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Illinois Links

That's's done, so as far as we're concerned, it's officially football season (one positive thing about Mizzou Baseball's non-advancement to the Super Regionals is, we were going to have to start this series this week anyway, and this way we can say we waited until baseball was over!). With just the right number of weeks remaining until the season starts, we're going to take a week-by-week look at Mizzou's 2008 opponents (sans SEMO...sorry, SEMO). That will include an initial Links post on Mondays, a Behind the Box Score look on Tuesdays (hee hee happy to have BTBS back in my life), and other smatterings of info...leading to an e-mail exchange with a writer/blogger for the opponent on Friday. Should be fun. And without further adieu, it's time to dive into the schedule. First up: an August 30 date with the Illinois Fighting Illini in St. Louis. Lindy's calls it the 4th-biggest non-conference game in the country this season.

First, we'll jump back in time to the end of the Rose Bowl, when the Daily Illini wrote a tribute to the departing 2007 seniors and broke down what would be returning for 2008. Here are two samples:

Running backs

Junior tailback Rashard Mendenhall has decided to forego his senior year season and enter the NFL Draft. Who can blame him? Mendenhall set Illinois records for all-purpose yards in a season (1,999 yards) and scoring in a season (114 points). A big key to the Illini's success will be finding the right combination to take some of the pressure off of Williams. Junior college transfer Daniel Dufrene played well despite being hampered by an ankle sprain early in the season. His long run at Ohio State stopped the early Buckeye momentum. Troy Pollard showed flashes of tremendous speed before going down with a season-ending knee injury in the Big Ten opener against Indiana. If healthy, he could provide the Illini with a major spark.


Defensive line

The Illini defensive front remains strong despite the loss of Chris Norwell. David Lindquist, Doug Pilcher, Will Davis, Jerry Brown and Derek Walker all return to a line that tied the Illini record for sacks in a season with 40.

And here's the UI Athletic Department's 2008 Spring Media Guide (pdf).

Here's a mid-spring write-up of the unit that scares me most in regard to August 30: the defensive line. Mizzou OL vs Illinois DL is, to me, the matchup of the game.

Spring Game: Offense 38, Defense 31 (though apparently that doesn't tell you that the defense did well).

Finally, we'll take on ESPN's breakdown of Illini spring football developments.

Spring answers
1. Foreboding foursome:
The defensive line distinguished itself as arguably Illinois' strongest unit this spring. Despite the loss of standout tackle Chris Norwell, the front four dominated a depleted offensive line and a new set of running backs. Sacks leader Will Davis anchors the line along with fellow ends Doug Pilcher and Derek Walker. "The defensive front has got a chance to be as good as I've been around in 15 years," coach Ron Zook said. "The instant you take the ball, it's hard to gain a lot of yards."

2. Man in the middle: Illinois had no trouble tabbing a successor to All-American middle linebacker J Leman. In a move that surprised nobody, Brit Miller moved from strongside linebacker to middle linebacker before spring practice. A two-year starter, Miller recorded 62 tackles last year and has the outgoing personality that makes him a natural leader. He has practiced at middle linebacker since his freshman year and can mentor promising sophomore Martez Wilson. "He knows the defense probably better than any other linebacker because he has been around," linebackers coach Dan Disch said.

3. Juice flowing: No longer needing to be guided through coverages and plays, quarterback Juice Williams took the next step in his evolution this spring. Williams continued to improve in the passing game, which Illinois will rely on more without Rashard Mendenhall. The junior has improved his decision-making skills and, despite being an introvert, welcomed a greater leadership role.

Fall questions
1. Back problems:
Life after Mendenhall got off to a shaky start this spring as Illinois struggled to find answers in the run game. Injuries on the offensive line and an improved defensive line didn't help matters, but the rushing attack was a clear disappointment. Illinois finished with minus-11 net rushing yards in the spring game, and no back gained more than 6 yards in an April 12 scrimmage. "That probably has been the biggest disappointment this spring," offensive coordinator Mike Locksley told reporters. Daniel Dufrene, the team's top reserve last season, will continue to compete with freshman Mikel LeShoure for the starting job. Troy Pollard and freshman Jason Ford join the mix this fall.

2. Receiver roulette: Illinois has a legitimate star in wideout Arrelious Benn, who won Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors despite a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery. The next step is to find other reliable targets. Chris James returns following ACL surgery, and hopes are high for big-play threat Jeff Cumberland. Converted cornerback Chris Duvalt will be in the mix along with heralded incoming freshman Cordale Scott.

3. Safety first: Safety will continue to be spotlighted this summer as Illinois tries to replace starters Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison, who combined for 155 tackles, 24 passes defended and six interceptions last season. Sophomore Travon Bellamy is in good shape for a starting spot but must hold off Nate Bussey, Garrett Edwards and Bo Flowers. Donsay Hardeman, a highly regarded junior college prospect, joins the mix in training camp.

Before we delve too deeply into this week's analysis, I'll just say that I (initially) don't think Illinois will be quite as good as they were last year. They leaned on Mendenhall on offense and Leman/Norwell on defense, and no matter how good the recruiting has been, it takes a while for new leadership to develop. The more the offense leans on Juice Williams, the better for opponents. Williams can be good in certain circumstances, but if they don't find a true threat at RB, it'll become a 'Brad Smith 2004' situation, where defenses just focus on corralling him and dare him to consistently complete passes with his relatively inaccurate arm. He's a serious playmaker, but he needs a good RB to be consistent, and that doesn't appear to be the case (so far) for 2008.

That said, they could be a matchup nightmare for Mizzou simply because what looks like their biggest strength (defensive line) matches up with what is by far Mizzou's biggest question mark heading into the fall (offensive line). OU proved that the way to beat Mizzou is to generate pressure on Daniel with your front four and allow yourself to drop 7 guys into coverage. ( have to do both--you can't just drop 7 into coverage like KU did--you also have to get pressure on Chase.) If Mizzou's OL doesn't do a strong job, then the game will be dictated by Illinois, and it will be easier for Juice to play under control and not try to do too much on the offensive end to keep up.

But that's enough talk for today. We've got the rest of the week to talk about this.