CHAMPAIGN - Two weeks ago, this site ran a story titled "Illini counting on more from inexperienced receivers."
So far, those unpolished pass catchers are dropping the ball. A lot.
Illini interim coach Bill Cubit said Monday that the team has 21 drops through the team's first three games.
"I've been in places where we didn't have 21 all season," Cubit said. "So, got to fix that."
The Illini drops were an issue in the first two games, but the issue was demagnified as the Illini cruised to 52-3 and 44-0 wins over Kent State and Western Illinois, respectively. But the bout of the drops was more costly in Saturday's 48-14 loss at North Carolina when the Illini (2-1) dropped nine passes, including two would-be touchdown receptions.
Senior Geronimo Allison couldn't haul in a first-quarter pass on 4th-and-1 that hit his hands. Though he now has the title of No. 1 option due to sophomore standout Mikey Dudek's knee injury, Allison has dropped several passes this season.
Sophomore Marchie Murdock currently leads the Illini in receptions (15 for 142 yards, 2 TDs), but the Texas native also has dropped several passes, including a would-be touchdown on a corner route late in the third quarter.
If Allison and Murdock had hauled in those highly-catchable passes, the Illini would have had a 21-20 halftime lead -- a different ballgame.
"We made a lot of mistakes against North Carolina," Murdock said. "We just have to watch film and get back to the drawing board, talk to our coaches and really see what we have to do better."
Allison and Murdock aren't the only ones with incompletion influenza. Most of the receiving corps has been infected.
"It's a community effort," Cubit said. "We did a study one time and 95 percent of balls are dropped that you take your eyes off of. They see the ball coming and take their eyes off it just so they can see what's around them, see where you're going to go. Dropped the ball. You see the ones like Marchie's. He let the ball come in to him. Well, once the ball comes into him, you can't keep your arms down. You just have to high-point that thing. Some guys want the ball caught inside their body because they don't trust their hands at times. There's different things for each guy."
Most of the Illini receivers were forced into larger roles due to injury. Dudek (76 catches, 1,038 yards, 6 TDs last season) may miss the season after suffering a torn ACL during the spring. He has been cutting for more than a month but has not been cleared for contact, and Cubit said there is no timeline on when he will be cleared for contact.
Senior Justin Hardee (47 career catches, 527 yards) was expected to be one of the team's top-four wideouts but will miss his fourth game after suffering a broken foot during the summer. He may not return until past the midway point of the season.
So, Allison was vaulted to the No. 1 role. Murdock (one career catch entering the season) surprisingly has become the No. 2 wideout, and while he has had positive moments, he's had several negative moments.
Sophomore Malik Turner (two catches, 15 yards) and junior Dionte Taylor (six catches, 55 yards) have made minor impacts. Freshmen Desmond Cain (eight catches, 53 yards) and Sam Mays (three catches, 52 yards) also have been forced to make an impact before they really master Cubit's intricate offense that relies on precise receiver route running.
"It's really unfamiliar to them," Cubit said. "But that's college football. You've got to be ready to go and be accountable to everyone else out there."
Costing quarterback, team
The drops have cost quarterback Wes Lunt. Just cut the drops in half -- drops do happen, after all -- and Lunt's accuracy would increase from 60.8 percent to around 72 percent.
The Illini quarterback said he tries to act like a mediator between the players and the coaching staff, usually offering positive reinforcement. But even the normally even-keeled Lunt can't always hold in the frustration from the fumbled passes.
"After a big play that hurt us, I'm probably a little more emotional than the mediator there," Lunt said. "But I think the guys are getting better there. I think they care, and I think it's important that they care.
"I think the biggest thing is getting together as a group and just kind of talking. Talk with the coaches and make sure we all have confidence and we're all on the same page. Because we can be a special group. We're a huge part of the team and the offense that we run, so we just need to keep preparing and working."
'Fail fast, move on'
Cubit compared rampant receiver drops to a case of the yips in baseball, like when a player can't hit a curveball or can't make a simple throw to first base. He said the staff will focus on more individual teaching this week to correct the drops. He will try to build up the receivers, not break them down.
"I just make it all positive," Cubit said. "If you make it all negative, like 'Catch the ball.' Well, no kidding. That's the obvious. How do I catch the ball? What am I doing wrong? That's what we got to keep reinforcing to the guys here.
"To me, it's just fundamentals. I played wideout. I find it hard to believe you can drop that many balls. It's either a confidence issue or, of course, it has to be a fundamentals issue. That's one of the things we have to address. We'll have more people involved with all of those guys. We always chart them. It just gets to the point where you're either going to make the play or you're not going to make the play."
The Illini need their receivers to make more plays, the routine plays. The Illini have little margin for error. Lunt's receivers can't keep dropping the ball.
"When you drop a pass -- you know, I dropped a touchdown pass in the end zone on the sideline -- it's just fail fast and move on," Murdock said. "Coach Cubit is basically saying, 'Let's move on from the situation and try to make more plays.' I thought I tried to do that.