Beathard's Receivers More Talented than Ever

The wide receiver positions were barren of top-level talent when Coach Ron Zook became Illinois' head coach. His spread offense requires an abundance of receivers to make it work properly, so he has recruited to upgrade the position. Kurt Beathard is starting to reap the benefits of that improvement as outside receivers coach.

Illini fans are excited about the Illini's potential at receiver, but Jeff Cumberland is the only outside receiver with significant experience at the position.

"We've got just one guy that played in the Rose Bowl," reminds Beathard. "Everyone else is brand new that way. We've still got a lot to learn. We're throwing alot at them, but they're working hard and are skillful. They've just got to understand, it's a different game from what they left in high school."

Jeff Cumberland is absent temporarily with a stress fracture in his foot, leaving Chris James and Chris Duvalt as starters. James played slot receiver as a freshman but sat out last year with knee surgery. Duvalt was moved to offense in the spring. Both have much ability, but they are still in the learning process.

"We've got to do a lot of teaching, and they've got to do a lot of studying," says Beathard. "They've got to put the responsibility on themselves. But we're doing whatever we can to get them as many reps as we can to get better."

Duvalt is a speedster with the ability to make the great catch. He has been reborn after his move from cornerback. Eventually, he will line up at any of the receiver positions, but not yet.

"We will keep him at one spot right now, until he gets settled. He's gonna be able to move around, but we moved him around the first couple days, and it just became too much.

"I want him to focus on something until he gets comfortable enough to move around. If you don't do that, you have someone who's a Jack of all trades but master of none. So we're trying to limit him so he can focus and get better. He'll still be playing two positions down the road."

There are other squadmen competing for playing time, including Will Judson, Alex Reavy and Greg McClendon. Giving them a run for their money are three highly promising newcomers, Cordale Scott, A. J. Jenkins, and Fred Sykes. Beathard reminds of the learning curve facing the freshmen.

"The freshmen have some talent. They're good football players. We're getting better all the time. Now it's up to us as an offense to take full advantage of their abilities. But for them to play fast, they have to know what's going on. Once they know that, then God's talent comes out. When they don't know, they slow down."

The Illini need depth at receiver, and they hope all three freshmen can earn playing time this year.

"We'd like to use them. We'd like to use our best players. We'd like to have more than 3 to rotate because of the offense that we run. We're gonna put our best players on the field, but we're not gonna put someone on the field just to put them on. They've got to be productive and do the right thing, make as few mistakes as possible."

Receivers have blocking responsibilities in addition to their involvement in the passing game, but Beathard believes the latter is more difficult to master.

"Probably the routes (are harder to learn). We've got pretty simple rules when it comes to our blocking scheme. It's more technique and fundamentals than it is scheme. Routewise, we've got a lot of conversions, things we have to learn and adjust to. Most of it is just the tempo. Understanding what it takes to play fast every play."

Might the Illini ease the rookies' adjustment to college ball by giving them limited packages to learn?

"That's not our plan right now, no. We may need to make adjustments as we go on, but right now whether you're a senior or a freshman, we will get up and go. We understand there's going to be more mistakes, but come game time we hope everybody's ready."

The diminutive Judson is one of the team's fastest players, and he keeps battling for playing time. If the Illini can get him the ball in the open, he is difficult to catch. Will played slot last year, but Beathard believes an outside spot is better for him.

"Will is a better fit for outside. As far as blocking goes, he's not on the linebackers and big safeties all the time as he was as an inside guy. That was a disadvantage for him. His skill level and physical level is more valuable outside. He can lock on and use his quickness. I'm sure it's easier for quarterbacks to see him on the outside also."

The Illini receiver corps is on the upgrade, and that includes an improved ability to catch the ball. Each year under Coach Zook, there have been fewer passes dropped, and that trend is definitely continuing this fall.

Of course, receivers are only as good as the quarterbacks throwing them the ball. Coach Beathard is confident in the Illini quarterbacks now as well.

"Yeah, those guys have been working hard. You can see that just in our charts."

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