CHAMPAIGN — Before pondering whether Ron Zook's Illini might finish 5-7 or 7-5 or maybe 9-3, consider:
There is a difference between 237-pound Jason Ford operating with a mind-set to run over somebody, and a Jason Ford concerned about soreness in the back of his knee.
There is a difference between 235-pound Ian Thomas carrying an attitude to punish the next ball carrier he meets, and an Ian Thomas with an aching shoulder in the back of his mind.
This isn't intended to raise doubts about two seniors who have the physiques and experience to be blockbuster football players in 2011. But it is intended to point out that football is a physical game ... that athletes are nearly always nursing minor hurts of some sort ... and UI prospects for another bowl season hinge to a great extent on the health of key players. An Illini squad cooking on all burners could take the likes of Indiana and Purdue in stride, and compete on an equal basis with Penn State and Michigan.
But take note. Backups for Ford and Thomas could be freshmen — Texas running back Donovonn Young and South Carolina linebacker Ralph Cooper — and while those rookies are exceptional prospects, they're FRESHMEN. And it should be pointed out that, while the backup for quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is undeclared, it is clear that Reilly O'Toole would see action if necessary. Another FRESHMAN.
Speaking after a hard practice Monday, Thomas was matter-of-fact.
"Most of the time, all of us have something a little bit wrong," he said. "When I'm feeling my best, I'm aggressive all over the place. But when there's something nagging me, I tend to favor it. Right now I'd say I'm about 90 percent. I'm getting there. We did some heavy bumping today but no tackling."
As a partial relief to your concerns, the weekend headline could have read: "Illini Conquer Rantoul."
The squad emerged from grueling two-week training camp more intact than any of the dozen years before.
For a team with solid starters but acknowledged depth concerns, that's a necessary step toward a winning season. They haven't always been so fortunate.
Ford, frequently slowed in the past, ran with fierce intensity, often careening off tacklers. He handed out so much punishment that defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said, "I hope he's as good as he appeared."
With six inside linebackers, Koenning worked four of them at the "Mike," a precaution in case Thomas' shoulder acts up. Thomas and his Atlas-like physique are poised for the opener, and he considers his shoulder so sound that he doesn't intend to use the harness than he's worn the last two seasons. Big tackle Akeem Spence should have no trouble recovering from a sprained ankle.
Paul Petrino hasn't allowed Scheelhaase to be tackled, and was ultra-careful in protecting his senior receiver, A.J. Jenkins. Both are at or near 100 percent, and the passing game appears dramatically better. A spectacular two weeks made everyone forget that receiver Darius Millines missed spring practice. You haven't heard much lately about Evan Wilson, but he's bigger and stronger as he begins his second season as the No. 1 tight end. And Zack Becker, limited to three games last year, appears fully cured of his foot problem.
Oh, yeah, this positive medical report comes with fingers to cross, and a piece of wood to knock on. Last year, a week before the opener with Missouri, two standout defenders crumpled. Safety Supo Sanni was lost for the season and cornerback Terry Hawthorne missed the first four games. They weren't around when Mizzou's Blaine Gabbert completed 34 passes in a 23-13 comeback win. Both defensive backs are back as part of what is projected as an improved secondary ... which you may or may not recognize, depending on up-front support.
Changing on the fly
Koenning's unit holds the key to a successful 2011. They have permitted a lot of pass completions by Petrino's playmakers this month, and Koenning will be obliged to innovate against Arkansas State and other spread-and-throw rivals. As he noted earlier, "We can't be conventional." In other words, he'll mix and match, make full use of three swift cornerbacks, and toss in some trickery.
As one example, the pass-rushing skills of 260-pound junior Glenn Foster will be used alternately at both tackle and end. As another, speedy young linebackers will be called on for blitzing talents that they seem to excel in.
"Our defensive linemen must control their gaps because we can't have those big blockers climbing up on our linebackers," said Koenning. "We've seen some assignments missed. But we have a better understanding than a year ago. I was bleeding when we came out of Rantoul last year. We had no understanding at some positions and our expectations weren't high. Even so, we were able to mesh it and improve, and we had some success before we seemed to wear down late in the season. This year our expectations are much higher."
That's the story with two weeks to go. Once upon a time, when Lou Holtz was asked to explain how his North Carolina State team won nine games, he replied that "everyone stayed healthy on both sides of the ball." That was nearly 40 years ago and that stuck with me. Wow, imagine the advantages of having all 22 starters for every game. Sometimes you can get lucky, and that's doubly important for mid-range teams lacking Ohio State depth.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com