Big Ten: Justin Green

ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI

2012 record: 2-10
2012 conference record: 0-8 (sixth in Leaders division)
Returning starters: Offense: 9; defense: 4; special teams: 2

Top returners

QB Nathan Scheelhaase, RB Donovonn Young, RB Josh Ferguson, WR Ryan Lankford, TE Jon Davis, LB Jonathan Brown, LB Mason Monheim, DE Tim Kynard, P Justin DuVernois

Key losses

C Graham Pocic, G Hugh Thornton, DE Michael Buchanan, DT Akeem Spence, DL Glenn Foster, CB Terry Hawthorne, CB Justin Green

2012 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Donovonn Young* (571 yards)
Passing: Nathan Scheelhaase* (1,361 yards)
Receiving: Ryan Lankford* (469 yards)
Tackles: Mason Monheim* (86)
Sacks: Michael Buchanan (4.5)
Interceptions: Steve Hull* (2)

Spring answers

1. Juco impact: Embattled coach Tim Beckman needs a quick fix after a 2-10 season and brought in a sizable group of junior college players during the winter. Several jucos made an immediate impact this spring, including wide receiver Martize Barr and Eric Finney, who Beckman said locked up a starting job at the Star (safety/outside linebacker) position. Defensive tackle Abe Cajuste will be in the rotation up front, and Dallas Hinkhouse gives the Illini another option at offensive tackle.

2. Offensive playmakers emerging: Bill Cubit's offense gives Illinois a chance to be much more explosive in 2013, especially in the passing game. The Illini needed more playmakers to emerge at both receiver and running back this spring and saw some encouraging results. Miles Osei and Steve Hull, both of whom converted to receiver from other positions, showed flashes, and Justin Hardee had a big performance in the spring game (6 receptions, 104 yards). Ryan Lankford certainly has the experience to be a No. 1 receiver. At running back, Donovonn Young looked good in the spring game with three rushing touchdowns, and Josh Ferguson provides a nice counterpunch with his speed.

3. O-line coming together: When a unit struggles as much as Illinois' offense did in 2012, the first place you look is up front. An offensive line that featured one NFL draft pick (Hugh Thornton) and another potential pro (Graham Pocic) significantly underachieved, although injuries and youth played a role. The group needed to take important steps this spring, and Beckman sounded pleased with the results. Tackle Corey Lewis, recently granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, performed well and put himself in position to start. Simon Cvijanovic, Michael Heitz and Alex Hill all benefited from game experience last fall and should provide a more solid front in 2013.

Fall questions

1. Mind games on offense: Cubit was more concerned about quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole picking up the offense this spring than which one separated himself in the competition. After all, Illinois will be running its third different offense in as many years, which will test both quarterbacks from the neck up. Scheelhaase came out of the spring with the lead, and he'll try to create some space between himself and O'Toole this season. Cubit wants to throw quick passes -- and a lot of them -- and Illinois' aerial game remains a work in progress entering the summer.

2. Special teams: The kicking game has been a major area of concern at Illinois for several years, and it will once again be in the spotlight when fall camp kicks off. Kicker Nick Immekus, who connected on 4 of 5 field goal attempts last season, left the team before spring practice. Taylor Zalewski, who made 4 of 7 attempts last fall, has the inside track for the starting job but must show consistency as he competes with Ryan Frain and Brennen VanMieghem (great name). Illinois should be strong at punter but needs a major spark in the return game after finishing 118th nationally in punt returns and 107th in kickoff returns in 2012.

3. Filling gaps on defense: Repairing the offense is priority No. 1, but Illinois also needs to fill spots throughout the defense, especially up front and in the secondary. Illinois had three defenders selected in the NFL draft -- linemen Akeem Spence and Michael Buchanan, and cornerback Terry Hawthorne -- and loses other key contributors like lineman Glenn Foster and cornerback Justin Green. Tim Kynard is the team's only lineman with significant experience, so building depth up front will be critical. Cornerback is another position to watch, as freshman Darius Mosely stood out this spring. The linebacking corps could be very good if Jonathan Brown returns from injury at top form.
A year ago, Mason Monheim was in high school.

He's now among the leaders of an Illinois team desperately trying to get back on track for the 2013 season after a 2-10 clunker last fall. Ideally, Monheim could play behind several veterans for a few years, develop physically and mentally and then claim a leadership position. But a wave of injuries, combined with Monheim's emergence as a starting linebacker, have fast-tracked him to the forefront.

[+] EnlargeMason Monheim
AP Photo/Seth PerlmanIllinois LB Mason Monheim said he's trying to learn the nuances of the other defensive positions so that he can become a better leader.
The good news: Monheim is OK with taking the reins. The better news: he likes it.

