After carrying the Illinois defense in 2013 and 2014, the Illini offense now is experiencing the flip side.
Last season, the Illini finished 12th among 14 Big Ten teams in scoring offense (22.7), 10th in total offense (372.7 yards per game), 12th in yards per play (4.9), last in rush offense (129.3 rush yards per game), 12th in pass efficiency (109.3 rating), 11th in third-down conversions (36.3 percent) and last in red-zone offense (72.5 percent conversion rate).
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1646460-projected-illini-foo...Needless to say, the Illini offense -- which averaged just 16.9 points during Big Ten play -- last season kept the Illini (5-7, 2-6 Big Ten) from reaching back-to-back bowl appearances. Entering 2016 and Lovie Smith's first season at the helm, the offense remains the bigger concern. The Illini have a new play caller (offensive coordinator Garrick McGee, who spent the last two seasons under Bobby Petrino at Louisville) and return a few top-notch players but little depth, especially after more serious injuries during the spring.
Here's a preseason look at the Illini offense.
Unlike Bill Cubit, offensive coordinator Garrick McGee plans to pound the ball in the run game to set up the pass. So running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn has the chance to put up monster numbers. And while Illinois is thin at running back, no player on the offense is more irreplaceable than Lunt. He won't make plays with his feet, but Lunt may be the Big Ten's best pocket passer. Sixty (yes, sixty) receiver drops last season severely hampered his efficiency and brought down what would have been a monstrous statistical season. McGee eventually wants dual-threat quarterbacks, but Lunt has NFL talent as a passer. Given the dropoff to the second-string quarterback (whoever that may be), Lunt is probably worth two or more wins to this team.
While Vaughn obviously broke out as a freshman (leading the Illini with 723 rushing yards), he has the opportunity to break out even further and prove himself as a Big Ten bellcow this year. He handled most of the load in the three-plus conference games that Josh Ferguson missed last season with mixed results. At times, Vaughn looked capable (24 carries, 98 yards vs. Nebraska) while other times he seemed overwhelmed. Vaughn is good in most areas. He has good speed, good power, good change of direction, solid skills in the receiving and blocking game. Ironically, he struggled last season in the one elite skill he had as a prospect: vision. Vaughn will be the Illini's workhorse in McGee's power-run scheme, so much so that touches (300-plus?) may be a concern, especially given the lack of quality depth behind him following Dre Brown's second straight torn ACL. But by the end of the season, Vaughn has the chance to certify himself as a top-five Big Ten back and a pro prospect.
For the second straight spring, the Illini offense was dealt a devastating blow with stud receiver Mike Dudek suffering a torn ACL again. With preserving eligibility no longer a priority, Dudek would like to return later in the season if he is cleared to play. But the Illini need a No. 1 target to emerge for Lunt, and Malik Turner is the only player on the depth chart who has shown any flashes of that ability. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound rising junior is long, physical (he's a great blocker) and one of the top athletes on the team. He struggled early last season with confidence but finished the year with 39 catches, 510 yards and three touchdowns -- including 19 catches for 233 yards over the final three weeks. The Illini need Turner to continue that progression and take over for Geronimo Allison as the big, physical target with a wide catch radius.
Time to step up
Absence makes the heart grow fonder. The Illini will be happy for senior Justin Hardee's return from a foot injury that kept him out last season. Hardee gives the Illini receiving corps experience and blazing speed. But Hardee struggled with consistency his first three seasons and never reached the 20-catch mark in a season. Hardee is a big-play threat with the ability to take the tops off defenses. With Dudek out, the Illini need Hardee to show the reliability of a senior.
Biggest position battle
It feels like I could take a story from last fall and replace Nick Allegretti's name with Gabe Megginson and replace Chris Boles' name with Connor Brennan. Like Allegretti, Megginson is the big-name prospect coming off a redshirt season with the superior talent. Like Allegretti though, Megginson showed inconsistency and unreliability during the spring. Meanwhile, like Boles, Brennan (a senior and former JUCO product) looked unspectacular but serviceable and trustworthy. Megginson likely will have a very good career, but he must prove he's ready to play against Big Ten defensive linemen. If not, Brennan could swoop in and steal the open guard spot. Fellow former JUCO product Zach Heath also could figure in the mix, but he has been slowed by a knee injury suffered last season.
Pass protection: The Illini ranked third among Big Ten teams and 24th nationally in QB sacked percentage. Lunt deserves a tremendous amount of credit for that. He gets rid of the ball quick. Also, the upperclassmen linemen are a quick-footed, solidly technical group. Senior quickside tackle Austin Schmidt has long arms that bother pass rushers, junior strongside tackle Christian DiLauro has quick feet and a nasty streak and senior center Joe Spencer is smart and technically sound. It isn't an overly powerful group (which is why they've struggled in the run game), but they have done a good job protecting the Illini's most valuable commodity (Lunt).
Depth: If Lunt goes down, the Illini are in trouble. If Vaughn goes down, the Illini are in trouble. Starting tight end Tyler White went down last year, and the Illini were terrible at tight end (a position that again is a concern this season). There is a big drop off in talent from the first string to second string at quarterback, running back and offensive line, and Dudek's injury leaves Illinois with few proven playmakers at receiver. The Illini can't afford many (more) injuries.
With so many unknowns at running back, Tre Nation simply has the most opportunity in front of him. Junior Kendrick Foster will get the first crack as the physical, tough-yardage back. But if an injury occurs, Nation -- who put up huge numbers in high school, just like Foster -- will get carries.
Based on talent and game-readiness, Dominic Thieman and Zarrian Holcombe top the list of newcomers. Holcombe probably isn't strong enough to immediately play at tight end, but he is athletic and tall enough to make an impact in the receiving game. Thieman is even more polished and could push to crack the receiver rotation.