Cumberland Back In The Fold After TD Catch

Fighting Illini football fans were excited to see passes thrown to the tight ends last Saturday at Syracuse. And they were especially happy to see Jeff Cumberland catch the first touchdown because he has such outstanding athleticism. Hopefully, his performance will help him see more passes thrown his way as the season progresses.

Illinois boasts two tight ends with outstanding physical attributes for the position in Cumberland and Mike Hoomanawanui. But they are young and still learning. Fans have questioned why the 6'-5", 244 pound Cumberland doesn't play more. After all, he has great speed for his size and is a great leaper. A recent visit with Cumberland and Offensive Coordinator Mike Locksley help to explain the situation.

"I want to work hard in practice on my blocking and catching, and when I catch the ball, turning the ball up the field," says Cumberland. "I want to become more consistent in practice so I can be throughout the game."

Locksley provides greater detail.

"As a tight end, he has to be more accustomed to the position in terms of being able to help us in the running game and passing game. Right now, he's hit a tough streak where he hasn't been catching the ball as well, and he's also been struggling as a blocker.

"The last few days he has been sort of coming out of it. The quicker he can get out of it, the quicker he can become more of a factor in our game plans as we go. But for us, our goal is to find the best personnel groupings to give us the best chance to win. Right now, he's got to work himself back into it where he can be a guy we design things for to get him the ball."

Cumberland is a highly prized product of Brookhaven High School in Columbus, Ohio. He was awarded All-American status by Prep Star and ranked as the 66th best recruit in the nation by ESPN.com his senior season.

He had the fastest 40-yard dash time and best vertical leap among tight ends at a major NIKE Training Camp in Los Angeles. He ran the 100 meter dash for his high school with his best time being 10.6. And he led his basketball team with 76 dunks his senior season. He lives only 7-10 minutes from the Ohio State football field, but he chose to leave home for college.

Jeff played well enough for the Illini as a freshman last year to end up tied for second for most pass receptions with 16. But the Illini have added some talent at the receiving positions since then, and Cumberland has encountered some problems. Locksley discusses the situation.

"I use the player groupings that give me the best opportunity to make plays on the field. Last year, Jeff was our fourth best receiver. We would detach him and put him in the slot. Right now, Brian Gamble offers us someone with playmaking ability.

"Based on what we do in practices and based on production, he catches the ball and gives us something on the perimeter as a blocker with extra aggressiveness. And those are the things we expect out of Jeff. Right now, our four wide set puts our best athletes on the field in terms of production."

Hoomanawanui was injured part of last season, so Cumberland got more playing time as a result. This year, Hoomanawanui has proved to be the superior blocker to this point according to Locksley.

"When we go to our run sets, is he our best blocker? Hoomanawanui has been blocking pretty good for us. So Jeff has to find his niche. We hope to get him so he can go out and be productive for us and be the type of player we expect him to be."

Jeff didn't receive a lot of coaching on the fundamentals of the tight end position in high school.

"I played tight end, but I was split out a lot. We had no technique blocking in high school because opponents were big but they weren't really strong, so it was a little easier."

Coach Locksley designed a short flair pass to him in the Western Illinois game. Unfortunately, Jeff dropped the ball and didn't receive another opportunity. It appears his concerns about running the play correctly prevented him from relaxing and making the play.

"I was focusing on getting my right depth, and as soon as I turned the ball was in on me."

Confident players play relaxed. But when they are struggling, they tend to try too hard and make more mistakes. It can become a vicious circle unless they have an opportunity to regain their belief in themselves. Locksley is trying to help Jeff get out of his funk.

"We tried to find a way to get him into a rhythm to get him going early (in the WIU game). That's the tough part about it because it's their job as players to give me confidence to come to them. We've got to give the guys touches who are going to do something with the football. He's very capable. We've got to get him to go out and do it now."

Locksley tried again early in the Syracuse game to get Cumberland started, and this time it helped. On a play designed to go to Jeff down the middle, Juice Williams was forced to scramble right. Seeing this, Cumberland adjusted quickly and ran toward the right sideline to be a good target for Williams. Juice had no trouble hitting him in the end zone for his first catch and first touchdown on the year. Hopefully, his confidence is up now.

With his outstanding leaping ability, it is assumed he would be ideal to receive alley opp passes into the end zone since he can jump over most cornerbacks. But when tested in Camp Rantoul, Cumberland struggled.

"When the ball is in the air, I don't time it up right, says Jeff. "I either jump too early or jump too late. It just takes some practice."

Locksley provided further detail on those alley oops.

"That's how you try to design things to create touches. For whatever reason, I know he struggled with a thumb and some problems with his lower extremities. Those are plays that at that size we'd like to see him come down with it, but for whatever reason we didn't. But I've seen him come around the last couple of practices to be where we expect him to be."

Tight end is one of the most difficult positions to master on a football team. It requires athletes who are big and strong enough to block huge defensive linemen, quick enough to reach linebackers to block, and agile and fast enough to run pass routes and catch the ball. Cumberland will eventually be a standout, but learning everything takes time.

"It's one of the toughest to learn because you have to learn the whole offensive system. Just like the quarterback, you have to make reads. And you have to block and pass protect, so there is a lot to learn. I'm adjusting to it very well, and I'm getting pretty good at my blocking.

"Me and Mike now have the system down pat. Last year, we were going out there worrying about our assignments, the snap count and who we were supposed to block. Now with our technique, we just do it without thinking because we know what we're doing."

Last year's playing time was a big help to Jeff. It was a tough season for the entire team and especially for the freshmen. But those experiences will benefit him and his teammates.

"That helped me for this year. I learned there are times when you are going to be down, and times when you are going to be up, and times when there is adversity on both sides. So you have to go out there and play hard regardless of whether you win or lose. Because the game's not over until the 60 minutes are up."

Cumberland sees a big improvement in attitude and expectations from last year to this.

"Everybody feels like we can actually go out there and win. Every game, we believe we are better than our opponent. What we have to do is not beat ourselves and get victories."

Cumberland is majoring in Sports Management and thinks he might someday like to own his own businesses or become a sports agent. Of course, he also wants to evolve into a prototypical NFL tight end. With his big touchdown catch against Syracuse, perhaps he is finally rising up from his down cycle and is ready to make a major contribution to the Illini.

Illini Inquirer Top Stories