Big Ten: Chris James
There are still a ton of prospects on the board for Big Ten teams, so conference recruiting reporters Tom VanHaaren and Brad Bournival take a look at the best and worst case scenarios remaining for each team.
Best-case scenario: Illinois picked up an offensive line commit on Monday with Peter Cvijanovic (Great Barrington, Mass./East Coast Prep), which gives the Illini two offensive line commits. Despite having four wide receiver commits on board, it looks like the staff would take another receiver in this class.
From Wisconsin moving up in the polls to a few schools moving down, it was a busy week in the Big Ten and the class rankings reflect that.
Here’s a look at what conference recruiting writers Brad Bournival and Tom VanHaaren saw and some trends to follow in the upcoming weeks:
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From Iowa, Michigan State and Wisconsin grabbing a commit, to Penn State receiving great news on the recruiting front, to Ohio State playing host to some big-time official visitors this weekend, Big Ten storylines were everywhere this week.
Here’s a look at a busy time in this week’s Big Ten storylines:
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Marcus Aurelius writes: Interesting that your list of potential reps on a playoff selection committee with Big 10 ties does not feature anyone with SEC connections (and other than Delaney-UNC, not many southern ties that I noticed). Is this indicative of the lack of movement North-South prior to Nick Saban (and Urban Meyer)? Seems very strange to me...
Adam Rittenberg: Former Iowa coach Hayden Fry is a Texas native who spent a lot of time in the Southwest Conference, but for the most part you're right. There's not a ton of transition between the North and South. Urban Meyer obviously has made the move recently, and other Big Ten coaches like Nebraska's Bo Pelini have spent time in the SEC, but along with Saban, they're all current coaches. As far as prominent former Big Ten coaches, most have been Midwest-based in their careers. That's an interesting trend you picked up.
Yooper from Minneapolis writes: Howdy Adam. Say, do the Badgers actually have a speed issue on the defense compared to the rest of the league, or is it just perception. Seems to me it's mostly perception and chatter based mainly on the RB against a team in Oregon that would've made many teams look slow. I didn't notice a speed problem the rest of the year, when one loss was due to a fortunate bounce, and one was due to a scrambling QB (tough for DBs to contain all day long). Anyway, wondering if you know if any stats back up the speed "issue"?
Adam Rittenberg: Yooper, I was just thinking about this. The games that raised issues about Wisconsin's speed on defense were the Rose Bowl and the two contests against Michigan State. Watching Wisconsin struggle against Keshawn Martin and others in the Big Ten title game, you had to be concerned about how they'd fare against Oregon, which has like 46 Keshawn Martins. I don't think you can dismiss the speed issue with Wisconsin, and the Badgers should continue to look for speed in all three areas of their defense. Now it'd also help to identify a premier pass-rusher like O'Brien Schofield and J.J. Watt. Pressuring the quarterback more will take pressure off of the secondary.
Jeff from St. Cloud, Minn., writes: Having lived out west, the talk about these 16 team super conferences is pretty hilarious. While in no way are the dollars even remotely similar, the WAC thought it was a great idea in the 90s....until the most notable members of the original WAC decided to hold a secret meeting at the Denver airport and agreed it was ridiculous that BYU and Utah should have to share revenue with Rice and San Jose State as well as travel all these great distances for conference games. The exact same thing is going to happen when Texas and Oklahoma are sharing a 16-team split with TCU and Iowa State. The powers-that-be in each of these "super conferences" are going to find an airport and in the span of an afternoon, we'll probably be back to the Southwest Conference and the Big 8. It is 100 percent inevitable. Hopefully the Big Ten doesn't get sucked in and in a perfect world, gets back to being TEN.
Adam Rittenberg writes: Jeff, thanks for sharing your perspective on this. The revenue-sharing component is fascinating when you're talking about potential superconferences. It's one of several reasons I think the Big Ten wants to stay at 12 -- not sure about ever going from 12 to 10. That said, the Big Ten has long made equal revenue-sharing a core pillar. Nebraska eventually will receive an equal share, and the Big Ten in my view will always keep this philosophy in place because it prevents the discord we saw recently in the Big 12. When Ohio State agrees to take the same cut as Northwestern, it says something about the league. It's the "all ships will rise" theory Ohio State AD Gene Smith talks about a lot. So even if the Big Ten became 16, I think it would do so with the idea all members would eventually get an equal cut of the pie.
Ed from Dallas writes: Hey Adam,Grew up in Illinois and all my childhood all's I wanted to do was be an Illini (unfortanely 5'11" guy that couldn't run or bench press my weight)so my dream was unreasonable...but it does lead me to my question...why can't The Illini recruit the top players from Illinois? They never have..whether it was Mike White, Ron Turner, Ron Zook or the current staff. I just saw the ESPN 150 and Illinois' top players are going to USC, LSU, Michigan, ND...everywhere but the Illini. Why is there no pride in Illinois HS football players in their state university? If the Illini just recruited their own state like Texas does they'd be a powerhouse.
Adam Rittenberg: Ed, while your concern has some validity, you can't say Ron Zook didn't recruit top players from Illinois. You remember Martez Wilson and Juice Williams? They were highly-touted guys coming out of Chicago. Other decorated in-state prospects included Rashard Mendenhall (Skokie), Josh Brent (Bloomington) and Graham Pocic (Lemont). Zook also landed recruits like wide receiver Chris James and defensive tackle Lendell Buckner who had hype coming out of high school but didn't really pan out in Champaign. I understand your frustration, especially with Illinois being the biggest school in the state. But Illinois hasn't been a traditional power like Ohio State, Michigan, Florida, Texas, LSU and Alabama. The team has to start winning more consistently to motivate top recruits to choose Illinois, especially since everyone in the Big Ten recruits the Chicago area. In-state recruiting has to be a big focal point for Tim Beckman and his staff, and they made a splash with quarterback Aaron Bailey out of Bolingbrook. But it's unrealistic to think Illinois will get every top player from within its borders.
