RB Pierre Thomas

2004 Statistics

Coach: Ron Zook
1st year
2004 Record: 3-8
at Wisconsin LOST 7-24
at Michigan State LOST 25-38
at Minnesota LOST 0-45
at Northwestern LOST 21-28 (OT)

2004 Final Rankings
AP-UR, Coaches-UR, BCS-UR

2005 Outlook

Call it a breath of fresh air, but new faces abound in Champaign this year as the Illini attempt to shake off their previous two efforts - a horrifying combined record of 4-19. The new faces are coaches, starting with Ron Zook, who last year could be found dealing with his own heat being provided by the Gator nation prior to his dismissal. The ole adage that it takes time to rebuild a program rings true this fall as the new coaching staff is left with a cupboard of smallish athletes, not quite making a perfect fit for a Big Ten style of play. Depth is an issue on both the offensive and defensive lines, not a good place to be thin. Amazingly, the previous staff found recruiting to be a difficult task, but Zook has already made a few splashes in his first (and very short) recruiting season. In these terms, Zook becomes a perfect fit with his salesmanship.

The glaring player issues of the recent past are still visible. Bottom line: the inside of the defensive line is cause for anxiety in terms of what they have to offer. Outside of some quality bookends, the team's weakest unit is the defensive front seven...a group of players either under-sized or lacking in the athletic department who try hard. Not enough for this level. The nation's 94th ranked rushing defense of 2004 played a huge hand in terms of parlaying UI’s 3-8 season. Nothing has changed in terms of frontline bodies available for this new staff. The LBs, in turn, will be worse off as their size just won't allow them to make a difference if the line doesn't get some form of penetration while taking on blockers. The corners are by far the defensive highlights, while the DEs have ability to bring pressure on opposing QBs. For the Illini to be successful, the offense will have to grind it out with long drives to keep this undermanned defensive front well rested.

The second question would be at QB, a formula for disaster given the defensive prognosis. Tim Brasic makes sense for starting duties given his high school experience with the spread offense. But please, Ron, pick a QB and stick with him. The QB merry-go-round is not going to work as multiple incumbents won't have the luxury of becoming acclimated with the quick decisions needed in this spread system. Luckily, the passing game can play second fiddle to the stockpile of veteran talent Illinois has lining up in the backfield. Whether the five guys up front (and only five with little behind them) can make the ground game work will be a crucial element to team success.

The schedule offers much contrast in terms of what the Illini will face from a scheme standpoint. The first three non-conference games feature teams running a similar spread offense based on passing. Look for more nickel back situations to be employed by coaches through September. The problem is, this approach will not work once the smash mouth Big Ten competition enters the ring. An understatement would be claming Illinois has to get out of the starting gate quick, winning home games versus Rutgers and San Jose State. Otherwise they may be looking at another three-win season. Given the overall talent, a four-win season actually should not be unsatisfying. If Ron Zook and the new staff can muster five or six wins, the future would look that much better.

Projected 2005 record: 3-8
P Steve Weatherford
QB - 2.5 DL - 1
RB - 4 LB - 2
WR - 3 DB - 3
OL - 2 ..

Passing: Chris Pazan, 63-37-1, 292 yds., 1 TD

Rushing: Pierre Thomas, 152 att., 893 yds., 8 TD

Receiving: Kendrick Jones, 47 rec., 687 yds., 5 TD

Scoring: Pierre Thomas, 10 TD, 60 pts.

Punting: Steve Weatherford, 57 punts, 45.4 avg.

Kicking: Jason Reda, 7-12 FG, 26-27 PAT, 47 pts.

Tackles: Justin Harrison, 79 tot., 42 solo

Sacks: James Cooper, 2 sacks

Interceptions: Morris Virgil, 2 for 31 yds.

