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Wednesday, May 4, 2011
Illinois spring wrap

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Illinois

2010 overall record: 7-6

2010 conference record: 4-4 (T-4th)

Returning starters

Offense: 7; defense: 6; kicker/punter: 1

Top returners

QB Nathan Scheelhaase, LT Jeff Allen, WR A.J. Jenkins, C Graham Pocic, CB Tavon Wilson, S Trulon Henry, LB Ian Thomas, DT Akeem Spence, K Derek Dimke

Key losses

RB Mikel Leshoure, G Hugh Thornton, T Ryan Palmer, DT Corey Liuget, LB Martez Wilson, LB Nate Bussey, DE Clay Nurse, P Anthony Santella

2010 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Mikel Leshoure (1,697 yards)

Passing: Nathan Scheelhaase* (1,825 yards)

Receiving: A.J. Jenkins* (746 yards)

Tackles: Martez Wilson (112)

Sacks: Corey Liuget (4.5)

Interceptions: Trulon Henry* (3)

Spring answers

1. Scheelhaase takes next step: Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino seemed extremely pleased with the way quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase built on his first season as the starting quarterback. Scheelhaase proved himself as a runner last season, but he upgraded his passing skills this spring, displaying a quicker release and better decision-making. The redshirt sophomore should be a dangerous dual-threat signal-caller this fall.

2. Secondary steps up: Illinois must replace several standouts in the defensive front seven, but it should be very solid in the secondary this season. Terry Hawthorne, Justin Green and Tavon Wilson were among the defensive backs who stood out in spring ball. Illinois boasts depth at both safety and cornerback, as Supo Sanni returns from injury and Trulon Henry enters his second year as a starter.

3. Lankford provides depth: Top receiver A.J. Jenkins and projected contributor Darius Millines both missed spring practice after offseason surgeries, so the coaches were looking for options at wideout. Sophomore Ryan Lankford answered the bell with a very impressive spring, showing good hands and run-after-catch ability. Lankford capped the session with five receptions for 64 yards in the spring game.

Fall questions

1. Running back: Injuries prevented the coaches from getting much of a read on the group this spring. Senior Jason Ford, a likely successor to Mikel Leshoure, missed most of the spring with a bruised knee, and Petrino said he needs to see more from Ford this summer. Troy Pollard had some good moments before suffering a concussion in a scrimmage. The starting job is open heading into the fall, and there's opportunity for an incoming freshman like Donovonn Young to make a splash.

2. Linebacker leadership: Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning didn't sound too pleased with the linebackers midway through the spring, although the group picked up its play toward the end. Illinois still must replace two productive players (Martez Wilson and Nate Bussey) and identify leadership at the position. Senior Ian Thomas seems like the obvious choice to take the reins, while talented younger linebackers like Jonathan Brown, Houston Bates and Brandon Denmark must continue to make progress.

3. Punter: Illinois loses a field-position weapon in Anthony Santella, who ranked 14th nationally in punting average (44.8 ypp) and placed 19 punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line in 2010. Backup kicker Matt Eller worked as a punter this spring and Lankford auditioned as a rugby punter, but Illinois likely will see what incoming freshman Justin DuVernois can do before settling on a starter.