Paul Petrino and his Illinois offensive unit have a lot of weapons from which to choose, and more came to the forefront through two weeks at Camp Rantoul. There are still improvements to be made, but there is a lot to be pleased about two weeks before the season opener.
First and foremost, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase continues to improve. He understands the offense far better than a year ago, and he has more confidence in himself and his teammates. His leadership is second to none, and his arm strength appears improved.
Weighing perhaps 10-15 pounds more than in 2010, Scheelhaase is just as fast running the ball but stronger to survive opposing tacklers. He stays in the pocket longer and can find secondary and even tertiary receivers when necessary. He now can involve more skill players in the offense.
If there is one person who the Illini simply cannot afford to lose, it is Scheelhaase. There are capable backups available, but neither Miles Osei nor Reilly O'Toole are ready to be as efficient and consistent as Scheelhaase. Osei is improved over a year ago, but his forte is running the ball. He must continue to develop his passing prowess to be a multiple threat.
The freshman O'Toole has a knack for the passing attack but isn't as good a runner as the other two. His biggest problem is lack of understanding of the offense. If Scheelhaase were to miss a game early in the season, both Osei and O'Toole would play and share the load. It is still unannounced who gets backup minutes assuming Scheelhaase stays healthy.
The next strongest area of the offense is the line. Seniors Jeff Allen and Jack Cornell plus juniors Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton are excellent, and all have plenty of experience. The strongside tackle spot favors Michael Heitz at the moment, although Simon Cvijanovic will share time with him there and back up Allen on the opposite side.
Both Heitz and Cvijanovic are redshirt freshmen. They continue to get stronger and gain experience, but both will make mistakes at times. Letterman Corey Lewis is closer to returning to full practice. If he can shake off the rust quickly enough, he can become a starter by midseason. But right now Heitz will be the man on the hot seat.
Depth on the line is still a question mark, although a few answers are emerging. Experienced squadman Tyler Sands is probably the top guard replacement, and he can play center also. Jake Feldmeyer saw extensive time as the backup center in camp. He is now big enough and strong enough to compete for playing time. Guard Alex Hill is also showing progress at guard.
Five freshmen have made strong impressions early, although Chris Boles has only been with the team briefly. Center Tony Durkin, guard Ted Karras and tackle Scott McDowell all have the size and strength to add depth if necessary, although it is hoped all can redshirt.
Durkin appears to be the center of the future, showing athleticism and smarts for the position. Karras had a good camp. He is strong and powerful, and he plays with a mean streak. McDowell saw second string reps. Tall rookie Pat Flavin has the mobility for left tackle but must gain 40 pounds of strength.
The running back corps appears stronger than ever despite the defection of squadman Bud Golden. Senior Jason Ford is in top shape. He is a massive pile-driver who has more quickness and mobility this fall than the last couple years. If he stays healthy, he could have a monster year. Senior Troy Pollard is running better than any other time since his knee surgery and had a good camp.
Of course, freshmen Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson were the talk of camp, and both should play early and often. Young reported in exquisite condition, his father arranging for a personal trainer three times a week since his last high school season. He has both power and speed. He runs with aggression, breaking tackles and spinning for extra yardage.
Ferguson is one of the team's quickest players. He bursts through tiny holes and uses his juking ability to confound potential tacklers. If the Illini can get him into the secondary, Illini fans will love watching him in action. What was surprising to many was Ferguson's ability to run inside and take a pounding despite modest size. He is lightning to Young's thunder.
Fullback is in the capable hands of sophomore Jay Prosch. The 255 pounder has only 6% body fat and loves running over linebackers. He may run the ball and catch passes at times, but his main job is opening holes for the running game. He may have a long career with that specialty. Chris Willett is bigger and better. He and oft-injured Zach Becker are capable backups for Prosch.
Like running back, tight end was also fortified through recruiting. While starter Evan Wilson nursed a hamstring pull, freshmen Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse made up ground with outstanding speed, athleticism and pass-catching ability. They add a new dimension to the offense with their ability to beat linebackers deep.
If the Illini need more blocking, Wilson, Eddie Viliunas and Becker serve the role well. If they want to stretch the defense, Davis and LaCosse will see time. Davis played running back in high school, so he can do something with the ball. LaCosse is 6'-6" and can go over the top of defenders. Both are tremendous prospects.
Wide receiver has an abundance of players, and each has shown skill at times. Petrino lists A.J. Jenkins, Darius Millines, Spencer Harris and Ryan Lankford as his top four. Jenkins played with a red shirt most of camp after pectoral muscle and hamstring ailments, but he is fully recovered and eager to expand on his leading reception total from a year ago.
Petrino says Millines may have caught up with Jenkins. He is fast and explosive, and he has made excellent progress both as a receiver and blocker since last season. Plus, he can do something with the ball after the catch. Lankford is one of the team's fastest players and is a deep threat at all times.
Harris is possibly the most improved player on the offense. The 6'-3" Arkansas sophomore made brilliant catches almost daily at camp, and he is an outstanding blocker. He has the best hands on the team, and he is quick out of his cuts. Illini quarterbacks find Harris open often, and he responds.
Other receivers vying for playing time include Fred Sykes, Brandon Clear, Jake Kumerow, Anthony Williams and Fritz Rock. Sykes is a wily senior with experience and smarts. Clear is tall and athletic. He will be a favorite target on passes that favor his unique athleticism. Kumerow is a fast-rising walkon, Williams is 6'-4" and much improved, and Rock is still learning after being switched from defense in the spring.
Freshmen Jordan Frysinger, Jeremy Whitlow and Kenny Knight all made good impressions in camp. Frysinger is quick and elusive, Whitlow is athletic and fluid, and Knight is tall and rangy. Any might be called into action early, although redshirts are also possible.
Placekicker is in the capable hands of Derek Dimke. The senior is usually high, long and straight and hopes to improve on his exceptional junior season. He is capable of hitting from 50 or more yards at any time. he also put most of his kickoffs into the end zone. It is uncertain who will emerge as his backup.
The Illini offense still needs to work and improve, but to a man they all think they have the makings of something special. That remains to be seen, but there was nothing obvious at camp to suggest otherwise.