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CHAMPAIGN – Ron Zook's fifth Illini edition reported Wednesday to Memorial Stadium amid a flood of concerns ... about which Illini Nation constantly reminds itself.
The 2008 Illini went 5-7 (we know). Juice Williams must throw more accurately (he agrees). Anthony Santella needs to punt more consistently (right). Martez Wilson will be asked to fill vacated galoshes at middle linebacker (that's a challenge, and he's up to it), and the safety position needs a healthy Donsay Hardeman (arrows are pointing up).
That's us. That's Illini Nation. After a major disappointment in 2008, and a history of ups and downs, we first weigh in on the negatives, even if they're not. Williams, for example, already is breaking records, causing the nation's experts to put him on the Davey O'Brien watch list, and yet our Internet and golf course experts strain to find anything good to say about him ... or the defense ... or special teams.
It's as though, in our anxiety, we've forgotten how Zook's aggressive recruiting rocked the football establishment – remember Notre Dame's finger-pointing; remember John L. Smith's misstatement – several years ago. If Illinois hadn't been attracting blue-chippers, there would never have been a fuss.
That Illini talent is mature now. Williams is just one of numerous quality upperclassmen. At 235 pounds, he looks and runs like a fullback, and will call on three seasons of experience. He has spent the summer timing his passes to a receiving corps ranked by one service as No. 2 in the nation. Wilson appears poised to unleash his special talent. And Santella, a disappointment since his excellent Rose Bowl, has the experience of two seasons as the regular punter.
Look back to 2005, Zook's first year, when the Illini lost their last nine in a row, when Tim Brasic became QB by default, when the defense gave up 435 points, when Mattoon's 165-pound Kyle Hudson led the wide receivers (31 catches), when E.B. Halsey started nine games and rushed for 349 yards. Now there's something to have your doubts about.
This team, faced with a trying schedule, may fall short. But as practice begins, Zook has put together a gang of marauders capable of almost anything.
'A wakeup call'
From my perspective, perhaps the most positive aspect of Illini football in 2009 is the way the players have taken charge after the season-ending losses to Western Michigan, Ohio State and Northwestern.
"That was a wakeup call," Williams said Wednesday.
You've probably heard that, instead of sulking, they formed units of 10, with group leaders responsible for keeping everybody on the straight and narrow. They decided to police themselves.
"Each person was beholding to the others around him," senior defensive end Antonio James said. "We were held accountable for class attendance, schoolwork, weight training, everything. And if one guy missed, all 10 in the group had to pay, whether it was the StairMaster or study hall. Our group only had one real problem (leading to the departure of St. Louisan Jerry Brown, a promising defensive end)."
You get a good idea who's leading this team from the eight group captains: Williams, Arrelious Benn, Michael Hoomanawanui, Jarred Fayson, Sirod Williams, Jon Asamoah, Eddie McGee and Doug Pilcher. The freshmen were divided into offensive and defensive units.
"We learned a lot about the dedication of this team," Williams said. "It's over the top. We're all on the same page, no selfishness. I think this (the 10-man groups) was a great idea, and they should definitely do it next year."
Williams acknowledges a different feeling as his career winds down.
"There is a sense of urgency," he said. "It's all about now. We've got to take care of business."
Zook promises more live action and tackling drills when the squad reaches Rantoul next week. Said James:
"We worked hard last year, but we didn't hit as much prior to the opener. We went to St. Louis more focused on Missouri's passing. We thought they were going to throw on every down, and they ran on us (226 yards). We'll do more hitting this time."
That won't involve Williams. He is simply too valuable to risk injury.
"I'd be OK with that in the spring," he said, "but it's too close to the season and it's not worth the risk."
One of Illinois' assets is Williams' tackle-breaking ability. He has rushed for 2,050 yards, by far the most by an Illini quarterback. But the contact he receives in the Sept. 5 game against Missouri will be his first since Nov. 22 at Northwestern.
"It's something I must get in tune with again," he said. "I'm always tentative in the first series or two. When I got hurt against Missouri two years ago, I was between a slide and finishing a run."
A running QB is always a risk. That makes McGee's role crucial, even if he never plays. He is always one play away from entering, and he was called on before halftime two years ago in St. Louis. He completed 17 passes and pulled the Illini within 40-34. Later on, he threw a TD pass that might have beaten Iowa (a 10-6 loss) if the Illini had lined up properly. But McGee saw action in five games last season, some of them as a receiver.
"Eddie is a competitor and has always accepted his role," Williams said. "That's what I value most about him. He is a hard worker and a leader on this team. When I don't play well, he lets me know. And when I do, he is the first to congratulate me."
It sounds like – and outsiders probably wouldn't know if it wasn't true – the chemistry is right in 2009. The failures of 2008 can be helpful if handled the right way, and that seems to be the case.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.