Sam from New York writes: Hi Adam,Staying with the topic of Top Individual Seasons, why was Ron Dayne left out of the main list? I believe he should even be part of the national list, not just the Big Ten. He led UW to 2 straight Rose Bowls, capped off by sweeping all the major awards his senior year, and also broke Ricky Williams' career rushing yards record - which is still Dayne's to this day.
Adam Rittenberg: Sam, I think you're making the mistake of viewing this as a career achievement award rather than a list of exceptional seasons. Dayne certainly had two terrific seasons (1996 and 1999) that were under consideration for our top five, but ultimately he fell just a bit short of the top five. And honestly, if we were to include another running back's season in the top five, we would have gone with Larry Johnson in 2002, who averaged nearly 8 yards per carry. We had a similar situation with Dayne when we considered Purdue quarterback Drew Brees. We saw Brees as a once-in-a-generation player, and a Big Ten icon in recent years. But when you looked at his individual seasons and compared them with others in the past 50 years, they didn't quite stack up. Again, five seasons is not a big list, and this wasn't a career achievement rundown. We kept several Heisman Trophy winners off of the top five list.
Jason from Kansas City, Mo., writes: Adam,FYI-Nebraska fans aren't bitter about Michigan in 1997. That doesn't even make any sense. There's nothing to be bitter about as both teams can claim they won a national championship that year (unlike Penn St in 94). I really enjoy reading your blogs but comments like these tell me you still don't have a good feeling for the Nebraska fanbase. Please do some research next time before making assumptions about how Nebraska's fans feel.
Adam Rittenberg: Jason, maybe I overstated that a bit, but I did receive several emails from both Nebraska fans and Michigan fans before the teams met last season that suggested neither side was too pleased with a split national title. It might be more from the Michigan fans, some of whom feel the Wolverines should have been outright champions in '97. But you're not speaking for the entire Nebraska fan base when you say no one is better about the split title. My inbox says otherwise.
Nate from Clemson, S.C., writes: How would the conferences react to a modification of their own championship games? Would they be open to a requirement that would match up the 2 highest rated teams at the end of the season regardless of division? This would have had Alabama vs. LSU in the conference championship game and would have certainly knocked the loser out of contention for the championship game or perhaps a playoff. It seems that this would help bolster the B1G argument for the value of winning the conference championship.
Adam Rittenberg: Nate, this is an interesting point that several others have brought up. One problem with any playoff model that requires conference champions is what happens if there's a wave of upsets in the league title games. This also would favor a league like the Big 12, which as of the moment doesn't have a league championship game. Your plan obviously would help guarantee more exciting championship games and, in many cases, worthier league champions. I still think leagues would be hesitant to get rid of the division model, which would be the only way to do this (if you have divisions, you have to use their champions in the title game). But it's important for leagues to continue to re-evaluate divisions, make changes if necessary and consider the possibility of getting rid of the divisions altogether. No one wants to see Oregon-UCLA in the title game, and LSU-Georgia didn't really move the needle, either.
- The Big Ten Network crew of Dave Revsine, Gerry DiNardo and Howard Griffith all agreed that the new coaches, particularly coordinators Paul Petrino and Vic Koenning, have helped change the attitude at Illinois after two subpar seasons. "This team is working harder than I've seen it work," said DiNardo, who also noted that the team isn't as talented as in years past. Petrino was mic'd up for one segment of the show, and his high-energy style came through. Illinois head coach Ron Zook also pointed out a difference among players. "The players are kind of taking over," Zook said. "Not that we didn't have leadership before, but these guys, particularly the upper-class guys, have kind of taken over.”
- Redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase looked very good in drills, and those of who who haven't seen before likely came away impressed with his performance during the BTN interview. Although known for his running ability, Scheelhaase fired a bullet to Jarred Fayson in team drills. True freshman quarterback Chandler Whitmer also had a nice throw to Fred Sykes. "They're two-deep there," DiNardo said of the quarterback spot.
- Scheelhaase talked about how he has been able to gain respect on the team despite his age. "I’m around a bunch of great guys, guys who are willing to give me the respect," he said.
- Martez Wilson always has had an All-American's body, but he seemed to be backing it up with his play in practice as well. Wilson filled his gaps nicely during a 7-on-7 drill, and he made a really nice stop against Jason Ford during the team portion.
- DiNardo and Griffith both talked about how Illinois likely will use a lot of stunts and twists on defense to compensate for its lack of size up front. We saw this a bit from Glenn Foster, a 260-pound defensive tackle. Defensive lineman Corey Liuget looks leaner than he did a year ago, and DiNardo "liked the way he moved around." There also was a pretty good battle between Clay Nurse and weak-side offensive tackle Jeff Allen during a drill.
- The wide receivers looked very good in drills, although the defensive backs seemed to struggle with the exception of physical corner Terry Hawthorne, who Griffith called "a special player." Fayson, Sykes and Chris James all had very good practices. The BTN crew also liked what they saw from Eddie McGee, who we saw working at both receiver and cornerback. If Fayson can stay healthy, he'll form a nice 1-2 receiver combination with A.J. Jenkins.
- Running back Mikel Leshoure looked strong and a bit leaner than last year. Remember this is a guy listed at 240 pounds as a freshman who now checks in at 224. DiNardo said Leshoure has separated himself from the other backs, and Zook basically admitted it, too. "Right now, Mikel probably is the starter," Zook said. "I like his work ethic. He's so much different." Ford also looked good during the practice, cutting back nicely on one play.
- The offense seemed to have the edge in this practice, although Zook noted that Petrino's scheme throws a lot at an opposing defense. The BTN analysts think the new system will not only help Illinois' offensive players but provide the defense with looks other than the spread in practice. Petrino will use plenty of tight ends and fullbacks this year.
- Petrino also explained the strong-side/weak-side philosophy, which puts the offense's strongest players against the defense's weak spots.
- Freshman tight end Evan Wilson is an impressive-looking player, and DiNardo tabbed Wilson as his top newcomer. Petrino also said, "We’ve got a true freshman at tight end that's going to be a really good player." With Zach Becker (foot) out for a while, Wilson should see increased time. Griffith identified wideout Darius Millines as his top newcomer. McGee and rush end Michael Buchanan were the picks for under-the-radar players.
