check back in for Part II of the preview which will take a closer look at Illinois' defense and special teams.