RANTOUL — We're talking about 21-year-old young men here. Still growing. Still developing. And full of surprises. That's the nature of college football.
Looking back, did anyone predict last August that Whitney Mercilus would win 2011 awards as the nation's best pass rusher? He had seen only marginal time behind Clay Nurse previously.
Who could have imagined a 2010 season in which Champaign's Mikel Leshoure would set the school rushing record (1,697 yards) after he shared ball-toting duties with Jason Ford, Dan Dufrene and Juice Williams the year before? Leshoure ran 108 times in 2009, Ford 97, Dufrene 63 and Williams 143 (counting sacks).
Who would have guessed that an obscure guard who once committed to Northern Illinois, Jon Asamoah, would beat out Arrelious Benn for MVP on a 2009 Illini team that hammered Michigan (38-13) and almost no one else in a 3-9 season.
There they are: The last three Illini MVPs — Mercilus, Leshoure and Asamoah. Three athletes who got better, dramatically better. We can hark back further. Did anyone predict out of high school that Champaign's J Leman and Decatur's Brit Miller would become the UI's leading tacklers?
The quest in Monday's first practice was to search the field and find their successors.
We already know about Michael Buchanan and Jonathan Brown. And Terry Hawthorne. They've reached the level of Benn, where so much is expected that it'll be a disappointment if they don't excel. This search is for someone you don't expect.
Catching on quickly
— Jon Davis heads my list.
He is not an unknown. The Louisville product made two starts as a raw freshman, and he caught 22 passes in 13 games. A battler for contested balls, he fills an important need in the slot. And Tim Beckman already has enough tight ends to free this 240-pounder for downfield exploitation.
"We're trying to get our best players on the field," Beckman said. "At this stage, you'll see guys at different positions. Davis is very athletic. You may see him in the backfield, at tight end and in the slot.
"It's comparable to what we're doing up front. You saw (center) Graham Pocic at guard and (guard) Hugh Thornton at tackle. We're still in the experimental stage, and we'll evaluate after each practice. The job now is to give everybody reps and see what they can do."
As of Monday, Beckman had his best O-lineman, Thornton, protecting Nathan Scheelhaase's backside. And watch Pocic. Without the responsibility of snapping, he could become dominant as he commits himself 100 percent to blocking.
— Josh Ferguson spent last winter as a mystery man.
Coming off a medical redshirt (two torn hamstrings), the freshman from Joliet Catholic erupted for 150 yards in 20 carries in the spring game. All of a sudden, you see the kind of breakaway speed that Ford lacked. Up to 191 pounds with good receiving skills, he projects as the ideal change-of-pace for his sturdier partner, Donovonn Young.
"I hurt my leg prior to the Western Michigan game last season, and I'm glad I could redshirt," Ferguson said Monday. "It feels good to be running with the ones and sharing time with Donovonn. If I was going to guess, I'd say I'll line up in the backfield 75 percent and at slot 25 percent."
Though inexperienced, Ferguson stacks up as the UI's best breakaway threat. If this restructured line can give him room to maneuver — and he stays healthy — he could be special.
Holding on for dear life
Clearer thinking would turn us away from offense to find the next UI all-star. Defense is the strength of the squad and boasts the most talent. Vic Koenning's 2011 unit allowed less than 20 points per game, the fewest yards passing per game (158.5) since 1989, and the fewest first downs (15.8) and yards rushing (123.8) since Simeon Rice, Dana Howard and Kevin Hardy roamed the field for Lou Tepper in 1994.
With the disappointing finish still in our minds, we forget how efficient those 2011 defenders were. In the three losses that followed the 6-0 start, they gave up 17 points to Ohio State, 21 at Purdue (one TD the result of a botched punt) and held Penn State to a field goal until the last two minutes. There was admitted slippage in the late-season slump, but the Illini led Wisconsin 17-7 midway in the third quarter, another botched punt aiding the Badger rally. And UCLA had a single TD before scoring in the last 30 seconds of a 20-14 Illini bowl win.
This unit lost four 2011 starters. In one case, 205-pound rover Ashante Williams, who started two games in 2010, replaced an injured Trulon Henry in the last three games of 2011. Houston Bates has two starts as he steps up for Ian Thomas. The UI secondary showed five starters, with only Tavon Wilson gone. And then there's Mercilus, which is a serious concern but the only such concern (other than depth) on the unit.
Not many teams have so much frontline defensive experience. Altogether, returnees on this unit have made 138 starts. And if their performance is comparable to last year, honors-earning individuals will emerge.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.