For starters, Pilcher, like the rest of his Fighting Illini teammates, entered the season fully expecting to play beyond Saturday's contest against Fresno State (Big Ten Network, 12:30 p.m. ET). Illinois had both talent and depth, and was widely projected to end up back in a bowl game after a one-year hiatus.
But nothing went according to plan, and a senior class that has endured an unusual tenure in Champaign will receive its sendoff Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
“The season didn't go as well as we'd hoped," said Pilcher, who ranks second on the team in both sacks (3.5) and tackles for loss (7.5). "We had high expectations. But you can’t really change it. It is what it is. Right now, we just focus on Fresno State and working hard to get that win. We want to go out with a bang."
The fourth-year seniors were part of head coach Ron Zook's first full recruiting class to Illinois. Juice Williams, a raw but talented quarterback from Chicago, headlined the group, along with other heralded prospects like Vontae Davis, Chris Duvalt, Chris James and Jeff Cumberland.
Illinois fourth-year and fifth-year seniors were part of the team's surprise Rose Bowl run in 2007. They also have experienced plenty of losing. Remove the 2007 season, and Illinois has gone 12-34 since Zook's arrival.
"They've done an awful lot of good things and an awful lot of bad things," Zook said this week. "One thing this class has done is show us where we can be and where we need to get back to. When they came here, it wasn't necessarily the popular thing to do, so I have a special place in my heart for that. As I told our football team after the [Cincinnati] game, they basically recruited everybody in this room.
"We owe it to them to do everything in our power as a football team and as a coaching staff to do everything we can do to win this game."
Zook recited the play-every-play-like-it's-your-last cliché during a team meeting Monday, but he further explained his point.
"Why do you think you talk about playing every play like it's your last play?" Zook said. "Because eventually it's going to be, and as I said, for some of these guys this is it. You will never play football again. ... The only thing they're guaranteed is one more game."
Though Illinois is playing strictly for pride Saturday, Pilcher doesn't expect any letdown. Fresno State boasts the nation's leading rusher in junior Ryan Matthews (149.1 ypg), who is cleared to play after missing the Bulldogs' last two games with a concussion.
"It’s always great to compete against the best," Pilcher said. "Everyone's fired up to play. It's important for us to get this win and send the underclassmen out on a high note."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
RANTOUL, Ill. -- We saw a little bit of everything during Illinois' practice Tuesday afternoon.
There was sunshine, and there was rain with drops the size of quarters (not joking). There was an appearance by Chicago Bears general manager Jerry Angelo. And I saw Juice Williams' little daughter, LaChez, steering a golf cart with the help of her mother. Very cute and slightly scary.
Oh, yeah, and there were a ton of long passes thrown.
Before I head back to Chicago, a few observations from Illinois' practice:
- As I expected, this wide receiving corps is absolutely stacked. I don't see another group in the Big Ten that comes close in terms of talent and especially depth. Arrelious Benn made his share of plays and so did Jarred Fayson, but I was most impressed by the number of guys making tough catches. Big man Jeff Cumberland caught several downfield bombs, and Chris James, Cordale Scott, Terry Hawthorne and Chris Duvalt all made nice grabs.
- It wasn't all good for the passing attack, as the defensive backs made their presence known. Safety Bo Flowers picked off Williams and safety Garrett Edwards squeezed an Eddie McGee pass. Cornerback Miami Thomas, who doesn't lack confidence, had two picks, bringing his camp total to five. Thomas told me he expects to have 10 picks by the end of camp.
- Illinois is lining up with two tight ends a lot more this summer than last year. Senior Michael Hoomanawanui is the starter, but Hubie Graham and Zach Becker are both on the field for a lot of snaps.
- Sophomore running back Jason Ford took most of the reps with the first-team offense, though senior Daniel Dufrene and sophomore Mikel LeShoure are both in the mix for the top job. Ford picked up a huge gain on a screen pass from McGee, thanks to a nice block from Fayson. He also was dropped for a loss by safety Supo Sanni.
|AJ Mast/Icon SMI|
|In his first season as the starting middle linebacker, Matt Mayberry has made 31 tackles (3.5 for loss) and an interception.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Indiana defenders must only browse the national statistics to recognize the challenge they face Saturday in Juice Williams.
The Illinois quarterback leads the Big Ten in total offense (353.7 yards per game) and passing (279.5 ypg). He ranks second in passing efficiency (151.2 rating) and has accounted for more completions of 50 yards or more than any quarterback in the country.
But just in case the Hoosiers aren't convinced of how dangerous Williams can be, junior linebacker Matt Mayberry will remind them.
Mayberry became friends with both Williams and Illinois wide receiver Chris James after going to combines with them as high school stars in Illinois.
"Juice is a great ballplayer," Mayberry said. "He's dangerous on his feet and [with] his arm. I've been watching some film on him and already knew those kinds of things. He's really dangerous.
"I definitely tell [my teammates] he's definitely not one of those quarterbacks that's going to go down easily. He'll run people over if he has a chance. We've got to do our best on defense."
Mayberry and his fellow defenders will need their best effort of the season to end a four-game slide. Quarterback Kellen Lewis could miss the game with a high ankle sprain, and Indiana's offense has struggled to score even with a healthy Lewis taking snaps. Illinois ranks second in the league in scoring offense (33 points per game).
"It was just a mental breakdown," Mayberry said.
Despite the team's struggles, Mayberry has performed well in his first season as the starting middle linebacker, racking up 31 tackles (3.5 for loss) and an interception. He played running back in high school and Indiana considered playing him at safety before shifting him to linebacker.
"Matt's had a very good year," coach Bill Lynch said. "He's stronger, faster and the more he plays linebacker, the better he gets. He's got very good speed, but he's got good strength, too."
Illinois didn't heavily recruit Mayberry, who grew up an Auburn fan -- his dad played for the Tigers -- and wanted to attend college outside the state. But Mayberry plans to have 25-30 family members and friends at Saturday's game, many of whom root for the Illini.