Kickoff returns: Pierre Thomas, 25 ret., 27.1 avg., 1 TD

Punt returns: E.B. Halsey, 27 ret., 8.4 avg., 0 TD


OFFENSE: Jon Beutjer-QB, Brad Bower-QB, Anthony McClellan-TE, Duke Preston-C, Bucky Babcock-OT
DEFENSE: Mike O'Brien-DE, Mike Gawelek-LB, Matt Sinclair-LB, Kelvin Hayden-CB

The good news is that Illinois will finally have a full-time QB coach in Ed Zaunbrecher. The former staff lacked proper assistants to coach this position, and it showed immensely once Kurt Kittner left the program. Junior Tim Brasic is the leader coming out of spring. Although ignored the previous season, Brasic has been quick to pick up this new spread offense now being utilized. He ran a similar offense in high school, which makes him a nice fit. His size is marginal and his arm may not be the strongest of the bunch, but Brasic reads quickly, makes plays and takes care of the pigskin. His downfall may be his lack of collegiate playing time. Chris Pazan is surely lacking confidence after last season, where one week he would be the starter only to be followed up by playing on their scout team the next. He has the strongest arm of the bunch but is not the most mobile, which does not bode well in this type of system. Kisan Flakes found himself in the backup role coming out of spring, although his subsequent arrest for marijuana possession leaves his suspended status an unknown. If he returns, his backup role is likely to be diminished. Flakes has a decent arm, but is too inconsistent in terms of accuracy. He is quick to take off running when targets are covered.

Running Back
Three skilled veteran ball carriers return, making this the best unit on the field...possibly the best in the Big Ten when dissecting talent from top to bottom. The all-purpose back is E.B. Halsey, bringing a set of skills that includes the ability to run between the tackles, catch passes and block. Halsey is also one of the team leaders and coaches are placing big expectations on his shoulders. Do not be surprised if Halsey gets utilized as a slot receiver on a few occasions, further displaying his versatility. Pierre Thomas is the power option. His 6.4 yards per carry and eight TDs makes him a short-yard guy who can also move the chains with larger gains. Expect over 20 attempts per outing, but he does not have the hands of a Halsey. Marcus Manson is currently suspended due to some off-the-field issues this summer. His status for fall camp in unknown. Watch out for incoming freshman Rashard Mendenhall, a highly touted prep star, to move into third on the depth chart if Mason in unavailable. With the new spread offense, the FB is not likely to be as used, as a one-back set is par for this system at most programs. However, Jason Davis had an outstanding spring and the senior is likely to see the field, throwing yet another dimension to this version of the "Zook" offensive schematics.

DaJuan Warren has by far been the most impressive. Warren made the transformation from QB to WR and has now emerged as a prime option. Speed, size, strength and hands all have seemingly gotten better. He should profit in this new system. The question is...will speedy senior Kendrick Jones live up to his hype? He can stretch the field and make that highlight catch, but then drop three others. His trash talking has yet to be backed up with better play as opposed to his sulking when Big Ten competition shuts him down. The new staff still needs to demonstrate a form of patience when dealing with the senior. Walk-on Frank Lenti made quite an impression, discovering a connection with the QBs in spring. How much he factors in could be limited come fall once the talented freshman arrive. At least one or maybe two new signees are being counted on the see action, in particular with Derrick McPhearson, the prize of Ron Zook's first ever-recruiting class. Back up Franklin Payne has been out with a hamstring injury, but when he is on the field, he makes plays. Ron Zook wants this group to improve, although it's far from being sub par. If the young players are as advertised, the receivers are capable of contributing. Otherwise, look for the skilled RBs and TE to be more active in the passing game.

Tight End
Outside of WR DaJuan Warren, Melvin Bryant may be the most improved ball catcher. Not so much from a physical standpoint, but from gained knowledge, for his previous campaigns have been plagued by immaturity. Given the opportunity, Bryant has blossomed, enough so he is one of the better pass catching TEs in this league. The hopes are that incoming freshman Greg McClendon is ready when stepping on campus, as J.R. Kramer has not quite grasped the position.

