Tate: Experience breeds UI optimism
What we need around here is a little football optimism.
And that's what you'll receive in spades today. Every sentence on Ron Turner's Illini squad will end, without exaggeration, on a positive note.
Remember, Northwestern was 3-7-1 in 1994 and 46-214-4 over a 23-year period before garnering consecutive Big Ten titles in 1995-96. Wisconsin was 1-10 in 1990 and 5-6 the next two years before making a successful Rose Bowl run in 1993. Iowa hadn't topped .500 in three seasons before going 8-4 and 9-3.
Illinois finished 2-9 in 1996 but is far from empty-handed. In fact, few teams have returning players who have spent more time on the field.
In installing an exciting, pro-style offense, Turner can and will put the ball in the hands of a variety of veteran athletes. He has the UI's soon-to-be all-time rusher in Robert Holcombe, a group of experienced receivers and a been-there, done-that tight end in senior Matt Cushing.
Returnees on the offensive side made 71 starts last year, at least 10 each by Holcombe, Cushing, end Marquis Mosely and linemen Chris Brown and Ryan Schau. In a two-year span, the trio of Holcombe, Cushing and Brown show 21 starts, Ryan Schau 16, Mosely and Tom Schau 11 each and Brent Taylor nine.
James spearheads defense
Defensively, it's much the same.
Coordinator Tim Kish's returnees show 75 starts last season. You see David James playing with such fervor in spring drills, and then you realize why. He was solid way back in 1994 when he replaced John Holecek for two games. The East St. Louisan made nine starts in 1995, playing spectacularly against Arizona with 15 tackles and a 53-yard fumble return to win the game. James and Eric Guenther (eight starts in 1996, second in team tackles) give Illinois exceptional strength at one inside linebacker slot.
If you're fretting about cornerback, take into account that Trevor Starghill has started 22 straight games and James Williams opened in all 11 last year, finishing fourth in team tackles with 67. Starghill, Williams and versatile Asim Pleas are listed as "players to watch" by the coaching staff.
Another 11-game starter last season was Rameel Connor, a fixture in a mobile four-man front that includes All-Big Ten candidate Garrett Johnson, Mike McGee and Jeff Weisse. If McGee, linebacker Mike Young and safety Ivan Benson are the only defensive regulars without a previous start, they are also three of the team's most mobile and promising athletes.
Experience is even greater on special teams with returning snappers, a proven punter in Jason Higgins (54 punts averaged 39.1), two veteran kickers in Bret Scheuplein and Neil Rackers, and a bevy of excellent coverage guys from the young linebacker crop – Young, Danny Clark, Marcus Hood, Chris Hoffman, Eric Garrett, Manuel Strong and the rest. You can even include junior Famous Hulbert, back on the two-deep from his mystery ailment.
Lavery shows special talent
Quarterback? Optimism here revolves around an obviously improved Mark Hoekstra and redshirt freshman Tim Lavery. The left-handed Lavery shows a definite knack for delivering the football quickly on target.
"He has an excellent arm, and he looks like the best quarterback to me," said Toriano Woods, a receiver and defensive back the last four years.
Illini coaches won't commit to Lavery this early, but the speed with which they promoted him to No. 2 indicates how impressed they are with him. He isn't playing baseball these days because he is just too important to the football operation. Lavery, who wears No. 13, had all the right credentials coming out of Naperville Central, and he continues to flash a special talent for laying the football on the money.
The Turner system of bringing the tight ends and running backs into the pass-catching picture is perfect for a heady passer. And the fullback – it could be Elmer Hickman, a striking runner – could profit immensely from opponents' concentration on Holcombe.
And here's more good news. An offensive line that was solid inside but needed a monster mover at right tackle has a "find" in Marques Sullivan. The Fenwick All-Stater has reduced from 350-plus to 325, is a crunching blocker, and promises to be ship-shape in August. He surged ahead of the team's strong-boy, junior J.P. Machado, who started four games last year.
Illini talent is far better than the 2-9 result of 1997. Believe it.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette.