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March 28, 2009

Important spring for Illini after disappointing 2008

Illinois surprised many and went to the Rose Bowl during the 2007 season. The 2008 season was a surprise, too but in a different way.

Instead of building upon their Rose Bowl appearance, the Illini took a big step back and finished 5-7.

That makes this an important spring for Ron Zook and a revamped coaching staff. The defense, especially, needs some work.

Here's a look at the Illini as they prepare for spring practice.

Arrelious Benn is part of what should be a high-powered Illinois offense.
Coach: Ron Zook
Last season: 5-7, 3-5 Big Ten
Spring dates: March 30-April 25
Offense (7): T Jeff Allen, G Jon Asamoah, WR Arrelious Benn, G Eric Block, RB Daniel Dufrene, TE Michael Hoomanawanui, QB Juice Williams.
Defense (5): FS Travon Bellamy, T Josh Brent, SS Donsay Hardeman, CB Dere Hicks, LB Martez Wilson.
Special teams (2): K Matt Eller, P Anthony Santella.
Positions of strength

A few spots along the line need to be fortified, but the offense should be outstanding because of a wealth of skill-position talent, led by quarterback Juice Williams and wide receiver Arrelious Benn. Keep an eye on junior wide receiver Jarred Fayson, a transfer from Florida. There also is nice potential at running back, led by Daniel Dufrene and Jason Ford.

Help is needed

The defense as a whole needs work. The top two players from last season's unit are gone linebacker Brit Miller and cornerback Vontae Davis, who turned pro early. Safety has been a trouble area. Donsay Hardeman will miss the spring and could redshirt in 2009 because of a neck injury. Travon Bellamy needs to make major improvement or risk being unseated by a youngster. And are there any linebackers in the house? While there is potential at tailback, it would help the offense if a dominant ball carrier emerged.

Keep an eye on

DE Jerry Brown: He was a ballyhooed recruit, but Brown, a junior, has underachieved. Effort and focus have lagged. The team needs his playmaking ability off the edge with last season's starting ends gone.

LB Ian Thomas: The coaching staff is looking for some good linebackers. That is Thomas' cue to show the speed and athletic ability that excited coaches when he was a recruit. Thomas, a sophomore, needs to work on the details of the position and show consistent passion.

CB Tavon Wilson: Wilson, a sophomore, will have a prime chance to seize a starting spot opposite Dere Hicks with Davis gone and Miami Thomas out this spring recovering from injury. Wilson has the athletic ability to be a solid corner.

His time is now

Linebacker Martez Wilson, a former five-star recruit, hasn't delivered on his promise. Time and again, he takes bad angles to the ball from his weakside spot. Wilson needs to continue to mature on and off the field if he hopes to reach his potential. The coaches may try Wilson, a junior, in the middle this spring in an effort to find the right fit.

The buzz

The spring will be a key time for three new staffers to get acquainted with the personnel. The top newcomer is offensive coordinator Mike Schultz, who arrives after being offensive coordinator at TCU. He replaces Mike Locksley, who left to become coach at New Mexico. Schultz doesn't plan to alter the attack significantly, but he will look for some subtle tweaks to play to the talents of Williams. Bottom line: The Illini want to run better. It's vital that five good offensive linemen emerge to help achieve that goal. They will be led by new assistant Joe Gilbert, who arrives from Houston to replace Eric Wolford (who went South Carolina). Keith Gilmore was hired from Cincinnati to coach the defensive line. This promises to be an interesting spring for a program coming off a disappointing season.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.

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