Mayberry talked to Williams on Sunday and wished him luck in the game, but after kickoff their friendship will be put on hold.
"I'm not going to go easy on him," Mayberry said. "Not at all."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
This will be a regular feature Tuesday and Friday, so send in your e-mails. I'll pick things up as the countdown to the opener reaches four days.
Kyle from Louisville writes: I give all due respect to Rashard Mendenhall because he was a horse last year for Illinois, but looking back it seems to me that the Illini offense could be just as good or better this year. In Illinois' five biggest games of the regular season last year - Missouri, Penn State, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio State - Mendenhall only went over 100 yards once, and twice (against Missouri and Ohio State), returning sophomore Daniel Dufrene outrushed him. Otherwise, Rashard put up huge numbers against less-talented teams. Am I completely off-base here or could Illinois be just as good this year on the offensive side of the ball?
Adam Rittenberg: You can't underestimate what Mendenhall did last season. He wasn't just a workhorse, but a breakaway threat. He helped Juice Williams, he helped Rejus Benn, he helped everybody, even when he didn't rush for 100 yards. But I agree that the Illini offense should be strong this fall. Dufrene looks like a solid back and he's picked up his play in preseason camp after a poor spring, but the only reason he outrushed Rashard against Ohio State was the 80-yard run that should have resulted in a fumble. Where Illinois should be much better is the wide receiver position. Benn will be dominant this season as he's fully healthy, and I've heard great things about Chris Duvalt's emergence this summer. When Jeff Cumberland returns from a foot injury, he gives that group size and tremendous leaping ability. Chris James and three freshmen also will contribute. So Illinois could certainly match last year's numbers on offense with a better passing attack.
Matthew from Toledo, Ohio, writes: Adam, you've got to further explain your reasoning behind ranking Purdue as having the toughest schedule. I just don't see how that works out. OSU and Purdue go to Michigan State; there's no way Oregon is even in the same difficulty ball park as the USC game, even if Oregon's quarterback wasn't sidelined with injury. Yes, Purdue goes to Columbus, but the Buckeyes go to Camp Randall, and given the Buckeye lack of success there, and given that Bielema is undefeated in Madison...sorry, but I just think you're wrong on this one.
Adam Rittenberg writes: I struggled with those two, Matthew, and it could go either way. Nonconference schedule was the deciding factor. The USC game is by far the hardest non-league test for any Big Ten team, but other than that, Ohio State plays Youngstown State, Ohio and Troy, all at home. Pretty weak, especially since Troy should have a down year. Purdue not only plays Oregon but Central Michigan, the back-to-back MAC champion that boasts one of the nation's best unsung quarterbacks [Dan LeFevour]. The Boilers also have to go to Notre Dame, a team that, like it or not, will be much improved this fall. Ohio State has a slightly tougher league slate, Purdue has a slightly tougher non-league slate with a trip to Columbus. Again, it was very close, but Purdue got the nod.
Bobak in Minneapolis writes: Minnesota question: While I understand Gophers Head Coach Tim Brewster's desire to field a more competitive team this season --especially after allowing 36 points a game in 2007-- I am puzzled by the choice of Ted Roof who, as head coach of Duke from 2003-07, saw his teams allow an average of over 32 points a game during his 6-45 tenure. How was this a wise hire? Yes he ran a college football program, but Duke convinced a court of law this year that they're as bad as bad gets.
Adam Rittenberg writes: You can debate Roof as a head coach, and you can also debate whether anyone will ever win at Duke [David Cutcliffe will find out soon enough]. But the guy is a good defensive mind with a track record of turning things around on that side of the ball [Georgia Tech, early on at Duke]. Roof has a lot more talent to work with in Minneapolis, especially with all the junior-college transfers joining the mix this season. I like this hire because Roof loves major challenges and after last season, Minnesota certainly fits under that category. I really don't know how Everett Withers possibly got another coordinator job after last season, but Roof will be fine. He reemphasized fundamentals this offseason and should get that unit back to respectability.
Kenny from State College, Pa., writes: I was somewhat surprised to see PSU @ OSU or @WIsconsin not in your top big 10 games this year. I really think those games could decide the big 10 champion.
Adam Rittenberg writes: You know, I was really close to cheating on that list and adding an 11th game in my top 10. It would have been Penn State at Ohio State. The series is usually very intriguing and it will be interesting to see how Daryll Clark fares in a raucous road setting like Ohio Stadium. If the Nittany Lions start strong, and the opportunity is there with their schedule, they could head to Columbus playing for first place in the league. But they'll first have to get by Illinois, Wisconsin and a Michigan team that always gives them problems.
Michael from Springfield, Mo., writes: Adam, What does the depth chart at running back look like for Michigan? From what I've been reading the two-deep could include any combination of Brown, Minor, McGuffie, and Shaw. Are these freshmen really that talented, or are there other factors coming into play? Basically, I want to know if I should be concerned about the fact that Brown and Minor are in danger of being beat out for the starting spot by two true freshman.
Adam Rittenberg writes: True freshmen Sam McGuffie and Michael Shaw are listed as co-starters on the Week 1 depth chart, ahead of both Carlos Brown and Brandon Minor. But Rich Rodriguez says all four backs will play Saturday and I believe him. He's got to see everything he has in a game situation, especially since so many guys are unproven. It is telling, though, that McGuffie and Shaw are listed first. They are smaller, quicker backs, the types that Rich has used in the past with his system. He's always willing to sacrifice size for speed, and those two freshmen fit the mold. I can't imagine Brown and Minor won't get a good chunk of carries as well, but if McGuffie and/or Shaw perform, they'll be the future at that position.
Kyle from Utica, Mich., writes: Hey Adam, Great coverage this offseason. Based on what you've seen out of the quarterbacks, if you were Rich Rodriguez, who would you start at QB against Utah?
