Big Ten: Mike Gillhamer

The Illinois football program has had more downs than ups during Ron Guenther's 19-year tenure as athletic director.

There have been Big Ten titles in 2001 and 2007 but only six bowl appearances and several particularly rough stretches (1996-98, 2003-06).

But Guenther likes the direction the program is headed as he heads toward retirement July 1.

"Everything's in place here for football to have success," Guenther said Monday on a conference call with reporters. "We're coming off of a bowl-game win, we had an excellent spring. .... [Assistant] Dan Disch left to become a coordinator and we replaced him with an outstanding coach [Mike Gillhamer]. I feel very, very good about where we are in football. It still comes down to winning some games, but from the schedule to the facilities to the salaries and the budget, they have everything they need there to have success."

Guenther is right. The Memorial Stadium renovation was a big piece, and Illinois finally has a schedule set up for success this fall with eight home games.

The next step: Illinois needs to string together winning seasons and bowl trips. The Illini haven't made consecutive postseason appearances since a five-year run from 1988-92.

"I don't know if any one [Big Ten team] is going to dominate," Guenther said, "but I would hope to think we're going to be very competitive."

Guenther said that the decision to retire was a gut feeling and that while he'll serve as a resource in the school's search for a successor, he won't be taking the lead in providing names of potential candidates.

Opening spring ball: Illinois

March, 29, 2011
Illinois hit the practice field early Tuesday morning for the first of 15 spring practices.

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

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

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

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

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

Spring game: April 23
It's official: Illinois has hired veteran NFL assistant Mike Gillhamer to fill its defensive staff vacancy.

The team didn't specify which position Gillhamer will oversee, but multiple outlets are reporting he'll coach the secondary and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning will switch from secondary to linebackers. Gillhamer replaces linebackers coach Dan Disch, who left earlier this month to become defensive coordinator at Southern Miss.

"Mike is very detail-oriented, a great teacher, an excellent recruiter and understands defenses and the techniques required to be successful in the secondary," Illinois coach Ron Zook said in a prepared statement. "Being able to find a coach with Mike's NFL and collegiate background is a tremendous statement about how the Illinois football program is perceived by other coaching professionals."

Gillhamer has coached defensive backs for eight college programs as well as for the Carolina Panthers, where he spent the past seven seasons as safeties coach.
Illinois reportedly has filled its defensive staff vacancy with longtime NFL assistant Mike Gillhamer.

The (Champaign) News-Gazette reports Gillhamer will coach the Illini defensive backs. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning oversaw the secondary in 2010 but reportedly now will coach the linebackers.

Illinois linebackers coach Dan Disch left earlier this month to become defensive coordinator at Southern Miss.

Gillhamer coached the Carolina Panthers' secondary from 2004-10. He also has coached defensive backs at a number of college programs, including Louisville and Oregon. He served as Louisville's defensive coordinator in 2003 and worked alongside Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino with the Cardinals.

The Illinois vacancy generated good interest from candidates, and Gillhamer adds experience to the staff. He inherits a group that returns mostly intact and will regain the services of safety Supo Sanni this coming season.

Big Ten lunch links

February, 15, 2011
February 13th, a magical night, where a 10 has the self-esteem of a 4 and the depraved enthusiasm of a 2.