UI Offense Has Potential But Needs Depth

The Fighting Illini football team has now completed spring ball. The players will gather again in June for the long preparations needed to have a successful fall season. They will be joined by a good-looking group of rookies who will help fill out the roster and provide immediate help in some cases. This is a summary of the Illini offense coming out of spring.

The Illinois offense is brand new. A variation of a spread offense, it is a work in progress as Illini players need time to learn its intricacies well enough to fly around the field with confidence. That was not always the case in spring ball.

In 2010, the Illini needed half the fall season to embrace the new offense installed that spring. It may take at least that long this fall, but the hope is it will evolve quicker than that. The Illini showed only a small sampling of their offense during the spring game, but inconsistencies were obvious.

Nathan Scheelhaase is the strong favorite to start at quarterback for the third consecutive year, but he fared poorly throwing to reserve receivers against a defensive rush that dominated the offensive line at times. A big part of his game is his running, and that was stifled to prevent injury.

Scheelhaase is one of the best leaders on the team, so barring injury he will likely start against Western Michigan. He has the experience and know-how to do the best job running the offense, but he needs help from his teammates to be most effective.

Reilly O'Toole and Miles Osei both made a case for starting Saturday. O'Toole completed a high percentage of his passes and seemed confident in the pocket against a strong rush. Of course, that is always easier when you know you can't be tackled. O'Toole must continue to work on getting a quicker release and improving his timing with receivers, but he is doing well for a freshman.

Osei became an indispensable man on offense this spring. He impressed Illini coaches at quarterback, but he was also used successfully at running back, receiver, and punt returner. One wonders if he will be throwing passes to himself this fall. Illini coaches love his versatility, thus his winning the Unsung Hero Award Saturday.

Osei might actually move ahead of O'Toole if Scheelhaase is injured, especially if his pass completion percentage continues at the 67% rate he hit Saturday because of his running skill and overall smarts. There will be more running backs in the fall, so he might see more time at receiver to shore up a weak position. One way or the other, he will see the field frequently.

Josh Ferguson had a breakout spring at running back. He hopes to improve his weight to around 193 by fall camp, but that isn't enough to take constant pounding as a feature back playing against strong Big 10 defenses. That is, if defenders can catch him.

He makes up for a lack of size with quick moves and rapid acceleration. He can also catch the ball out of the backfield. He will see the ball early and often in the Illini attack and could eventually be as exciting to watch as some of the top scatbacks around the country.

We saw some of what Donovonn Young can do last fall, which is good because he was held out most of spring with a stress fracture in his foot. His shoulders, back and upper arms are noticeably bigger and stronger than last fall. He is the downhill runner who can punish tacklers once he is healthy.

He and Ferguson use the phrase "5 and 6 in the mix" to denote their shared work at running back, and that might become a rallying cry if both live up to their potential this fall.

Osei, Zach Becker and Ean Days also saw time at running back this spring. Days did some good things in the Spring Game during mop-up action, but he lacks blazing speed as well as inside toughness to fight for extra yards. Becker helped out of necessity, but he is more of a blocking back/H-back/tight end combo who will see the field in myriad ways if finally healthy.

Running back needs plenty of depth in case of injury, so entering freshmen will get opportunities to earn playing time this fall. Floridian Dami Ayoola is a tough, punishing inside runner. Lakeith Walls is big and fast, but he runs straight up and may not have the moves of the other backs. If running back doesn't work out, his athleticism will be utilized at other positions.

Devin Church reminds of Ferguson. Small but extremely quick with great moves, Church is a player Illini coaches love because he can make plays in space. He will be given a package of plays out of the backfield and the slot to isolate him in the open field.

Given how much help is needed at receiver, Church may end up playing more of a slot position and run reverses as well as being part of pass patterns. Freshman J.J. Robertson will also get plenty of chances to earn playing time at receiver.

In a strange irony, the three receiver positions are desperate for better depth besides having one of the largest contingents of players on the team. Frankly, it is amazing how many scholarships were given out in the past to receivers who lack speed and play-making ability. Regardless, the Illini must make do with what they have.