"I feel more of a leadership role," Monheim recently told ESPN.com. "I'm really taking ahold of the defense. I'm trying to figure other people's positions so I can help them out, and know what they're doing to help me. I'm trying to be more vocal, just trying to bring that fire a little bit, to the group.

"It's a lot better and easier when there's a little fire underneath you."

Monheim said he's not fiery by nature but likes bringing energy to Illinois' spring workouts, whether it's critiquing a teammate or celebrating with them after big plays. Despite his young age, his teammates are responding to him well.

"They're ready for that criticism," he said. "Everybody's trying to learn, whether you've been here for a few years or not."

Much of Monheim's education came between the lines on Saturdays last fall. The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Monheim started the final 10 games for Illinois and led all Big Ten freshmen in tackles with 86.

His tackles-per-game average of 7.2 tied for 15th in the league, while no other freshman ranked in the top 50. Monheim had six tackles for loss, including 1.5 sacks, to go along with two forced fumbles, an interception a fumble recovery and a pass breakup.

He earned freshman All-America honors from Phil Steele and made our All-Big Ten freshman team along with fellow Illini linebacker Mike Svetina.

"I guess I didn't expect to play so much, but I went in with an open mind," Monheim said. "I knew if I would get an opportunity, I'd make the best of it for the team. That's what happened."

Monheim, a two-time Division IV all-state selection from Orville High School in Ohio, likely would have played for Toledo if Illini coach Tim Beckman had remained the Rockets' head man. But days after taking his official visit to Toledo, Monheim learned Beckman had accepted the Illinois job.

Monheim, who had received several Mid-American Conference offers, jumped on the chance to follow Beckman to Champaign.

"When I came in [last] summer, I didn't know what to expect," Monheim said. "But it wasn't anything that I was scared or didn't believe in my abilities. I have a lot of great teammates. They made it easy on me."

Monheim's challenge this spring is to better understand his teammates' responsibilities so he can lead them this fall.

Illinois could have three defensive linemen selected in the NFL draft -- Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster, who sparkled last week at pro day after not receiving a combine invite. The secondary loses cornerbacks Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green.

The biggest reasons for optimism can be found at linebacker, as both Monheim and Svetina return along with Jonathan Brown, a second-team All-Big Ten selection in 2011.

"We're more together as a group," Monheim said of Illinois' defense. "We're not focused on the individual abilities and talents. When you're together, nothing can break you."
The college football postseason all-star games kick off in the next few weeks, so I thought it would be a good time to see who from the Big Ten is headed where. These games feature NFL draft hopefuls from around the sport, and we'll have full coverage of each contest, particularly the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.

These rosters will be updated in the coming days, but here are lists of confirmed attendees.

SENIOR BOWL

When: Jan. 26 Where: Mobile, Ala.
EAST-WEST SHRINE GAME

When: Jan. 19
Where: St. Petersburg, Fla. NFLPA COLLEGIATE BOWL

When: Jan. 19
Where: Carson, Calif. RAYCOM COLLEGE FOOTBALL ALL-STAR CLASSIC

When: Jan. 19
Where: Montgomery, Ala. CASINO DEL SOL COLLEGE ALL-STAR GAME

When: Jan. 11
Where: Tucson, Ariz.

Illinois spring game recap

April, 16, 2012
4/16/12
1:45
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We're recapping all of the Big Ten spring games that took place Saturday. Let's check out how the Orange and Blue Game went down in Champaign.

You can read coverage of Illinois' spring game here and here and here. Here's the full stat sheet.

Star of the game: Redshirt freshman running back Josh Ferguson rushed for 130 yards -- including scampers of 20, 18 and 68 yards -- on 20 carries, and added a game-high six receptions for the victorious Blue squad. Defensive end Michael Buchanan earns a mention after racking up 12 tackles, including 4.5 "sacks."

How it went down: The run game and defense lifted the Blue squad to a 13-12 victory against the Orange team. Nick Immekus kicked a 47-yard field goal with 1:22 left in the game, and Justin Staples sealed the win with a sack of Nathan Scheelhaase.

"Come Monday, they'll be having steaks and we'll be having beans and weenies," Scheelhaase, who suffered his first spring game loss, told reporters. "Which means Chipotle can probably expect a lot of business from the Orange squad."

Mmmm, Chipotle.

Not surprisingly, there was a mix of good and bad as the Illini wrapped up their first spring session under new head coach Tim Beckman. Buchanan had a huge day and looks like the clear successor to All-America defensive end Whitney Mercilus, who led the nation in sacks in 2011 (16). Staples also had a nice performance, and the defense made plenty of big plays. Ferguson's performance also bodes well as Illinois lacks depth at running back and wants multiple options.

