The least you should know about the 2011 Fighting Illini. Part of Big Ten Week.
• The way we were. It seems oh so long ago since Illinois played in the Rose Bowl. The Illini haven't been nearly as good since that 2007 season -- last year was his first winning campaign since that year -- and coach Ron Zook has been under fire for his 15-22 record since that Rose Bowl appearance.
But times they are-a-changin' and a weak schedule could help the Illini get back on the winning track and keep Zook employed.
Illinois opens the season with five consecutive home games and six of the first seven are in Champaign. With Illinois ending its series with Missouri, a game that usually started the Illini season off on a bad foot, it opened the door to add a couple cupcake opponents in Arkansas State and South Dakota State to open the season. The homestand wraps up with Arizona State, Western Michigan and Northwestern. While Arizona State could be interesting, the Illini have a chance to start the season 4-1 or even 5-0 for the first time since that 2007 campaign.
• Same story, different back. The wins might not have been there for Illinois, but its running back production was. Ever since Rashard Mendenhall carried the Illini to the Rose Bowl, the running game has consistently churned out talented backs. Mikel Leshoure, who rushed for 1,697 yards and 17 touchdowns last year, was the catalyst behind the Illini offense while quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase got his bearings as a redshirt freshman. Now the torch is passed to senior Jason Ford, who has been Leshoure's backup the past two seasons. In that time, he's rushed for 1,068, but has the potential to be a breakout back if given the chance to be the primary. He'll have a lot of help with three starters returning on the offensive line and fullback Jay Prosch, who was credited with helping Leshoure gain 330 yards against Northwestern, blocking ahead of him.
• Another year of seasoning. Scheelhaase was raw last year, but from the opening game against Missouri, fans and coaches could easily see why he was named the team's starter. He threw for 1,825 yards, rushed for 868 and combined for 22 total touchdowns. A year later, Scheelhaase has a chance to improve on those numbers while continuing to build his street cred as Illinois' go-to offensive player. A.J. Jenkins is the only returning receiver from a year ago, but he had 56 catches for 746 yards and seven touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino also has spoken highly of receivers Ryan Lankford and Darius Millines. Regardless of who's receiving, Scheelhaase will have to get better accuracy. He only completed 58.7 percent of his passes last year.
• Looking for leaders, legends. The defense was greatly improved last year thanks to the play of defensive tackle Corey Liuget and linebacker Martez Wilson, who both left early for the NFL draft. Filling their shoes will be the most difficult task for the Illini this season. Akeem Spence will highlight the defensive line after earning freshman All-America honors last year. The highlight is that secondary stays mostly intact and has some good depth. The secondary had consistently been a disappointment for Illinois, but last year it held teams to just 220.54 yards per game. The key to the Illini defense will be getting into the backfield. Last year, they averaged just 1.77 sacks. They'll need more effort from a linebacking group that without Wilson could be a total mystery.