The 2010’s have come and gone, and though the decade will have been bookended with bowl seasons, it wasn’t especially kind to Illinois Fighting Illini football.
Nevertheless, there are a lot of great things and wonderful young men worth highlighting from this decade, so I’ve been asked to curate The Champaign Room’s All-Decade Team, and I’d like to start with the offense.
I’m selecting this team based on who had the maximum overall impact in this decade. I’ll justify each choice below!
Quarterback: Nathan Scheelhaase
This was the easiest pick by miles. Scheelhaase was a four-year starter from 2010 through 2013, becoming the all-time Illini leader in passing yardage and getting up to 15th all-time in rushing yardage. This was in spite of all the turnover on his coaching staff; he was recruited to play in Mike Locksley’s offense, redshirted when Mike Schultz was the OC, played two years in Paul Petrino’s offense, transitioned to a new coach, endured a complicated two-OC mess in 2012 and then learned Bill Cubit’s offense for 2013.
Scheelhaase accepted all this and was a model leader throughout. He didn’t have the strongest arm, he wasn’t the fastest runner or the most agile, but he was an accurate passer, a good decision-maker and a very smart, intuitive runner. More importantly, he had the character, work ethic and attitude you want in a leader and was a steadying presence through great turmoil.
Nate gave everything he had for Illinois Football. Think about this: as a redshirt freshman, he was a dual-threat guy, passing for 1,825 yards and 17 TD’s and rushing for 868 and 5. His role here was to be the change-up Mikel Leshoure needed to keep the defense honest, and he played it perfectly. I’ll never forget his long touchdown run against the Baylor Bears in the Texas Bowl. Then, as a redshirt senior, he learned a new offense and led the Big Ten in passing yardage, throwing 430 times and completing 2⁄3 of them.
In case you can’t tell, Nate Scheelhaase is my all-time favorite Illini quarterback. He deserved better than the institutional instability he got, and he deserved better than to go out with upperclassmen seasons of two and four wins. I have no doubt that if he had the luxury of coaching stability, he’d be remembered as one of college football’s all-time greats.
Runningback: Mikel Leshoure
Leshoure only played one season in this decade, but the impact of that season was one of the high points of the decade of Illini Football. Leshoure rushed for nearly 1,700 yards, finishing third in the nation in rushing yardage and second in the nation in total yards from scrimmage. LaMichael James outgained him by less than 40 in each category, so perhaps had he not found the bench early in blowout wins over Purdue and Indiana, he’d have ended up the leader.
Leshoure’s gaudy rushing numbers made the Illini nationally relevant again, and he provided some big moments, from running over Penn State to scoring five touchdowns at Michigan. None were bigger, though, than the Wrigley Field game against Northwestern, where he racked up 341 total yards including 330 rushing yards, an all-time Illinois single-game record, to scare the Cats away from Wrigley Field for over a decade.
Runningback: Josh Ferguson
Ferguson was a Ron Zook recruit who had a medical redshirt in 2011. Thus, he was the lead back for the entire Beckman/Cubit era from 2012 through 2015, and his speed, agility and versatility were something to behold. He was a weapon out of the backfield and provided endless highlights of making guys miss. As a testament to his versatility, he’s the only player ranked in the all-time Illini Top 10 in rushing yards AND receiving yards. Combined, his 4,093 scrimmage yards are second only to Robert Holcombe all time.
Receiver: AJ Jenkins
Jenkins played the first two years of the decade, leading the balanced 2010 offense with 746 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. He exploded in 2011, leading the Big Ten with 90 receptions and placing 15th nationally with 1,276 receiving yards. Like Leshoure, his big highlight came against Northwestern, as he caught 12 balls for 268 yards and 3 touchdowns in the dramatic comeback win. His production faded as defenses adjusted down the stretch, but it was still enough to earn him a first round draft pick.
No more elaboration is needed.
Receiver: Mike Dudek
Dudek played just one complete season, but it was the greatest receiving season for an Illini freshman ever and played an enormous role in the only bowl season for Illinois between 2011 and 2019. His struggles with repeated and varying season-ending injuries have been rehashed over and over, and if you want to read more about that, I wrote about it shortly after the last one was public.