On the flip side, the offensive line struggled to keep pass-rushers out of the backfield. Quarterback play also was spotty -- Scheelhaase completed just 11 of 26 passes; Reilly O'Toole completed 19 of 31 attempts, but took four sacks -- although lousy weather made it a tough day to throw.

The Illini could get some contributions from players they're auditioning in multiple roles. Starting cornerback Terry Hawthorne caught a 29-yard touchdown pass from O'Toole, and cornerback Justin Green had a 15-yard run. Reserve quarterback Miles Osei caught four passes, although he fared well as a signal caller, completing 8 of 12 pass attempts.

Illinois' defense looks strong coming out of the spring, and its front seven should be one of the Big Ten's best. Offense clearly is the priority entering the summer months as players continue to learn a new system.

"We got to get better, but not just at quarterback," Beckman said. "That's the one that's always looked at. That's the one that’s always critiqued. [But it's] every position. If we want to be a champion, and we have the capabilities of doing that, we need to step our game up this summer and in two-a-days."

Spring game preview: Illinois

April, 13, 2012
4/13/12
3:00
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Seven Big Ten teams hold their spring games Saturday, and we're taking a closer look at each one of them.

Next up: The annual Orange and Blue Spring Game at Illinois. Here are all the vitals:

When: 3 p.m. ET (2 p.m. local time), Saturday

Where: Memorial Stadium

Admission: Free. All seating will be in the east stands. Free parking is available in the lots surrounding the stadium and Assembly Hall.

TV: The game will be streamed live on both BTN2Go and the Big Ten Digital Network. The Big Ten Network will broadcast the game on tape-delay at 7 p.m. ET Sunday.

Weather forecast: Partly cloudy with scattered thunderstorms possible, temperatures between 66-76 degrees, 50 percent chance of rain, winds at 19-20 mph.

What to watch for: Illinois should have one of the more entertaining spring games in the Big Ten. New head coach Tim Beckman said players will approach it "as if it's a real game." The team's seniors were divided into two groups and drafted teams earlier this week. The game will be played with a normal clock in the first half and a running clock in the second half (except if the game is close in the final two minutes). Another unique tidbit: Beckman will go into the stands and select Illinois students to call two plays per half for both teams.

Beckman wants to put on a show for the fans, who should get a decent sense of the new systems Illinois is using on both sides of the ball. The Illini are employing an up-tempo spread attack on offense, and it will be interesting to see how quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole are adjusting. There are depth issues at both wide receiver and running back, and Illinois is bolstering the spots with players such as Miles Osei, a reserve quarterback who could see time at both receiver and running back Saturday, and starting cornerback Terry Hawthorne, who will see time at receiver. Another defensive back, Justin Green, is being used as a running back. Top wideout Darius Millines (foot) is out, so plenty of others will have opportunities to make plays.

The changes aren't as dramatic on defense, as coordinator Tim Banks uses a similar scheme to his predecessor, Vic Koenning. Illinois looks very strong in the defensive front seven, and coaches have praised players such as Michael Buchanan, Jonathan Brown and Justin Staples. Safeties Supo Sanni and Steve Hull, both projected starters, are out for the game.
Two more Big Ten teams have produced their depth charts for Week 1. Let's take a look at Illinois' depth chart for the opener against Arkansas State, and Minnesota's depth chart for its opener at USC.

ILLINOIS

Depth chart (Page 10)
  • As expected, redshirt freshman Michael Heitz has earned the starting strong-side offensive tackle spot. Scott McDowell and Simon Cvijanovic will serve as backups at tackle.
  • Sophomore receiver Darius Millines earned a starting spot with a very strong performance in preseason camp. Classmate Spencer Harris also is listed as a starter at receiver alongside veteran A.J. Jenkins. Ryan Lankford, who had a strong spring, is listed as a backup to Jenkins.
  • Senior Jason Ford is the No. 1 running back, while three players -- senior Troy Pollard and true freshmen Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson -- are listed as co-backups. Don't be surprised if Young gets significant playing time behind Ford.
  • Interesting to see Justin Green and Terry Hawthorne listed as co-starters at cornerback opposite senior Tavon Wilson. Hawthorne has been pretty impressive when healthy, but Green is right there in the mix.
  • After starting last season at safety, Trulon Henry is listed as the starting strong-side linebacker. Sophomore Jonathan Brown enters the season as the top weak-side linebacker ahead of redshirt freshman Houston Bates.
  • Sophomore Miles Osei and freshman Reilly O'Toole are listed as co-backups at quarterback behind Nathan Scheelhaase.
  • No major surprises on the starting defensive line, as senior Craig Wilson steps into the tackle spot vacated by first-round draft pick Corey Liuget.
  • Hawthorne is the team's No. 1 punt returner, while Pollard and Millines are the top two men on kickoff returns.
  • Illinois has a good number of true freshmen and redshirt freshmen on the depth chart, including tight end Jon Davis, and defensive tackles Austin Teitsma and Jake Howe.
MINNESOTA

