2011 Fighting Illini Offense Taking Shape

The Fighting Illini offense should be improved in 2011. This is especially true if it can find ways of opening up the passing game. With the addition of some quality freshmen through the recent Signing Day, there should be sufficient depth to help the Illini offense continue its upward climb. This is part 2 of a report on the offense.

Wide receiver should be a position of strength for Illinois in 2011, but depth is a concern. A.J. Jenkins was the featured receiver in 2011, and he returns for his senior season. He caught 56 passes for 746 yards and 7 touchdowns last year, and he will undoubtedly by Scheelhaase's go-to guy.

However, the next best receiver in terms of numbers of receptions from 2011 is upcoming senior Fred Sykes with just 7 receptions for 85 yards and no TD's. This is an area that will require major improvement, although the cupboard isn't bare.

Freshmen Ryan Lankford, Spencer Harris and Darius Millines caught 6, 4, and 2 balls respectively, but they improved throughout the season and were helpful as downfield blockers. Lankford has great speed, Millines could eventually be a featured receiver with his combination of skills, and Harris runs precise routes and has the best hands on the team.

Freshman Anthony Williams was redshirted in 2010, but as he gains strength and weight his 6'-4" height should come in handy. He was said to be improving rapidly last fall and could provide good depth next year.

Three entering freshmen will vie for playing time at Camp Rantoul, but it remains to be seen if any can break through without seasoning. Kenny Knight has the size to be effective on the outside, and Jeremey Whitlow was undervalued as a high school player. But neither has great speed and will be competing against more experienced players.

Jordan Frysinger is an intriguing slot receiver prospect. He had a great senior season as a running back at Corning, New York, but he had few pass-catching opportunities. He has the athleticism for the job, but can he learn a new position quickly enough to help as a rookie? Only time will tell.

Tight end was fortified by a couple outstanding rookies. Louisville native Jon Davis was brought in to play right away, and it is likely Illinois coaches will give him a crash course in the offense so he can run pass routes from the tight end and H-back positions. He has size and speed for the position, so hopefully he can help stimulate the offense.

Matt LaCosse is approaching 6'-7" in height and was a running quarterback in high school. He needs to bulk up for the rigors of college ball, and he needs to learn a new position. But down the road, this young man may become a legitimate offensive threat.

In the meantime, upcoming sophomore Evan Wilson held down the starter's role at tight end last fall, and he figures to be improved. The tall, slender Wilson proved to be a reliable blocker, and he caught 10 passes for 135 yards and two touchdowns in limited opportunities. He needs to improve his quickness and flexibility in route running, but he has a bright future.

Walk-on Eddie Viliunas provided backup to Wilson and worked exclusively as a blocker in two-tight end sets. Redshirt sophomore Justin Lattimore is more receiver than passer at this point. He caught one pass, but it went for a 33 yard touchdown. He will improve as a blocker as he continues to gain size and strength.

The wild card at the eight end/h-back/fullback position is Zach Becker. Scheelhaase expected to throw numerous flat and flair passes to Becker last fall, but stress fractures in both feet made 2010 a lost year for him. If he can finally regain his health, he is the best combination of blocker and receiver on the Illini team.

Fullback proved to be a strength last fall as freshman Jay Prosch burst on the scene. Given more responsibility as the season went along, Prosch became a devastating blocker out of the backfield, helping Mikel Leshoure break school records running the ball. Prosch caught only one pass, but he hopes to be more involved in the passing game in 2011.

The Illinois offensive line could be a team strength, but depth is a major concern at this point. Spring ball will help determine whether there is sufficient depth to allow five promising freshmen to redshirt and save a year of eligibility.

Weakside tackle Jeff Allen returns for his senior season, and he received some All-Big 10 recognition. Center Graham Pocic became a mainstay in his first year as a starter, as did Jack Cornell at one guard spot. Hugh Thornton shared time with Cornell and senior Randall Hunt last fall and even played blocking back a couple times. He should move into the starting lineup with no drop-off in quality.

Corey Lewis is back at full strength after sitting out 2010 with knee surgery. The 6'-6" Lewis was expected to start ahead of Ryan Palmer, who has now graduated. So assuming there are no more setbacks, Lewis should prove to be an asset at the strongside tackle spot.

After that, there are names but no proven depth. At tackle, redshirt senior Craig Wilson has outstanding athleticism for a big man but has never proven consistent enough to play other than on special teams. Redshirt freshmen Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic have a year under their belts but are still raw and need time.

Jake Feldmeyer is Pocic's backup at center, but he is undersized and has no experience. Tyler Sands has played center but is better at guard. Sands started a game in 2009, but he did not improve enough to see the field in 2010. He will need to step up his play to help.

Andrew Carter is a full-time guard after getting a tryout at tight end last spring. Perhaps he will now begin to compete for playing time, especially if he can become consistent and more aggressive in his approach. Redshirt freshman Shawn Afryl will get a chance to prove worthy in the spring, and classmate Alex Hill has potential at center if he can redefine his body.

The freshmen linemen have promise, but they would all benefit from a year of seasoning. Pat Flavin may be the weakside tackle of the future. He has the foot quickness and long arms needed, but right now he lacks the strength and weight required. He needs a year or more to grow into his 6'-7" frame. Scott McDowell is explosive and agile and may be more ready to help if needed as a freshman.

Tony Durkin also needs to add strength, but may be the center of the future. Guards Chris Boles and Ted Karras are quick and aggressive. All three sustain their blocks well and have the agility to reach the second level. It would not be surprising if one of these three sees time next year, but only if injuries deplete the starting line.

Placekicker should be set for the year as senior Derek Dimke returns. Dimke scored 115 points as a junior, hitting all 43 of his extra points and 24 of 29 field goals. If he can duplicate that level of consistency, Illini red zone success will continue to be outstanding. Matt Eller returns as Dimke's backup, and he was the starter in 2007.

The Illinois offense should be improved next year if one or a group of running backs can be at least adequate replacements for Leshoure, and if improvements can be made in the passing game. Of course, depth is always a concern. Injuries could put a damper on this favorable expectation.

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