Illini Offense To Retool During Spring Ball

The Fighting Illini football team's offense was an enigma last fall. Passing records were broken as quarterback Juice Williams continued his climb toward the top of the all-time total offense charts. And yet, it became stagnant in the red zone and failed to produce when needed most. With spring football at hand, it is a good time to consider what lies ahead for the offense.

Illinois has a new offensive coordinator. Mike Schultz was hired away from Texas Christian upon Mike Locksley's departure for a head coaching job at New Mexico, and he brings a wealth of experience and success with him. It will be interesting to see how he tweaks the Illini offense to improve both the passing and running games.

Juice Williams is a three year starter at quarterback, and most expect to see him maintain dominance at the position. But some became frustrated by his mistakes last fall and pine for someone to beat him out of a job. That may seem incongruous for someone who piles up both rushing and passing yards, but Juice still needs to prove himself to some fans.

This spring should see Williams receive significant competition for the position, which should help improve everyone's game. Eddie McGee has been Juice's backup for three years now, and he should continue to improve as a passer. But Illinois now has a third quarterback in redshirt freshman Jacob Charest, so there will be more competition and less concern with injuries.

McGee has his supporters. He is a speedster at 6'-4" who was tried at receiver late last fall. If he can improve his understanding of how to exploit defenses, he can give Williams a run for his money. And "Jake" Charest is the new kid on the block. He has a history of high completion percentage and aggressive running that make some fans want to annoint him, sight unseen, as the new savior.

But it is Juice who may benefit most from the competition if he's dedicated to continued improvement. He has the athleticism, the arm and the experience for the task. But he needs to work on his consistency, finding hot receivers during blitzes, maintaining confidence and trust in his offensive linemen, and becoming an effective leader. Spring ball should give onlookers a good glimpse of what might happen this fall.

Assistant coach Kurt Beathard has moved from receivers to coach quarterbacks. It will be interesting to see if the former quarterback can push the right buttons to help his quarterbacks improve their performance. He is a dedicated teacher who has the respect of his players, so he will be watched closely this spring.

Illinois used a "running back by committee" approach last fall, and this may continue in the spring. Senior Daniel Dufrene had sparks of brilliance last fall, but he lacked the leg drive to power through tacklers in short yardage situations. Daniel is intelligent, a hard worker and may be the fastest Illini back, so he will have plenty of opportunities to earn a starting berth if he can improve in short yardage. He is also much improved as a receiver out of the backfield.

Freshmen Jason Ford and Mikel LeShoure are the power backs who can gain tough yards. It will be interesting to see how much improvement they've made in conditioning and experience with the offense this spring. Ford was the designated short yardage man last fall, and LeShoure packs 240 pounds on his frame, so both could be factors. Troy Pollard is the shiftiest runner, so one hopes he has completely returned to health after knee surgery.

The Illini need numerous receivers for their spread offense, and they are continuing to upgrade those positions. All-American candidate Arrelious Benn returns for his junior and possibly final season with the Illini, and he is a powerhouse. He may become increasingly effective if Florida transfer Jarred Fayson comes through as expected.

Fayson is a solidly built 200 pounder with blazing speed and acceleration. He can reach top speed from a standing start faster than anyone else on the team, and he has great hands and shiftiness. They are both slot receivers, but it is expected that Illinois will find ways of employing Benn and Fayson together.

Other receiver hopefuls include Jeff Cumberland, Chris Duvalt, Chris James, Fred Sykes, A.J. Jenkins, Cordale Scott, and Jack Ramsey. Cumberland is an enigma. He has the size and speed to be great, but his inconsistency has relegated him to a part-time player. Will Jeff finally demonstrate his potential?

The freshman Jenkins improved as the season went along and should be a standout eventually. Besides his speed and talent, A.J. is also a student of the game who always wants to improve. All the others have their assets and liabilities, so it will be interesting to see who emerges this spring.

Jack Ramsey is finally able to show his stuff. The freshman was a late qualifier last fall and redshirted. He has excellent speed and moves and was threating to receive playing time last fall when delayed by the NCAA Clearinghouse. He may be fun to watch this spring.

Michael Hoomanawanui returns at tight end, and he could be preparing for an NFL career. He is an aggressive blocker, and he became more a part of the passing offense this past season. He had to stay in and help the tackle positions at times, which reduced his receiving opportunities. But this spring should see him shine.

Freshman Hubie Graham got his feet wet last fall and could be ready to emerge as a quality tight end backup who can serve as a second blocker in short yardage situations. He tends to be all-or-none as a receiver. If he is catching the ball in warmups, he will catch most everything in a game, and vice versa. Consistency is his biggest need. Freshman London Davis was redshirted last fall, but he is powerfully built and can help out with the blocking as well.

Offensive line will require an overhaul this spring, and new line coach Joe Gilbert will have his hands full establishing his teaching methods, finding his best five players and molding them into a cohesive unit in just 15 practices. He has no preconceived ideas, so squadmen overlooked last year have a new lease on life. There could be some interesting competions this spring.

Jon Asamoah is the most experienced and talented line returnee. He has a chance to become an All-American if the team wins. He has been a fixture at right guard the last two years and will stay there unless he is needed elsewhere. But he could play any position on the line.

Eric Block was pleasantly surprised the NCAA gave him another year of eligibility, and he plans to take advantage of it. Eric will likely start at center to begin spring practice after playing left guard last fall. Center is a key position that requires experience, intelligence and leadership. Block has the right demeanor for the position, he just needs to prove he can control his position every play.

Redshirt sophomore Ryan Palmer and upcoming sophomores Corey Lewis and Jeff Allen are the top returning tackles. Left tackle is one of the most vital positions on the team, and inexperienced youth often struggle there. Lewis gets first crack at it as he has the agility needed to neutralize speed rushing defensive ends.

Palmer can play left tackle if needed, and reserve Craig Wilson may get a tryout since the coach who put him in the doghouse last year is no longer around. Allen and Palmer shared right tackle last fall and will battle it out this spring.

Other line candidates include Randall Hunt, Jack Cornell, Graham Pocic, Tyler Sands and Ryan Sedlacek. Hunt has the most maturity and experience while Pocic arrived on campus with the highest rating. One of these players will need to take possession of left guard and keep it for Illinois to have a quality line. And all linemen need to stay healthy to develop their techniques and cohesiveness through repetition.

Right now, there are a number of unanswered questions. But spring ball is especially useful for finding new leaders and develop chemistry to take the lessons learned into the summer and fall. It promises to be an interesting spring.

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