A Look at Spring Football: The Illini Offense

Spring football practice for the Illini is half over, so what are the prospects for this upcoming season? Will we be exciting? Will we win games? Will we restore pride in the program? <br><br> It is much too early to answer these questions, but we can begin to tell what players will be given the opportunity to answer them this fall. Illinisports has been attending practices and files this report on the offense. A separate article on the defense will follow shortly.

Spring football practice is half over, so this may be a good time to discuss the prospects for the upcoming season. Nothing is set in cement yet, but some position battles are beginning to take shape. We will discuss the offense in this column and the defense in a separate column.

There is a natural tendency to get optimistic at this time of year, but we will strive to show no bias in these discussions. First of all, it is hard to be optimistic when last season's failures are still fresh in our minds. It is difficult to evaluate the offense when its defensive opponents are players who had little success last season, and vice versa. Secondly, this writer is no expert on the technical details of college football, so any evaluations must be tempered with that in mind. And it is not desirable to judge players after only 7 practices. After all, they could have been injured or were in a temporary down cycle when witnessed.

There is some potential on the upcoming Illini team, but it is simply too early to say whether that potential will be reached this season. There are many young players striving for playing time, with a large recruiting class hoping to compete this fall. Eventually, this talent will develop enough maturity, strength and confidence to challenge anyone on their schedule. Time may be required for these young players to reach their full potential, individually and collectively.

But there are also some upperclassmen who want to make something positive of their remaining time with the team. And these are the young men who need to come through for the Illini to regain their prestige in college football. On offense, some of these men include Jon Beutjer, Anthony McClellan, Duke Preston, Bucky Babcock, Bryan Koch, Ade Adeyemo, and Mark Kornfeld. These players form the nucleus of what could be a decent offense.

Everything must start with the quarterback, and Jon Beutjer was granted a rare 6th season of eligibility at a time when Illinois needs an experienced signal caller. The whole team plays better when it can relax and trust the quarterback to make the plays that lead it to victory. It is hoped that Beutjer can be this person. At least, he has shown potential at times to be a winner. Of course, the humbling failures plus back surgery from last season are limiters for Beutjer at this time.

Jon is practicing with the first team, even though it appears his back is still a little stiff after recovering from surgery. Jon has the aura of a winning quarterback, and he has the height at 6-5 to see the whole field. But he still tends to wind up on some of his throws, and that negatively impacts his timing. Jon has sufficient arm strength to get the job done, if he can just get his passes off while his receivers are still open. He still tends to want the quick strike and doesn't always see midrange openings, IMO. And even though he is a decent athlete, it's doubtful he will look to run too often in order to protect his back.

Still, it is likely that Coach Turner will go with Beutjer to start the season, if for no other reason than because he wants the most experienced quarterback to help him save his coaching job. If I could give Beutjer one thing that would most help him help the team, right now it would have to be more confidence. The team needs someone to be almost cocky in his determination to lead the team down the field and win games. Kurt Kittner kind of confidence. But that will require several straight days (and maybe several games) of consistent success for Jon to regain his belief in himself. If he gets it back, he can help us.

Chris Pazan is running second string at quarterback, and he has some experience after starting two games last season. Chris has the strongest arm and quickest release on the team, but he is barely over 6'-0" tall. Thus, he has trouble seeing the whole field, and he sometimes alters his throw trajectory to avoid oncoming linemen. This makes him more inaccurate than is ideal. Chris is the most immobile of the four quarterbacks as well. But he is a hard-nosed kid who is said to have gained the respect of the offensive linemen, so perhaps his leadership will help us succeed.

Tim Brasic has only modest arm strength and modest size, but he seems capable of moving the team down the field. He has better quickness than Beutjer and Pazan but throws a wobbly pass and has some limits on what passes he can throw well. Tim is running third team right now, but it might be worth giving him a chance to work with the first team sometime, just to see what happens. After all, what Illinois needs is someone who makes plays, and some players are better game players than practice players. Otherwise, his skills limit his ability to inprove his status on the team.

Brad Bower is just a freshman this year, so it is too early to evaluate him. He needs to spend more time learning the offense, reading defenses, and gaining confidence in his ability to compete successfully at this level. But a first impression of Bower shows promise.

Bower is around 6'-2" and solidly built. He has above average arm strength and release speed. But his best asset is his quick feet. He is by far the most maneuverable of our quarterbacks in the pocket, and he is most likely to gain positive yardage on busted plays. He looks especially confident rolling right or left and making quick passes on the run.

This style would be utilized more by Turner if Bower can master the other parts of his game, but right now he is still in learning mode. He gets flushed too quickly from the pocket sometimes, and this may be because he has not yet mastered the art of making a quick progression on his reads. With time though, Bower could be an exciting player who can pressure defenses with his running as well as passing.

The Illini have two more quarterbacks due to arrive as freshmen this fall. Kisan Flakes and Billy Garza are both considered "sleepers" who have potential. Flakes is said to be a true leader who is smart and makes plays both with his legs and arm. Garza has the arm strength to make all the necessary throws and the speed to run when necessary. Neither quarterback will be able to learn a complicated offense in just a few fall practices, so it is hoped they can benefit from a redshirt year before being thrown to the wolves.

Running back should be an asset for the Illini this year. Perhaps the best leader by example on the whole team is starting running back E. B. Halsey. Halsey runs out every practice play to the fullest, reminding this viewer of Robert Holcombe's hustle when the latter attended Illinois. And he has the best speed and quick-change ability of the running backs. While some have thought Halsey would be best suited at a receiver position for his great pass-catching ability, he will be hard to beat as a running back. He simply makes plays.

Halsey is not real big at 5-11 and 185, and he is not a pile-driver who can push back a defensive line with his strength. But he can fool you with his "pop". For example, in one play in last Saturday's scrimmage, E. B. got stopped cold on a hard hit by safety Morris Virgil. Then, no more than 5 minutes later on a similar play, Halsey banged into Virgil and knocked him backwards on the way to a big gain. Halsey subsequently ran over Travis Williams in similar style. So he is willing to put a helmet down and plow forward when he has no room to use his shiftiness. E. B. Halsey has a chance to become a three-year captain as the other players look to him for leadership.

Pierre Thomas is fun to watch, even now when he appears at times to limp on a leg broken last fall. It is said that Pierre developed leg strength by pushing cars in high school, and he uses that leg strength to full advantage. Although he is about the same size as Halsey, Thomas has an ability move a pile. He is a determined runner who refuses to go down on a first hit. It is a joy to watch his all-out effort, driving forward as he gets hit by first one defender and then another. Pierre is more of a veer runner than a hip-wiggle runner like Halsey, but he has similar speed and pass-catching ability.

Marcus Mason is also vieing for a spot at running back, although he sat out Saturday's scrimmage after a mild concussion. Marcus also has good pass-catching ability and decent quickness. While he doesn't appear as fast as Halsey, he can be more difficult to tackle at 5'-9" and 200 pounds. It appears he has extremely strong upper legs, and it is not uncommon to see tacklers bounce off him after hitting those legs. This writer is unsure if Mason can beat out the other two runners, but he will likely get playing time. True freshman Walter Mendenhall will join the team in the fall and has more size for the position at 6'-0" and 200 pounds. He will be given every opportunity to prove his worth and add depth his first year.

The other running back position is often called "fullback" on most teams, but it is not utilized as a typical fullback at Illinois. While lead blocking is necessary for the position, the Illini fullbacks are frequently placed in one-back formations where they can be the primary ball-carrier and a receiver out of the backfield. Right now, it appears the Illini have three people there who are capable of getting playing time. And rookie Russ Weil is a fullback/linebacker who might help unless the defensive coaches win the fight over where he will play.

Jason Davis (5'-11", 220) appears much improved this spring, running with confidence and catching everything thrown his way. And he appears to be taking his pass-blocking seriously, which is extremely important in the Illini system. Jason can be similar to Jameel Cook from a few years ago if he can stay healthy and confident. Brian Grzelakowski is a redshirt freshman who weighs about 10 pounds less than Davis and is thus undersized for the position, but he brings good pass-catching and running skills to the position. Brian is hard-nosed and is competing for playing time. He did an especially good job catching passes for positive yardage last Saturday.