Offensive Line
Matt Maddox has moved from guard to center and seeming the transition has worked thus far. He is the anchor of this group. Maddox displays some of the best technique and intelligence found in the conference, which makes him a perfect fit for the position. With the spread offense, the center is key as he makes all the line calls while aiding the QB in reading the defense...a lesser responsibility then what the West Coast offense offered. As for the rest, they lack experience, which will have to be compensated for with brute force. The middle of this unit is the strength. Other than Maddox, both guard positions have some positives to offer. The huge problem is depth - there isn't any. The starting five and maybe one other sub are the only options. The rest of the OL consists of converted defensive linemen and injured players with little to no experience. Some of the listed back ups did not even participate in spring drills. Injuries would devastate this group. The most improved linemen this spring were Ben Amundsen and also Jim LaBonte, whose dramatic improvement was imperative at right tackle. Illinois should be fine with this group, stressing once again...as long as no one gets hurt.


WR Kendrick Jones


Returning Starters in bold
QB Tim Brasic-Jr (6-2, 185) Kisan Flakes-Fr (6-1, 190)
Chris Pazan-Jr (6-2, 210)
FB Jason Davis-Sr (5-11, 220) Russ Weil-So (6-0, 240)
RB E.B. Halsey-Jr (5-10, 200) Pierre Thomas-Jr (5-11, 190)
Marcus Mason-Jr (5-9, 200)
WR Kendrick Jones-Sr (6-2, 180) Franklin Payne-Jr (6-0, 185)
WR DaJuan Warren-So (6-3, 195) Frank Lenti-Jr (6-2, 180)
TE Melvin Bryant-Jr (6-5, 235) J.R. Kraemer-Fr (6-5, 220)
OT J.J. Simmons-Jr (6-6, 290) Ryan McDonald-Fr (6-4, 270)
OG Ben Amundsen-So (6-6, 305) Martin O'Donnell-So (6-5, 290)
C Matt Maddox-Jr (6-4, 290) Kyle Schnettgoecke-Sr (6-3, 280)
OG James Ryan-So (6-6, 310) Dan Motuliak-Fr (6-4, 270)
OT Jim LaBonte-So (6-7, 300) Andrew Burk-Jr (6-6, 290)
K Jason Reda-So (6-0, 185) Steve Weatherford-Sr (6-4, 205)



Defensive Line
Coach Tom Sims takes over this group after spending the last four years doing the same at Minnesota. Sophomore Xavier Fulton has the potential to be one of the better DEs Illinois has seen in a while. He is physically impressive and has a great burst. Derek Walker has an upside at DE but has to get tougher while getting more reps in his first real season. Backup DE Cyrus Garrett is still trying to shake the rust after sitting last fall. Chris Norwell is by far the best tackle in this bunch after having a good spring. Josh Norris was also quite impressive at DT after amazingly being a starter at DE last fall. Norris is all heart and may not bring the best talent. He is a tremendous example of how far determination can take a player. But he really is a situational player at best. Coaches are praying Ismail Abdunafi can be eligible - his absence could be devastating. The inside of this front is the most glaring defensive weakness as the prior coaching staff really failed in terms of bringing in strength and talent. Thus, depth is also a huge problem.

You want to see changes via this new coaching staff’s decisions? Look no further than at LB, where plenty of moves were in store for spring. Russ Weil moved to FB, while RBs Walter Mendenhall and Brian Grzelakowski moved to LB in an effort to make this group faster. Redshirt freshman Remond Willis moved from the weakside to the middle. None have great size, but again, speed was the priority as opposed to the slow-footed groups lining up the past three seasons. Remond Willis is the smallest of the starters, which makes his move the biggest surprise. He makes up for the deficiency with his athleticism, as he may be the best athlete on the team pound for pound. If the front line continues to lack penetration, size won't matter and will make this unit a big question mark. Starting OLB J Leman has increased his weight and demonstrates the best skills, as he continues to make plays. The Illini will play a good bit of nickel defense when the season commences versus non-conference opponents who are running a wide-open offense, so Leman is likely to sit out in these situations. But that philosophy will have to change once Big Ten play begins. This group is very young (all freshman and sophomores) with only Thornhill and Leman garnishing significant reps. One has to wonder if these are truly Big Ten worthy LBs in the early part of their careers. Names such as Butkus, Nitschke, Howard, Hardy and Rice are long gone, and recruiting has seemingly been ruined here with the previous coaches, an approach that has to be revamped with this new staff.

