Big Ten: Rodney Pittman

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

These three newcomers should make a mark for the Fighting Illini this fall.

OFFENSE -- Jarred Fayson, WR, Jr.

Fayson already is a familiar name to Illinois fans even though he hasn't caught a pass in a Big Ten game. The Florida transfer quickly made his mark in Champaign and likely earned a starting job this spring at wide receiver, a position where Illinois is already loaded. Fayson should draw defenders away from All-America candidate Arrelious Benn. He could become the bona fide No. 2 receiver Illinois is looking for this fall.

DEFENSE -- Aaron Gress, LB, Jr.

The junior college transfer should see the field immediately as Illinois tries to replace leading tackler Brit Miller and Rodney Pittman at linebacker. Gress auditioned at several linebacker spots this spring and drew good reviews from the coaching staff. He also could help in nickel packages and has the versatility to play safety if need be.

SPECIAL TEAMS -- Terry Hawthorne, WR, Fr.

Along with Fayson, Justin Green and several other newcomers, Hawthorne should play a big role on special teams this fall. He racked up 263 punt return yards as a high school senior and might be a good option alongside Benn on the kickoff return unit. And if Illinois really gets desperate for a punter, Hawthorne can step in. He averaged a whopping 44.8 yards per punt last year in high school.

Illinois spring wrap

May, 6, 2009
5/06/09
9:50
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Illinois Fighting Illini
2008 overall record: 5-7

2008 conference record: 3-5

Returning starters

Offense: 8; Defense: 6; Special teams: 2

Top returners

QB Juice Williams, WR Arrelious Benn, TE Michael Hoomanawanui, WR Chris Duvalt, WR Jeff Cumberland, LB Martez Wilson, DT Cory Liuget, K Matt Eller

Key losses

LT Xavier Fulton, C Ryan McDonald, LB Brit Miller, DE Will Davis, DE Derek Walker, CB Vontae Davis, LB Rodney Pittman

2008 statistical leaders (* returners)

Rushing: Juice Williams* (719 yds)
Passing: Juice Williams* (3,173 yds)
Receiving:
Arrelious Benn* (1,055 yds)
Tackles:
Brit Miller (132)
Sacks:
Brit Miller and Derek Walker (6)
I
nterceptions: Vontae Davis (2)

2009 Schedule
Sept. 5 Missouri (at St. Louis)
Sept. 12 Illinois State
Sept. 19 BYE
Sept. 26 at Ohio State
Oct. 3 Penn State
Oct. 10 Michigan State
Oct. 17 at Indiana
Oct. 24 at Purdue
Oct. 31 Michigan
Nov. 7 at Minnesota
Nov. 14 Northwestern
Nov. 21 BYE
Nov. 27 at Cincinnati
Dec. 5 Fresno State

Spring answers

1. Running men -- Illinois can feel optimistic about its ground game after the development of sophomore running backs Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure this spring. Both players markedly improved their physical conditioning and combined for 93 rush yards on 17 carries in the spring game. They should take the running load off of Juice Williams this season.

2. Man in the middle -- Martez Wilson moved to middle linebacker and could be on the brink of reaching the lofty expectations set for him when he arrived from Chicago's Simeon High School. Wilson adjusted well to the defense's premier position after an up-and-down sophomore season. He also has fully recovered after being stabbed outside a bar in December.

3. Receiver rotation -- The Illini could have the Big Ten's best receiving corps next fall -- by far. Everyone knows about first-team All-Big Ten performer Arrelious Benn, but Illinois boasts depth with Jeff Cumberland, Chris Duvalt and others. The team also adds a big piece in Florida transfer Jarred Fayson, who was practicing with the first-team offense this spring before sustaining a foot injury.

Fall questions

1. Line limbo -- Illinois loses three starters from the defensive line and needs to identify a capable pass-rusher after losing its top four sacks leaders from 2008. The tackle spot should be solid with Corey Liuget, Josh Brent and Sirod Williams, who returns from a torn ACL, but there is some doubt at defensive end. Jerry Brown dominated in the spring game, but he must clear some academic hurdles before the fall.

2. Run stoppers -- The Illini really struggled against the run last season and lose top tackler Brit Miller, an All-Big Ten linebacker. They need more help from the back seven, particularly Wilson and safety Donsay Hardeman, who sat out spring drills because of a neck injury.

3. Cornerback -- NFL first-round draft pick Vontae Davis leaves a hole at cornerback, and Illinois will be looking for a top cover man in preseason camp. Tavon Wilson could very well step into Davis' spot, and the sophomore had a nice spring. Davis was not only a playmaker against the ball but a capable tackler, finishing second on the team with 78 stops last year.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Talent certainly wasn't the problem last season in Champaign, and Illinois once again will return several game-changing skill players in 2009. Though Ron Zook must be mindful of impending departures at both quarterback and wide receiver, he can steer his recruiting elsewhere.

Illinois must improve at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. A defensive line that Zook labeled the team's strength before the season underperformed, and Illinois still loses three key contributors in ends Will Davis and Derek Walker and tackle David Lindquist. Sirod Williams returns from a knee injury and Cory Liuget looks like the real deal, but Illinois could use some depth along the defensive line. With a new line coach joining the mix, the front should be the team's top priority.

Jeff Allen emerged as a stud at right offensive tackle, but Illinois also needs to beef up on the offensive line. There's a question mark at center following the graduation of Ryan McDonald, and left tackle Xavier Fulton also departs.

Despite a disappointing 2008 season, Martez Wilson remains Illinois' future at the linebacker position. All-Big Ten standout Brit Miller, Rodney Pittman and Sam Carson all graduate, so adding a linebacker or two wouldn't be a bad idea.

Zook also must prepare for Juice Williams' graduation and will add another quarterback to the mix in Nathan Scheelhaase, who could play a critical role if Eddie McGee doesn't pan out in 2010. The Illini look fine at running back, wide receiver and defensive back, though cornerback Vontae Davis' early departure to the NFL and the likely departure of Arrelious Benn following the 2009 season creates some holes.

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