Offensive improvement the key to the season.
Who can carry the Illini offense over the hump?
When Illinois became the first FBS team to finish 6-6 after starting 6-0 last season, Illini football relied on wide receiver A.J. Jenkins, who ranked third all-time in school history with 92 catches and second with 1,276 yards receiving in a single season. But he had 381 yards in the last six games before becoming a first-round NFL draft pick with the San Francisco 49ers.
Two years ago, running back Michael Leshoure carried the Illini to their first bowl win in 11 years by rushing for with a school record 1,697 yards rushing. He was a second-round NFL pick by the Detroit Lions.
"We feel like we have the talent and enough experience to do something special,'' quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. "There's no reason to sit and let some other team do it.''
Scheelhaase seemed sure of himself. For everyone else, it might be a wait-and-see approach when Illinois heads into the season opener on Sept. 1 against Western Michigan. The Illini report to camp next Sunday.Illinois coach Tim Beckman was "majorly concerned'' with personnel when he was hired to replace Ron Zook in December. With the bulk of the star power back on a defense that ranked seventh nationally a year ago, any improvement by the Illini this fall would likely come from an offense short on playmakers.
"At first I had major concerns and questions about whether a guy could help us at another position,'' Beckman said. "Could a tight end help us as a wide receiver? Could a running back help us as a wide receiver? We didn’t have enough wide receivers, and there's nothing we can do about it. This is college football. We can't bring in free agents.
"As we went through winter workouts and spring ball, we have determined there are guys who can help us where we have depth issues.''
The scheme is different. Illinois went back to a spread under Beckman, and the no-huddle offense will rely on tempo and the versatility of selected players. Scheelhaase left spring drills as the solid starter, showing more consistency in moving the offense than Reilly O'Toole.
If Illinois makes a move on offense, expect help to come from athletic sophomore Jon Davis, converted quarterback Miles Osei and two-way players Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green.
Receivers Darius Millines, Spencer Harris and Ryan Lankford form a solid starting lineup, Scheelhaase said. At running back, sophomore Donovonn Young added a few pounds but was withheld most of spring drills because of a broken foot. Redshirt freshman Josh Ferguson is a speedster who will presumably get the ball on the edge.
Not a bad start, but . . .
"We're not as deep as we'd like to be,'' Scheelhaase said. "We need guys to step up in camp.''
The X factors are Davis and Osei, who will likely play mutliple positions.
Davis was a recruiting steal from Louisville, a four-star prep tight end who can also play at running back and receiver, Scheelhaase said. The 6-foot-3, 240-pounder started two games and played in all 13 last season, yet his biggest play last season came when he accidentally plowed into former coach Ron Zook during a preseason passing drill.
Osei was a lightly recruited quarterback who will finally see the field by accepting playing time at running back and slot receiver.
"They both understand the game,'' Scheelhaase said. "You can't always do that with everybody.''
Meanwhile, cornerbacks Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green will likely get a chance to be two-way players because of the shortage of receivers. Hawthorne took a few snaps on offense in the spring. Otherwise, fans will notice a change on offense this fall.
"The biggest difference is tempo,'' Scheelhaase said. "We don't huddle any more. The biggest things as far as X's and O's, it gets the ball in different areas of the field a whole lot more. Last year, we were a little more predictable at times.
"There were times when we weren't using the whole field on every play. At any given time, there's a chance to use any player on any part of the field, get guys in space. We've got guys who can make people miss in space. We have to get them the ball.''
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.By the numbers The leading Illini back from last year Rushing Name/carries/yards/TDs Nathan Scheelhaase/191/624/6 Donovonn Young/87/451/6 Josh Ferguson/14/52/0 Reilly O'Toole/13/47/0 Miles Osei/5/24/0 Receiving Name/catches/yards/TDs Spencer Harris/26/226/1 Jon Davis/22/187/1 Darius Millines/19/218/1 Ryan Lankford/12/108/0 Evan Wilson/9/89/3