Will Illini Offensive Players Fit The Spread?

The Fighting Illini football team, fresh off its triumph in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, faces a new beginning when second semester classes start. New coach Tim Beckman brings his spread offense to the team, and a number of adaptations will be required to transform returnees into his system. While much is still unknown, we will take a preliminary look at the 2012 offense.

At this writing, Illinois has not yet announced the hiring of an offensive coordinator. But head coach Tim Beckman wants to use a spread offense that will require specific talent to carry out. The Illini return a number of players who figured prominently in 2011, but it is uncertain how they will adapt to the new style.

The Illini return all their quarterbacks. Upcoming junior Nathan Scheelhaase was the offensive star of the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, as much for his running as passing. He came to Illinois to play in the spread offense run at the time, so he should feel confident with the new offense.

He will need to spread the ball to all receivers to be effective. Since he focused first and foremost on graduated senior A.J. Jenkins in 2011, there are concerns whether he can adapt without his star to rely upon. But a bigger concern will be his arm strength, adequate much of the time but limited when facing a strong wind.

Reilly O'Toole earned valuable playing time as a true freshman and figures to be vastly improved by next fall. He ran a wide open passing attack at Wheaton Warrenville South, so he should also be compatible with the new offensive schemes.

He has an average arm and somewhat slow release, but he seems especially accurate and capable of finding secondary receivers. He is not as fast as Scheelhaase, but he's a strong runner. He is also a competitor and will give Scheelhaase a run for his money.

Miles Osei is speedy, but he has struggled with accuracy on his lefty passes. He is shorter than 6-foot tall, so he sometimes has trouble seeing over tall linemen. He saw playing time at kick returner and practiced as a running back for the bowl, so another position is always an option for him.

Redshirt freshman Chase Haslett has a good arm and release, but he also lacks height. It remains to be seen whether he can compete for a starting spot next year. But as the son of an NFL coach (Jim Haslett), football is in his blood. He understands the intricacies of offensive football, giving him an advantage.

Running back needs to be upgraded through recruiting. The Illini lose starter Jason Ford and top backup Troy Pollard, and neither were able to provide a consistent threat this year. Freshman Donovonn Young showed glimpses of ability, but fumbles and injuries limited his season.

Freshman Josh Ferguson tore a hamstring muscle after three games and chose to redshirt. He is by far the fastest running back, although he is slight of build. Our guess is he can become a significant running and receiving threat in the new Illini offense, if he can remain healthy. Ean Days was hurt most of this season, but he provides backup.

It will be interesting to see what happens with the fullback position. Jay Prosch was called a 1st team All-American as a sophomore by Pro Football Weekly, but there is limited need for a fullback in a true spread offense. Zach Becker missed the season with a broken leg, but he returns for an extra year as well.

The Illini used Russ Weil frequently as a blocking back for Rashard Mendenhall out of the spread in 2007, so the new Illini staff might find benefit in doing likewise in 2012 with Prosch and Becker. If not, Becker can play tight end, and Prosch is a good enough athlete for several other positions on both sides of the ball.

Beckman has utilized tight ends in the flex position out of the spread at Toledo, which is good news for an abundant tight end corps. Freshmen Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse both played as rookies and are outstanding athletes who can run and catch. They should fit in perfectly. Upperclassmen Evan Wilson and Eddie Viliunas are better blockers but can also catch passes. It would be surprising if all four are not utilized early and often.

Wide receiver takes on major significance in a spread offense. The Illini have a large number of candidates, but it remains to be seen if any can begin to approach the speed and efficiency of Jenkins. Perhaps the two with the most athleticism and experience are Darius Millines and Ryan Lankford.

Millines caught 19 passes for 218 yards and one TD despite missing three games with injury. Lankford added 12 receptions after getting off to a slow start. They have speed but are slight of build, especially Lankford.

The returnee with the most catches in 2011 is upcoming junior Spencer Harris, who caught 26 balls for 226 yards and a TD. Walkon Jake Kumerow saw action and will likely see more if he can regain eligibility after sitting out the bowl game.

Sophomore Anthony Williams plus freshmen Jeremy Whitlow, Kenny Knight, Jordan Frysinger and Hayden Daniels add depth but are as yet untested. Walkon freshman Peter Bonahoom may help also. More talent will be needed through recruiting.

The offensive line needs to be rebuilt. The line did not perform adequately enough to maintain a balance between run and pass in 2011. More than that, four year starter Jeff Allen is graduating, as is starting right guard Jack Cornell.

Returning starters Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton should be ready for their best seasons. Both have considerable experience, Pocic at center and Thornton at guard. But who on the team has the quickness, strength and savvy for the important left tackle spot occupied so well by Allen?

Simon Cvijanovic is probably the leading candidate for left tackle. He shared time with fellow redshirt freshman Michael Heitz this season, and he is the quicker and more agile of the two.

Heitz is penciled in as starter at right tackle, although it is hoped senior Corey Lewis will have enough confidence in his knee to challenge for a starting spot in the spring. He had the position won spring of 2010 before multiple knee surgeries ruined two straight years. He came back midway through the 2011 season but failed to earn playing time.

The remaining guard starter will likely come from returnees Alex Hill and Tyler Sands plus redshirt freshman Ted Karras. Hill started a couple games when Thornton was injured and should be improved. Sands has been a perennial backup at guard and center and has experience. Karras is a strong, aggressive performer who has great potential. It would not be surprising if Karras earned playing time.

Sands and Jake Feldmeyer backed up Pocic at center. Feldmeyer is undersized and has battled to put on the strength to compete at the spot. Both can handle the job, but neither has star potential. Tony Durkin is a promising redshirt freshman. He has athleticism and smarts, but it remains to be seen if he can bulk up enough to play the position next fall. It may take him another year to do that.

Scott McDowell, Pat Flavin and Chris Boles are other promising rookies. McDowell was listed at second string tackle much of the fall, although he saw no playing time. He has explosive ability; he just needs experience and maturity at the position.

Flavin is 6'-7" but slender. He may need two years to fill out and gain needed strength, but he has quick feet and could be a star eventually. Boles came into camp out of shape and overweight. He has a wide base for guard play, but he is still in an experimental stage until the new coaching staff can see him in top shape.

Placekicker Derek Dimke is graduating. Heir apparent may be Indianapolis product Ryan Frain, who has reconfirmed his commitment to the Illini. He gets Dimke's scholarship. If he struggles as a freshman, walkons Taylor Zalewski, Patrick Dunn, Nick Immekus and Brennen VanMieghem are waiting in the wings. Zalewski appears to have the strongest leg.

The defense will be discussed in part two.

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