Breaking down the Fighting Illini

By Chris Dertz and Jimmy Johnson


Quarterback: The quarterback touches the ball on every snap, but that’s not the only reason Illini signal-caller Nathan Scheelhaase will be who NIU focuses on on Saturday.

A threat to both run and throw the ball, Scheelhaase is coming off a 14-for-18, 229-yard passing performance against Southern Illinois last week, which also saw him hurl two touchdowns. Scheelhaase has also rushed for 80 yards on the season.

“We’ve got to limit him, because he makes big plays once he gets out of the pocket,” said NIU defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys. “If we don’t contain his run-pass threat, we’ll be in for a long day, that’s for sure.”


Running Backs: Mikel Leshoure is averaging 113.5 rushing yards over his first two games this season.

The 6’1″, 230-pound tailback provides Illinois with a downhill running game to contrast with the scrambling of Scheelhaase. Coming off of a 115-yard, two touchdown performance against the Salukis, Leshoure is averaging 6.49 yards per carry through the season’s first two weeks.

“When that big back’s coming downhill, you’ve got to keep enough people close to the box,” Claeys said.


Wide Receivers: At 6’1″, Illini wideout A.J. Jenkins is no small load to deal with.

Jenkins is Illinois’ main end zone threat, and with two touchdown receptions already this season, will definitely be a focus for NIU’s secondary.

The junior has totaled eight catches for 147 yards thus far, and is the only Illini receiver with over 50 receiving yards in 2010.

“Their wideouts definitely have some athleticism,” said NIU cornerback Kiaree Daniels. “Whoever comes out at 11 o’clock and is the more physical team is the one most likely to win.”


Offensive Line: The “big” in Big Ten usually refers to the conference’s sturdy offensive line units.

Of the top 10 offensive linemen listed on the Illini’s depth chart, only one, backup center Jake Feldmeyer, weighs under 300 pounds. The five starters average height is 6’6″, and their average weight is about 310 pounds.

The unit has performed well paving the way for Leshoure, as Illinois is averaging 184 rushing yards over its first two games.

The line has some experience as well, with two seniors starting on the strong side in guard Randall Hunt and tackle Ryan Palmer.



Defensive line: Illinois’ run defense ranks 12th in the country allowing 72.0 yards on the ground which can be credited to its front line. The Fighting Illini’s nose tackles all weigh at least 300 pounds and will look to clog NIU’s running attack. Illinois uses a four-man rotation at defensive end, led by Whitney Mercilus who recorded his first sack of the season against Southern Illinois last Saturday. Junior tackle Corey Liuget leads all Illini linemen with seven total tackles. The wildcard spot up front for the Illini defense is the “bandit” position. “[It’s] a [defensive] lineman that can also drop into coverage on occasion,” said Dan Disch, Illini inside linebackers coach.

Grade: C

Linebackers: Three of the four top tacklers on the Fighting Illini’s defense reign from the linebacker position. Butkus Award nominee Martez Wilson is the man in the middle for the Illini defense. The former USA Today first-team All-American plays at a very fast level, but many are still waiting for him to fully utilize all of his talent. Wilson has played only two games in two years after suffering a neck injury in the season opener last season. “I’d say physically he’s all the way back,” Disch said. “He’s got a long way to go [mentally dealing with the injury].” Second year starters Nate Bussey and Ian Thomas complement Wilson as the other starting linebackers.

Grade: B-

Secondary: None of the defensive backs for Illinois have yet to record an interception through their first two games. Starting cornerback Tavon Wilson leads all Fighting Illini defenders with three pass breakups. Opposite Wilson is Terry Hawthorne, who has exceptional size for a corner at 6’0″ and 205 pounds. Senior Travon Bellamy leads the Illinois defense in both solo and total tackles.

Grade: C+

Special Teams: The kicking game for the Fighting Illini has been arguably the strongest dimension of its team. Senior punter Anthony Santella is on his way to a standout season as he’s second in the nation with an average of 49.0 yards on nine punts. Kicker Derek Dimke nailed a career long 52-yard field goal against Missouri and is perfect on seven field goal attempts.

Grade: B+