Clouded as the Illini crystal ball may be, the 2012 vision shows a competitive football squad ... maybe even better than 2011.
Senior Day tells us who'll be gone. They'll be missed. But Illinois will have more returning regulars than most teams. Yes, they'll miss A.J. Jenkins, Jeff Allen and Jason Ford on offense. They'll need a kicker for Derek Dimke. The defense will have to replace Ian Thomas, Tavon Wilson and Trulon Henry.
That's normal attrition. New players are required to step up every year. Defensively, the front four returns intact, with ends Whitney Mercilus and Michael Buchanan emerging as the premier bookends in the Big Ten. The secondary will be built around Terry Hawthorne, Justin Green, Supo Sanni and Steve Hull. Jonathan Brown is a budding all-star at linebacker.
The unfortunate loss of Henry this week provides Ohio junior Ashante Williams a second chance against Wisconsin. Said defensive coordinator Vic Koenning: "Ashante was fantastic in the spring, and we were really pleased with how he matured. At that point, Trulon was still a free safety. That's why it was disappointing (when Williams was suspended early this season). The terminology won't be foreign to him Saturday. He'll be nervous and rightfully so. There comes a time when you have to grow up and play."
With Donovonn Young expected to step up at running back, offensive concerns in 2012 could boil down to (1) finding a corps of receivers to make up for this year's over-concentration of passes to Jenkins and (2) bolstering the offensive line. This year's quintet has not compared favorably with some opposing fronts, as we're likely to see again Saturday.
Ron Zook is particularly high on the futures of redshirting freshmen Scott McDowell, Pat Flavin, Ted Karras and Tony Durkin, but how much time will they need? As with this season, the 2012 team likely will go as far as a reworked O-line can carry it.
When Koenning was coaching at Clemson in 2008, Russell Wilson was the starting quarterback for North Carolina State.
Clemson won 27-9.
"He was young, and I don't remember him that much," Koenning said. "We'll know who he is Saturday. He throws darts, and he gets the Badgers in the right plays. And that crew in front of him is pretty salty. Wisconsin hits you from every angle. When it's a hailstorm, which piece of ice are you worried about? It's all of it."
Wilson, taking advantage of a fifth-year transfer rule, has completed 73 percent of his passes, with 24 TDs and three interceptions. His efficiency rating is an incredible 201.6. At the same time, Montee Ball leads the Big Ten in rushing with 124 yards per game.
"Madison is an attractive place, and they've been able to recruit to the system they want to run," Koenning said. "Wilson is an added dynamic with his play-action ability. They are obviously the real deal. If you're rated in the Top 10 at this point in the season, it's not an accident."
In the last eight years, in moving from Barry Alvarez to his groomed successor, Bret Bielema, the Badgers have gone 9-3, 10-3, 12-1, 9-4, 7-6, 10-3, 11-2 and, at present, 8-2. They would be competing for a slot in the BCS championship game but for a deflected Hail Mary pass by Michigan State and a 40-yarder by Ohio State in the last 20 seconds.
The continuity and carry- over from Alvarez, now athletic director, is obvious. Koenning notes:
"When Rich Rodriguez came in at Michigan, he tried to change the way they've done things for years, and people weren't in favor of it. That didn't happen at Wisconsin. They give you what the Big Ten has always been known for ... a huge offensive line and big, hard runners. And they can also spread you out and play-action you to death."
An AD update
Latest from Mike Thomas in his third month as UI athletic director:
— Assembly Hall: "We've covered ground in terms of a projected renovation. The construction management firm has been approved, and we hope to get approval for an architect-engineer at the December board meeting. By spring we should have a design concept that we can present to potential donors."
— Best joke: "After seeing the winds we've had lately, I'm considering kite flying as the 20th sport."
— Describing himself as on a listening tour, Thomas told the Illini Rebounders on Wednesday that he "is auditing all UI programs and will evaluate football and other sports at the season's conclusion."
— Conference expansion: "The Big East is fluid, and I hear the Big 12 is still looking to add. I'm not for 16-team conferences. I like the geographical rivalries, as opposed to having soccer, golf and others travel all over the country. Nothing is happening in the Big Ten at this time. I think we have the smartest administrator in the country in commissioner Jim Delany."
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.