Hope and concern: Illinois Fighting Illini


Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

As we trudge through the college football Sahara known as June, it's time to examine why you should get excited and anxious about your favorite Big Ten team heading into the summer.

During the coming days I'll list the biggest reason for hope and the biggest reason for concern for all 11 teams. First up, Illinois.

Biggest reason for hope -- A wealth of talent

Despite losing first-round draft pick Vontae Davis, defensive leader Brit Miller and several other contributors, Illinois remains one of the Big Ten's most talented teams. If Ron Zook can effectively develop the heralded recruits he brought to Champaign, Illinois should rebound from an incredibly disappointing 2008 season and reach a decent bowl game. The Illini boast the league's deepest group of wide receivers, led by All-America candidate Arrelious Benn, along with the league's most experienced quarterback in Juice Williams and three solid running backs (Jason Ford, Daniel Dufrene, Mikel LeShoure). Despite some questions up front, this offense should light up the scoreboard. It's time for Zook's recruiting to translate consistently to the win column, and Illinois certainly can make strides with its level of personnel.

Biggest reason for concern -- An unproven defense

Illinois lost key players in all three areas of the defense, especially the front seven. Miller and Davis combined for 210 tackles last year, and Derek Walker and Will Davis teamed up for 9.5 sacks. Like the offensive side, the defense boasts a lot of talent and some experience with linebacker Martez Wilson, cornerback/safety Travon Bellamy, defensive tackles Corey Liuget and Sirod Williams, and others. But none of those players have shouldered as heavy a responsibility as they will this fall. Wilson needs to take a step and become the leader on defense. Tavon Wilson, Bellamy and others need to fill Vontae Davis' production in the secondary. An effective pass rusher or two must emerge. There are enough question marks here to make you worry a bit.