On a list of Illini issues this season, quarterback is farther down my list than most fans. Wes Lunt (60.5 completion rate, 129.0 pass efficiency, 6 TDs, 1 INT) hasn't made enough plays when they're available, but they're rarely available because his receivers and tight ends are probably the worst collection of weapons in the Big Ten. The immobile Lunt doesn't have the pieces around him to succeed at Illinois. Without the threat to run and the weapons to get open, Illinois becomes really easy to defend. Though, as I keep saying, Michigan State would love to have him right now, and he'd probably have some success there.
Chayce Crouch (56.3 completion rate, 125.7 pass efficiency, 1 TD, 1 INT) adds a few elements that Lunt does not provide: a competitive fire that mostly stems from his running ability (194 yards, 2 TDs). But with teams now aware of Crouch's skill set, his lack of passing efficiency could be exposed. Neither quarterback likely is the solution to the Illini's problems. But neither is the main problem, or one of the top-three issues, either. Still, Lunt -- captain -- isn't part of the future. Despite Illinois looking for a grad-transfer or JUCO prospect for next year, Crouch may be. It will be interesting to see how the staff handles this situations when/if both are healthy.
One of the biggest concerns of the offseason has turned into the Illini's biggest strength -- even though Ke'Shawn Vaughn has underachieved.
Kendrick Foster has been a great story during an otherwise abysmal season. He's changed his body, thus changing his game. The redshirt junior who almost transferred during the offseason went from slow (4.8-ish 40-yard dash) to fast (4.5ish) but has maintained his tough running style. He currently ranks 25th among qualified running backs (10 rushes per game) with 6.2 yards per carry.
Reggie Corbin may not have the breakaway speed to run away from secondaries, but he s quiver of moves to make everyone miss inside 20 yards. Corbin's 9.3 yards per carry ranks third among FBS running backs with 30-plus carries. He's not a workhorse but should be a very good complementary back for years. Personally, I'd like to see him line up in the slot a bit more.
The emergence of the preseason backups has pushed Vaughn into a much smaller role. Vaughn isn't happy about it. He chose Illinois so he could get away from Nashville and play early. Now, he's been passed up by two backups. Vaughn has declined to speak to the media the last two weeks. The coaches are challenging him to "be a good teammate," Garrick McGee said two weeks ago. Vaughn still can help this team. The Illini have lined him up at receiver, and he broke off a 61-yard gain on a screen pass at Rutgers. Vaughn is still super talented and can be a big part of this team in the future. But he must improve his vision and be willing to settle for a single instead of always trying to hit the home run. True freshman Tre Nation (61 yards on 11 carrries) showed some toughness in early action this season.
USA Today // Mike Granse
There are only two reasons this group doesn't have a failing grade: Malik Turner and run blocking. Turner (31 catches, 432 yards, 3 TDs) has turned into a legit No. 1 target in the Big Ten. He's physical (great blocker), fast and sure-handed. His 71.2 receiving yards per game rank fifth in the Big Ten. He just doesn't have a complementary target -- at least a healthy one.
Justin Hardee is second on the team with 17.7 yards per game, and Zach Grant is third at 14.3 yards per game. Yeesh. The Illini need more from Hardee, a senior with great athleticism and speed who has left a lot to be desired just like Caleb Day on defense. Grant has been a bonus for Illinois. The former walk-on has dropped a few passes and struggles to get open against Big Ten defenses, but he's a hard worker who has been a great run blocker despite his lack of size.
The young guys have been pretty non-existent. After a nice freshman season, Desmond Cain (three catches, 44 yards) has sat out most of the season with what Smith says is a knee injury. His absence has hurt. Sophomore Sam Mays (three catches, 32 yards) hasn't earned the staff's trust, and Dominic Thieman (two catches, 7 yards) and Zarrian Holcombe (zero catches) have performed like true freshmen unprepared for Big Ten football. What that young group really lacks is the speed to separate from press coverage, which is why it's a shame Mj McGriff has sat out most of the season with injury. The true freshman is about 5-foot-7 but has great quicks.
