Illinois Coach Ron Zook entered the 2010 season on coaching's hot seat after three consecutive losing seasons in Champaign.
Last year the Fighting Illini did enough to keep their coach employed for now and into the future. Illinois won half of its regular-season games and never were blown out. Illinois lost three games to teams with 10-plus wins by double digits but led Missouri at halftime and Ohio State in the fourth quarter.
Illinois wrapped up its season with a convincing 38-14 win against Baylor in the Texas Bowl, the program's first bowl win since 1999. That victory provided focus for Illinois' players and coaches this off-season.
"The thing we talked about in our very first meeting being back here is we don't want to go back to ground zero," Zook said. "You always go back to ground zero in terms of technique, the things you're learning. We want to be able to build on where we were.
"It's been a lot more fun this spring than it was last spring when you're putting in a new offense and defense, creating some havoc. This has been a lot of fun this year. I think our guys can see themselves getting back."
Illinois does have to replace significant contributors to last year's squad on both sides of the ball, especially on defense. Defensive tackle Corey Liuget and linebacker Martez Wilson provided the backbone of the Illini's defense, but both opted to skip their senior seasons and enter the NFL draft. Liuget is slated as a first-round pick, while Wilson likely is a second-rounder. Key starters Clay Nurse (defensive end) and Nate Bussey (linebacker) also are gone.
On offense, running back Mikel Leshoure also left for the NFL with eligibility remaining. Leshoure, a Champaign Centennial product, was fifth nationally in rushing at 1,697 yards and ran for 17 touchdowns.
"When you lose guys, it gives other guys an opportunity to step up," Zook said. "That's kind of what it's all about."
Illinois does return quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, son of former Iowa defensive back Nate Creer. Scheelhaase completed nearly 59 percent of his passes for 1,825 yards, 17 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. He also rushed for 868 yards and five scores.
Scheelhaase, who will be a red-shirt sophomore, said he's more comfortable entering his first spring as the clear starter. He said he hopes to make a bigger impact in the passing game this fall.
"We definitely have guys that can create big plays," Scheelhaase said. "Even in this spring, we have guys making huge plays. We have a bunch of fast guys out there that really can do well when the ball is in their hands. I think that responsibility falls more on my shoulders, getting the ball to my receivers on time."
Former Iowa commit Jason Ford is slated to start at running back. Ford split time with Leshoure and rushed for 480 yards and seven touchdowns last year. Top receiver A.J. Jenkins also returns after catching 56 passes for 746 yards and seven touchdowns.
ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI
- Division: Leaders
- 2010 record: 7-6, 4-4 Big Ten (beat Baylor 38-14 in Texas Bowl)
- Returning offensive starters (8): WR A.J. Jenkins, QB Nathan Scheelhaase, T Jeff Allen, G Jack Cornell, C Graham Pocic, FB Jay Prosch, G Hugh Thornton, TE Evan Wilson
- Returning defensive starters (6): CB Justin Green, DL Michael Buchanan, S Trulon Henry, DT Akeem Spence, LB Ian Thomas, DB Tavon Wilson
- 2010 review: Illinois was up-and-down in both wins and losses. The Illini nearly knocked off Missouri and Ohio State before faltering late and played a dynamic game offensively against Michigan in a 67-65 three-overtime loss. Illinois rolled Penn State and RB Mikel Leshoure ran for a school-record 330 yards against Northwestern at Wrigley Field. Illinois rolled up a combined 87 points in back-to-back wins over rivals Indiana and Purdue. But Illinois also faltered in a four-point loss to hapless Minnesota and lost by two points at Fresno State.
- 2011 schedule: S3 Arkansas State; S10 South Dakota State; S17 Arizona State; S24 Western Michigan; O1 Northwestern; O8 at Indiana; O15 Ohio State; O22 at Purdue; O29 at Penn State; N12 Michigan; N19 Wisconsin; N26 at Minnesota
- Noteworthy: Illinois is in the midst of a six-year break in its border rivalry with Iowa. The teams aren't scheduled to play one another until at least 2015. ... Coach Ron Zook has moved Illinois' practices from afternoons to mornings in part because of class conflicts..
- Quotable: “(The Texas Bowl) gave us an awful lot of confidence going in and playing a good football team, playing them very, very well. I think we played in all three phases well. Once again, it was a great springboard." — Illinois Coach Ron Zook