Depth chart (Page 22)
  • Junior college transfer Malcolm Moulton has made quite an impression. Moulton is listed as the starter at two receiver positions (the "Z" and "V"); freshman Marcus Jones is the backup at both spots. Senior Collin McGarry is listed as another starting receiver alongside All-Big Ten candidate Da'Jon McKnight.
  • Ryan Wynn and Zach Mottla are listed as co-starters at center, the result of Wynn battling a sprained ankle during preseason camp.
  • Although Minnesota's interior offensive line might feature three senior starters, the top tackles are a sophomore (Ed Olson) and a redshirt freshman (Jimmy Gjere). Two other freshmen, Sean Ferguson and Foster Bush, are listed as Gjere's backups.
  • The depth chart includes another redshirt freshman starter in defensive end Ben Perry. Minnesota is very young along the D-line, as tackles Anthony Jacobs and Brandon Kirksey are the only seniors listed among the top three players at each position.
  • Freshman quarterback Max Shortell has won the backup job behind MarQueis Gray.
  • Not many surprises among the linebackers, although Florida transfer Brendan Beal is just a co-backup with junior Ryan Grant at middle linebacker.
  • Eric Lair, who stood out at tight end for Minnesota in 2010, is listed as the team's starting H-back/fullback.
  • Sophomore Brock Vereen appears as the team's No. 1 cornerback opposite senior Troy Stoudermire. Shady Salamon and Kim Royston are the starting safeties.
  • Not surprisingly, freshmen and redshirt freshmen fill coach Jerry Kill's Week 1 depth chart. Quite a few young players will get their college football baptism Saturday afternoon at the L.A. Coliseum.

Illinois spring wrap

May, 4, 2011
5/04/11
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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.
Illinois' safeties will have an ally on the field this season.

Tavon Wilson is excited to be once again playing his natural position of cornerback, but he isn't forgetting his roots.

[+] EnlargeTavon Wilson
Chuck Rydlewski/Icon SMIIllinois' Tavon Wilson has started at cornerback and safety.
"I help my safeties a lot more because I know how hard it is back there, to cover each half of the field all by yourself," Wilson said. "If we're in Cover 2, I make sure I get my hands on [the receiver]. In Cover 3, I protect the front side when they're going to the middle.

"I've got a little more respect for the safeties now after playing the position."

Wilson moved from cornerback to safety before the 2010 season because a series of injuries hit Illinois' defensive backfield. The big loss was Supo Sanni, a projected starter at safety who ruptured his Achilles tendon in camp and had to miss the season.

After a productive sophomore season at cornerback, where he led the team with seven passes defended, Wilson made the shift to safety and once again led the team in passes defended (9) to go along with 48 tackles. Illinois' improved depth in the secondary has allowed Wilson to return to cornerback, although he practiced as a nickel safety this spring.

Wilson's versatility should help a secondary that likely will be the strength of the defense in 2011.

"Safety and corner are two totally different positions," Wilson said. "It's a different mind-set. At first, I tried to go out there and play like a corner, but I had to learn the game from a safety standpoint. It's a totally different aspect of football."

Wilson admits he "probably played a little smarter" as a safety, knowing that any risk could backfire and result in a touchdown for the opposing team.

"At corner, I know I'm a lot more aggressive and more of a hitter," he said. "I take more chances just because I know I've got some help over the top."

He won't take that help for granted.

Sanni is on track to return at safety alongside Trulon Henry, a starter last season who led the team with three interceptions. Wilson, Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green give Illinois a very nice complement of cornerbacks, and the secondary also brings back Patrick Nixon-Youman, Steve Hull and Miami Thomas, the talented corner who has battled injuries for much of his career.

"I definitely feel like we're going to have a chance to be the leaders of the defense, just because of the confidence we have in each other and the confidence everybody else has in us," Wilson said. "A lot of us have played a lot of football around here, so when things are going wrong, people on the defense expect me or one of my guys back there to make a play. We've been doing that this spring.”

Big Ten lunch links

April, 19, 2011
4/19/11
12:00
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Coming at you from Madison, where I've learned how to Bucky ...
Vic Koenning isn't the type of coach to ever ease up on the throttle.

