UI Offense Seeking Answers As Camp Begins

The Fighting Illini football team is gearing up for another highly competitive season. Fall practices begin Monday, and much remains unresolved, especially on offense. The new offensive schemes could be exciting and potent, if solutions are found to some basic problems. InsideIllini takes a look at the Illini offense going into Camp Rantoul.

New Illinois co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty have created a playbook with potential to be high-scoring and apply tremendous pressure to any defense. A spread offense with pro-style concepts mixed in, the offense is designed to get skill players the ball in space where they can make big plays.

The Illini will unveil this new offense September 1 against Western Michigan in Memorial Stadium. Until then, Illini fans will be somewhat in the dark regarding UI plans since most of their preparations will occur without media or fan scrutiny. But some things are clear.

On the positive side, there is experience at quarterback. There is excellent depth at tight end, and the running corps has potential. In the uncertain category are the quality of the offensive line and depth both there and at receiver.

Nathan Scheelhaase returns for his third season as a starter at quarterback. He had somewhat of a sophomore slump but has the intelligence, experience and athleticism to give the Illini offense a great starting point.

He doesn't have the strongest arm, and he doesn't always follow his progressions to find open secondary receivers. But a combination of his running ability and 63% pass completion percentage make him a dangerous threat to opposing defenses.

Scheelhaase also has competition at the position, a definite plus in case of injury. Sophomore Reilly O'Toole played some as a freshman and will benefit from that experience. His release needs improvement, but he has a reputation for being an accurate passer. He is willing to tuck the ball and run with aggressiveness, but he lacks Scheelhaase's speed.

Miles Osei emerged this spring as a playmaker capable of playing multiple positions. His primary spot is quarterback, and the lefty has improved his passing accuracy while being a constant running threat. Illini coaches feel he could run the offense if he is not already deployed at running back or receiver.

Osei did well when helping out at running back this spring. However, he may not be needed there extensively if returnees Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson come through and one or more freshmen catch on quickly.

Young scored 6 touchdowns as a true freshman last fall. He gained 451 net yards for a 5.2 yard average. Now up to 222 pounds, he is in top shape to pound the ball between the tackles. He can also catch the ball out of the backfield.

He sat out most of spring ball with a stress fracture in his foot, but he should be fully healthy this fall. Everyone hopes his propensity to put the ball on the ground will be eliminated as he gains knowledge of the offense and confidence in his ability.

Ferguson was the breakout performer of the spring. Now close to 190 pounds, the scatback has the speed and moves to excel in the open field, and Illini coaches have a plan to get him there frequently through sweeps, counters and flat passes. His speed can spread the field, allowing for more openings for himself and teammates.

Freshmen Dami Ayoola and Lakeith Walls will be tested early and often to see if they are ready for early playing time. Ayoola comes from national powerhouse St. Thomas Aquinas and is considered a tough inside runner. Walls has exceptional speed for his size. If he can learn to run with his pads low, he has potential. Of course, Osei will be the third back if neither freshman comes through.

Freshman Devin Church also played running back in high school. But he has great quickness and will likely be tried at slot receiver. Get him in the open field, and he's capable of bringing Illini fans out of their seats watching him maneuver through traffic.

Church's move is necessitated in part by a scarcity of speed among the depleted receiver corps. Star A.J. Jenkins became a 1st round NFL draft pick after catching 90 passes last year. Senior Fred Sykes graduated, while Anthony Williams, Jake Kumerow and Jordan Frysinger are no longer on the team. The Illini signed only one receiver among the entering freshmen, but J.J. Robertson is now in junior college attempting to qualify for the UI.

The starters all have experience, with Darius Millines having the most potential as a speedy playmaker who hopes to come into his own after two injury-plagued seasons. He could be the go-to threat, like Jenkins was last year.

Ryan Lankford has great speed, but the slender Floridian sometimes has trouble gaining separation from bump coverage on the line. In addition, he's not always as quick out of his cuts as would be ideal. He is in his third year and should be improved, but it remains to be seen how much he can contribute.

Spencer Harris is a possession receiver with good size at 6'-3" and great hands. What he lacks in speed, he makes up for it with intelligence and experience. He played slot last year, but he will be on the outside this fall due to a changed philosophy on how best to use receivers of his ilk.

Right now, there is hope the starters can remain healthy all season. The remaining receivers lack experience, and there are still uncertainties over whether they can learn enough to help this fall. Probably the most likely to contribute is redshirt sophomore Fritz Rock. The Minnesotan packs a solid 200 pounds on his 6'-1" frame and may now have the maturity to help.

Redshirt freshmen Jeremy Whitlow and Kenny Knight are next on the list, but they both have deficiencies that must be addressed before they can help consistently. Hayden Daniels is in the same class, and he is in a similar situation. Walkon Peter Bonahoom has been as impressive as the above three, so don't be surprised if he gets playing time.