Adam Rittenberg writes: Thanks, Kyle. I think Rich will start Steven Threet on Saturday, but I believe him when he says that more than one guy will play. It's highly unlikely Threet or Nick Sheridan will go out, totally grasp the system and dominate, so even though winning is paramount, Michigan has to see what it has at that position. It seems as though Sheridan has come on strong in preseason camp, and though he lacks Threet's size, teammates describe him as the more relaxed -- and potentially more confident -- quarterback. We'll see if it plays out on Saturday.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
|Tom Dahlin/Getty Images|
|Juice Williams is prepared for the added leadership role he must assume this season.|
James, a potential starter at wide receiver, already knew he wouldn't be playing that day against Missouri after tearing his ACL in training camp. Williams started the game at quarterback, determined to muzzle his doubters after an erratic freshman season, but left in the second quarter after taking a blow to the head from Missouri's Hardy Ricks on a 4-yard run.
Together, they watched as backup quarterback Eddie McGee rallied Illinois to within six points before throwing an interception at the goal line in the final minute.
"He talked to me about not finishing the game," James said of Williams. "He was real sad and upset."
"He took that loss to heart," added Illini linebacker Brit Miller.
Fast-forward to Monday as Williams and James sat in the film room at Memorial Stadium studying Missouri. This time they spoke with a tone of optimism, sensing the opportunity that soon awaited them.
It arrives Saturday as Illinois heads back to St. Louis to face Missouri (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). The game has added meaning for Williams, who matches up against Heisman Trophy candidate Chase Daniel.
"Even without the injury, it would still be special," Williams said. "The first game of the season, you prepared all offseason to get better as a player, as a leader, as a role model of this team. You're just so thrilled to go out there and show the world what you can do."
A greater burden will be placed on Williams this fall after Illinois lost running back Rashard Mendenhall, the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year. Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley wants to pass more to exploit a deeper-than-expected receiving corps and a junior quarterback no longer prone to poor decisions and an unsightly completion percentage.
Williams likely will look to air it out immediately against a Missouri defense that ranked 96th nationally against the pass last season (256.9 ypg).
"I'm pretty sure he can't wait to show the world what he can do as far as the passing," star wide receiver Rejus Benn said. "He's labeled as an option quarterback, a runner, but he's a passer and he's going to show that."
Williams spent a week this summer working with Eagles quarterback and fellow Chicagoan Donovan McNabb, who encouraged him to rely on more than just his arm strength to lead the offense. After completing just 39.5 percent of his passes as a freshman and struggling early last season, Williams began to get comfortable and played his best down the stretch, most notably in an upset of then-No. 1 Ohio State in Columbus.
He completed 6 of 9 passes against Missouri and added 11 rushing yards before the injury, which occurred when he started to slide on a scramble.
"I kind of learned my lesson," Williams said. "After that game, the coaches have pretty much been on me to run physical. As the season went on, I started running harder, breaking a bunch of tackles here and there, so it really paid off."
Illini coach Ron Zook doesn't expect Williams to think about the injury Saturday, which speaks to the quarterback's growing maturity.
"He has improved in every area, whether it be the way he talks with the media, the way he practices, all the things," Zook said. "Now it's going to be important that he goes out there and shows what we all think is going to happen, that he is a much-improved player."
Williams should get help from his receivers. In addition to Benn, the reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year, the Illini will start James and junior Chris Duvalt, who had a very strong preseason. Not having the 6-foot-5 Jeff Cumberland (foot) will hurt, but freshmen Fred Sykes, A.J. Jenkins and Cordale Scott all are expected to contribute.
"I can't even imagine the feeling I'll have running onto the field knowing that I'm going to be able to play this year," said James, who started the final four games in 2006. "It's exciting knowing you can get out there and know where you are from the start, going against a top team like Missouri."
Despite the Ohio State win and a run to the Rose Bowl, Illinois enters this fall needing to shed the one-year-wonder tag. What better way to start than against a team that many around the country would have rather seen in a BCS bowl than the Illini.
"Being able to go out there and win a game against a top-notch program would mean a lot for this program," Williams said. "It would hopefully make other guys start to believe in the Illini program, that the Illini guys are back and last year was not a fluke."
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
I didn't get around to breaking down every depth chart released Monday, so let's do it. Wisconsin's and Iowa's came out last week, and there were no major changes there. Still waiting for Michigan State and Minnesota (Purdue doesn't play until Week 2).
- As stated earlier, quarterbacks Daryll Clark and Pat Devlin are both listed as potential starters.
- Andrew Quarless is listed as the third-string tight end behind Mickey Shuler and Andrew Szczerba. Quarless, a former starter, was suspended for spring practice following a DUI arrest and has had several off-field problems at Penn State.
- Cornerback Tony Davis secured a starting job, and the other cornerback spot will go to Lydell Sargeant or A.J. Wallace. Sargeant started the first 10 games at cornerback last year and looked to be the starter with Wallace, instead of competing against him.
- Sophomores Ollie Ogbu and Abe Koroma are listed as the starters at the defensive tackle spot, which was thinned by two dismissals and an injury to Devon Still. Junior Jared Odrick is listed as Koroma's backup and likely will play plenty this fall.
- Tyrell Sales and Bani Gbadyu are listed as the starting outside linebackers, with Josh Hull in the middle. Promising sophomore Chris Colasanti is listed as Hull's backup.
- Evan Royster remains the top running back with speedy redshirt freshman Stephfon Green behind him.
- Junior Dennis Landolt is listed as both the starting right tackle and the backup left tackle behind Gerald Cadogan.
- As expected, junior Daniel Dufrene is listed as the starting running back ahead of Troy Pollard. Freshmen Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure continue to compete for the third-string spot.
- Junior Chris Duvalt and sophomore Chris James have joined Arrelious Benn as starters at wide receiver. Sophomore walk-on Alex Reavy is listed as Benn's backup, and freshmen Fred Sykes, Cordale Scott and A.J. Jenkins all are on the two-deep.
- A bit of a surprise as both Doug Pilcher and Derek Walker are listed as starters at defensive end opposite Will Davis. The "OR" designation is common for depth charts, but you don't usually see "AND" separating two possible starters. Walker has started the last three seasons but could play less with Pilcher's emergence and greater depth on the line.
