CHAMPAIGN – Batten down the hatches. Send the women and children underground. The alarm bells are already clanging as Saturday's forecast calls for an all-out aerial bombardment by Missouri against Illinois.
This isn't a shaky weather prediction. This is a certainty. Count the reasons:
– Blaine Gabbert, a 6-foot-5, 235-pound junior with NFL ambitions, burned Illinois in his first start last year with 25-for-33 accuracy accounting for 319 yards and three TDs. He's healthy and fresh after a midseason ankle injury that limited him to 3,593 aerial yards and 24 TDs as a sophomore.
– The status of veteran Tiger tailback Derrick Washington is uncertain as he faces sexual assault and trespassing charges stemming from an early-morning incident in June. And backup De'Vion Moore has recently missed two weeks of practice with foot and toe problems, increasing the likelihood that Mizzou will simply use the ground game to set up Gabbert's passing.
– The indoor conditions at the Edward Jones Dome mean that Gabbert's accuracy will be enhanced without concerns for wind, extreme temperatures or inclement weather. Domes are ideal for throwers, catchers and kickers.
– Prior to injuries sidelining starters Terry Hawthorne and Supo Sanni, new UI defensive coordinator Vic Koenning considered the secondary his most vulnerable area. It is doubly so now with offensive converts Justin Green and Steve Hull having little more than a week to learn their positions. Pass defense has long been an Achilles' heel for UI teams, the Illini managing just five interceptions in 2009 while 12 rivals completed 61.4 percent of their passes for 2,986 yards. Illinois has 11 interceptions in 24 games since the Rose Bowl.
Turn for the worse
If you're wondering how the secondary got into this fix, look at what happened in a one-year period.
First, 2009 regulars Donsay Hardeman and Dere Hicks completed their eligibility and Garrett Edwards, who started 11 games last year, elected not to return.
Bo Flowers transferred and Walter Aikens, listed as a five-game starter, and Tommy Hopkins are no longer on the roster.
Ashante Williams, who started twice at corner, and freshman Earnest Thomas are now listed as linebackers, a position switch that long since removed current starter Nate Bussey from the secondary. Bussey and Martez Wilson offer exceptional speed at the linebacker positions, which is positive for blitzing and defending passes.
With the stunning announcements late last week that Sanni and Hawthorne required surgery, the roster shows defensive backfield scholarships going to Tavon Wilson, Travon Bellamy, Antonio Gully, Patrick Nixon-Youman, Miami Thomas, Joelil Thrash, junior college transfer Trulon Henry and freshman Ean Days. Add Green and Hull from the offense. Also, Jack Ramsey, a sophomore receiver who has had an impressive fall camp, has volunteered to help on defense.
Nixon-Youman was absent Saturday due to a recurring migraine, and Miami Thomas is still trying to regain his 2007 form after surgeries on both knees.
Illini coach Ron Zook has made numerous successful moves from offense to defense, and vice versa, in the past. He arrived in 2005, just after Kelvin Hayden, who had 52 receptions in 2003, moved to defense to enhance his NFL prospects. By the time Zook arrived, safety Morris Virgil and tackle Chris Norwell were already installed as defensive standouts after switching from the offensive side.
Zook switched Will Davis from tight end to join Norwell in the defensive front four, sparking a 2007 Rose Bowl run that also profited from Xavier Fulton's move from defense to offensive tackle.
And the move of starting receiver Eddie McGee from quarterback follows similar changes by Walter Young, Christian Morton and Mark Kornfeld in the past.
"Whatever it takes," is the way Zook addressed the situation. "When it rains, it pours. Now we have to regroup. Usually, when you make position changes, it's because the player sees a chance for more playing time and wants to make the change. Moves like Will Davis and Xavier Fulton really helped the team. No. 26 (Green) will play soon. He is a natural."
Green, Kentucky's top-rated prep as a running back in 2008, was ranked the nation's ninth-best cornerback by Rivals.com, and was recruited by Ohio State as a defensive back. There had been staff talk of moving Tavon Wilson to safety to make room for Green and Hawthorne at the corners, thus putting 2008's top offensive players from Illinois and Kentucky at those critical defensive positions. Hawthorne was News-Gazette Player of the Year as a receiver, and Green earned a similar award at Louisville Male by scoring 51 touchdowns in his last two seasons.
"Hawthorne chose to stay on defense this year," said Zook. "He just loves to play. We caught this (stress reaction) fairly early so we hope he'll be back soon.
"When you have good athletes who want to win, they try to get in a position to help the team. I've never moved someone who didn't want to be moved."
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.