Position preview: Receivers Much Improved

It is almost inconceivable that Illinois has had such success with a piece meal wide receiver corps. But truly, that has been the case. Last year, a converted tight end, a true freshman converted safety, a former walk-on and a true freshman playing with one arm helped get the Illini to the Rose Bowl. Now, finally, help is on the way.

As Illinois enters the 2008 season amid big expectations, much more will be required of its pass-catchers. The common belief in the program is that the upgrade will happen.

For starters, spectacular Arrelious Benn is healthy again. Amazingly, he caught 54 passes for 676 yards a year ago, but played most of the season hurt from his slot position. Now, his bum shoulder is completely healed. And he is ready, if allowed, to return kicks, punts, catch passes and run reverses.

"Yeah, he told me he was going to add punt returns this year," coach Ron Zook said with a chuckle. "He told me to go ahead and put him back there. We just might."

This year, though, Benn will have help out wide. A year ago, 6-5, 251-pound Jeff Cumberland was a converted tight end who caught some, dropped some, and was never quite sure about his assignments. By season's end, however, he was a skilled, albeit oversized, wide receiver.

Cumberland wound up with 12 catches for 243 yards, but most of those came at the end of the season, including big games against Minnesota and Northwestern and a handful of players in the Rose Bowl.

The third starter probably will be Chris James, who has moved outside from his slot position. James is more of a possession receiver who lost last year to a knee injury. He is steady and probably will be a favorite target of Juice Williams -- the two are best friends.

What makes the receiving corps interesting is the depth. Converted defensive back Chris Duvalt will battle for a starting spot on the outside and is a dazzling playmaker, not afraid to dive or make the big catch. He also may be the fastest receiver.

For the second straight year, Illinois will get much help from true freshmen. Last year, it was Benn and Brian Gamble, who has moved back to his more natural safety position. This year, the trio of Cordale Scott and A.J. Jenkins, two outside receivers, and slot receiver Jack Ramsay who are all expected to play.

If they do, Illinois could be legitimately seven deep at wide receiver. That doesn't count backup slot receivers Marques Wilkins and Alex Reavy, who could help as well.

Finally, the tight end spot manned by 270-pound Michael Hoomanawanui will be a factor as well. Hoomanawanui caught only five passes a year ago, but that will increase. True freshman Hubie Graham will be in the mix as well.

Many observers have talked about how important it will be for Juice to improve this year. He should have the weapons to make that happen.

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