That's a good thing, too. This season, Illinois doesn't have the luxury to relax on defense, even for a split second.

"There's really not a middle ground for us," Koenning, the team's first-year defensive coordinator, told me Wednesday. "We've got to be hammer-down, playing as hard as we can play with a high motor and almost be electric -- or we're not very good."

[+] EnlargeVic Koenning
AP Photo/The News-Gazette, Robin ScholzVic Koenning will likely be dialing up the pressure on Penn State freshman quarterback Rob Bolden this Saturday.
Koenning's defense has been very good for stretches this fall and certainly is showing improvement from 2009, when the unit ranked 91st nationally (403.3 ypg). Through four games, Illinois ranks in the top half of the Big Ten in several defensive statistical categories, including scoring (T-4th, 18 ppg) and red zone efficiency (4th, 75 percent conversions).

The Illini boast five players among the Big Ten's top 17 in tackles per game, and linebacker Martez Wilson finally seems to be reaching his immense potential after missing all but one game last year with a neck injury.

Asked to assess the defense through four games, Koenning, mindful of the team's 2-2 record, replied, "About .500."

"In our two losses, we had chances to close out the games," he continued. "If we had done that, we'd have been way ahead of where I thought we could have been."

The high-energy Koenning has provided a jolt to an underachieving defense, but the veteran coach also recognizes that players can't be in fifth gear all the time. Koenning said the defense has played an electric level about 80 percent of the snaps.

After short-circuiting for stretches in the opener against Missouri -- "The guys didn't know how to do it yet," Koenning said -- Illini defenders have increased their percentage of peak-energy plays. Last week, Illinois limited Ohio State's offense to 14 points in the first 51 minutes and just 290 yards for the game. Ohio State came to Champaign averaging 49.3 points but mustered only 24 against Koenning's crew.

But there still were lulls, like Terrelle Pryor's 66-yard run in the first quarter.

"You try and figure out a way to motivate them," Koenning said. "I can holler loud but I can’t holler that loud. We’ve got to bring along the next guys and we have to keep developing depth because if a guy's not playing up to what we need to do, you got to sub another guy in."

Depth is unquestionably Illinois' biggest obstacle right now. The Illini lost two projected starters in the secondary, safety Supo Sanni and cornerback Terry Hawthorne, to injuries before the season (Sanni's is season-ending).

The injury losses forced Illinois to shuffle its personnel, like moving Justin Green from running back to defensive back. Illinois' depth really hurts in the red zone, despite the decent numbers so far.

"We haven't been worth [crud] in my thoughts," Koenning said of the red zone defense. "We don't have enough safeties or enough D-linemen to play goal-line package, so have to continue to play our base package. It’s been something we need to do a better job of and work on it.

"But in fairness to us, we're handicapped down there."

It'll be interesting to see how the Illini fare in the red zone Saturday at Penn State, which has had major problems inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Penn State ranks last in the Big Ten and tied for 114th nationally in red zone offense, converting only two-thirds of its chances into points.

Don't be surprised to see Illinois try to turn up the heat on Penn State freshman quarterback Rob Bolden on Saturday.

"We feel like the quarterback, no disrespect, but he's not Terrelle Pryor yet," Koenning said. "But as far as the other positions, we feel Penn State may be as strong or stronger than the team we just played [Ohio State]. That's the respect level we have."

Speaking of respect, Illinois can gain even more by winning in State College for the first time in team history.

To do so, the Illini will look for a spark from their defense.

"You've got to challenge them to be great," Koenning said. "If you're going to challenge them to be average, you get average."

What to watch in the Big Ten: Week 5

September, 30, 2010
9/30/10
10:15
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Conference play finally kicks off this week, and here are 10 things to track on Saturday.

1. John Clay vs. Greg Jones: The Big Ten's top running back (Clay) goes up against the league's top linebacker (Jones) in a matchup football purists will love. Clay has rushed for 253 yards and two touchdowns in two career games against Michigan State, while Jones has recorded 27 tackles in those matchups. After limiting Clay's carries a bit during nonconference play, Wisconsin likely will feed him a lot at Spartan Stadium, particularly in the second half. If Jones and the Spartans defense keep Clay in check, they'll have a good chance to win.

[+] EnlargeJohn Clay
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireWisconsin's John Clay has rushed for 501 yards and six touchdowns this season.
2. Roles reverse for Hawkeyes, Lions: Iowa's recent dominance against Penn State is well known, as the Hawkeyes have claimed seven of the teams' last eight meetings. Unranked Iowa teams have knocked off top 5 Penn State squads in each of the last two seasons. This time, Penn State is the acknowledged underdog heading to Kinnick Stadium. Iowa has the senior quarterback (Ricky Stanzi) and the more accomplished team, but it also has the pressure to win. Penn State certainly boasts the talent to shock the Hawkeyes.

