Pre-Season Rankings

Football season is a couple months away, but Zook’s rebuilding and the surprising run to the Rose Bowl are paying off. The AP Poll has Illinois ranked #20, the third Big Ten team on their list. The USA Today Poll puts the Illini at #18 — just ahead of Michigan. And Athlon Sports has them at #16.

Of course, they have to play to give meaning to these rankings, but it’s been a few years since Illini football has been on the radar before the season starts. And to be ranked near the top of the conference with Ohio State and Michigan — we’ll take it. I’m looking forward to summer, but already my excitement for football season is building…

Go Illini!

Notts built a 13-point lead at the top of Division One after a six-wicket win over Hampshire at the Rose Bowl.

They began the final day needing a further 134 with nine wickets intact.

Dimitri Mascarenhas struck twice in two balls for Hants before Mark Wagh reached fifty from 57 balls, but with only 70 more needed rain intervened.

That prompted an early lunch and tea, but 40 overs were left as play resumed and though Wagh fell for 67, Samit Patel hit 11 fours in an unbeaten 65.

Hampshire’s faint hopes of victory were not helped by an injury to paceman Nantie Hayward, that prevented the South African taking the field.

But Mascarenhas induced Will Jefferson to edge a simple catch to Michael Lumb at slip for 21 and when Adam Voges gave a bat-pad catch to wicketkeeper Nic Pothas it was 74-3. and 114 were still required.

England pace bowler Chris Tremlett failed to find line and length, however, and conceded 27 from his first four overs.

Wagh and Patel put on 91 in 18 overs for the fourth wicket, but with only 23 more needed Wagh flashed at a wide delivery from James Tomlinson to give Pothas another catch.

Patel edged an outswinger from James Tomlinson but Sean Ervine put down a routine chance at second slip, and the burly Notts all-rounder struck the winning runs with a fluent stroke to the mid-wicket boundary.

Illinois starts spring with Rose repeat in sights

It was a rags-to-riches campaign in Champaign last season, but will the good times last? Though the majority of its starters return, Illinois must replace three All-Big Ten players, including star tailback Rashard Mendenhall. Although capable tailbacks remain and good ones are coming in, the emphasis this spring figures to be on upgrading the passing offense, which ranked 109th in the nation a year ago. Here’s a look at the Illini as they prepare to begin spring practice.


The presence of Benn, a huge big-play threat, gives wide receiver some muscle. Three-fourths of the starting defensive line return, as well as solid backups who have starting potential. The Illini have three defensive ends who started at least seven games last season. Davis and Hicks are returning starters at cornerback, and Davis was an all-Big Ten selection.


Three-year starters Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison completed their eligibility, and the Illini likely will have two sophomores starting at safety. All-American middle linebacker J Leman is gone. Miller likely moves from the outside to try to replace Leman, but could that weaken two positions?


G Jack Cornell Jr.: A former three-star prospect, this redshirt freshman could step in to replace departed All-American guard Martin O’Donnell.

DT Reggie Ellis: A four-star prospect who enrolled early, Ellis reportedly already has added about 20 pounds of muscle and is expected to challenge for a starting role. Getting into the rotation at tackle shouldn’t be a problem.

CB Marcus Thomas: He’s a sophomore who could threaten to take Hicks’ starting role. He came on strong at the end of 2007 and had a key interception in an upset of Ohio State and fared well against USC in the Rose Bowl.


Three years ago, wide receiver Jeff Cumberland arrived in Champaign as a four-star prospect, but he hasn’t been that productive. He has 28 receptions through his first two seasons, but did get 11 of those in the last four games of ’07. He needs to show some consistency.


Shoring up the safety spots and finding a big-play guy to replace departed tailback Rashard Mendenhall are vital. But just as important is for someone to take over the leadership roles previously held by Leman, O’Donnell and others who had fought through the lean years. Oh, yeah: Williams improving his passing accuracy would be huge, too.

Rose Bowl the dream of Illini radio voice

The Rose Bowl is personal for Brian Barnhart.

The play-by-play voice of Illinois football and basketball was raised just down the road from Memorial Stadium in Tolono. He was an Illini fan almost from Day One.

Barnhart grew up listening to previous Illinois voices: Larry Stewart, Dick Martin and Jim Turpin. Now he is following in their footsteps by calling Illinois’ biggest football game in 24 years when the Illini face USC in the Rose Bowl on Tuesday. In the Chicago area, Barnhart and former Illinois quarterback Kurt Kittner will have the call on WIND-AM 560.

“This is a dream for any kid from the Midwest,” Barnhart said. “To be the voice of the Illini for this game is a big deal. To me, it is personal. I’m not just working for them. This is my team doing it.”