Darius Millines is their best threat, but he sat out the whole spring with a recurring foot stress fracture. Assuming he is healthy this fall, he may become the heir apparent to the graduated A.J. Jenkins. He is fast, talented and a good blocker. It is hoped Illini quarterbacks will look for multiple receivers, but Millines might be the one open most of the time.

Spencer Harris was moved from slot to outside receiver and will be counted on for his blocking there. He has two years experience and has the softest hands on the team. But he lacks the great quickness needed to gain separation from top cornerbacks.

Ryan Lankford is one of the fastest players on the team, but he is slender and must continue to build strength for blocking and to gain separation from strong cornerbacks. A do-everything type who also handles Illini rugby punts, Lankford is less quick making cuts than running straight down the field. His chances for passes are thus limited at times.

Fritz Rock made improvements this spring and may see the field some this fall. Justin Frysinger, Anthony Williams, Kenny Knight, and walkons Peter Bonahoom and Jake Kumerow all caught passes in the Spring Game, and Jeremy Whitlow is in the mix also. But none showed a readiness to help consistently.

Cornerback Terry Hawthorne was an All-American receiver at East St. Louis, and he scored on a 29-yard reception in brief offensive action Saturday. While he will spend most of his time on defense this fall, he may be needed both ways. Justin Green and Jack Ramsey are others who might do double duty out of necessity.

Tight end is the deepest position on the team. No fewer than five players could see the field frequently. Illini coaches want to take advantage of strengths there, so they have modified their spread attack for them.

Eddie Viliunas and Evan Wilson are listed 1-2 at tight end at the moment. They and Becker are the best blockers of the group, although they can catch passes also. Jon Davis is a potential star who also saw some time at running back. The Illini will want to get him the ball as often as possible. Matt LaCosse is a prototypical tight end with 6'-6" size, excellent speed and good hands.

The offensive line is also a concern, especially in terms of depth. Senior Graham Pocic anchors the line at center, and Hugh Thornton is a three year letter winner at guard. But one or both may need to move to tackle this fall. Illini coach Tim Beckman will play his best five linemen, and there is more depth on the inside than at the tackle spots.

Redshirt sophomore Michael Heitz started all last year at right tackle, and he should be okay there as he continues to gain valuable experience. Simon Cvijanovic has the foot quickness for left tackle, but he still needs to gain mass and strength. Illini defensive ends embarrassed him several times rushing off the edge Saturday. They are talented and experienced defenders, but the Illini need a left tackle who can be trusted consistently.

Second string tackles Scott McDowell and Pat Flavin have potential, but both need a great deal more size and strength to compete. It is possible neither will be ready by fall. Thus, Illini coaches are considering alternatives like Thornton and Pocic.

Pocic's backups are Jake Feldmeyer and Tony Durkin. They can do the job, but not nearly as well as Pocic. Their biggest problem is a lack of size and strength. Feldmeyer has spent three years bulking up and is close, but he has a small frame that limits growth. Durkin will eventually be a good center, but he needs a big growth spurt this summer.

There is some depth at the guard spots. Redshirt freshman Ted Karras may have earned the starting right guard spot, but he battles daily with senior Tyler Sands for supremacy. Sands can also play center in a pinch. Alex Hill saw some time at left guard when Thornton was hurt last fall, so he may be good enough to let Thornton play tackle. Freshmen Joe Spencer and Robbie Bain are inside maulers who likely need a redshirt year.

Placekickers had mixed results in the Spring Game, although all are walkons who may lose out to recruited freshman Ryan Frain in the fall. Nick Immekus won the Spring Game with a 47 yard field goal and added a chip shot, but he also missed a couple others. He and Patrick Dunn shared the top spot all spring. Taylor Zalewski has the strongest leg and will give them all a battle if he becomes more consistent. He will likely kick off as well.

Illini fans need patience while the Illini gain a comfort level in the new offense and develop more depth. There is potential, but that was minimized for the Spring Game by a vanilla approach designed to show nothing to opponents. It is assumed the offense will be much more explosive in the fall.

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