Defensive Back
This coaching staff is much more aggressive. Their (dumbfounding usual) ten-yard cushion given to opposing receivers on short yardage situations will not be par for this group. Look for more man (press) coverage as opposed to zone given the upside of talent on the corners. In turn, the LBs are free to blitz, something Ron Zook likes to employ. Both CBs, (nicknamed the Killer B's) Charles Bailey and Alan Ball, have really excelled and may have been the biggest surprise of spring defensively, which gives coaches the confidence to put them on that island. Both are capable of playing on Sundays. The young Bailey may be the best corner in Champaign since Eugene Wilson. At safety, Travis Williams has been hurt most of spring trying to recover from a sports hernia. Moving in has been three players: Morris Virgil, Kevin Mitchell and Jody Ellis. Virgil is still a little shaky tackling and covering, but held off Ellis for the starting FS job. FS will have to cover in this scheme and there does not appear to be anyone capable of doing just that. Justin Harrison is the safe bet at strong safety even though he missed spring due to knee surgery. Harrison is of the LB mold and coaches will place him close to the line of scrimmage when in blitzing mode. Back up CB James Cooper is a defensive leader and will see time as a nickel back. He makes plays although lacking the athletic skills of the corners in front of him. Depth (maybe not the best of quality) exists throughout the secondary as up to five CBs and four safeties could see considerable time.


DB Justin Harrison


Returning Starters in bold
DE Xavier Fulton-So (6-5, 270) Cyrus Garrett-Jr (6-3, 230)
DT Ryan Matha-Sr (6-3, 300) Adam Wilk-Jr (6-5, 275)
DT Chris Norwell-So (6-7, 270) Josh Norris-Sr (5-11, 250)
DE Derek Walker-Fr (6-5, 245) Scott Moss-Sr (6-3, 260)
LB Anthony Thornhill-So (6-1, 215) Walter Mendenhall-Fr (6-0, 200)
LB Remond Willis-Fr (6-0, 220) Brian Grzelakowski-So (5-11, 210)
LB J Leman-So (6-3, 220) Sam Carson-Fr (6-1, 225)
CB Alan Ball-Jr (6-1, 175) Sharriff Abdullah-Jr (5-8, 180)
CB Charles Bailey-So (6-1, 195) James Cooper-Sr (5-11, 200)
SS Justin Harrison-So (5-11, 205) Travis Williams-Sr (6-1, 185)
FS Morris Virgil-Sr (5-10, 195) Jody Ellis-Fr (6-1, 180)
P Steve Weatherford-Sr (6-4, 205) ..




Jason Reda is the returning veteran after going 7-12 in FG attempts, with his longest being 40 yards. Reasons exist to find another replacement as Reda still struggles while learning to kick with no tee. His inconsistency continued throughout the spring and places a big concern in finding a kicker that can be counted on. No luck exists in terms of locating another kicker on scholarship. Junior walk-on Dominic Shaffer is the only other kicker on the roster. Do not be surprised if punter Steve Weatherford gets a shot at handling these duties as well, although his accuracy between the uprights is also short in terms of easing concerns.

Senior punter Steve Weatherford returns after being named first-team all-Big Ten by the coaches last fall after averaging 45 yards per attempt. He has a booming leg and is sure to find time at the next level in the NFL.

Return Game
RBs are the options in this department. E.B. Halsey and Pierre Thomas will likely handle the punt and kickoff returns once again, which give viewers something to be excited about given the handful of speed available with these options. Some talented freshman could also play a role.