- Sophomores Bo Flowers and Travon Bellamy secured the starting safety spots. Bellamy was a shoo-in, but Fowers beat out Nate Bussey and Donsay Hardeman for the job.
- Sophomore Josh Brent will start at defensive tackle following Sirod Williams' season-ending knee injury. Freshman Cory Liuget is listed as the backup at the other tackle spot.
- Four players remain in the mix for the starting place-kicker spot, with freshman Derek Dimke listed first.
There were a couple of notes from Wisconsin's news conference Monday.
- Cornerback Aaron Henry (knee) will miss the opener against Akron, and freshman linebacker Kevin Rouse will miss the majority of the season following shoulder surgery. Tight end Travis Beckum (hamstring), linebacker Jonathan Casillas (knee), fullback Chris Pressley (thumb) and cornerback Antonio Fenelus (ankle) could play Saturday and will be evaluated later in the week.
- Offensive linemen Jake Current and Kevin Zeitler, running back Bradie Ewing, tight end Jake Byrne, defensive end Brendan Kelly, punter Brad Nortman and defensive back Kevin Claxton are the freshmen expected to play this fall.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
I probably don't mention this enough, but I really appreciate all the e-mail, both the positive and the negative. I always knew Big Ten fans were passionate about their football, and the last few weeks have only reinforced that belief. Keep 'em coming!
Jan from Washington, D.C., writes: Your Plax posting re Nick "$aban" made me wonder about the attitude of Plax and Co. from the 1999 team toward [Mark] Dantonio, and thus Dantonio's relationship toward his former boss Saban. I know Joe Rexrode (LSJ) has repeatedly said that Saban was not liked by his players, but Dantonio, who was on Saban's staff as secondary coach, has invited those players, including Plax, back to campus and they have journeyed back. It begs the question: does Dantonio respect/get along with/have any nostalgia for his old boss? It's a fine line, because Dantonio wants to be associated with that 1999 winning team, but apparently not the part where Saban was mean to the players/untrustworthy.
Adam Rittenberg writes: Most coaches are extremely loyal to the guys they work for, and Dantonio seems no different. I'm sure he respects Saban -- looking at Saban's record, how can you not? -- and values the time he spent with him. He could disagree about the way Saban left MSU, but he probably knows the guy and the situation a lot better than most people. As I alluded to earlier in the week, Dantonio really gets it as far as understanding the place where he's coaching. Reaching out to former players, particularly NFL guys like Plax, is a critical component of maintaining a strong tradition. Michigan State, despite underachieving for much of the last few decades, still produces a bunch of NFL players. Reconnecting with those guys is key. I doubt Dantonio will make too many Nick Saban references in news conferences or player meetings, but I think he walks that fine line quite well.
B.J. in Boardman, Ohio, writes: I'm an Ohio State fan and I'm definitely psyched for the (mostly) positive media attention OSU has received during the offseason, but with that being said I don't understand why Kellen Lewis has been so under the radar in terms of All-Big Ten honors and coverage in general. What gives? The guy's stats are incredible and it seems like no one has him as All-Big Ten. Is it because of the suspension?
Adam Rittenberg writes: First off, I'm psyched there's actually a place called Boardman, Ohio. I used to think that was the infinite realm where all my readers lived. OK, back to the question. I agree that Lewis is underappreciated, but certainly not here, as I ranked him as the Big Ten's top quarterback. Lewis is a tremendous athlete who has blossomed as a passer. He'll reclaim his starting job soon enough after the suspension and should be a natural in the no-huddle offense. As far as the lack of buzz, the fact that Lewis plays for Indiana probably has more to do with it than the suspension. If IU capitalizes on its schedule, goes back to a bowl and wins, he'll get plenty of ink.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
The Big Ten preseason has seemed downright boring compared to the rest of the country.
There's no Mark Sanchez or Ben Olson crisis in this league, and though Ohio State has endured a few recent off-the-field incidents, the Buckeyes have nothing on Georgia. None of the four major quarterback competitions -- Michigan, Wisconsin, Penn State and Indiana -- are settled, and the one in Ann Arbor could drag on for some time. Wisconsin dismissed running back Lance Smith, but the Badgers remain well-stocked at the position. Penn State dismissed defensive tackles Phil Taylor and Chris Baker but still have depth at the position.
If the first two weeks of preseason practice have revealed anything, it's that a position that seemed weak in the league could be much better than forecasted.
The Big Ten lost seven of its top 10 receivers from last season, a group that included three-time league receptions leader Dorien Bryant, big-play dynamo Devin Thomas, Indiana career receiving leader James Hardy and Michigan stars Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington. Aside from Ohio State, Penn State and Northwestern, every Big Ten team entered camp with some degree of uneasiness about the wide receivers.
Michigan State and Indiana lost superstars. Michigan lost almost everybody. So did Purdue. Illinois and Minnesota needed second options. Iowa welcomed back several prominent pass-catchers from injuries. Wisconsin was very young at the position.
The anxiety level has dropped quite a bit.
Illinois, which will stress the pass more this fall, has produced several good candidates to complement Arrelious Benn, including juniors Jeff Cumberland and Chris Duvalt, sophomores Chris James and Alex Reavy and freshmen Jack Ramsey, A.J. Jenkins and Cordale Scott. Highly touted Fred Smith will make an impact this fall at Michigan State, but he's been overshadowed a bit by classmate Keshawn Martin. Michigan's young wideouts impressed first-year coach Rich Rodriguez from the get-go, and the Wolverines will lean on players like Darryl Stonum, Martavious Odoms, Terrance Robinson, Toney Clemons and Junior Hemingway come Aug. 30.
I was extremely impressed after watching Wisconsin sophomore David Gilreath, a big-play threat with tremendous speed. Though I didn't see Purdue practice after media day, junior-college transfer Arsenio Curry certainly looks like he can contribute alongside Greg Orton. Playmaker Andy Brodell is back in the fold at Iowa, and sophomore Colin Sandeman looks to be pushing incumbent Derrell Johnson-Koulianos for the starting job. Ray Fisher and Andrew Means headline a group of Indiana wideouts that also include some promising freshmen.
