Illini Seeking Consistency On Offense

The offense figures to be the strength of the 2009 Fighting Illini football team. With an experienced, athletic quarterback, quality receivers, running back depth and a mature line, the offense figures to score frequently. Head coach Ron Zook and offensive coordinator Mike Schultz offered their views of the offense at the conclusion of spring practice.

Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Schultz saw improvement throughout the spring, but he is not yet ready to annoint his offense as a world beater.

"I don't think we're where we want to be, but we're not where we used to be. So we've made progress here."

As good as the offense looks on paper, it must become a well-oiled machine so it can sustain long touchdown drives.

"I think we've got to get a little more consistent," Schultz explains. "To me, the mark of a good offense is an offense that can hit a high level and maintain. If there is an area I think we need to focus in on is maybe becoming more consistent. We'll have good plays every now and then, but we need to put better plays back to back to back to back to back."

The Illinois defense has been maligned, but Schultz says it's improvement has been a decided benefit for the offense.

"We've had some opportunities and done some good things, but one thing that's happening is our defense is getting much better. That's good for us, and I think they've presented some problems and that's good to see. I'm excited about that."

The defense showed the offense no vanilla packages in the spring. Blitzes were common, and complex variations the norm. This created a necessary challenge for the offense.

"I think it makes us better. The defense did a nice job of disguising things and showing us different looks. They had eleven guys out there moving around quite a bit. One minute they'd be on the line of scrimmage, and the next minute they'd be off the line of scrimmage.

"One minute the safety would be on the left side of the field, and the next minute he'd be all the way on the right side of the field. It's a challenge for us, and we have to pick it up and take care of it. If we can handle that stuff, it'll make us further along in the fall."

Coach Zook is happy with the quality of personnel at the quarterback position.

"Juice Williams and Eddie McGee have continued to improve. And I've been impressed with Jacob Charest. I feel pretty good at that position.

"I don't think there's any question Juice has a chance to be a pretty good football player. The thing that's great about him is he's a very humble guy. They know he's a leader. The maturity he's developed in terms of wanting to be in that position is exciting too."

With Williams now a senior, the Illini are looking for him to synthesize all his experiences and mold himself into the dynamic all-around threat his athleticism suggests he can be. He must reduce his turnovers, especially interceptions, to reach his full potential.

"My motto for Juice is throw what you see," Schultz describes. "Coach (Kurt) Beathard is doing a great job talking to him about that. Throw what you see, and don't try to force things.

"One of the biggest things we've got to do is take care of the football. We had way too many turnovers last year. You're not gonna win in this league if you turn the ball over. If you don't win the turnover battle, you've just taken your chances of winning and gone backwards with them."

Receiver may be the strength of the team. The spread offense requires at least 8 athletes to may four receiver positions, and the Illini have more depth of top talent than any time in memory. Leading the way is preseason All-American Arrelious Benn.

"I think we have good depth at receiver," Schultz understates. "Again, I just think there's a level of consistency that we've got to set the bar and try to go after. #9 (Benn) is a pretty good football player. Between him and Juice and (tight end) Michael Hoomanawanui, we've had good leadership. The kids have done a good job with that part of the game."

Schultz reminds that Williams must be capable of canvassing the whole field for open receivers rather than just focusing on Benn.

"There may be times they try to take Rejus out of the game. If that does happen, then we've got to throw what they give us."

Zook was also modest in his assessment of his receiver corps, preferring to speak in generalities rather than single out individuals.

"We feel like we have some weapons at receiver. We have guys who can make some things happen."

The running back position has depth with four lettermen plus two promising newcomers. There may not be a superstar as yet, but all the returnees have shown definite improvement through experience.

"I feel very good about our running backs," Zook states. "Daniel Dufrene has taken a step and is really running hard. He's running and playing as well as anytime since he's been here. I feel very good about Mikel (Leshoure). I feel very good about Jason (Ford). You can see Troy (Pollard) is back to almost 100%. He's got great hands, and you can hit him out of the backfield. And I'm excited about the two young guys coming in.

"I don't think you ever have too many running backs. It's a position we not only have quantity, we have quality as well. I don't think you have to have one guy. If somebody separates himself, great. But I think you need everybody.

"Players are always gonna get better. Football's a reaction game. Those running backs are gonna continue to get better. Now, it's not so much thinking, it's the God-given ability of just running, blocking and protecting. They make great strides that first spring and second year because they understand what's going on a little bit better. And the older guys have helped the young guys."

Schultz agrees about never having enough running backs.

"The thing I like most about our tailbacks is they run very physical. But I'll tell you a situation that occurred a long time ago when I was back at the University of New Mexico with Dennis Franchione. We supposedly had four good running backs. By the third game, I had to move a fullback back to tailback. So you can't have too many backs."

With an offensive line boasting senior All-America candidate Jon Asamoah, fifth year center Eric Block, fourth year junior Randall Hunt, improving letterman Ryan Palmer and highly promising sophomore tackle Jeff Allen, the stage is set for a banner year for the Illini offense.

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