Illinois had nine receivers playing four positions this spring, and two freshman will join the mix in the fall. This may seem like plenty, but depth is a necessity in a spread offense. With all the running they do, they benefit from frequent rests.
At the two wide receiver positions, senior Jeff Cumberland is backed by upcoming sophomore Cordale Scott on one side, and Florida junior transfer Jarred Fayson is playing ahead of redshirt freshman Jack Ramsey and junior Chris James on the other.
Preseason All-American Arrelious 'Rejus' Benn mans one slot receiver spot and is backed by senior Chris Duvalt. A.J. Jenkins and Fred Sykes both lettered as freshmen and are battling at the other inside position.
Illini coaches and fans are especially excited to see Benn and Fayson on the field together. They both possess exceptional size and speed, and they will undoubtedly put tremendous pressure on any defense. Illinois coach Ron Zook says Benn has continued to mature as he approaches his junior season.
"I guess you'd say he's taken it to another level. He's very much in tune with what's going on. He's always been a hard worker and has pushed himself as hard as he can. He's not afraid to be a leader, he's not afraid to stand up and say what he thinks. He's excited for this year and the potential of the team. He's always been a gym rat type guy."
Benn is considered a lock to join high school teammate Vontae Davis as a junior entry into the NFL draft next spring. But Zook is certain Benn will not focus on himself at the expense of the team.
"Rejus cares about one thing, winning. He knows the more we win, the better it is for us, and the better it is for him. When you get an attitude like that, everybody pulling for everybody, those other things kind of take care of themselves."
Benn and Fayson are like bookends. Benn is slightly larger, and Fayson has more explosive acceleration, but both go about their business in a professional way.
"Both of those guys are big play type guys," Zook explains. "Both are guys that can make things happen. I don't think you can ever have enough big play guys. The more you have, the more pressure it takes off Juice (Williams).
Fayson has been through two spring practices but has not yet appeared in a game since he was forced to sit out a year after his transfer. But Zook reminds that Jarred has the background to excel once he gets back on the field.
"Jarred is a guy who as a freshman played in a National Championship game. He's competing and doing all the things we felt like he would to do. He's an unbelievable competitor and obviously a very, very talented guy. Winning is very important to him. The more guys we have like that the better we are going to be.
"He's a big physical guy like Rejus. They both get along so well. They both are gonna have their hands on the ball."
Jeff Cumberland is a tall, muscular, fast receiver who has been somewhat an enigma up to now. It is believed he is starting to put everything together for his senior season. Cordale Scott isn't as wide or strong as Cumberland, but he is nearly as tall at 6'-3". Zook says he made tremendous strides this spring.
"Cordale Scott has had an unbelieveable spring. He's worked at it, and his teammates have helped as well."
Jack Ramsey was redshirted last fall. He brings quickness and maneuverability to the position. Ramsey has a knack for making plays after the catch.
"If Jack continues to do what he's doing, he's gonna get plenty of time," Zook understates.
Sykes started the first game of his freshman year. He is not spectacular, but he finds a way to get open. Jenkins is a craftsman who is always working to improve his game. And he has the speed to get by defenders. He scored touchdowns both as a receiver and kick returner last fall. Zook says he is continuing to improve.
"He understands more. He understands the offense. There's a lot of things going fast through his head. The more you play the better you're going to play."
Terry Hawthorne and Steve Hull join the group in the fall. Hawthorne was the top player in Illinois last year at East St. Louis. He is a playmaker deluxe who can run precise routes and then become a threat to score every time he touches the ball. Hull is 6'-2" and has good hands and outstanding leaping ability.
Tight end has also undergone a building process recently, and there is now quality depth there as well. Michael Hoomanawanui is returning for his senior season, and he is an All-Big 10 candidate. He combines outstanding hands with tenacious blocking.
Hubie Graham lettered as a freshman and is much improved. London Davis redshirted last fall but is a hard worker who won't rest until he gets the position down pat. Walkon fullback Zach Becher moved to tight end in the spring and served as an H back at times. Freshman Justin Lattimore joins the fray in the fall, and he is a definite pass-catching threat.
With all the talent available, some might wonder how Zook can keep everyone happy. Fortunately, he has recruited the type of athlete who puts team ahead of self.
"Our concept is team. It doesn't matter who gets the catches."
There is no doubt opposing defensive coaches will have some sleepless nights preparing to take on the Illini pass offense this fall. They might be able to stop one or two positions, but stopping them all might be impossible.