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Opening spring ball: Illinois

Illinois hit the practice field early Tuesday morning for the first of 15 spring practices.

Here's a snapshot of what coach Ron Zook and the Illini can expect this spring:

The big story: Replacing three key pieces and taking the next step. The Big Ten lost only seven non-seniors to the NFL draft, but three of them came from Illinois. This spring, the Illini begin the process of replacing defensive tackle Corey Liuget, running back Mikel Leshoure and linebacker Martez Wilson. All three players were extremely productive, and while Illinois boasts decent depth at running back, both defenders leave major voids. After an encouraging end to the 2010 season, Illinois looks to take another step toward stability this spring. The Illini haven't reached back-to-back bowl games since the 1991-92 seasons.

Position in the spotlight: Linebacker. Illinois loses its top two tacklers in Wilson (112) and Nate Bussey (83), who combined for 20 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and two interceptions in 2010. Veteran Ian Thomas returns and will lead the group much like he did in 2009, but the Illini must find others to emerge. Expectations are high for Jonathan Brown, who recorded 31 tackles as a true freshman last fall. Safety Trulon Henry could move to linebacker this spring.

Coaching changes: Linebackers coach Dan Disch left the program in February to become defensive coordinator at Southern Miss. Zook filled the staff vacancy with Mike Gillhamer, who has coached at eight college programs before serving as secondary coach for the Carolina Panthers from 2004-10. Gillhamer, who nearly joined Ron Turner's staff at Illinois in 1997, will coach Illinois' defensive backs. Coordinator Vic Koenning now will oversee the linebackers.

Keep an eye on: Tight end Evan Wilson. Illinois needs to complement top receiver A.J. Jenkins in the passing game, and Wilson should take on a bigger role this fall. The 6-foot-6, 237-pound Wilson recorded 10 receptions for 135 yards and two touchdowns as a true freshman in 2010. He boasts the size and talent to do big things this fall for Illinois.

Spring game: April 23