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Illini to be tested from start
By Lindsey Willhite | Daily Herald Staff
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Published: 8/27/2008 12:07 AM

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After losing in the Rose Bowl nearly eight months ago, Illinois dropped to No. 18 in the final ESPN/USA Today coaches poll.

When the Illini take the Edward Jones Dome turf for Saturday's season opener against Missouri, they'll be listed at No. 19 in the opening coaches poll.

Apparently, the coaches didn't consult Illinois boss Ron Zook on his team's trend before they cast their ballots.

"As I've been saying all year, I think we're a better team right now (than in 2007)," Zook said Tuesday. "But if we don't take care of the football, if we give up big plays on defense, if we're not sound in the kicking game, none of those things really matter."

The Illini flunked all three of those key areas in last year's opener with Missouri, yet they still lost just 40-34 against the team that finished No. 5 in the final coaches poll.

Can Illinois show better in those three key areas on Saturday (7:30 p.m., ESPN)?

In terms of turnovers, it's hard to imagine the Illini giving up the ball five times again.

Backup quarterback Eddie McGee, forced into his first college action when Juice Williams (blurry vision) went out with 10 minutes left in the first half, fumbled twice and threw 2 interceptions.

With four first-time starters in the back seven, it's hard to imagine the Illini won't give up at least a few big plays to Mizzou quarterback Chase Daniel.

After all, last year's fourth-place finisher in the Heisman Trophy race gashed a veteran Illini defense for 359 yards and 3 scores through the air.

Nonetheless, Zook believes his new safeties and nickel backs - which figure to be a combination of sophomores Travon Bellamy, Nate Bussey, Bo Flowers, Garrett Edwards and junior-college transfer Donsay Hardeman - can rise to the occasion.

"They've been a little bit inconsistent," Zook said. "But I feel very, very good about the depth we have back there. The biggest thing is going to be the experience. The only way to get experience is to play."

As for Illinois' special teams, which surrendered Jeremy Maclin's 66-yard punt return for a touchdown, Zook believes the team's improved athleticism will lead directly to better coverage.

That leaves the team's kicking situation. Zook acts like he won't decide which kickers to take on the trip until shortly before he loads the bus Friday.

Freshman walk-on Derek Dimke had been the odds-on favorite entering fall camp, but fellow walk-ons Matt Brandabur and Matt Eller are neck and neck with him.

"They've all shown me they can kick in the Big Ten conference and win for us," Zook said. "If we don't (have one guy emerge), we don't. We'll keep right on going."

Hello, Santella: Wauconda native Anthony Santella didn't have much time for nerves in last year's opener against Missouri.

Ron Zook didn't tell Santella he would loft Illinois' first punt of the season - until the third-down play immediately before his first boot.

"They said it was going to be me or (Kyle) Yelton," Santella said. "It was like, 'Santella, get over here!' And the season was on its way."

There'll be no such surprises in Saturday's opener against Missouri in St. Louis. The redshirt sophomore knows he has a lock on the job after handling all but 1 punt last fall.

Though he wavered sometimes on Santella during the 2007 regular season - primarily due to inconsistent "get-off" times - Zook has done nothing but compliment him after his sterling performance at the Rose Bowl.

Santella delivered 6 punts against USC for a season-high 44.7-yard average - and he learned a lesson he has carried throughout the off-season and into this fall.

"Everyone told me when I went back home (for Christmas) that it was the biggest game and how are you going to handle it?" Santella said. "For some reason, I was the most laid-back. Maybe I finally wasn't thinking about, 'Oh, be perfect,' and I just took it easy finally."

Goodbye, Gamble: In his first college game, true freshman Brian Gamble caught 4 passes for 48 yards against Missouri.

Gamble also caught the touchdown pass that put Illinois ahead for good against top-ranked Ohio State and posted 2 catches in the Rose Bowl.

Alas, that will be all Gamble accomplishes in an Illinois uniform.

Ron Zook announced Tuesday that the sophomore from Massillon, Ohio, and redshirt freshman offensive tackle Mark Jackson are no longer in school.

"Now it's an institutional issue," Zook said. "They're not in the program right now. We moved on a long time ago."