Camp Rantoul Recap: The Offense

The Illini football team is back in school after finishing the Camp Rantoul portion of their fall practice schedule. Illinisports discusses the players and potential for the season in this article. In the first part of a two part series, Illinisports looks at the Illini offense heading into the season.

Camp Rantoul 2005 is now history, so another Fighting Illini football season is just around the corner. We have a new coach, new enthusiasm, a new system, some new players, and the optimism that comes with newness. Will the team respond with an improved record this year?

It would be nice to have certainty about the season, but there is little that is certain at this time except that Illinois will be toiling through a difficult schedule. The Big 10 is extremely loaded this year; even the weakest teams have improved themselves. And at least two of our three nonconference opponents have the ability to beat us on a given Saturday.

But Coach Ron Zook, his staff and players have not yet conceded anything to any opponent. We may be young and learning a new system, but we will also be interesting and often exciting to watch. We have newly-instilled confidence and optimism from the coaching change, with a number of players feeling they are getting a chance to erase the bitter memories of previous seasons. And we have an aggressive staff who will continue pushing for improvement and upsets throughout the season.

The Illini will have a wide open offense this year, with receivers flying all over the place and running backs carrying the ball on screens, counters, sweeps, reverses and even option plays. While Coach Zook is always looking to recruit even better players, he has in his present stable a number of playmakers who can combine to put tremendous pressure on opposing defenses.

Running backs Pierre Thomas, E. B. Halsey, and Jason Davis are a major threat for any defense. Thomas and Davis are relentless pounders who refuse to go down on the first hit. Halsey is a natural leader with quick feet and wiggle hips who is extremely versatile and will be counted on for ball carrying, receiving, punt returns, and blocking. Add rookie Rashard Mendenhall, a high school All-American, and you have the beginnings of a veritable stable of stud running backs.

Coach Zook will use the ground game to balance run and pass. After all, his spread offense is designed to be a pass-first attack. He wants to get playmakers open to make plays with their athleticism, so he will use a large number of receivers to create unique mismatches and keep everyone fresh to attack tiring defenses. Illinois has a large number of receiver candidates, and a few of them are potential playmakers.

Kendrick Jones has reasserted himself into the starting lineup after starring as a junior last season. He is fast, athletic and explosive. He may drop an easy pass or two, but he is just as likely to make a spectacular grab. Certainly, he is a threat who must be accounted for by the defense. DaJuan Warren has continued to progress as a receiver and is the kind of tall, athletic and quick player who can compliment Jones. And Jody Ellis has moved from safety to provide another athletic receiver to the mix.

A number of receivers will see playing time, including some or all of the following: Franklin Payne, Frank Lenti, Lonnie Hurst, Bryant Creamer, Spencer Jensen, Will Davis, Kyle Hudson, and Derrick McPhearson. Of all these players, the one people are most excited about is McPhearson. A high school All-American with good size and excellent musculature, McPhearson is said to be the fastest and quickest of all our receivers. Derrick is making a quick recovery from a broken leg sustained this summer, and he is hoping to play by the Big 10 season. If so, he will add an exciting deep threat to the mix.

Tight end is valued under Coach Zook, and Melvin Bryant has the chance to prove to the world why Zook feels this way. Don't be surprised if Bryant is among our leading receivers all season. He is tall and especially athletic for a tight end, and our new offense likes to use him over the middle. It is hoped Melvin will stay healthy as the rest of our tight end corps is young and inexperienced. Redshirt freshman J. R. Kraemer and true freshmen Greg McClendon, Mike Nabolotny, and Tom Sullivan are competing for 2nd string. Look for McClendon on passing downs and one of the others when more blocking is needed.

Our offensive line has the potential to be above average, as long as everyone stays healthy. Unfortunately, right tackle Jim LaBonte had back surgery this summer and is not completely recovered. It is hoped he will be ready by the Big 10 season. In his absence, redshirt freshman Ryan McDonald, son of a former Illini star, has shown much potential. Of course, rookies make mistakes, so he will need a rapid learning curve. But Ryan is an athlete, so he will likely be a quick study.

Matt Maddox has the important task of replacing the graduated Duke Preston at center. But Matt has two years of experience as a line starter and has made the transition to center with little difficulty. Except, perhaps, for all the direct snaps the center must now make in a shotgun attack. But Matt is learning this quickly as well and figures to be a line leader. Left tackle J. J. Simmons and left guard Martin O'Donnell are also returning starters, and they plus Maddox figure to give the Illini a strong left side.

Bryan Truttling has made a big push in competition with James Ryan for the starting right guard position. Neither has been a starter before. Even if he doesn't win the battle, Truttling figures to provide some guard depth along with Ben Amundsen. Brian Schnettgoecke is a capable backup center, and McDonald will likely be first sub at both tackle spots once LaBonte returns to the lineup. Freshmen Eric Block, William Bergen and Trevor Scott all show potential, but they will be good candidates for redshirting if they are not needed this year. Of course, if we have a rash of injuries, our offensive line will suffer from lack of depth and experience.

Quarterback is a question mark at this time, but that has been true for the past four years. Coach Zook is looking to recruit quarterbacks who are great athletes in addition to being great passers so they can threaten opposing defenses with both their running and passing. Right now, the player who comes closest to matching that description is Tim Brasic. Tim has had only one brief opportunity to play for the Illini in the past 3 years, but he starred in a spread offense in high school. He may not have a cannon arm, but he is a battler and leader who is capable of making something from broken plays.

Competing with Brasic is Chris Pazan, also a fourth-year player. Chris has shown marked improvement, and he does have a strong arm. But Chris lacks the mobility that is ideal at the position. Right now, he is Brasic's backup, but Coach Zook should be able to trust him to run the offense in Brasic's absence. The play book may not include option or rollouts for Pazan, but it may add more downfield throws to take advantage of Pazan's arm strength. The other quarterbacks on the roster are not yet ready to compete for playing time.

The Illini's offense should be exciting and competitive with all opponents if we can remain healthy. We will definitely put great pressure on opponents to defend the entire field. We should be able to score frequently, and we should be able to keep the defense rested most of the time. How quickly we can jell with a new quarterback and new offensive coordinator in Mike Locksley will help determine our record this year.

In Part II of his Fall Practice review, Illinisports will look at the Illini defense and special teams.

Go Illini!!!

Illinisports, illinisports@illiniboard.com


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