Big Ten: Sirod Williams

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

They're baaaaack. Many of you who checked out colleague Heather Dinich's ACC position rankings asked when I'd be doing the same for the Big Ten. Well, Big Ten media days are done and we have a bit of a break before the first preseason practice begins Aug. 6 at Illinois. This seems like the perfect time to rank the positions heading into the season.

Defensive line is up first. There's only one elite group on paper, but no truly bad units, either. Really not much difference between Nos. 4-11.  

1. Ohio State -- The group has drawn comparisons to the 2002 line that helped Ohio State win a national title. Ohio State looks loaded at defensive end with Cameron Heyward, Thaddeus Gibson and Lawrence Wilson, a one-time starter who comes off of two major leg injuries. Gibson should have a big year after coming on strong late last fall. The tackles have been a bit iffy in recent years, but Doug Worthington boasts a ton of experience and should shore up the middle with Todd Denlinger, Dexter Larimore and Garrett Goebel.

2. Penn State -- Larry Johnson's body of work is simply too powerful to overlook, even though Penn State loses a lot from a group that led the Big Ten and ranked eighth nationally against the run (93.2 ypg). Jared Odrick is the Big Ten's most dominant interior defensive lineman, and he'll lead a group of promising young players. Hopes are extremely high for sophomore end Jack Crawford, and juniors Kevion Latham and Eric Latimore hold down the other end spot. Depth is a bit of a question, but Penn State should get a boost from a healthy Jerome Hayes. 

3. Iowa -- The Hawkeyes are another team dealing with major personnel losses as four-year starting tackles Mitch King and Matt Kroul depart. But what Iowa loses inside, it makes up for on the edges with ends Adrian Clayborn and Christian Ballard. Clayborn recorded eight tackles for loss last year and should contend for All-Big Ten honors. It'll be interesting to see how Karl Klug and Mike Daniels adjust to playing more on the inside.

4. Northwestern -- A lot depends on Corey Wootton's durability after the senior defensive end tore his ACL in December. Wootton is probably the Big Ten's most versatile lineman, applying pressure to quarterbacks and also clogging pass lanes with his 6-foot-7 frame. Sophomore Vince Browne is primed for a big season at the other end spot. Replacing standout tackle John Gill won't be easy, but the Wildcats have veterans in Corbin Bryant, Marshall Thomas and Adam Hahn.

5. Wisconsin -- I'm taking a bit of a chance here, seeing how the Badgers lose three multiyear starters up front. But the line dominated Wisconsin's offseason program and boasts several exciting pieces, including Central Michigan transfer J.J. Watt, who can play either end or tackle. O'Brien Schofield is a solid leader at defensive end, and young linemen Brendan Kelly and Louis Nzegwu should blossom.     

6. Illinois -- The Illini lose their top four sacks leaders from last year, but they should be much better against the run, an area that really hurt the defense in 2008. With Josh Brent back in the fold, Illinois boasts arguably more depth at defensive tackle than any Big Ten team. Corey Liguet showed a lot of potential as a true freshman, and senior Sirod Williams returns from a torn ACL.  There are some questions at end aside from Doug Pilcher.

7. Michigan -- Senior end Brandon Graham should be the Big Ten's most dominant pass-rusher this fall, and if he gets some help from his teammates, he'll be even better. Michigan is very young elsewhere on the line but boasts a good deal of talent. Sophomores Ryan Van Bergen and Mike Martin showed promising signs in the spring, and it'll be interesting to see how much true freshman William Campbell gets on the field. 

8. Michigan State -- This is the only area of Michigan State's defense that doesn't wow me, but senior end Trevor Anderson leads a decent group. Anderson should build off of a nice junior season (8 sacks, 10.5 TFLs), but the Spartans need a second pass-rusher to emerge. Brandon Long and Justin Kershaw will be missed, and it'll be up to Colin Neely, Oren Wilson and others to fill the void. 