The other one-back is Brock Bolen, a highly-rated true freshman midyear addition out of Ohio. Brock has good size at 6'-1" and 230, and he has good speed for his size and excellent pass-catching skills. However, it must be remembered that he is just a freshman. One day, he will look real good, and the next he will have problems. When things are going well, he can run over people and flatten linebackers on lead blocks. But he has also sometimes been unable to slow down onrushing linebackers, and one day he fumbled twice in a row. Brock will help us eventually, but he will need to become more consistent and learn all phases of the offense before he can get significant playing time.

Tight end is the biggest unknown on this year's team. Melvin Bryant is tall and rangy, and he is developing into a capable receiver. He is playing right now with the first team, although depth charts change rapidly in the spring. Melvin's main problem is trying to bulk up a slender physique, and still looks quite slender at 235 pounds. The Illini probably do not possess a tight end who can function as an extra blocking lineman. One who can block effectively and also catch passes is hard to find, and Illinois may not have found one at this time.

Anthony McClellan is in his senior season, so it is disappointing to this viewer to see him unable to play with the first string. But he and Bryant are our only experienced tight ends, so they both will play. Right now, the third tight end is converted defensive end Zach Gray. Zach has a little more weight and strength, and he even shows some maneuverability. But he has much to learn to help the team.

Mike Trepina is starting his second year using the stationary bike after Achilles surgery. It is unknown when or if Trepina can ever actually practice with the team. If he can play someday, he is likely to be more of a blocker than receiver, but he can do neither at this time. The lone incoming freshman is J. R. Kraemer, who at 6'-5" and 215 is another pass first, block second prospect who is said to have excellent speed. He may get an early look, just out of necessity.

This writer feels that the biggest single problem last season, at least on offense, was a lack of one or more wide receivers who could jump up into a crowd of defenders and catch the long pass. We had been spoiled by having jumping-jack Brandon Lloyd and tall Walter Young and Aaron Moorehead, and we missed them terribly. What they added to our team was a deep threat that opponents had to respect and double-cover when possible. This opened up the middle of the field for passes and spread out the defensive line and linebackers for swing passes and quick burst runs.

Turner's offense requires balance between run and pass, and having no deep threat allowed defenses to single-cover our receivers and tighten up their run defense. And we simply didn't have a strong enough running game to make long, consistent drives against good teams without benefit of a wide open passing option. Of course, without an ability to stay on the field and score frequently, our defense then had to compensate, which it was unable to do. So what we need for future years is a way to rebalance the offense and spread out opposing defenses so there will be room to make plays.

There is a possibility that we can do that this year, but the receivers will need to continue their maturation process to make it happen. Right now, the first team receivers are Lonnie Hurst and Ade Adeyemo. Hurst is returning from a broken leg, so he may not have all his quickness back yet. But he is playing with more confidence now that he has one year under his belt. He is unafraid to make plays in a crowd, and he appears to run good routes. It is unknown at this point, however, whether he can consistently grab long passes while closely guarded. Adeyemo is showing more game speed as a senior, and his hustle and determination are obvious. And he did fight off a defender for a long pass this past Saturday. He and Hurst are decent starters, and they will help us.

Mark Kornfeld is a useful man to have because he can play several receiving positions and catches everything thrown his way. And he is a technician who runs precise routes. His only drawback is his obvious lack of speed, and defenses usually have no trouble defending him one-on-one. But he is a clutch player who can help against zones and in positions where he is not closely guarded.

This writer became extremely enthused at one practice because of the improved play of Kendrick Jones. Always a top athlete at 6'-1" and 180 pounds, Kendrick has speed and jumping ability. And this one day, he caught everything thrown his way. One special play reminded of the glory days of Lloyd, et al, as a long pass slightly underthrown ended up in the big hands of a leaping Jones as he came back for the ball in front of a defender. He then put on the afterburners and zoomed into the end zone. However, since then he seems to have reverted to his more inconsistent days, and it seems he drops the balls that are the most important to catch. If Kendrick can just find consistency, he can be exactly what the doctor ordered for our offense. If only...