There has been so much buzz about the spread offense sweeping through the Big Ten. It looks like the league will have the moving parts to make those schemes work this fall.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
RANTOUL, Ill. -- I rolled up to Camp Rantoul just as Illinois players finished stretching before Wednesday's morning practice. Though the team worked out in shorts, the workout had plenty of intensity -- and four-letter words from a geeked-up coaching staff.
Here's a closer look:
- First, the injuries. Backup running back Troy Pollard sat out with an ankle injury and starting tackle Xavier Fulton missed practice with an ankle injury he sustained in Monday night's scrimmage. Both players are expected back soon.
- During the first set of team drills, true freshman running backs Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure rotated with the second-team offense behind projected starter Daniel Dufrene. Though Ford didn't join the team until preseason practice -- LeShoure practiced during the spring -- the standout from Belleville, Ill., seems to be catching on quickly.
- Arrelious Benn is fully healthy for the first time since the first few practices of last summer, and Illinois plans to take advantage. The sophomore wideout often lined up in the backfield and took option pitches from quarterback Juice Williams. He also remains Williams' top passing target, as he showed by catching several touchdowns in 7-on-7 drills.
- Williams looked good overall, consistently finding Benn and several other targets. He still has the tendency to throw too hard, gunning the ball to Marques Wilkins on a 5-yard slant [Wilkins somehow held on]. After Williams was forced to scramble during a play in team drills, offensive coordinator Mike Locksley asked, "Where's your outlet, 7?"
"He came back ahead of the game," Locksley said. "He's come in in awesome shape. Like most quarterbacks at this time, he's got a little bit of sore arm, so we're resting it up a little bit by limiting his throws. But mentally, he's right where we want him to be. The leadership part of it is there."
- Backup quarterback Eddie McGee seemed to struggle Wednesday, particularly near the goal line. He threw an interception to sophomore safety Garrett Edwards. Then Ashante Williams stepped in front of a receiver to pick off a McGee pass in the end zone. "You can't make mistakes in the red zone like this, 10!" Locksley shouted. Williams also broke up a Juice Williams pass to Chris Duvalt, and cornerback Dere Hicks recorded an interception.
- Illinois lost both starters at safety and rotated several players at both spots on Wednesday. Sophomore Travon Bellamy is the likeliest candidate to start, but Donsay Hardeman and Bo Flowers are also getting reps with the first-team defense.
- The receivers could be better than many have forecasted, including yours truly. They'll create matchup problems with Jeff Cumberland, a 6-foot-5, 251-pound junior, and boast speed with both Duvalt and Chris James. Cumberland and James likely will start alongside Benn. Wilkins seemed to be getting a lot of work Wednesday. And look out for Alex Reavy, a sophomore walk-on who is working heavily with the second-team offense. True freshman Cordale Scott looks ready to play at 6-foot-3 and 208 pounds, and coach Ron Zook expects all the freshmen wideouts -- Scott, Jack Ramsey and A.J. Jenkins -- to play this fall in an accentuated passing attack. Ramsey and Scott also could be factors in the return game, as Illinois might want to rest star cornerback Vontae Davis as much as possible.
"Right now, they're swimming a bit," Zook said, "but once those guys get it down, which they will, it's got a chance to be a deep group, a very explosive group. That's exciting."
- Running backs coach Reggie Mitchell had an animated exchange with fullback Rahkeem Smith after a carry during 7-on-7s. "Hey dog, how much you weigh?" Mitchell asked the 255-pound junior. "You go and run full steam."
- Early in practice, pairs of reserve offensive linemen went through resistance training by attaching what looked like a bungee cord between them. Things were going well until Randall Hunt's cord came off the harness, nailing teammate Ryan Palmer just above the groin. Ouch.
Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
To quote White Sox broadcaster Ken "Hawk" Harrelson, I love e-mail. Even from you haters out there (quick tip for future correspondences: Moron is spelled with two O's, not three).
This is long overdue, and I apologize. The frequency will be much better once the season starts.
Let's get to it.
John from Columbus, Ohio, writes: Hi Adam, Just a comment on the "longevity" aspect to rivalries. I don't feel like it should be the reason to discount the Ohio State - Illinois rivalry. The Illibuck trophy has been passed between the two for longer than any trophy in the Big Ten besides the Little Brown Jug. They even played the game as the regular season finale for a number of years at the beginning (1919-1933). I mean, you can definitely make the argument that it has been a lopsided rivalry (OSU leads the series 56-23-2), but you can't argue against its longevity.
Adam Rittenberg writes: I've gotten a lot of e-mails about the Illinois-Ohio State series, and fans are pretty divided. Some, like you, point to the long history and the trophy, arguing there's more to it than the last couple of years. Others say annual meetings like Purdue-Indiana or more competitive series like Penn State-Ohio State are bigger rivalries than Illinois-Ohio State. I can see both sides, but with the recent games and Illinois upgrading its talent, the buzz around this game should continue to grow.
Brian from Kingston, Pa., writes: I have the best replacement for JoePa after the 2009 season. Bill Cowher, what a GREAT fit that would be. As a PSU football fan I would LOVE to see that happen. Everything about him makes him the most ideal candidate. His experience, his toughness, his knowledge of the game, his similar style of play, his ability to motivate players. Man, that would be a marriage made in heaven. I realize it will never happen, I can't see him coming back to coaching anytime soon (and certainly not at the college level) I just feel he could really turn around the mindset and the thinking that goes on @ PSU. Hiring a guy not-in-house is the best decision as well, get somebody who has no strings to the program that can come in and put their stamp on the team. Oh, by the way, I am not a Steelers fan, I just feel it's a tremendously great fit. Any opinions?
Adam Rittenberg writes: Hmmm, interesting thought, Brian. But Cowher is comfortable living his life in North Carolina, and he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in March that he has no intentions of pursuing the Penn State job, if it ever comes open. Cowher's hyped-up style could translate well to college football, particularly in recruiting, an area Penn State needs to upgrade with its next hire. But Cowher is an NFL lifer who actually seems content spending time with his family away from the game (imagine that!). So I don't see this happening.
