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March 29, 2010

Illinois' Zook needs to find answers fast

Ron Zook is back for his sixth season at Illinois, but a lot has changed around him.

In what may be a last-ditch effort to right the ship, Zook shook up his staff. Five assistants are gone: Four were fired and another left for a different job. In addition, another was demoted. The key additions are two new coordinators. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino was the offensive coordinator at Arkansas while working for his brother, Bobby. Vic Koenning had been co-defensive coordinator at Kansas State.

Something had to change following an abysmal 3-9 season - one win came over FCS member Illinois State - marred by a horrible defense that ranked last in the Big Ten overall (403.3 ypg) and in points allowed (30.2 ppg).

The Illini are 8-16 the past two seasons. Is this really the same program that went to the Rose Bowl following the 2007 season?

There are new schemes to learn and attitudes to change in what will be the defining spring of Zook's tenure.

Here's a look at the Illini as they prepare for spring practice.

ILLINOIS AT-A-GLANCE
Jacob Charest will be in the hunt to replace Juice Williams at quarterback.
THE BASICS
Coach: Ron Zook
Last season: 3-9 overall, 2-6 in the Big Ten.
Spring dates: March 29-April 24.
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum of six starts)
Offense (3): T Jeff Allen, G Randall Hunt, T Hugh Thornton.
Defense (7): T Josh Brent, LB Nate Bussey, FS Garrett Edwards, LB Evan Frierson, E Clay Nurse, LB Ian Thomas, CB Tavon Wilson.
Special teams (2): K Matt Eller, P Anthony Santella.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH

Even with WR Arrellious Benn declaring early for the NFL draft, the Illini still have lots of talent at that position. Senior Jarred Fayson and junior A.J. Jenkins need to set the tone. The team is well-stocked at running back, too. Juniors Mikel Leshoure (734 yards) and Jason Ford (588) are back after finishing 1-2 in rushing last season. There is a lot of speed on a defense that will be led by Nurse, but more playmakers are needed.

HELP IS NEEDED

With mercurial Juice Williams gone, the search is on for a quarterback. Sophomore Jacob Charest and redshirt freshmen Nathan Scheelhaase and Chandler Whitmer will compete this spring. No one has to be a star - just being a "game manager" will suffice. Charest is the only one with experience, starting one game and playing in four last season. Former four-star recruit Scheelhaase is the most-hyped. Are there any pass rushers? If not, Koenning will have to be creative with his blitz packages to bring heat for a defense that ranked last in the Big Ten in sacks (1.58 pg) and tackles for loss (5.25 pg), while intercepting a conference-low five passes in 2009.

THREE GUYS TO WATCH

DE Michael Buchanan: Buchanan, a sophomore, showed the ability to be a pass rusher last season. Now, Buchanan - a former four-star recruit - needs to get bigger and stronger to take the next step.

WR Jack Ramsey: He came on late last season and became a dependable receiver and return man. Ramsey, a sophomore, could emerge as a big-play guy this spring if coaches can find a QB to get him the ball consistently.

CB Joelil Thrash: He impressed last season while redshirting. Thrash may be the cover cornerback this defense needs. If he keeps improving, he could be the starter by the season opener.

THE PRESSURE IS ON

G Randall Hunt: Hunt, a senior, started last season but will be hard-pressed to keep his job. Hunt lacks power in the run game and gets blown up too often. Don't be shocked to see sophomore Graham Pocic assume Hunt's starting spot at left guard with a strong showing this spring. The o-line, which has lost likely NFL pick Jon Asamoah, has great potential.

THE BUZZ

An influx of new coaches means a fresh start for most of the players. Perhaps a batch of new ideas and different voices will energize the players and invigorate everyone's attitude. Now is the time to take the first step toward building a bowl team, with Job No. 1 being to find a quarterback and Job 1-A being to rehab a hapless defense. The clock is ticking on Zook, who has had just one winning season in Champaign.

Tom Dienhart is a national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.



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