Another intriguing prospect at wide receiver is converted quarterback DaJuan Warren. At 6'-3" and 195 pounds, DaJuan has the look of an athlete, and he demonstrates a fluidity not often found. He has the hip-rotation and flexibility of a much smaller person, and he has the confidence and strength to catch and hold onto passes over the middle in crowds. It is likely that inexperience with the offense and lack of practice time at the position prevents him from climbing the depth chart at this time because he looks like he can help us.

One play in practice really excited this viewer. DaJuan was running the right sideline while closely guarded by Kelvin Hayden. A long pass was thrown his way and arrived over his right shoulder just as he reached the end zone. With Hayden step for step, DaJuan used his left arm to hold off Hayden while reaching up to grab the pass with his right hand for the score. Maybe he was just lucky, but no one made a catch like that for us last year. DaJuan caught two long passes, one for a touchdown, in Saturday's scrimmage, so he continues to make plays.

There are a plethora of other receivers, including an improved Franklin Payne and walkons Tim Splant, Mark McGoey, Spencer Jensen and Frank Lenti. And this fall will welcome the addition of 6"-3" Bryant Creamer, 6'-5" Andre Young, and Jeff Stroud. There is no absence of numbers among the receivers. The only question is the quality of that depth. If there are a couple who can make plays consistently, the Illini offense will look much better and the quarterback will feel much more secure.

It is hard for this writer to evaluate the offensive linemen. It is easy to tell when you have a great one on your hands, but without that separation, it is hard compare linemen without training and film study in that endeavor. Since this writer has no such training, the best we can do is list the present depth chart and hope to learn more for future articles. Spring is always the time of experimentation and position shifting, so that also interferes with an accurate evaluation.

It appears the Illini staff are looking to upperclassmen to provide the maturity and experience needed to have a good offensive line. So while they are said to possess several excellent redshirt freshmen prospects, none of them is presently working with the first team. Right now, Duke Preston is at center, Matt Maddox and Brian Koch (with Martin O'Donnell challenging) are at the guards, and Bucky Babcock and J. J. Simmons are at tackle. Simmons is the least experienced, replacing possible draft pick Sean Bubin at left tackle.

The right side of the line should be competent if not excellent with Preston, Maddox and Babcock. While it may be true that Babcock's better position is guard, no one else is playing the right tackle position well enough to dislodge him from that spot. James Ryan is a rookie listed there, but inexperience is his main drawback. Martin O'Donnell is perhaps the most advanced freshman, but he is being groomed to backup at several positions, and he has also had a mild injury problem that has held him back. Maddox did well in his first year and is now a fixture at right guard, backed by Jordan Kruger and Kevin Gage. Preston will be a three-year starter, and he has Kyle Schnettgoecke and Ben Amundsen backing him up.

Bryan Koch is the most experienced left guard, but he is short and perhaps the most vulnerable to replacement, especially since he is returning from injury. Martin O'Donnell is listed there when healthy. And converted defensive tackle Andrew Burk is just learning the position. James LaBonte is the only backup at present for Simmons at left tackle, and he has an uncanny resemblance to Sean Bubin, at least in the face. If anything, LaBonte may be an inch taller, but he appears to be at least as athletic. He needs more weight work and refinement, but he does have potential. True freshmen Tony Sparkman and Ryan McDonald will undoubtedly be redshirted.

Placekicking right now is in the hands primarily of Steve Weatherford, although it remains to be seen whether he can handle both placekicking and punting duties. Steve Fitts was the last to try it, but he had trouble doing both. Weatherford is an excellent athlete, having competed in the Pentathalon on the track team, and he has a strong leg. He will face competition from true freshman Jason Reda in the fall. While that is a pressurized position for a freshman, Reda comes to school with glowing credentials. And rookie long snapper Kyle Knezetic has a chance to secure that role when he reports in August.

Overall, the offense is probably improved over last year, if for no other reason than the fact our running backs and receivers are not all first year players. If key players like Jon Beutjer (or Chris Pazan), J. J. Simmons, and a couple wide receivers come through, we could score some points and keep our defense off the field. That would bring some much-needed excitement to the fans and confidence to the team. We certainly hope that will be the case.

Coming soon: the defense.

Go Illini!


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