Oh, and I haven't mentioned senior Dionte Taylor. Because he has just two catches for 24 yards and barely sees the field.
Of course,this group would look completely different if Mike Dudek were healthy. With each passing game, it seems more likely that Dudek -- who is not practicing yet -- will sit out his second straight full season.
USA Today // Mike Granse
During the offseason, there was some promise that offensive coordinator Garrick McGee would do what so many fans want: use the tight end more. But he just lacks the options to truly utilize them the way he wants. As a whole, six players at these two positions have combined for 17 catches for 180 yards (and 56 of those yards came on Johnson's long touchdown catch against Western Michigan).
To be frank, I never thought Ainslie Johnson (five catches, 85 yards) would make a Big Ten impact, let alone be a starter at Illinois. But he blocks decently well, which is why he's forced his way into the main rotation with fellow senior Tyler White (two catches, 13 yards). Johnson and White are solid blockers but not very dynamic athletes in the pass game.
Andrew Davis (two catches, 17 yards) just couldn't bulk up enough to be used as much in the run game. Redshirt freshman Caleb Reams (two catches, nine yards) probably is the best receiver of the group but isn't very long and must become a more reliable blocker. True freshman Griffin Palmer shows the most long-term potential of the group but currently is redshirting.
The Illini simply need to recruit more dynamic players at these positions, and their options seem pretty limited in the 2017 class.
Lee News Services // Stephen Haas
This group looked bleak when it ran for just three net rushing yards against Western Michigan on 15 carries. But when this group has had its best five on the field (just three games so far this season), it's looked improved in the run game. Now, Illinois has three games of 200-plus yards rushing and those have come against Murray State (a 1-5 FCS team) and Rutgers and Purdue, the two worst rush defense teams in the Big Ten, respectively. But the Illini also found some success on the ground against North Carolina (182 yards, 5.1 ypc) and Nebraska (124 yards, 5.9 ypc).
Nick Allegretti has emerged into a real run-blocking force, similar to former teammate Ted Karras. The three veterans -- Joe Spencer, Austin Schmidt and Christian DiLauro -- have been solid. Gabe Megginson is inconsistent but adds more power to the front line. Jordan Fagan really struggled when he played. Freshman Darta Lee really wasn't ready to play, but his raw power gives Illini fans a glimpse of the future of the Illini offensive line: big bodies who can maul.
Simply, the Illini have improved from the Big Ten's worst rushing attack last year to currently the No. 6 rushing attack in the conference. This group still struggles to win man-on-man battles in the red zone, though.
The Illini pass protection has taken a step back. The Illini ranked top-30 in quarterback sack percentage last season but currently rank No. 78 this season. Now, the receivers and Lunt have been to blame for some coverage sacks, but the young interior guys have had some breakdowns in communication leading to missed blocks. The front five also has committed too many costly penalties.
Overall though, this group is taking some baby steps forward, especially the past few weeks. Though they will be tested greatly in the final six games. We'll see if they can maintain that production against defenses like Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Northwestern, Iowa and Michigan State (all top-eight Big Ten rushing defenses).
This offense didn't do enough to win against North Carolina, Western Michigan or Nebraska. But the offense did move the ball well against UNC and Nebraska with some big plays. But the Illini struggle to consistently move the chains (last in the Big Ten in first downs per game and second to last in third-down conversion rate), and they struggle to punch the ball into the end zone (just nine touchdowns in 19 red-zone appearances). But the offense is finally starting to move the ball on the ground, and it takes care of the ball (just five turnovers in six games). They are about to play some really, really good defenses though, so we'll see how they truly measure up against the Big Ten's best.
Garrick McGee admitted he was somewhat stubborn in trying to run his preferred power-run offensive style before realizing he just didn't yet have the personnel to run it successfully. But he's adjusted his offense nicely the last three weeks, including re-adjusting the offense for Crouch. He also made a bold but great call in benching Vaughn.
The run game probably deserves a B. The passing game probably deserves a D, so we'll settle somewhere in the middle -- with costly penalties knocking the grade down a partial grade.