If Illinois is going to repeat its run to a BCS bowl game this fall it's going to have to start on defense and up front. With the loss of Big Ten MVP Rashard Mendenhall from the backfield and no adequate replacements on the horizon, Ron Zook is going to have find alternate means of getting the pressure off the talented, but erratic, Juice Williams.
Defense can be the way it's done. Illinois brings back three starters on the D-Line and are expecting big things from new senior starter Will Davis on the end. The Illini also have both cornerbacks returning in Vontae Davis and Dere Hicks. A combination of a good pass rush and strong play on the corners can provide enough cover for inexperience at safety and make the D a good overall unit.
And that will be necessary because of the offensive problems mentioned. Illinois brings back some good talent in the passing game. Indeed, Herb Gould of The Chicago Sun-Times reports on how the air attack is being unharnessed for sophomore receiver Arrelious Benn. The speedy wideout is joined by fellow returnees Kyle Hudson and tight end Michael Hoomanawanui. But it all comes back to Williams and consistency behind center. He's never had to be the man in his college career, and Mendenhall's early departure places that burden squarely on him.
The schedule does Illinois no favors. They open with Missouri, and have conference road games at Wisconsin, Penn State and Michigan. And revenge-minded Ohio State comes calling in the penultimate game of the regular season.
Zook has this program moving quickly in the right direction. But to repeat last year's performance requires more of his recruits to step in before they are ready. It's tough to see the Illini winning more then eight games, and 7-5 or 6-6 looks more realistic this time around.