Mid-term grades: Illini offense

With Illinois on a bye after six of 12 regular-season games, Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner hands out mid-term grades for each Illinois position group. Today, he focuses on the offense.

Big Ten stat rankings

  • Scoring offense: 8th (28.5 points per game)
  • Total offense: 8th (394.0 yards per game)
  • Rushing offense: 14th (137.5 yards per game)
  • Passing offense: 1st  (256.5 yards per game)
  • Pass efficiency: 9th (118.4)
  • Sacks against: T-5th (8)
  • First downs: T-3rd (21.7 per game)
  • 3rd down conversions: 7th  (39.0 percent)
  • Time of possession: 8th  (31:14)
  • Turnovers lost: 7th (8)
  • Red-zone offense: 14th (70.8 percent)

Quarterbacks: B

Some of Wes Lunt’s numbers are really good (1,424 yards, 9 TDs, 2 INTs). But some of his numbers (58.4 completion percentage, 6.11 yards per pass attempt) aren’t as high as they should be thanks to about 40 wide receiver drops in six games. His receivers also have struggled to get open against physical, press coverage. Without Mikey Dudek or reliable tight ends -- Illinois plays four wide receiver sets a lot more this season which negates the use of the tight end -- Lunt is attacking the middle of the field less and relying more on receiver screens and tougher-to-complete sideline and back-shoulder throws. Yet, Lunt continues to succeed (Illinois leads the Big Ten in passing offense), continues to grow and has stayed healthy. Underrated is his ability to read defenses and make run/pass checks at the line of scrimmage. The coaching staff said he's made the right calls 92 percent of the time. Lunt lacks mobility and he goes down pretty easily when he’s pressured. But he knows he can’t take big shots because Illinois doesn’t have much of a chance without him on the field. Lunt can be better. And that shows just how high his ceiling is -- because the Illini pocket passer has been pretty darn good this season.

Running backs: B-

Josh Ferguson (397 rushing yards, 5.4 yards per carry) was a strong runner behind a questionable run-blocking offensive line before a shoulder injury sidelined him. He came out as a much more physical runner and fought more for extra yards. But he wasn’t having as big of a season as a pass-catcher (12 catches for 78 yards) and still showed a tendency to dance behind his blockers a bit too much. Ferguson is a big-play threat, but he pushes too hard to make the big play rather than cranking out a few extra yards. Yet, this is nit-picking. Ferguson is one of the most versatile and dangerous weapons in the Big Ten. There is no timetable on his return but any extended absence would really hamper the Illini offense.

Freshman Ke’Shawn Vaughn likely is the better in-between-the-tackles runner. He has good vision, is a quick decision-maker, hits the hole hard and almost always falls forward. Vaughn has shown a capability as a receiver (seven catches, 62 yards) though he has had a few drops and still is growing as a pass blocker. The late fumble at Iowa stings, but the Illini have a really good one in Vaughn.

Depth is an issue with freshmen Dre Brown (torn ACL) and Reggie Corbin (torn labrum) both out for the season. There is a dropoff to junior college transfer Henry Enyenihi (58 yards, 3.2 yards). He doesn't have much of a burst but can provide some serviceable reps. There's an even bigger dropoff to the current third stringers, sophomore Kendrick Foster and walk-on senior Cameron Tucker. The Illini can't afford another injury here.

Wide receivers: D+

Geronimo Allison -- who leads the Big Ten in receptions (40) and receiving yards (601) -- saves this group from a failing grade. Allison has stepped up as the No. 1 target with Mikey Dudek injured. Allison has dropped a few passes -- including a potential touchdown at North Carolina -- but has been the Illini offense’s best move-the-chains and big-play target.

All the other receivers have stunted this potentially even more prolific passing offense.

Redshirt sophomore Marchie Murdock (20 catches, 194 yards, 3 TDs) has had some positive moments but probably more negative moments (one of the team leaders in drops).

Sophomore Malik Turner had the worst start of the receivers, catching just two passes for 15 yards over his first three games. But during the last three games, he has 11 catches for 140 yards. Turner has all the physical traits of a Big Ten No. 1 wideout and is a physical blocker, but he’s struggled with confidence and consistency in route running. With Allison set to graduate, the Illini would like to see Turner's numbers continue to up-tick as the season progresses.

Junior Dionte Taylor (10 catches, 89 yards) has lost playing time to freshman Desmond Cain (22 catches, 176 yards) in the slot. Both have played OK. They catch screen passes (basically runs for Illinois) and gain a few yards. But both have had drops and neither has broken a play for longer than 30 yards.

Freshman Sam Mays (seven catches for 78 yards, 1 TD) has physical similarities to Allison but, like Turner, has not proven reliable -- though that is expected for a true freshman.

Injuries to Dudek and Justin Hardee (broken foot) -- there is no timetable yet for their returns, if they return at all this season -- have really hurt Lunt’s number and this offense’s passing potential. After six games of experience, Illinois hopes its young group of receivers start to play more like veterans in the second half.

Tight ends: C-

This group has mostly been non-existent but that was partially expected. The Illini coaches were really worried about this position coming into the season, which is why they added two junior-college prospects. But neither Andrew Davis (three catches, 16 yards) nor Ainslie Johnson (zero catches) has made much of an impact.

Don’t give up on Davis quite yet. He’s a good pass catcher but is built more like a receiver than a tight end. He’s also a willing blocker. He just lacks the strength to push Big Ten defenders at this point.

Junior Tyler White (five catches, 46 yards, 2 TDs) always has been more of a blocker than a receiver, but he’s barely getting any targets -- because Cubit has mostly abandoned his double tight-end formation following a serious hand injury to H-Back Tim Clary. Clary made a big, underrated impact during the first two games. He was the Illini’s best lead blocker and provided a reliable pass option in the flat. Walk-on Nathan Echard has filled in admirably but doesn’t have Clary’s size or experience.

The tight ends haven’t made much of an impact -- but they also aren’t being used very much. This is a position that much be developed (every tight end except Clary returns next season) and upgraded. Freshman Caleb Reams showed potential as both a blocker and receiver during camp.

Offensive line: C+

This grade is based a bit on expectations, and this group has been about what was expected. The Illini offensive line is a good finesse pass-blocking unit that has protected Lunt well (eight sacks in six games -- a big improvement from last season when it allowed almost three sacks per game). But it still struggles immensely to get a push in the run game against Big Ten defensive lines -- Illinois is last in the Big Ten in rushing yards per carry (3.8). The struggles against physical defensive fronts is a big reason for the Illini's red-zone struggles (along with the back line of the end zone providing an extra defender against the Illini passing attack).

This group still won't win wars against Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa, but they're winning more battles, especially in pass protection.

The Illini offensive tackles are both above average to very good pass protectors. Redshirt sophomore right tackle Christian DiLauro has lived up to my preseason hype. He’s got great feet and has a little nasty streak to him. Junior left tackle Austin Schmidt has long arms that bother the heck out of pass rushers (Dawuane Smoot confirmed this to me) but he’s got skinny legs and struggles a bit in the run game against stouter defensive linemen.

Right guard Ted Karras is the most consistent offensive linemen. I don’t know if he’ll get drafted but he’ll definitely get a shot at the NFL. He’s physical in the run game and sound in pass protection. He’s one of those guys that isn’t elite at one trait but pretty good at everything.

Center Joe Spencer doesn’t have great strength and struggles against the better defensive tackles, which is why Illinois struggles to get a push up front. But he’s a very good communicator and leader up front and above average individually in pass protection.

Left guard Chris Boles has been serviceable -- a big surprise and luxury given that he’d played just three games on the field goal protection unit during his first four years at Illinois -- but Illinois must upgrade the position in the future and has a few good candidates who aren’t quite ready yet.

Cubit likes to rotate linemen to keep them fresh, especially when he elects to push the tempo. While senior tackle Pat Flavin and senior guard Chris O’Connor aren’t threatening the starters, they have been serviceable rotation guys.

Redshirt freshman guard Nick Allegretti (who could play center, moving Spencer to guard) and true freshman Gabe Megginson would be my early favorites for the two open interior starting spots next season. With those two, DiLauro for two more seasons and mammoth freshman Adam Solomon, this group has a lot of room for growth in the next couple years, though it might have some early struggles on the interior next season.

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