Players reported to camp for Illinois football practice Wednesday, and practice begins with split-squad sessions Thursday through Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Media day is Sunday, and Camp Rantoul starts Monday. After a 3-9 mark last season and a 2-6 record in Big Ten play, four assistants were fired and two others left for jobs elsewhere. Here are the main topics in the preseason.
Players reported to camp for Illinois football practice Wednesday, and practice begins with split-squad sessions Thursday through Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Media day is Sunday, and Camp Rantoul starts Monday.
After a 3-9 mark last season and a 2-6 record in Big Ten play, four assistants were fired and two others left for jobs elsewhere. Here are the main topics in the preseason.
Q: How many wins does coach Ron Zook need to save his job?
A: Six wins in the regular season and a bowl berth would clinch it, but that's asking for a big step forward. With such turnover in the coaching staff, the Illini are essentially starting over. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning were strong hires and given two-year deals. Illinois would prefer to give them a chance to build for two seasons before making the big decision on Zook's tenure.
If Illinois plays competitive football and wins five games, Zook could retain his job. He's paid $1.5 million per year through the 2013 season, and Illinois apparently doesn't have big-money boosters willing to pay off a buyout for a program that's traditionally not been a consistent winner.
Q: Has Zook handed off some of the decision-making?
A: That's apparent. The Illini scrapped the no-huddle spread run for the past five seasons and moved toward a pro-style offense under Petrino. The defense will feature a bandit, a hybrid defensive end-linebacker that turns a 4-3 front into a 3-4. So there's evidence the coordinators are doing their own thing.
Zook's challenge is to delegate the authority and let his coaches make more decisions. Zook admitted his job is easier when he's not attempting to run meeting rooms for the offense, defense and special teams, but the real challenge comes when the season starts.
Q: Will redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase be durable?
A: The 6-foot-3, 195-pounder from Rockhurst High School in Kansas City, Mo., likes to run. He dazzled in the spring, streaking for big gains against Illini defenders on option runs and improvised scrambles. The son of a former college player -- his dad, Nate Creer, started as a defensive back at Iowa for three seasons in the 1980s -- Scheelhaase is a runner more than a passer who must make smart decisions with his body.
Considered mature and a team leader, the Illini put their hopes on his shoulders. If he's hurt, senior Eddie McGee would slide over from his wide receiver position.
Q: Can linebacker Martez Wilson make an impact?
A: Rated as rising star heading into his sophomore season, Wilson later lost his starting spot and served a suspension in the season finale. He made nine tackles in the season opener against Missouri last season, then missed the rest of the year with a herniated disk in his kneck that required surgery.
The 6-4, 250-pounder received a medical redshirt and has two years of eligibility remaining, but he talks big. He'd like to become a star and jump to the NFL. Wilson is fully cleared and ready for contact. A unit that ranked last in the Big Ten in scoring defense and rushing defnese last fall could use immediate impact from the superior athlete.
Q: What's the key game?
A: The opener against Missouri. When the Tigers routed Illinois 37-9 to start last season, the Illini were done. The morale dropped so far, they couldn't handle the rough early schedule. The schedule is front loaded again. After two non-conference games - against Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois - the Illini host national title contender Ohio State before road trips to Penn State and Michigan State.
The back half of the schedule is more manageable, but the Illini needs to survive the season opener and the first six games.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.