Illini coaches may still have some additional ideas up their sleeves to upgrade the receiving. It appears freshman defensive back Justin Hardee will get a tryout on offense. The 6'-1", 190 pounder has great speed and size for the position.

And not to be overlooked is possible contributions from a couple defenders who might be asked to play both ways. Senior cornerbacks Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green are both athletic, fast and capable. Hawthorne was an All-American receiver in high school, and his one pass reception in the Spring Game went for a touchdown. Green was a Kentucky spring champ there. Of course, Osei might be a factor as well.

Tight end is possibly the strongest overall position on the entire team. Senior Eddie Viliunas and junior Evan Wilson bring a wealth of experience to the team and are competent blockers on running plays while also having receiving skills. Senior Zach Becker, if he can finally remain healthy, helped out at running back in the spring and could be an H-back who lines up in the backfield and blocks on running plays.

Sophomores Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse are both exciting prospects. Davis caught 22 passes last fall in part-time duty. Mr. Versatile can play traditional tight end or be flexed like a slot receiver. He can also line up in the backfield and run the ball or go out for passes. Davis will be used in a variety of ways and be a great asset barring injury.

LaCosse has tremendous potential also. At nearly 6'-7", he is beginning to gain the strength and weight needed to be a quality blocker. In the meantime, his speed, agility and pass-catching ability to go with his height make him a great target for the quarterbacks. He made some exceptional catches last fall in practice, and he figures to be even better this year.

The offensive line is likely the biggest question mark going into fall. Three starters and one part-timer return, but the line struggled mightily last fall against teams that loaded the box and blitzed frequently. The Illini offense will go only as far as the line can perform adequately. If there is even one weak link, the whole line falls apart.

Seniors Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton lead the unit. Both are in their fourth year as starters, but both may see time at new positions. Pocic is the center, and he is a good one. Thornton has the most athleticism of the group, and he has spent most of his time at left guard.

However, a lack of depth and experience at tackle may necessitate new arrangements. In the spring, speedy pass rushers embarrassed left tackle Simon Cvijanovic on occasion. He played enough to letter last fall as a redshirt freshman, but he is still gaining the size, strength and experience to be consistent there.

While it is hoped Cvijanovic can come through, Thornton played the position as a true freshman and could move there if necessary. Pocic is better on the inside, so he will probably not be a tackle possibility. But he could move to guard in order for older squadman Jake Feldmeyer to play center. Feldmeyer has no game experience, but he's finally grown enough to help there.

If Thornton moves to tackle, Pocic or redshirt sophomore Alex Hill could start at left guard. Tyler Sands is a fifth year senior who could play center or either guard spot. Whether Hill and Sands can hold their own against top Big 10 defenses remains to be seen, but they will likely see playing time. Redshirt freshman Tony Durkin must still gain size and strength, but he is a center candidate with potential.

Right guard was won by Ted Karras in the spring. The redshirt freshman has the size and aggressiveness to be a good one, but he lacks experience. Plus, it can now be revealed Karras suffered a stress fracture in the fifth metatarsal in his foot early in the summer, had surgery and remained in a walking boot for awhile, setting back his progress. Hopefully he is fully recovered by now.

Redshirt sophomore Michael Heitz earned his spurs by starting all last year at right tackle. He was inconsistent at best, but he gained the experience and subsequent confidence to be much improved in the spring. It is hoped he be a stabilizing force on the right side this fall so he can help Karras learn the ropes.

Backup tackle is another big question mark. Senior Corey Lewis has started before, but he's missed the last two seasons with three ACL surgeries on the same knee. His latest one was this spring, so it is highly unlikely he will be cleared for action to begin the fall. Still, he and the Illinois coaching staff are hoping somehow he can make a contribution eventually.

Redshirt freshmen Scott McDowell and Patrick Flavin both have potential, but both must bulk up and gain strength to compete against strong defenders. McDowell backed Cvijanovic in the spring, and Flavin supported Heitz. Whether either will be ready to help this fall remains to be seen, but the Illini need at least one of them to come through to give the starters a rest once in awhile.

There may be one late addition to the Illini line. Penn State redshirt freshman Ryan Nowicki is rumored to be transferring, but nothing will be known with certainty until he actually shows up for fall practices. The 6'-5", 280 pounder has the foot quickness to play either guard or tackle. Whether he's able to help this year, assuming he enrolls, will depend on how quickly he can be brought up to speed.

Nick Immekus appeared to be winning the field goal kicking spot early in the spring before tailing off at the end. Taylor Zalewski has the strongest leg but seeks more consistency. He may do kickoffs. Brennen VanMieghem is also a candidate there. Perhaps the top prospect is true freshman Ryan Frain, who may also compete at punter.

Illini coaches are working to create an explosive offense that can put points on the board while keeping the defense fresh by keeping it off the field as much as possible. In time, they will succeed. Whether their dreams can reach fruition in 2012 remains to be seen.


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