9. Minnesota -- The Gophers tied for the league lead in sacks last fall (34) but lose standout end Willie VanDeSteeg, who accounted for 10.5 of those sacks. Minnesota's strength is inside with senior tackles Garrett Brown and Eric Small. If Cedric McKinley or someone else develops into a reliable pass-rusher, Minnesota should finish the year higher on the list.

10. Purdue -- It wouldn't surprise me one bit if Purdue finished the year much higher on the list, but there are quite a few questions entering the fall. The Boilers know what they have in end Ryan Kerrigan and tackle Mike Neal, but the other two spots are mysteries. There are high hopes for Kawann Short and Gerald Gooden, but I need to see more evidence in games before bumping up the Boilers.     

11. Indiana -- We all know the Hoosiers can rush the passer with standout ends Jammie Kirlew and Greg Middleton. But can Indiana stop the run? There are some major question marks at defensive tackle entering preseason camp, and Bill Lynch needs a bona fide run-stopper to emerge. Junior tackle Deonte Mack needs to step up after missing spring ball with a hip injury.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Considering what happened to Sirod Williams the last time he suited up at Camp Rantoul, you wouldn't blame the Illinois defensive tackle if he avoided the place at all costs. 

Williams' 2008 season ended before it started last August in Rantoul, as he tore his right ACL during drills. The projected starter underwent surgery and sat out until spring ball. 

Despite the bad memory, Williams will be among the first players to board the team bus Aug. 10 when Illinois makes the short trip from Champaign to Rantoul. 

"I just can't wait," Williams said. "The spring game gave me a little taste. I'm really looking forward to camp this year. And that's a new one."

As a fifth-year senior, Williams has been through the rigors of camp before. But at least he'll be able to hit people, and it beats the summer grind.

"Summertime with the conditioning, it's not my forte," Williams admits.

Most 295-pound defensive linemen would agree.

Illinois is pleased to have all that bulk back in the middle of the defensive line. The team loses starting ends Derek Walker and Will Davis, as well as tackle David Lindquist. 

Williams rejoins what figures to be a very strong rotation of tackles. Corey Liuget performed well as a true freshman, recording five tackles for loss, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. Josh Brent also is expected to be reinstated after serving jail time earlier this summer for drunken driving.

"Playing with Corey during the spring game, we really built a little chemistry," said Williams, who appeared in 12 games in 2008, recording a forced fumble and a pass breakup. "I think it will be very good with me, Corey and Josh Brent inside."

Williams participated in limited fashion throughout spring ball and was fully cleared following the Orange and Blue game. Though he still rehabs the knee daily, he has no concerns about pushing himself in Rantoul.

"I've only been hurt playing football like once, so there's really nothing to be worried about," he said. "I think I'll be able to catch on and find a rhythm pretty quickly. The goals are just play to the best of my abilities, don't take any plays off and hopefully, I can get a couple of sacks this year."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

As we trudge through the college football Sahara known as June, it's time to examine why you should get excited and anxious about your favorite Big Ten team heading into the summer.

During the coming days I'll list the biggest reason for hope and the biggest reason for concern for all 11 teams. First up, Illinois.

Biggest reason for hope -- A wealth of talent

Despite losing first-round draft pick Vontae Davis, defensive leader Brit Miller and several other contributors, Illinois remains one of the Big Ten's most talented teams. If Ron Zook can effectively develop the heralded recruits he brought to Champaign, Illinois should rebound from an incredibly disappointing 2008 season and reach a decent bowl game. The Illini boast the league's deepest group of wide receivers, led by All-America candidate Arrelious Benn, along with the league's most experienced quarterback in Juice Williams and three solid running backs (Jason Ford, Daniel Dufrene, Mikel LeShoure). Despite some questions up front, this offense should light up the scoreboard. It's time for Zook's recruiting to translate consistently to the win column, and Illinois certainly can make strides with its level of personnel.

