- Team MVP: Pierre Thomas or Rashard Mendenhall
- Player who needs to step up: Quarterback
- Breakout player: WR Lonnie Hurst
- Team Strength: Tailback
- Team Weakness: Defense, Offensive line
- Key loses: QB Jon Beutjer, WR Mark Kornfield, C Duke Preston, OT Bucky Babcock, OG Bryan Koch
With the loss of Jon Beutjer, the passing game is searching for a new leader. New coach Ron Zook brings a new style of offense that will see more spread out looks, option runs and use of an athletic quarterback. That said, here are the candidates for the job heading into spring practice. The apparent leader for the job is redshirt freshman Kisan Flakes, Flakes lacks size and experience but his athletic ability (4.5 speed), confidence and compatibility with the new system make him the best fit thus far. Close behind Flakes is Tim Brasic. Brasic who ran the spread offense in high school isn't the athlete Flakes is but he has quick feet and a strong arm. Chris Pazan has the most experience of the quarterbacks but doesn't exactly fit the mold of the offense, as he is more of a drop back passer in a athletic blend offense. The starting job won't be set in stone for quite some time so it should be very competitive amongst this group.
The receivers are solid with senior Kendrick Jones leading the way after a breakout year of 687 receiving yards. Junior Lonnie Hurst could have a breakout year, though he's had some injuries in the past, when he is healthy he is a very good target. Junior Franklin Payne will add depth to the passing attack which will feature more multiple wide receiver sets. Payne 25 passes for 214 yards last season. Keep an eye on incoming freshman Derrick McPhearson, the 6'1 receiver from Hyattsville, Maryland was a highly rated prep and could see quick playing time. Tight end Melvin Bryant returns but will miss spring practice due to injury; Bryant reeled in 12 passes for 111 yards last season.
Coach Ron Zook will likely look to the ground game for stability with returnees Pierre Thomas and EB Halsey. Thomas doesn't have the speed of Halsey but his power style averaged him almost six yards a carry in 04. Halsey will help provide a nice rotating back with Thomas and both can catch very well. Rashard Mendenhall could trump both of them as an incoming freshman who graduated early and has been impressive in spring practice thus far. This will be one excellent group of backs. With the introduction of more one back sets, fullback Jason Davis is a casualty of a now almost extinct position in the playbook. However look for Davis to rotate in with the backfield and be used as a weapon in the passing game because of his excellent receiving ability.
The question will be up front with Preston, Babcock and Koch all graduating. JJ Simmons is a pretty solid pass protector on the left side and will combine with center Matt Maddox as the only other returnee. Sophomore Martin O'Donnell, a highly regarded youngster will most likely start at left guard. Sophomore James Ryan is penciled in to start at right guard while 6-7 sophomore tackle Jim Labonte will take over for Bucky Babcock at right tackle.
DE Lee Robinson, DT Mike Maloney, LB Matt Sinclair, LB Mike Gawelek, CB Kelvin Hayden
The Illini have most of their interior defensive line returning to fill the ranks. Senior Ryan Matha is reportedly up to 300 pounds which will be crucial as the Illini lack great bulk inside. Returning starter Chris Norwell (6-7, 275) has exceptional athletic ability to go with his tall frame; Norwell also registered 40 tackles last season while gathering Freshman All American honors. The battle for playing time should be interesting with several young players with potential looking to grab reps inside. Also in the hunt will be five star junior college transfer Ismail Abdunafi. At defensive end is sophomore Xavier Fulton, a 6-5, 270 pounder who was a nice prep pickup two years ago and saw some time in 2004. Fulton has the potential to make a significant impact this year. Junior Josh Norris is a very undersized option at 5-11, 250 but could be the favorite for one of the end positions. Also in the mix for the starting job at end is 6-5, 245 pound Derek Walker who brings solid pass rushing ability to the fold.
Sophomore linebacker J. Leman returns after collecting 56 tackles last season along with three tackles for loss. Anthony Thornhill from Detroit Central also returns to the lineup after registering 54 tackles last season. Senior Josh Tischer will most likely start at middle linebacker after garnering 11 tackles last season in a reserve role. Sophomore Joe Mele is the best of the back up linebackers. This group is very young and athletic but most of the sophomores saw significant playing time as freshman last season.
In the secondary, junior Alan Ball is a solid cover corner who in my opinion is a future All Big Ten performer. Sophomore Charles Bailey, Shariff Abdullah and James Cooper will battle it out to replace Hayden at the other corner. Bailey is the up and comer with the most upside while Abdullah is a smaller, quicker option and Cooper is a more physical player. Travis Williams and Kyle Kleckner return; as does Morris Virgil to provide some depth at safety with Freshman All American Justin Harrison as the starter though he will miss practice due to injury.
Place kicker Jason Reda and Steve Weatherford return. Reda was 6/10 inside of 40, while Weatherford was one of best punters in the conference last year. Halsey was average returning punts, but Pierre Thomas was pretty solid doing the business of returning kicks.
Ron Zook has a very young team across the board with freshman and sophomores likely to see playing time at most positions The one strength of this team Zook must use is the potent running game with Rashard Mendenhall coming in combined with Pierre Thomas and EB Halsey. The quarterback situation is still being sorted out but whoever ultimately wins the job will have some weapons to work with in Kendrick Jones, Lonnie Hurst, and the running backs. Whether the offense can open up some holes and protect the quarterback will be the question. This is a very young defense but it has the potential to be better than expected. There are several young studs in Alan Ball, Justin Harrison and Xavier Fulton who could really put themselves on the map this season. They aren't short on athleticism, but the team lacks physical play and proven impact players in the front seven.
The Wolverines don't play the Illini in 2005. I expect them to improve and end up with a four, possibly five, win year.