Coach: Ron Zook, seventh season (28-45 at school, 51-59 overall in nine seasons)

TBA, Oct. 15 TV: TBA Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Ill. (62,870)

Coach: Ron Zook, seventh season (28-45 at school, 51-59 overall in nine seasons)

Last year: 7-6 overall, 4-4 Big Ten (tie, fourth); defeated Baylor 38-14 in Texas Bowl

Returning stars

Nathan Scheelhaase averaged 207.2 yards of offense per game as a redshirt freshman, and his 868 yards rushing were second-most by a Big Ten quarterback (Denard Robinson had 1,702). Receiver A.J. Jenkins had 56 catches for 746 yards and seven touchdowns.

Newcomers to watch

Freshman Donovonn Young could be the new featured rusher if Jason Ford continues his history of injuries and off-field trouble. Illinois gave Young jersey No. 5, worn previously by workhorses Mikel Leshoure and Rashard Mendenhall. Young rushed for 2,332 yards and scored 36 touchdowns as a high-school senior in Texas. Brandon Clear, playing a fifth year after graduating from Clemson, is a physical, 6-foot-5 receiver.

Keys to the offense

Illinois has led the Big Ten in rushing three of the past five seasons, so finding a replacement for Leshoure is Priority No. 1. The second is having Scheelhaase make more plays downfield with his arm; Illinois ranked 10th in Big Ten passing yards. He has gained 15 pounds since last season and is stronger, which should help him absorb the pounding he'll take when he tucks the ball and runs.

Keys to the defense

The defense jumped into the middle of the Big Ten in coordinator Vic Koenning's first season. but it lost its two best players, tackle Corey Liuget and linebacker Martez Wilson, each of whom left a year early for the NFL. End Clay Nurse also is gone. With fewer standouts, Koenning's plan is to roll more players in and out to both breed competition and stay fresh over the long haul.

Special teams standouts

Derek Dimke made a Big Ten-high 24 field goals in 29 attempts and scored 115 points, fifth-best among all conference players.

Question marks

Does one player or a rotation of runners replace Leshoure? Is Scheelhaase's arm strong enough to back defenses off the line of scrimmage? Who among the front seven on defense is going to wreak e havoc at the line of scrimmage the way that Wilson and Liuget did? The Illini need to find punt- and kickoff-return men who can help starting field position.


Illinois tied for fourth in the Big Ten last season but will be hard-pressed to do better than fourth in the Leaders Division. Eight home games should help the Illini get to a bowl. Whether it helps Zook get an extension from his new boss (athletic director Mike Thomas, formerly of Cincinnati) is another matter. Zook's contract runs through 2013.