Ron Zook confident Illinois can fill gaps

March, 3, 2011
3/03/11
10:30
AM ET
Every Big Ten team will enter spring practice needing to replace valuable seniors who have exhausted their eligibility.

The Illinois Fighting Illini face a similar challenge -- with a twist.

Illinois' biggest personnel hits come from losing three standout juniors -- running back Mikel Leshoure, defensive tackle Corey Liuget and linebacker Martez Wilson -- who opted to enter the NFL draft a year early. All three players earned All-Big Ten honors, and strong cases can be made for all three being the league's top players at their respective positions.
  • Leshoure led Big Ten running backs with 1,697 rush yards, ranked fifth nationally in rushing average (130.5 ypg) and led the league in touchdowns (20)
  • Liuget dominated on the interior line, racking up 12.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and 10 quarterback hurries
  • Wilson tied for fourth in the league in tackles (112), led Big Ten linebackers in tackles for loss (11.5) and had three forced fumbles, an interception, five passes defended and a blocked kick

All three players will be missed, but Ron Zook isn't sounding alarm bells in Champaign. The coach is optimistic Illinois has the pieces to fill each void.

Running back

Leshoure was one of the nation's most productive offensive players in the past season and a half, but Zook has often thought Jason Ford would carry the load for the Illini.

"If you'd asked me a year ago, I'd have said Jason would be the main guy," Zook said. "He's a pretty good running back."

Ford has rushed for 1,362 yards and 19 touchdowns in his career, but he has been nagged by injuries, which Zook attributes in part to Ford's weight.

"The one thing we said he had to do is get his weight down, which he's done, he's worked hard on it," Zook said. "We'd like to see him around 232, 234 maybe. He's a bit bigger than that, but he's on his way down."

Defensive tackle

Illinois will be hard-pressed to find another Liuget, but Zook really likes what he's seen from Akeem Spence during the offseason. Spence recorded 45 tackles, including four for loss and a sack, as a redshirt freshman last season.

Austin Tietsma and Jake Howe are two other young linemen who should be in the mix, Zook said, and Craig Wilson has moved from offensive line to the defensive front.

"I'm excited about a big body in the middle," Zook said of the 6-5, 320-pound Wilson. "He'll have a chance to be special for us."

Linebacker

Martez Wilson's unique skill set will be missed at middle linebacker, but Illinois has a player who knows the position. Ian Thomas played middle linebacker in 2009 after Wilson went down with a season-ending neck injury. Thomas led Illinois with 95 tackles.

Illinois also is excited about Jonathan Brown, who had a strong freshman season at linebacker. Brandon Denmark, who moved to linebacker during bowl practice, has some similarities to Wilson as a player.

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