The offense was paced by a powerful running game in '07. A veteran offensive line paved the way for eventual NFL first round draft pick Rashard Mendenhall (1,681 yards, 17 td, 6.4 yards per carry). Mendenhall is an immensely talented back with great speed to go along with his imposing size, and the hole he leaves in the lineup will be very difficult to fill. Junior Daniel Dufrene will get the first shot. He's got some burst, but doesn't have the power Mendenhall had. True freshman Mikel LeShoure, who was enrolled for spring practice, has the size (6-feet, 240 lbs) to complement Dufrene, but will they be as effective as a group as Mendenhall was by himself? That remains to be seen. Up front three starters return from last year's line, but the two departed starters (Akim Millington & Martin O'Donnell) were two of the top players on the line.
With all the questions in the running game, it's up to quarterback Juice Williams to take the next step in his development and become a more efficient passer. Williams has more than enough arm strength to make any throw in the book, but he has struggled with making throws that don't require maximum velocity. He has shown signs of improvement though so this could be the year he breaks out to become the kind of star JaMarcus Russell became at LSU. Even if he doesn't develop in the passing game, his running ability (755 rushing yards, 7 tds) will keep the offense moving. And if by chance anything happens to Williams due to his importance in the running game, the Illini has the luxury of turning to one of the best backup quarterbacks in America, Eddie McGee. McGee was probably the more polished passer last year, and he has enough athleticism to contribute in the running game as well.
At wideout, super sophomore Arrelious Benn returns after exploding onto the scene in '07. As a true freshman, Benn immediately stepped into the role of go-to receiver (54 receptions), and his size (6-foot-2, 214 lbs) allowed him to contribute in the running game as well. Expect Benn to reach the end zone more than three times in '08 as he'll become an even bigger part of the offense. Another wild card to watch in the receiving corps is Jarred Fayson.
This is the area of the team Ron Zook's recruiting efforts may show up the most in 2008. Despite losing five of the top seven tacklers from 2007, including team leader linebacker J Leman (132 tackles), there are still many predictions floating around that this will be one of the best defenses in the Big Ten. I'm not ready to jump on that bandwagon yet, but players like defensive end Will Davis (9.5 sacks), cornerback Vontae Davis (4 interceptions, 2 blocked kicks), and linebacker Martez Wilson (29 tackles, 2 sacks as a true freshman) are special talents that could play for just about anybody. All three are players you should go out of your way to check out because all are capable of making a highlight reel play on any given snap. I'm especially excited to see Martez Wilson turned loose in his new role as starting weakside linebacker.
The big question mark on defense is at safety, where the top three players have departed. Justin Harrison (80 tackles) and Kevin Mitchell (5 interceptions) will be missed. Sophomore Bo Flowers is a former minor league baseball player who has turned some heads and will get the first shot at the strong safety job. He'll have to fend off big hitting JC transfer Donsay Hardeman in the fall though. Nate Bussey saw limited as a true freshman last year, but he'll likely be the starting free safety. This is a young secondary (no seniors anywhere on the depth chart), but they'll have to gel quickly because Chase Daniel and the Missouri Tigers come calling August 30th.
Overall the defense might be more talented in 2008, and they might make more big plays, but they'll also likely suffer a few more breakdowns as they grow up together.
KEEP AN EYE ON
Juice Williams' development in the passing game. How much he improves his control on the short and intermediate passing routes will go a long way toward telling how good this offense is going to be.
Linebacker Martez Wilson.