Cubit's Offense Opts For 20

Coordinator Bill Cubit's offense is managing the high wire act of going for the big play while avoiding costly mistakes.

CHAMPAIGN - Nathan Scheelhaase never has one eye on the door during media interview sessions. He doesn't mind lingering longer than most.

Not this September, at least.

He's answering every question with a strong voice; even hesitating on exit to make sure every reporter is satisfied.

Scheelhaase is not alone in his easy-going attitude. The media circuit is easier for offensive guys these days, question after question no longer a dull pain or numbing annoyance like those from the less than stellar seasons of recent memory.

"It's a lot of fun," Scheelhaase says. "I actually texted someone just saying it's been fun just going out there and competing with the guys."

Scheelhaase and the Guys have done more than compete. The group has succeeded, the improvement over 2012's miserable score-lacking, slog-fest incredibly obvious. With all major categories boosted tremendously, perhaps no two areas have been more important than the big play and turnover categories.

So far, in just three games, the Illini have run 21 plays that gained 20 yards or more. In all of last season: only 34, the third lowest total at the FBS level.

Also, Illinois has given the ball away only three times, good enough for 15th best in the country. That's up 92 spots after ranking 107th last season in turnovers lost.

The numbers are clear; offensive coordinator Bill Cubit is managing the high wire act of going for the big play while avoiding costly mistakes.

"It's all calculated risk," according to Scheelhaase.

So how is it that risk is leading to reward instead of ruin?

It starts with the fourth-year starting quarterback.

Cubit picked through all the criticisms of Scheelhaase when he arrived in the offseason. Questionable arm strength, lack of trust in receivers, on and on even down the line to the often windy conditions in Memorial Stadium, which could alter throws on occasion.

The response from Cubit – let's go to work together. Scheelhaase has had confidence ever since.

"You're seeing him throw the ball downfield a whole lot more than he has done, I know in the last year I watched, the last two years I watched," Cubit said.

Though it's early, Scheelhaase leads the Big Ten and is in the Top 25 nationally in total yards (330.7 per game) and passing yards (294.7) through Week Four.

While the numbers are nice, senior wide receiver Ryan Lankford changes the route of conversation when asked about Scheelhaase.

"It's almost like having a coach out there and a player," says Lankford, who ranks 12th nationally with 22.5 yards per catch. "He's barking things at you. It's like having a coach out there with you at all times. He's able to put us in situations that previous Nathan I guess wouldn't be able to."

Other offseason additions, though individualistic at the time, helped shift the unit's mentality further positive. Safety Steve Hull and quarterback Miles Osei switched to receiver for their final season, looking to get on the field and play as large a contributing role as possible. And junior college transfer Martize Barr enrolled early in January as one of the headlining players in the 2013 signing class.

Being fresh to the position or new to the school dictated the trio put in extra time whenever possible, learning the exact yardage on routes and developing chemistry with Scheelhaase.

Customary targets Lankford, Spencer Harris, Josh Ferguson, Jon Davis and others weren't going to mill around all offseason and let the newcomers show them up. They worked extra, too.

"It really speaks a lot to their work ethic and them making me feel comfortable," Scheelhaase said.

"I would say they've just been a lot more consistent across the board. I think we've had guys that have been more consistent."

Cubit's direction and the player's initiative led to confidence. For instance, when a passing play is called with one receiver running a 20-yard route and another five, Cubit says…

"Every time, every time take the 20," Lankford says. "Anytime you can throw the deep ball or get a big play, he's always ready to call it."

And when defenses blitz, is Scheelhaase supposed to identity the safest, quickest throw to avoid danger?

"(Cubit says) we're not just trying to get a couple yards out of it," Scheelhaase says. "We're trying to really make them pay for it. He loves it when teams blitz us. He feels like there are less defenders back there and it has worked in our favor. I think if you look at the downs where teams have blitzed this year, we've had some of our biggest plays."

Offenses at the college level can be complicated systems, schemes and plays and reads comprised of terminology Average Joe can't even begin to understand. But Average Joe can decipher success. Cubit provides an easy explanation for why Illinois has been more hit than miss.

"I think it all goes back to, you know, are they having fun, are they having enough confidence in us to get a good game plan for them and then the other thing is are we confident enough, OK, that we allow these guys to go do it," he says. "I think all three of those factors are probably pretty evident right now."

Chances are great that the offense will push the statistical rankings further upward this weekend with Miami (Ohio) coming to Champaign. The Red Hawks have been outscored 107-21 in three losses this season – bad stats made worse by the fact that opponents averaged nearly 300 yards passing.

Considering what Cubit and Scheelhaase have done so far, more big plays could be in order. Even more important though, further strides in developing confidence and consistency could be made as well.

"We've got a long ways to go," Cubit said. "By any means, you sit there and go, ‘hey we've arrived.' We haven't. We're on the right track and the kids just keep on going out there and playing. Hey, we'll see what happens."

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