3. Fireworks in Bloomington: Expect a ton of points in the Michigan-Indiana game, as quarterbacks Denard Robinson and Ben Chappell lead potent offenses against shaky defenses at Memorial Stadium. Robinson will play after suffering a bruised left knee against Bowling Green, and he faces an Indiana defense that ranks 10th in the league against the run (177 ypg). Chappell leads the Big Ten and ranks 10th nationally in passing (296.7 ypg). He and his talented receiving corps face the Big Ten's worst pass defense in Michigan (264.8 ypg allowed). This could easily become a basketball score.

4. Improved Illini defense tested: All the early signs point to some genuine improvement with an Illinois defense that finished last in the league in both points allowed and yards allowed in 2009. But as coach Ron Zook said this week, "This will be the first major, major test." Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor leads the nation's No. 8 offense into Champaign on Saturday, and Illinois will be challenged to slow down the Heisman Trophy candidate, who accounted for six touchdowns (4 pass, 1 rush, 1 receiving) last week. To have any shot, the Illini need continued playmaking from defensive backs Travon Bellamy, Tavon Wilson and Justin Green.

5. Gophers on life support: There's little joy in Minneapolis about the Golden Gophers after a 1-3 start that includes three consecutive home losses. Despite coach Tim Brewster's perpetual positivity, players are aware of the gloom on the outside. Minnesota really needs something good to happen early in Saturday's Big Ten opener against Northwestern. If things start to go bad, the boos likely will rain down and it's hard to imagine the team turning things around. Minnesota really could use some big plays to lift the mood in TCF Bank Stadium.

6. Clayborn digs in: Penn State hasn't forgotten what Adrian Clayborn did last September at Beaver Stadium. Lions left tackle Quinn Barham put a picture of Clayborn on his cell phone as a reminder of what he'd face this fall. But Clayborn has been relatively quiet this season, as constant double teams have limited him to 15 tackles and no sacks through the first four games. Clayborn is due for a big night and he'll set his sights on Penn State freshman quarterback Rob Bolden. Penn State has protected Bolden well, allowing only one sack, but the Lions are shorthanded after losing right tackle Lou Eliades to a season-ending torn ACL.

7. Dantonio begins his return: Michigan State's Mark Dantonio will be in the coaches' booth Saturday at Spartan Stadium less than two weeks after suffering a mild heart attack and undergoing surgery. Dantonio said Tuesday that offensive coordinator Don Treadwell will continue to handle head-coaching duties as needed, as Dantonio eases into his full-time role again. "Guys are really excited to see him around," Greg Jones told me. "You feel like the tempo's picking up even more. Guys are going to really, really feel his presence more than they did last week."

8. Northwestern turns to Trumpy: Northwestern has been looking for an answer at running back for a year and a half. As good as quarterback Dan Persa has been, the Wildcats need a legit ground game to join the Big Ten's elite this fall. After Arby Fields' early struggles, Northwestern will turn to redshirt freshman Mike Trumpy, who provided a boost with 53 second-half rush yards last week against Central Michigan. Trumpy and Jacob Schmidt were elevated to co-starters on the depth chart, as Northwestern faces a Minnesota team that allowed Northern Illinois' Chad Spann to run wild (223 yards) last wek.

9. Cousins, Tolzien in crunch time: Both Michigan State and Wisconsin are run-first teams boasting a multitude of capable backs, but I really believe Saturday's game comes down to which quarterback makes plays in the fourth quarter. Both Kirk Cousins and Scott Tolzien have played well the last two weeks, combining for 998 pass yards with eight touchdowns and only one interception. Cousins needs to prove himself in the clutch, while Tolzien looks for a signature road win in a place where Wisconsin has struggled. He'll get top receiver Nick Toon back from a toe injury.

10. Buckeyes need answers at RB: Perhaps Buckeyes fans are nitpicking, or maybe they have a point about Brandon Saine and Dan Herron. Either way, Ohio State fans want to see more production out of the veteran running backs, or increased opportunities for dynamic redshirt freshman Jaamal Berry, who has 15 carries for 177 rush yards (11.8 ypc) this season. Coach Jim Tressel is loyal to his veteran players, and it will be interesting to watch what he does if Saine and Herron start slow against Illinois.