It took Illinois a long time to get to this point, and Barnhart didn’t exactly take the direct route either. After graduating from Liberty University, he pursued his goal of becoming a major-league baseball announcer. A tour of the minors for more than a decade eventually led to him hooking up with the Anaheim Angels in 1998.

Barnhart spent two years there and then thought he was headed to Montreal to take a position with the Expos. However, it never materialized.

Barnhart decided to move his family back to central Illinois. He worked Illini pregame and postgame for a couple of years.

Then when Turpin decided to retire, athletic director Ron Guenther asked Barnhart if he would be interested in assuming the duties in 2002.

“I never dreamed I’d have this job,” Barnhart said.

The football part of the job hardly was a dream. The Illini went from winning the Big Ten in 2001 to a three-year stretch in which they won only two of 32 conference games. Barnhart suffered through many bleak Saturdays.

Anybody can make a good team sound exciting. It is eminently more difficult with a bad team. Barnhart thinks he was up to the challenge.

“Some of the biggest compliments I received is that people said I still made the games sound enjoyable,” Barnhart said. “I take the same approach regardless of the record. I’m trying to paint a picture, to make the game come alive. Even when they were losing, I knew there were people out there who cared about the Illini.”

It wasn’t all bleak for Barnhart. The basketball team has provided him with many memorable calls, none more so than Illinois’ incredible comeback to beat Arizona in overtime to advance to the Final Four in 2005.

“That game was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen,” Barnhart said. “That whole year was amazing. I remember thinking before the final, ‘Here I am, a kid from Tolono, getting to do the championship game.’ ”

The football team ended his suffering this year, providing him with a highlight reel of exciting calls. Now in his sixth year as the voice of the Illini, Barnhart feels like he has a home, which turned out to be his home all along. He is looking forward to a long run in Champaign.

“In college sports, people tend to stay longer,” Barnhart said. “The fans get used to hearing their voices. There’s a familiarity on radio that grows over time. I like that.”

The Jan. 1 game won’t be the first one Barnhart has worked from the Rose Bowl. He called a highly forgettable Illini 6-3 loss to UCLA in 2003.

The return trip should be much better.

“There are certain things you want to do as a broadcaster,” Barnhart said. “The Final Four is one of them, and the Rose Bowl is another. Hopefully, another great experience lies ahead.”

•The last time the Illini played in the Rose Bowl, in 1984, the game aired on NBC with Dick Enberg and Merlin Olsen on the call. They didn’t have much of a game, as UCLA tore apart the Illini 45-9.

This year, Brent Musburger and Kirk Herbstreit will handle the duties for ABC. Hopefully, Illinois will give them a better game.

Thousands of Illini fans rush for Rose Bowl tickets

For Illini, the rush for Rose Bowl tickets is on.

The University of Illinois says it’s already received 12,000 requests for tickets to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, where the Illini will play Southern California on New Year’s Day.

The surge comes a day after officials picked the Illini to play in their first Rose Bowl since 1984. It’ll be their first bowl for the U of I since 2002.

Illinois will have about 26,000 tickets to sell.

School donors and season-ticket holders will get first crack at them. They have until Friday to put in their requests. Student season-ticket holders have until Wednesday evening.

Any tickets still left go on sale to the public next week.

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How the Rams’ eyes spied Weil

What former Minooka football coach Mike Briscoe saw in high school, former University of Illinois coach Ron Turner nourished and then gave over to current Illinois coach Ron Zook in college. Now it’s time for the St. Louis Rams and perhaps the rest of the NFL to see what Minooka graduate Russ Weil can do on the gridiron.

After playing out his NCAA career for the Illini at the 2008 Rose Bowl, Weil was secretly being coveted by at least one NFL coach who thought he was special. Though with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as their running backs/assistant head coach at the time, Art Valero, who now holds the same title with the Rams, recalls seeing Weil and thinking that he may have the stuff it takes to compete in the NFL.

“What’s incredible is that the college season is at the same time as ours and because of that, you only get glimpses of people during the course of the season while they are on television … I was watching this kid (Weil) and said that’s someone who’s interesting,” Valero said. “I knew he was someone who, once we got to the evaluation process, I needed to keep an eye on and look out for. That’s because not a lot of fullbacks are invited to the combine and you have to go out and find them. They just don’t run the fullback in college offenses anymore.”

Eventually, Valero’s interest in Weil and former Illini running back Rashard Mendenhall (now with the Pittsburgh Steelers) came together at one practice. Mendenhall was getting eyed up for his 1,681 yard, 17 TD running back season and Weil for the job he did in blocking for him.

“I have a couple of friends on the Illinois staff and had the chance to bounce some things off of them and talked about Russ. Then, when I went up to work out Mendenhall and Russ worked out as well,” Valero said. “He caught everything thrown to him, both good balls and bad balls, balls off the ground, balls over his head.”