The Illinois offense should be excellent this season, assuming there are no injuries to key personnel. Four experienced offensive linemen return, an excellent sophomore quarterback now has a year under his belt, the receivers are developing well, and there is a bevy of running backs capable of helping.
Illini coach Ron Zook considers the offensive line to be a strength of the offense. Upperclassmen Jeff Allen, Jack Cornell, Hugh Thornton and Graham Pocic are returning, and they continue to demonstrate the importance of experience and maturity.
"Between the offensive line and the secondary, there was probably as much improvement as anybody. I feel very good about the offensive line. We can be every bit as good as we were last year. And I think we'll have more depth."
Strongside tackle Corey Lewis is a letterman, but he missed last fall and this spring with knee surgery. He hopes to be back by Camp Rantoul or shortly after. In his absence, freshmen Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic shared the position during spring drills.
"I think those two freshmen tackles are gonna be good," Zook suggests. "We get Corey back, so now we've got a lot of guys who can play, which keeps them fresh. I feel pretty good about that."
Tyler Sands has developed sufficiently to be a capable backup at both center and guard. Guard Andrew Carter was making progress at guard until a concussion ended his spring. More depth is needed, but at least offensive line coach Joe Gilbert can count on 8-9 players.
Tight end was manned capably by Evan Wilson, Eddie Viliunas and Justin Lattimore. Wilson and Viliunas are stronger and heavier now and are decent blockers. And they are now trusted more in the passing game than last fall.
Senior Zach Becker sat out the spring to prevent recurrence of stress fractures in his feet, but he appears healthy and ready to contribute. UI coaches are excited about the potential of freshmen Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse.
The receiver corps was depleted this spring by the injury absence of leading receiver A.J. Jenkins and freshman Darius Millines. While they were missed, their absence gave others a chance to prove themselves.
Freshman Ryan Lankford became a go-to receiver this spring, and his speed is highly valued. Classmate Spencer Harris was consistent all spring. Senior Fred Sykes got most of the attention before an injury reduced his effectiveness.
Walkon Jake Kumerow made a number of excellent plays and may have earned playing time. Tall freshman Anthony Williams played a lot on the outside but didn't see many balls thrown his way. Three incoming freshmen will join the mix this summer.
Zook summarized the receiver corps from the spring.
"I think they've all stepped up. They've all made big plays, and they've all made mistakes. I think once you get them all together, I think they'll be a very talented group.
"The thing you're losing a little bit is the leadership. You develop that over the summer and when you get to Rantoul. When you lose guys like Eddie (McGee), Jarred Fayson and those guys, they were great leaders. But I think talent-wise were gonna be in good shape."
There were only two scholarship quarterbacks this spring, but both Nathan Scheelhaase and Miles Osei made it through the spring without injury. Incoming freshman Reilly O'Toole will receive a crash course this fall in case he's needed.
Osei showed definite improvement, but he still relies on his legs and doesn't always stay in the pocket long enough to find receivers downfield. His accuracy improved, but more is needed for Illini coaches to play him extended minutes. The lefty has difficulty throwing when rolling out to his right.
So it is imperative that Scheelhaase remains healthy. He improves day by day, seeing more and doing more. He now stays in the pocket longer, and he is trusted with play-action passes. His accuracy is better, and he is learning to trust more of his offensive weapons in the passing game.
Zook reminds that Scheelhaase was an effective passer late last season also.
"When people talk about improving the passing game, they sometimes refer back to the beginning of the year when we didn't throw quite as well.
"The last six games of the year last year, we led the Big 10 in scoring. We had 44 points a game the last six games. There were certain games there wasn't a need to throw the football. In the bowl game, Nate completed his first 13 passes. I think he was 19 for 24 for over 200 yards."
Scheelhaase is a coach's delight. He is an athlete, a leader, a student of the game and a winner. But as Zook reminds, the passing game depends not only on the quarterback, but also the offensive line, backs and receivers.
"Nathan Scheelhaase has improved as much as anybody on this football team. Not only has Nathan improved, but Paul (Petrino) and Jeff (Brohm) know what Nathan does best.
"Improving the passing game is not always just Nathan. Guys have to catch the ball, and they have to get yards after the catch and make big plays. We've got to make sure we protect Nathan.
"With the things he can do with his legs, you have to add that in there. He goes back for a pass play, and he gets flushed from the pocket. If he runs for a first down, to me that's a pretty good passing game."
The Illini began the spring with three quality running backs vying to replace the graduated Mikel Leshoure. Jason Ford lost weight and showed more quickness. Troy Pollard was impressive, having his best set of practices since his freshman year. And Bud Golden ran with confidence and force.
However, none participated in the Spring Game. Ford strained a ligament in the back of his knee halfway through spring. He tried to practice after that, but he wasn't as effective. Ford has the most experience, and he was impressive when healthy. But with frequent previous injuries, his durability is a question mark.
Pollard was held out as a precaution after a mild concussion. He should be an excellent change-of-pace back this fall. He even showed an ability to move the pile despite his short stature. Golden suffered a strained ligament in his foot.
Ean Days was moved from defense to help out at running back, and he proved a workhorse. Lacking great speed, Days showed good inside vision and a willingness to pass protect. He provides depth there.
The Illini are also excited about incoming freshmen Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson. Those two will be given plenty of opportunity to earn playing time. The Illini want to use multiple backs, and they hope to emphasize the running game like last year. Whoever wins the starting berth at running back will earn it.
Jay Prosch is a tremendous young blocker at fullback. He shows an ability to run and catch passes as well. He was an unknown last year, but now he is considered one of the squad's best players. Walkon Chris Willett appeared capable in a backup role, and Becker will help there also.
The Illini could have an explosive offense this year, especially if their skill players come through and Scheelhaase and the offensive linemen stay healthy.
The defense will be discussed in part 2 of this report.