Two improved units meet in Champaign

September, 28, 2010
9/28/10
6:00
PM ET
There's a natural hesitation to draw definitive conclusions before Big Ten play, but it's safe to assume two things about Saturday's matchup at Illinois' Memorial Stadium.

1. Ohio State's offense is better

2. Illinois' defense is better

This isn't exactly out-on-a-limb stuff.

[+] EnlargePryor
Greg Bartram/US PresswireOhio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor is completing 66.4 percent of his passes, up from 56.6 last season.
In 2009, Ohio State finished a pedestrian 68th nationally in total offense (369 ypg) and 49th in scoring (29 ppg). Although the Buckeyes rushed the ball effectively, their pass offense ranked 103rd nationally (173.6 ypg). They eclipsed 30 points just twice in Big Ten play and had no players rank among the top 40 nationally in the major offensive statistical categories.

Illinois' defense was even worse, finishing 91st nationally in yards allowed (403.3 ypg), 96th in points allowed (30.2 ppg) and 100th against the pass (248.8 ypg allowed). The Illini had only one defender make the All-Big Ten roster -- end Clay Nurse -- and only as honorable mention. Illinois finished the year hemorrhaging points, 102 in its final two games.

Both units couldn't get much worse. But both units also have shown genuine improvement heading into Saturday's game.

Ohio State brings the nation's No. 8 offense to Champaign, a unit that comes off of a 73-point performance against Eastern Michigan, its highest points total since 1950. Junior quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who remains in the Heisman Trophy mix, accounted for six touchdowns in the game (4 pass, 1 rush, 1 receiving). Pryor ranks 13th nationally in both total offense (302 ypg) and pass efficiency (167.2 rating). Wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher leads the Big Ten in receiving touchdowns (5), and both he and teammate DeVier Posey rank among the league's top 10 in receiving yards.

"They're a ton better," Nurse said. "The quarterback is throwing the ball a lot better, the receivers are better, the running backs are running hard, the offensive line is bigger and stronger. It's going to be a challenge for us."

Illinois seems more equipped to meet the challenge than it was a year ago, when it fell 30-0 to Ohio State. The Illini have allowed just 48 points in their first three games after surrendering 49 and 53 in their final two contests last season.

"I really like the quickness," Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said. "They've always been a big, strong team. There's a couple of those guys you can see have trimmed down, and that's given them that quickness. Their pursuit is extraordinary, they fly around. They have tough kids, they play extremely hard.

"I would agree that their defense is a step ahead of perhaps where it was a year ago."

After being a run-heavy offense in Pryor's first two years as the starter, Ohio State didn't take long to show that things might be different this fall. The Buckeyes achieved a perfect balance of 16 rushes and 16 passes in their first half of the season opener against Marshall.

Pryor is more accurate and efficient, and the pass game has at times looked more polished than the run, as Ohio State keeps using a committee of backs.

"He's made the progress that you would expect," Illinois coach Ron Zook said. "He was just as talented his first year, but now he's throwing the football probably 20 percent more, he's very, very accurate. The longer he stays in [the pocket], the deeper people get on the field and the further they've got to come if he does break contain.

"I've just been very, very impressed with his maturation process."

The same holds true for Illinois' defense, which has five players ranked among the Big Ten's top 15 in tackles average. Linebackers Ian Thomas and Martez Wilson both have been sound, and defensive backs Travon Bellamy, Tavon Wilson and Justin Green are making plays.

"Guys are more interested in each others' success," Nurse said. "You see guys doing their jobs. Guys are not trying to make every single play. If it's something where we need to funnel the ball, that's what we're doing. We're not taking chances any more."

Zook is pleased by what he's seen from Vic Koenning's group, but there's a lot more to prove, beginning Saturday.

"This will be the test," Zook said, "that we'll know exactly where we are defensively."
It has been hard enough for Illinois to slow down Missouri's offense with a healthy secondary the past few years.

Now the Fighting Illini will try to stop Blaine Gabbert and co. without two projected starters.

Starting cornerback Terry Hawthorne will miss 3-6 weeks with a stress fracture in his foot, Illinois head coach Ron Zook said today. Hawthorne had a screw inserted after dealing with the injury in his fifth metatarsal.
"He had [the injury] as a junior in high school, and he didn't practice for a week," Zook told ESPN.com. "He's such a tough kid, he doesn't complain about anything. It bothered him a little bit during camp, but he never said anything, so he kept going. You love him because he doesn't ever complain, but if he would have said anything, maybe we would have been able to get away with just giving him a few days off. But he'll be fine and we'll be fine."

Hawthorne's injury comes just days after Illinois lost junior Supo Sanni, the projected starter at strong safety, for the season with a ruptured right Achilles' tendon.