Biggest reason for concern -- An unproven defense

Illinois lost key players in all three areas of the defense, especially the front seven. Miller and Davis combined for 210 tackles last year, and Derek Walker and Will Davis teamed up for 9.5 sacks. Like the offensive side, the defense boasts a lot of talent and some experience with linebacker Martez Wilson, cornerback/safety Travon Bellamy, defensive tackles Corey Liuget and Sirod Williams, and others. But none of those players have shouldered as heavy a responsibility as they will this fall. Wilson needs to take a step and become the leader on defense. Tavon Wilson, Bellamy and others need to fill Vontae Davis' production in the secondary. An effective pass rusher or two must emerge. There are enough question marks here to make you worry a bit.

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.

Big Ten lunch links

April, 20, 2009
4/20/09
12:15
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Four spring games in the books, six more on tap this week (no spring game this year for Iowa).

A big helping of links for you today. 

"I have this favorite quote: 'Never give up on anything that you're going to think about the rest of your life,'" Ray said. "If I quit football, I'll be an old man someday sitting in my room thinking about my glory high school football days. No way, no way."

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Illinois did a lot of learning last fall, even if it didn't do a lot of winning.

"I learned an awful lot last year," head coach Ron Zook said Tuesday morning. "Our coaches learned an awful lot last year. More importantly, our players learned an awful lot last year."

Zook hopes the learning experience pays off for the Fighting Illini in spring practice, which opens this afternoon in Champaign. The team comes off an extremely disappointing 5-7 season, one that began with a top-20 ranking and tons of national buzz following a run to the Rose Bowl.

Illinois returns the Big Ten's most experienced quarterback (Juice Williams), its most NFL-ready wide receiver (Arrelious Benn) and talented players at other spots, but Zook doesn't take much for granted after last season, where the team won consecutive games only once. Team chemistry wasn't a strong suit for Illinois in 2008, but Zook already has seen major progress in that department.

"This is a team," he said. "These guys are all excited about the University of Illinois football program. ... We all learned an awful lot last year. We got away from what's important. We started worrying about winning instead of letting the wins and losses take care of themselves.

"They're excited about being type of team they know they can be."

Here are some other nuggets from Zook's pre-spring news conference.

(Read full post)

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Juice Williams enters 2009 as one of the Big Ten's most recognizable players, a proven quarterback in a league starved for them.

 
  Chuck Rydlewski/Icon SMI
  Juice Williams was a second-team All-Big Ten selection last fall.

Williams has experienced just about everything at Illinois: A 10-loss season as a raw, yet talented freshman, a thrilling Rose Bowl run as a sophomore and a very disappointing campaign as a junior last fall. Illinois led the Big Ten in passing and ranked second in total offense but struggled to a 5-7 finish. Williams, a second-team All-Big Ten selection last fall, wants to end his college career on a good note, and perhaps for the first time he has truly taken ownership of the team.

Earlier this week, Williams discussed his up-and-down 2008 season, his outlook for the future and his legacy at Illinois.

What's been the mood for you and the guys during offseason workouts after things didn't go the way you wanted them to last fall?

Juice Williams: The attitude of this year's team is completely different from what we had last year at this time. Obviously, we didn't end up the way we should have or what we thought we should have. But that's affected this team in such a positive way. [The struggles] may be one of the best things to happen to this team.

Guys now are realizing that if we don't come to play every week, we're not going to be successful. And in order to come out there and play like that, we have to train and prepare our bodies to play 12 games to the maximum potential. Guys have really taken on that role, and I think we'll be ready by the time the season comes around.

Do you think guys were taking things for granted a little bit last year, especially coming off a Rose Bowl run?

JW: I think it had some type of affect on it. Guys kind of slacked off a little bit. We didn't really have the same intensity in the offseason as we should have. But like I said, I think it was probably the best thing that happened to us, not going to a bowl game. Us bringing back so many seniors and so much experience for this year, it's going to really prepare this team in the right direction.

(Read full post)

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.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

I didn't get a chance to have the regular Friday mailbag, so here are a few items before the early kickoffs.