As a relatively unheralded freshman recruited by Mike Bellamy, Dudek quickly became one of the Big Ten’s most exciting playmakers. With great hands, elite speed and tremendous football instincts, he was an absolute joy to watch, catching 76 passes for 1,038 yards and six touchdowns. Among those touchdowns:
Tight End: Jon Davis
Davis was by miles the most prolific tight end of the 2010’s for Illinois, though “tight end” isn’t the only thing he did. He served as an H-back, lining up all over the field, sometimes rushing out of the backfield, sometimes splitting wide. He struggled with various nagging injuries for most of his career, but still often flashed remarkable athleticism for his size. He racked up a total of 826 yards from scrimmage between 2011 and 2014 and scored eight touchdowns. For some reason, he also wound up with eight tackles even though I don’t believe he was used on kick coverage. Correct me if I’m wrong.
Left Tackle: Jeff Allen
Allen was an upperclassmen in 2010 and thus played only ‘10 and ‘11 this decade, but he ended 2011 having started 47 consecutive games on the offensive line. He anchored the line that propelled Leshoure and Scheelhaase to an explosive rushing total at left tackle and was second-team All Big Ten in both his junior and senior years.
Allen appears to be at the end of a productive NFL career after being selected in the second round by Kansas City in 2012.
Left Guard: Hugh Thornton
Another member of the 2010 line, Thornton played through 2012 for the Illini mostly as a guard but sometimes at tackle. He started a total of 28 games this decade, missing a few due to injury. He was occasionally moved into the backfield near the goal line and served as the fullest fullback in Illinois history. After being named second-team all-B1G in 2012, he was drafted by Indianapolis in the third round.
Center: Joe Spencer
The most important thing to note about Spencer is that he’s the all-time Illinois leader in rushing yardage by a lineman.
As a former lineman, I don’t know if I’ve ever cheered harder.
Spencer played from 2013 to 2016, starting 37 games at center. The 2015 offensive line allowed just 20 sacks of Wes Lunt despite over 500 pass attempts on the season.
Right Guard: Nick Allegretti
It’s a crying shame that Allegretti didn’t get to play in a bowl game, because he played in every single game after his 2014 redshirt year and started the last 36 he played. As a guard who sometimes moonlighted as a center, Allegretti drew honors not just for his play but for his volunteer and charity work, winning a Big Ten Medal of Honor this year in addition to being second-team all-Big Ten last year. He was the president of the Illinois chapter of Uplifting Athletes and led the Illini’s “Lift for Life” charity event. The Kansas City Chiefs drafted him in the seventh round this year
Right Tackle: Christian DiLauro
Not many have as much experience as DiLauro. The former Illini saw action in the final 48 games of his 49-game career, starting 38 of those contests. DiLauro earned an ESPN.com Big Ten All-Freshmen Team nod after starting the final seven games of his freshman season at right tackle. He played an instrumental role on the 2015 offensive line which allowed just 1.67 sacks per game. As a senior, he even slid over to the guard spot to start a few games. After going undrafted, he was picked up by the Browns, signed again to the Texans practice squad, and is now a practice squad member for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
QB: Wes Lunt
RB: Reggie Corbin
WR: Malik Turner, Steve Hull
TE: Matt LaCosse
OT: Vederian Lowe
OG: Ted Karras
OC: Doug Kramer
I added this section to highlight players that deserved consideration as well. The most notable in this section is Teddy Karras, who started 43 games at right guard and earned All-Big Ten honors in both upperclassmen years. LaCosse would be the second tight end, but I structured the Illinois All-Decade Offense to be effective with the personnel and I think a spread set with two backs or maybe Ferguson in the slot and one tight end is the best use.
Corbin gets a mention for his 6.4 yard career average, as well as producing the first 1,000-yard rushing season since Leshoure’s 2010 last year. Turner is 9th on the all-time Illini receiving list and is finally getting some action with the Seattle Seahawks. Steve Hull deserves to be on this list because nobody should forget his 992-yard 2013 season, where he finally played his original position of receiver and was a surprising star. Had Hull played all four seasons at receiver instead of safety, many things might be different. For instance, perhaps the 2011 offense has another receiving threat to complement Jenkins, and then...
Nope. We’re here to celebrate what’s been!
Stay tuned for defense and special teams!