Illinois interim head coach Bill Cubit has seen it all during his 34-year coaching career -- especially after what happened with the Illini last week.
He's seen upset losses, upset wins, tough losses, wide-open spread offenses and hybrid defenses. At some point, I’m sure Cubit had to adjust his offensive scheme or team after losing a key player for the season. Injuries are apart of football and the old adage is, “With injury comes opportunity." So when Scout.com Freshman All-American wide receiver Mikey Dudek suffered an ACL tear during spring football practice, the adjustment phase began for the Illini and Cubit.
With Dudek out -- possibly for the entire season -- Cubit’s challenge will be discovering new ways to make up for Dudek’s production: 76 receptions, 1,038 yards and six Touchdowns.
Cubit has a knack for creating mismatches versus the opposing defense. This season, all-purpose running back Josh Ferguson will be the catalyst.
The Illini studied some offensive concepts from the defending Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots this offseason. I can see Cubit using Ferguson the same way Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels used unsung hero and current New York Giants running back Shane Vereen.
In Super Bowl XLIX, Vereen lined up as a running back in the backfield or slot wide receiver and was targeted 12 times by quarterback Tom Brady. Vereen caught 11 passes for 64 yards. McDaniels liked the match-up problems Vereen presented to the underneath coverage (i.e. the linebackers, nickel corner and box safety). The game plan was a success because the outside receivers went deeper than 15 yards, running the cornerbacks out of the play, and occupied free safety Earl Thomas enough to pay attention to the deeper threats. That created a lot of space for the underneath defenders to cover.
The throws to Vereen where short but highly effective because of his ability to elude would-be tacklers that resulted in extended drives for the Patriots. So without Dudek, Ferguson occasionally will line up at slot receiver -- on top of running and receiving the ball out of the backfield.
Last season, there were two moments when Ferguson put his versatile skill set on display.
The first play of the game versus Texas State resulted in a 76-yard touchdown reception from Lunt to Ferguson. The Illini offense came out in 11/Diamond personnel (1RB/1TE/3WR). Former TE Jon Davis was aligned in the backfield with Ferguson and went in motion out of the backfield to set up the RB screen. WR Justin Hardee lined up as the Z receiver on the far right hash, and Mikey Dudek lined up in the Slot. Hardee, Dudek and Davis got solid downfield blocks on the Bobcat cornerbacks, which sprung Ferguson free for his longest reception of the year.
Along the way, Ferguson showed his breakaway speed, running away from the Texas State defenders. He also showed open-field vision by slashing through multiple bodies, as well as the ability to break tackles on his way to the end zone.
Later in the year against rival Northwestern, Ferguson scored on a 46-yard rushing touchdown. The Wildcats cut the lead to eight with the Illini still ahead 33-25. Illinois lined up in 10/Spread personnel (1RB/0TE/4WR), and NU matched up across the field in man-to-man coverage.
With excellent blocking up front by the offensive line, Ferguson was able to get to the second level quickly with a one-on-one matchup with former NU Linebacker Chi Chi Ariguzo.
Ferguson displayed loose hips and body control while making a sharp cut to make Ariguzo miss. He then out-ran the angles from the other Wildcat defenders to extend the lead.
Bangs, bounces and bends
It's no secret that Ferguson’s touches will increase with the loss of Dudek. But when Ferguson needs to rest or lines up as a WR, the running game will lean on bacups RBs Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Henry Enyenihi.
The Illini offensive line executes the zone-blocking scheme up front, which means every lineman will step right or left in unison to get double teams on both defensive tackles. They then work their way up to the second level to the LBs. Also, the zone scheme gives the running back three options: to Bang, Bounce or Bend per rushing attempt depending how fast the defense flows.
When the RB "bangs," he’s hitting the first open lane by sticking his foot in the ground to get north and south.
A "bounce" occurs when all creases are taking away by the defense, which forces the RB to get on the edge and take the ball toward the sideline.
Lastly, the "bend" comes in the form of a cut-back lane created by a defensive front that over-pursues the ball. Depending on the health of Vaughn, his vision, patience and downhill running style will help take pressure not only off of Ferguson but quarterback Wes Lunt too.
Look for the combination of Ferguson and Vaughn on the field simultaneously.
Former Illini and NFL veteran Mike Bellamy is in his third season as the Illinois wide receivers Coach. All of his WRs are prepared to play all three receiving positions. Senior Geronimo Allison will get his chance to be the no-doubt No. 1 target in the absence of Dudek.
Allison made some splash plays a year ago, specifically versus the Washington Huskies. He took the top off of the UW defense to haul in a 60-yard touchdown reception from Lunt. He will mostly line up on the perimeter.
However, in third-down or red-zone situations, Allison could be an option at slot WR. G-Mo's 6-foot-3 frame could present match up problems versus a smaller nickel CB, slower SS or LB -- just like my former teammate and Arizona Cardinal WR Larry Fitzgerald.
With G-Mo’s wide catching radius, he should make a nice redzone threat even when he’s covered.
Micheal Young is the football analyst for IlliniInquirer.com. Young was a four-year starter for Illinois football and a team captain. The St. Louis native also played for the NFL's Arizona Cardinals from 2001-04. He serves as a color analyst for several broadcast outlets and co-hosts an Illini podcast with former UI teammate Carey Davis on Huddlepass.com.