Andy from Grand Rapids, Mich., writes: Michigan has a very capable running back in Sam McGuffie who I think will be the future of the position. However, we have seen Brandon Minor break several large runs this year and Carlos Brown has also exhibited great speed. Why is Rich Rod not giving our veteran running backs a little better look out there? Do you think he should be working them into the slot position, direct snaps, etc...? It seems like a bit of a waste of talent. Thanks!

Adam Rittenberg: Rodriguez saw last week the benefit of having multiple running backs in the game. Junior Kevin Grady provided a big lift in short-yardage situations, and Minor had the big touchdown run in the fourth quarter. Brown won't be available today with a sprained foot, but Minor, Grady and Michael Shaw should see time alongside McGuffie. You're absolutely right. Michigan needs its veteran running backs in the game, even if McGuffie is the future. Both Brown and Minor have value, and they both should be used more as the season progresses.


Brian from Baltimore writes: How arrogant is Beanie Wells that he could even think for a minute that he can win the Heisman? Even in the games he's played in, he hasn't posted Heisman worthy numbers.

Adam Rittenberg: Wells might come off that way, but I see it as confidence more than anything, which is never bad. He wants to carry the load for this team, and quite frankly, Ohio State needed someone to step up after the first few games. It will be nearly impossible for Wells to even be in the Heisman discussion, but he still believes he's one of the best players int the country, and more important, so do his teammates. Beanie Wells is the best leader on that team, not the seniors.


Bob from Parts Unknown writes: Adam As you cover the Big 10 - doesnt the completion percentage of Brian Hoyer depend on the receivers helping catch balls in the game. I have watched all the games and certainly there are incomplete passes....but also too many drops from a young receiving corps - something the media all questioned going into the season. So isn't Hoyer overall performance a bit better than his stats show.

Adam Rittenberg: Dropped passes are definitely a factor for Michigan State and several other teams (Wisconsin), but it would take an awful lot of drops to put the completion percentage at 46.5 percent. To his credit, Hoyer hasn't made a lot of mistakes, just two interceptions in 157 pass attempts, but I just can't see Michigan State making a serious run at the Big Ten title without its quarterback completing better than 50 percent of his passes. Hoyer manages a game very well, but he's got to make more plays. Mark Dell and B.J. Cunningham are solid receivers and should be used more.


(Read full post)

Big Ten internal affairs

September, 24, 2008
9/24/08
9:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

It's time to go inside five Big Ten teams as they prepare for the start of league play on Saturday.

Illinois -- The defensive line might finally be taking shape for the Illini after some illness/injury issues. Sophomore Josh Brent is back in the fold at defensive tackle, which has allowed standout Will Davis to move back to his natural position of defensive end. Freshman Cory Liuget also has emerged at defensive tackle, a spot vacated when projected starter Sirod Williams tore his ACL during training camp. "It's important that we can [rotate] guys in there and keep us fresh," head coach Ron Zook said. Zook called the defensive line the team's strength before the season, but the group will need to elevate its play Saturday night against Penn State's powerful rushing attack, which ranks eighth nationally (274.3 ypg).

Indiana -- When the NCAA cleared Florida transfer Jerimy Finch to play this season, Indiana's secondary looked like one of the deepest groups on the team. That depth will be tested Saturday against Michigan State (ESPN, noon ET). The Hoosiers will be without at least one starting safety (Nick Polk, knee) and could miss their other starter, as strong safety Austin Thomas is questionable for the game with a lower leg injury. Coach Bill Lynch announced that starting cornerback Chris Phillips will miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL. So the Hoosiers could be replacing three starters against the Spartans. Finch figures to see plenty of time.

Michigan -- A bye week allowed Michigan's offensive line time to heal, though a knee injury to tackle Perry Dorrestein last week in practice clouded things a bit. Mark Ortmann is expected back from a dislocated elbow and should rotate at left tackle with Dorrestein if Dorrestein can play. Left tackle is one of three offensive line spots that have an "OR" listed between potential starters on the depth chart. Converted defensive lineman John Ferrara could start at right guard in place of David Moosman, who is listed at both guard and center on the depth chart. Redshirt freshman Mark Huyge also should be back from an ankle injury, so the coaches have some decisions to make up front.