Justin from New Orleans writes: On your list of clutch players, I have to disagree with the inclusion of Ron Dayne, if only for the fact that he never had a big game in leading them to victory against Michigan. In fact, if my memory serves me correctly, the only year he may have gone over 100 yards was as a senior, and he barely did it with a lot of carries. You can't be a clutch player if you can't consistently beat a certain team that is always at or near the top of your league.
Adam Rittenberg writes: That's a good point, Justin. Wisconsin never beat Michigan during Dayne's tenure, and Dayne almost saw his Heisman hopes disappear in 1999 after being held to zero net rushing yards in the second half of a 21-16 loss. I still point to the Rose Bowl performances and what he did in leading the Badgers to two Big Ten titles, but you're right. Performing well against the league's other elite team is a big part of being clutch.
Adam from Bergstein, Ind., writes: How well do you shape the Hoosiers to do this year, and what is your thoughts about the quarterback controversy with Kellen Lewis supposedly needing to compete for the starting spot in fall camp? Who is more of a physical specimen between [Martez] Wilson and [Matt] Mayberry? I recently read an article about Mayberry's training with Tom Zbikowski...impressive...would love your input!
Adam Rittenberg writes: How is Bergstein this time of year? As imaginary towns go, that's a good one. Indiana's coaches had to make Lewis compete for the job again after his suspension, if only to show other players what happens if you mess up. Though Ben Chappell has improved, I see no way Lewis doesn't become the starter again. He has way too much talent and he'll be perfect running the no-huddle. I've received a ton of e-mails about Mayberry, definitely a fan favorite. He had 42 tackles as a reserve last season but looks to be on the brink of special things. Same goes for Wilson at Illinois. I'm very excited to see both of them practice in the coming days.
John from Milwaukee writes: Michigan's team did lose some talent. But they've got 7 returners on defense, and they've had Top 10 or Top 12 recruiting classes the last two years. I think the biggest factor, which people are missing, is Mike Barwis, the new trainer. This could be the fastest, strongest and most well-conditioned team ever. The things he does are ground-breaking. Even if they lose to WI, ND, OSU and Penn State, they could still go 8-4. They've got 6 or 7 home games, too. A lot of other teams are getting undue credit by being in the Top 25, and I think a program like Michigan, being ranked No. 24, is a reflection of reality. It's not like they're ranked 5th or 10th or even 15th.
Adam Rittenberg writes: You're right about the young talent being there, especially at the skill positions. And I don't think anyone is overlooking Barwis, who gets as much publicity as Barack Obama. He has obviously done a lot to change the conditioning standards at Michigan, and it could pay off this fall, particularly with the offensive linemen. But Rich Rodriguez is a realist and so am I, and looking at this offense, there's just no way this is a Top 25 team before the season. Go out and beat a veteran Utah team with a quarterback (Brian Johnson) who has actually thrown a pass in college. Go out on the road and beat a Notre Dame team that should be a lot better on offense. Win those games, and I have no problem putting Michigan in my Top 25. But I just can't justify putting a team with so many uncertainties and so much scheme left to learn in a preseason poll. Rodriguez said Monday that Michigan probably got ranked based on reputation. I agree with him.
Jim from Marysville, Mich., writes: Can any of Michigan State's freshman receivers be expected to step in and help replace the production of Devin Thomas in the offense and on special teams?
Adam Rittenberg writes: Several of them will be in the mix. Fred Smith didn't look like a freshman to me when I saw him at Tuesday's practice. He provides more size to a receiving corps that needs it. B.J. Cunningham is a redshirt freshman, but he'll definitely be a factor out there along with Keshawn Martin, a true freshman who was under the radar in high school but put up some dominating numbers. Doubt there's another Devin Thomas there, but as a group, Michigan State's young wideouts look strong. Several of those players will get a look on returns as well.
Derek from St. Louis writes: I think you got it wrong about IL being #4. Your arguement was that they needed a running back and more receivers. The running back is a big question mark - I agree, but please take a look
a look at our receiving core before writing the article. Arrelius Benn is going to be an all american this year and it is going to be extremely hard for teams to match up agains Jeff Cumberland (6-5, 250)... not to mention chris duvalt, briant gamble and chris james. This is an extremly deep WR core at UI. Look into it.
Adam Rittenberg writes: Rejus Benn will be one of the league's most dominating players this fall, especially since he's fully healthy. But I'm not sold on any of Illinois' other wideouts. James has some experience but he's coming off a torn ACL. Cumberland is a tremendous athlete with great size and ridiculous leaping ability, but he played mostly tight end and has only one 100-yard receiving game. Duvalt is a converted defensive back, so I'm not ready to brand him a stud wide receiver. The talent is there, which is true at a lot of positions for Illinois, but I'd rather wait and see on a lot of those guys.
Chris from State College, Pa., writes: Looking back over the past ten years, the two quarterback system has never been successful at Penn State.For some reason, the coaching staff moves the starting QB to wideout when the running QB comes in. Is there any reason to think that more of the same won't continue? Will the coaching staff finally figure out that it is okay to take the starter off the field for a couple series to keep the defense guessing? On a similar note, watch classic PSU games on the Big 10 Network, and you'll notice that the gameplans haven't changed one bit over the last 20 years (maybe more!). The difference is that in 1994 and 2005 they had a QB who could overcome the deficiencies of the coaching staff. Do you think [Daryll] Clark or [Pat] Devlin have the ability and mental awareness to do the same?
Adam Rittenberg writes: You're right that a lot of coaches are hesitant about playing two quarterbacks and rarely know how to manage them both. Clark definitely seems like a good fit for Penn State's evolving offense, the Spread HD. But the Lions also could use Devlin's arm, particularly with an all-senior wide receiving corps. My feeling is Clark will get the first opportunity to cement himself as the starter, but they'd be foolish not to play Devlin against Coastal Carolina. The coaching staff might need to use both against Oregon State's veteran secondary in Week 2.