Hawthorne was one of few bright spots for Illinois in 2009, starting five games as a true freshman and recording an interception and five pass breakups.

The recent losses will put defensive backs like Tavon Wilson, Travon Bellamy, Trulon Henry and Miami Thomas in the spotlight. Justin Green recently moved from running back to defensive back, and receivers Steve Hull and Jack Ramsey also could see some work in the secondary.

"You get concerned in the depth department," Zook said, "but Travon Bellamy's had a great camp and really has done well. We have Tavon Wilson playing at both places, corner and safety. And we're taking a look at Justin Green, who really has a chance to be a special player for us."
Illinois entered training camp feeling pretty good about its depth in the secondary, but the Illini have suffered a significant blow.

Junior Supo Sanni, projected to start at strong safety this fall, will miss the 2010 season after rupturing his Achilles tendon in practice Wednesday. Sanni is scheduled to undergo surgery today. He has a redshirt season available and will have two years of eligibility remaining.
"Supo is a great young man who was on track for an outstanding season," Illinois head coach Ron Zook said in a statement. "He was really coming into his own and I was very excited about seeing him play this year."

Sanni and junior college transfer Trulon Henry, the older brother of former Illinois star receiver Arrelious Benn, had been working as the starting safeties in camp. Senior Travon Bellamy is expected to move into Sanni's starting spot.

Sanni appeared in 11 games last fall, recording 11 tackles and a pass breakup. He looked good during the recent practice aired on the Big Ten Network.

Illinois recently moved Justin Green from running back to cornerback to help with depth in the secondary, and receiver Steve Hull also might see some work at safety.
Illinois junior Mikel Leshoure watches enough football to know that the era of the workhorse running back is more or less over.

You won't see many more backs like Terrell Davis in the pros or Marcus Allen in the college ranks.

"Not only college, but the NFL, too, it's a tough game, and it takes a pounding on your body," Leshoure said. "It's a long season, so it's real good to have at least one other back to split some carries with. And if you've got some other guys to step in and take some carries off of those two, that's even better."

[+] EnlargeMikel LeShoure
AP Photo/Seth PerlmanMikel Leshoure had three games of over 100 rushing yards last season, including 150 yards against Michigan.
Illinois' coaches believe they have enough players to share carries and not overburden one back. Head coach Ron Zook and new offensive coordinator Paul Petrino expect to use a committee system at running back this season.

Leshoure understands and accepts it, but he still wants to be the chairman of the committee.

"I definitely go into practice every day wanting to be the go-to guy," he recently told me. "If it's third-and-1, fourth-and-1, I want to be guy coach calls on to get it. And I want to be in the game in the fourth quarter."

Leshoure made a strong case to be Illinois' No. 1 back late last season, and he has continued to perform in preseason practice.

Few Big Ten running backs finished the 2009 season hotter than Leshoure. He recorded back-to-back 100-yard rushing performances against Purdue and Michigan, and had 76 rush yards on only 13 carries against Northwestern. Leshoure finished with a career-high 184 yards and two touchdowns on only 11 carries against Fresno State.

The late spurt vaulted Leshoure to sixth in the Big Ten in rushing yards by a running back (734). More impressive was the fact he had significantly fewer carries (108) than most Big Ten starters and averaged a whopping 6.8 yards per attempt. Leshoure received 15 or more carries just twice all season.

Most folks associated with Illinois' program couldn't wait for the season to end, as the team went 3-9. Leshoure, meanwhile, was just getting warmed up.

"Not only did I feel like I got stronger, but my confidence went up a lot," he said. "I just felt like I could come out and produce for this team. But at the same time, I'm a winner and so even though I had some good games, I would have rather won than to have had those games.

"I felt like seeing what I could accomplish just made my work ethic for the [offseason] a lot harder."

Leshoure trimmed 5-6 pounds from his frame and now checks in at 224. He also reduced his body fat to 4.2 percent.

"My stamina's is a lot better and I feel like I can be in the game a lot longer for my team," he said.

How many carries could he handle?

"I'd love to to see 20, 25 carries a game, if not more," Leshoure said.

Leshoure has been getting the first shot at running back in training camp, although he and classmate Jason Ford, who rushed for 588 yards on only 97 carries in 2009, both are working with the first-team offense. Junior Troy Pollard, sophomore Justin Green and redshirt Bud Golden are sharing time with the second- and third-teams.

The coaches have options, and they intend to use them. But Leshoure wants to make it tough for them to take him off the field.

"I understand where they’re coming from as far as running back-by-committee," he said. "They'll get people in when they need 'em or if I need a break, but I definitely want to be the guy."

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