Minnesota -- True freshman running back DeLeon Eskridge has stepped up in the two games after Duane Bennett's knee injury, but coach Tim Brewster isn't quite ready to call Eskridge his featured back. Brewster said Eskridge, freshman Shady Salamon and junior Jay Thomas all will play Saturday at No. 14 Ohio State, and Minnesota will stick with whoever has the hot hand. The coach admitted that identifying a clear-cut starter has become less of a concern than it was after Bennett went down. Eskridge has 192 rushing yards and five touchdowns the last two games.

Ohio State -- Quarterback isn't the only offensive position where youth will be served Saturday against Minnesota. Freshman Michael Brewster remains the starter at center on this week's depth chart after playing a prominent role last week against Troy. The Buckeyes moved Jim Cordle from center to left guard after Steve Rehring injured his foot against USC. Rehring will miss "another week or so," coach Jim Tressel said, so that means more time for Brewster, one of several heralded freshmen in Ohio State's recruiting class.

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).

PENN STATE

  • 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.

ILLINOIS

  • 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

More than once in recent months, Illinois coach Ron Zook has called the defensive line the strength of his team.

Quarterback Juice Williams, wide receiver Rejus Benn and cornerback Vontae Davis might garner greater hype, but as a unit, the D-line rises above the rest. The Illini return starting ends Will Davis and Derek Walker, starting tackle David Lindquist and several others (Doug Pilcher, Josh Brent) with at least a pinch of game experience. The season-ending loss of tackle Sirod Williams will hurt, but it frees up opportunities for Brent and heralded freshman Corey Liuget.

Co-defensive coordinator Dan Disch expects to use a rotation of up to nine players up front.

"We're pretty deep there compared to our other positions," Disch said. "We've got some kids that have been around, that's the key. We're looking to them to get us through the first couple weeks."

First up is Saturday's season opener with Missouri (8:30 ET, ESPN), a team against which the Illini line looked anything but superlative last season. Quarterback Chase Daniel passed for 359 yards as Missouri outlasted Illinois 40-34.

Lindquist recorded one of two sacks against Daniel, but the Missouri star attempted 54 passes and proved too much for the Illini defense.

"He doesn't give up on the play, no matter what," Davis said of Daniel. "If it's a broken play, he's going to find a way to make something out of nothing. But at the same time, the defensive line and the defense in general, we bring more speed to this game than we did last year."

Davis, a converted tight end, leads the charge after recording 9.5 sacks last season. Walker enters his fourth season as the starter after leading the team in sacks in 2006.

Lindquist led the Big Ten in fumble recoveries (4) as a sophomore before starting every game last fall.

Another year of experience should help a group that watched Missouri score 37 points in the first two-and-a-half quarters last season.

"Last year, we were still trying to find each other as a team," Walker said. "We were confident, but we weren't sure. This year, we know we can be good. We know if we play how we're supposed to play, we'll be one of the best D-lines in the nation. We just have to go out there with that mind-set and prove it to people."

They get a chance to prove it right away.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Game week is almost here, and coaches around the league have some big decisions to make. Your only decision is to keep reading.

  • Rejus Benn could use a shave, particularly if he ends up on stage accepting an award or two in December. But the Illinois sophomore wideout isn't concerned about his preseason hype, Bob Asmussen writes in The (Champaign, Ill.) News-Gazette. Sirod Williams' season-ending knee injury put Illini defensive tackle Josh Brent in the mix to start, Mark Tupper writes.
  • No one at Indiana has said much about the reasons behind quarterback Kellen Lewis' spring suspension. But Lewis finally opened up Monday, saying he had thrown himself into "a party lifestyle," skipping classes and team meetings, Terry Hutchens writes in The Indianapolis Star. Very candid stuff from the junior:
"There were times when they called me and couldn't get a hold of me for three days. I had gone out and partied and then missed two classes and didn't wake up until 12:30. ... When you start believing in your own hype a little bit, you start thinking you can slide in a little bit later than everybody else. And now that you don't have to follow the same rules, you can bend this rule or that one. 'The essay is due on Thursday, but I can just e-mail it to [the instructor] later that night,' that kind of thing. And then it all just kind of caught up with me and my grades slipped to a point they had never slipped to before."
Also, some notes from Hoosiers practice, as wideouts Andrew Means and Brandon Walker-Roby returned to the field.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Happy birthday to me. I'll wish for ... a bunch of links. Here ya go:

  • Projected starting wideout Jeff Cumberland missed Illinois practice with a sore foot, Bob Asmussen writes in The [Champaign, Ill.] News-Gazette. Also, Asmussen takes a look at the defensive tackles, where Josh Brent looks to step into a starting spot after Sirod Williams' season-ending knee injury. Illinois is returning to its roots as a football school, Mark Tupper writes in the Decatur Herald & Review.
  • Indiana kicker Austin Starr fends off the one-and-done perception about the Hoosiers, Mike Lucas writes in The Capital Times. Here's a breakdown of Indiana's defense from The Indianapolis Star's Terry Hutchens.
  • Standout tight end Tony Moeaki is expected to rejoin the mix at Iowa this fall, Susan Harman writes in the Iowa City Press-Citizen. There's a report he's injured again, which will be clarified on Saturday at the open scrimmage.
  • Here's a look at Michigan Stadium's steel-clad facelift from Mark Snyder of the Detroit Free Press. The Wolverines go bowling next week to raise money for the paralyzed brother of offensive lineman Elliott Mealer, John Heuser writes in The Ann Arbor News.
  • Oklahoma transfer Keith Nichol could set up an interesting competition at quarterback with Kirk Cousins next year at Michigan State. Here's a look at Nichol's journey, courtesy of Andrew Mouranie in the Lansing State Journal. The Spartans are getting local for the 2010 recruiting class, Matt Dorsey writes in the Detroit Free Press. 
  • If you didn't know already, the Big Ten Network launches on Comcast today, Shannon Shelton writes in the Detroit Free Press. 
  • Former Minnesota star safety Dominic Jones, now serving jail time for sexual assault, will address the team next week, Dennis Brackin writes in the [Minneapolis] Star Tribune. Jones requested the chance to talk about his experience.
"I think it will be a very positive message, and I know that I'm looking forward to it,'' head coach Tim Brewster said. "The exciting thing for me is that it seems like he's really trying to make something positive out of this. You look at different situations and try to learn from them, because that's all you can do.''
Minnesota's defensive renaissance hinges on better line play, Marcus Fuller writes in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

RANTOUL, Ill. -- I'm finally back online from Camp Rantoul, where Illinois conducted the first of two practices this morning. We're still having a few Internet issues here, but I'll have a ton of stuff in the late afternoon/early evening, so check back often.

The big news today was coach Ron Zook's announcement that senior defensive tackle Sirod Williams will miss the season after tearing the ACL in his right knee. Williams was projected to start on a talented Illini defensive line before suffering the injury on somewhat of a freak play Saturday. He'll undergo surgery, redshirt the season and be back for 2009.

ESPN.com recruiting guru Tom Luginbill told me last week that if Illinois could get Cory Liuget on the field this fall, the freshman could do some damage. Now Liuget has a chance to win a starting job.

I'll have practice observations, player updates and an interview with sophomore linebacker Martez Wilson in a bit. But undoubtedly the highlight of the day was the team's post-practice trip to a water park located just north of the practice fields. Watching 300-pound men navigate a water slide was hilarious, and I spent most of the time standing next to Zook, both of us shaking our heads at the scene.

Zook also became the first Division I-A coach ever to expedite some interviews for me. When he saw me outside the team lunch room, he asked me who I was waiting for. Moments later, cornerback Vontae Davis and Wilson appeared. Magic.

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