Independence Day is here already, and we are just one month from the return of Fighting Illini football. Head coach Ron Zook and the rest of the Illinois coaching staff begin running their 2011 squad through summer drills on August 4th at Memorial Stadium in Champaign (Ill.). College football is all about playmakers, and Zook will be looking for some break-out performers.
Running back Mikel Leshoure and linebacker Martez Wilson entered the 2010 football season as two talented and promising players who hadn't yet reached their potential on the gridiron. Both players broke out in a big way last fall, became All-Big Ten performers, and were eventually taken in the early rounds of the NFL draft.
In this report, the Orange&BlueNews takes a look at some of the candidates to step up their game for the Illini. Speed and quickness is the common denominator among the five players we selected, led by cat-quick junior cornerback Terry Hawthorne. These "firecracker five" have the athleticism to change games for the Fighting Illini and explode onto the scene.
Terry Hawthorne junior cornerback
A pre-season All-Big Ten selection by Athlon Sports, the speedster out of East St. Louis (Ill.) fought off injuries as a sophomore to record 28 tackles and one interception on the season. Hawthorne suffered a stress fracture in his right foot during the preseason and didn't make it into the starting lineup until the Texas Bowl versus Baylor on December 28th. He came to Illinois ranked the 58th-best player in the country by Rivals.com in the class of 2009, and the number one prospect in the state of Illinois. Hawthorne has game-changing speed that also makes him a weapon in the return game. To reach his full potential, Hawthorne will need to show better instincts in man-coverage and ability to flip his hips quickly.
Darius Millines sophomore wide receiver
Millines did a little bit of everything at American Heritage High School in Delray Beach (Fla.). He was ranked the 66th-best receiver in the nation by Rivals.com, and was a standout at safety on the other side of the football. With a 4.42 40-yard dash time and a 33-inch vertical jump, all Millines has to do is harness his athleticism and tighten up his route running to become a standout for offensive coordinator Paul Petrino this season. Millines caught just two passes for 42 yards and a touchdowns as a true freshman, but he made a splash on special teams returning 22 kicks for 430 yards. Millines could emerge as a prime target for quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase as the Illini look for more production from the passing game and try to stretch the field.
Whitney Mercilus junior defensive end
Mercilus made two starts at defensive end in 2010. A quick rusher off of the edge, the Illinois coaching staff will want Mercilus to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks after recording one sack and two quarterback hurries as a sophomore. Mercilus was highly recruited as a weekside defensive end out of Akron (Ohio) and chose the Illini over offers from Cincinnati, Syracuse, Kansas, Michigan State, Purdue, and others. He showed flashes of what might be in store this year in his first career start against SIU last year when he recorded a sack and a forced fumble. Mercilus is another outstanding athlete who is starting to put it together as a football player.
Michael Buchanan junior bandit
The hybrid "bandit" position is a spot where defensive coordinator Vic Koenning wants one of his top athletes, and the 6-foot-6 240-pound Buchanan has the physical tools to make things happen. Buchanan, who started eight games at bandit in 2010, was ranked a 4-star recruit by Rivals.com and was one of the prizes of Zook's 2009 recruiting class. He will have to increase his production to reach the promise that he showed at Homewood-Flossmoor High School in the Chicago area. Buchanan could triple his sack total of 2 from last season and become one of the top defenders for the Illini.
Evan Wilson sophomore tight end
Wilson was one of the surprises of the 2010 recruiting class. He started 11 games as a true freshman and recorded 10 catches for 135 yards and two touchdowns. Look for increased emphasis on getting the ball to the tight end in the short passing game in 2011, as Petrino ties to replace Leshoure's production and create mismatches for his top athletes. Wilson will have talented freshmen Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse pushing him, but it will take a tremendous effort to move Wilson out of the starting lineup. His blocking ability helped Illinois lead the Big Ten in rushing, and the long and lanky sophomore is a big target for Scheelhaase.
All statistics are courtesy of FightingIllini.com