Illini Football Preview
By BOB ASMUSSEN
MEMORIAL STADIUM — And a child shall lead them.
OK, not exactly a child. But a redshirt freshman. Who has never played a snap of college football.
In June, redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase was named Illinois’ starting quarterback for 2010. It was a move long pushed for by offensive coordinator Paul Petrino, who wanted the rest of the players to know who was the leader.
Scheelhaase won the job with a solid performance in the spring. The former star at Kansas City (Mo.) Rockhurst is an accurate passer and talented runner. He is able to use his legs to escape the defense and gain positive yardage on busted plays.
Jacob Charest, who entered the spring as the top candidate to replace Juice Williams, left the program in June. That means Scheelhaase’s backup will be another freshman, Chandler Whitmer or Miles Osei. Whitmer has an edge after spending the spring at Illinois.
Scheelhaase and friends will get an immediate test, opening against Missouri on Sept. 4 in St. Louis. The Tigers have dominated the games at the Edward Jones Dome, including a blowout victory in 2009.
In 2007, Ron Zook was one of the most popular guys in town after leading Illinois to its first Rose Bowl in 24 years. But the glow is gone after 5-7 and 3-9 seasons. The pressure continues to increase on Zook, who replaced six coaches during the offseason.
Both coordinators are new, with Petrino taking over the offense from Mike Schultz and Vic Koenning now running the defense.
Illinois will no longer run the spread offense that first started with Mike Locksley, now the head coach at New Mexico. Instead, it will be a more traditional passing and running game.
The good news for Petrino is that he welcomes back a talented group of runners, led by Centennial’s Mikel Leshoure. Also back are Jason Ford, Troy Pollard, Justin Green and Bud Golden.
A.J. Jenkins and Jarred Fayson are the best of the receivers, a position Petrino coaches. They’ll get help from Eddie McGee, who will also work some at quarterback.
Three offensive line starters return, but the unit was hurt by a spring injury to Corey Lewis. He suffered a torn ACL and is out for the season.
The defensive line lost tackle Josh Brent, who wasn’t able to make it back because of academic issues. Corey Liuget and Clay Nurse are the top returning linemen.
After missing most of the 2009 season with a neck injury, linebacker Martez Wilson — the most dynamic player on the Illinois defense — has been cleared to return.
In the secondary, Arrelious Benn’s brother Trulon Henry is contending for a starting safety spot. The cornerbacks are set with All-Big Ten candidates Tavon Wilson and Terry Hawthorne.
The Big Ten part of the schedule is challenging, with the Illini opening against Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State. Last year, those three outscored Illinois 89-31.
The highlight of the Big Ten season might be the Nov. 20 game against Northwestern. Instead of playing at dank Ryan Field, the game will be held at Wrigley Field. Face value on tickets is as much as $150 and they may go for much more than that on the secondary market.