When opposing coaches begin to gameplan against Illinois, the first concern is how to stop the Illini offense. Coach Ron Turner has become known around the Big Ten and throughout the nation as one of the top offensive coaches in the game. He has brought his NFL experience to the Big Ten, using a pro-style offense which is considerably more complex than the average college system.
But without great players, an offense cannot be great. And this season, Illinois is not loaded at the skill positions the way it was two years ago when it won the Big Ten championship. Coming off a 5-7 season, and having lost most of their top skilled offensive players, this season could be a struggle.
Here is a look at where the Illini offense stands heading into the 2003 season:
For the Illini to have a bowl season, Jon Beutjer will have to be the nucleus. The former Iowa quarterback won the starting job late last season, throwing for 906 yards in the last three games while leading the Big Ten with 228.3 yards per game passing. In his seven starts last year, he averaged more than 300 yards passing while throwing for 21 touchdown passes. His 426-yard performance against Arkansas State was the fourth-best passing day in school history.
The date circled on Beutjer's calendar is Nov. 1, when he will face his former team for the first time since transferring, a road date in Iowa City.
Behind Beutjer is Dustin Ward, who started five games in 2002. Ward was expected to contend with Beutjer during spring practice, but he missed the spring following shoulder surgery. He is a quality backup and could step in if Beutjer falters.
This is a major question mark entering the fall, in the aftermath of the departure of Antoineo Harris, Illinois' single-season rushing record holder. Turner will likely go to a running back-by-committee until somebody truly emerges. One candidate is Morris Virgil, who rushed for 216 yards in seven games before breaking his leg against Purdue and missing the remainder of the season.
Another solid prospect is E.B. Halsey, who Badger fans might remember as a recruit from a couple of years ago from Elizabeth, N.J. The 5-11, 185-pound freshman sat out last season to clear up some legal issues, but emerged in the spring as one of the top tailbacks in the program. Other potential contributors are incoming freshman Pierre Thomas, a 5-11, 190-pounder from Lynwood (Ill.) that rushed for 2,365 yards and 38 touchdowns last season, and junior college transfer Gerard Jackson, who was the 2001 Gatorade Player of the Year in New Jersey.
The Illini are rock solid at the fullback position with Carey Davis, a third-year starter who is a solid blocker, a capable runner and a threat in the receiving game as well. Davis is expected to get more carries this season following the departure of Harris.
This could be the biggest problem area for the Illini on either side of the ball. They lose all top four receivers, which produced 191 catches last season. Turner is forced to give some fresh blood a chance to learn under fire.
Luckily for the Illini, there is some quality incoming talent that can help fill the gaping void suffered through graduation.
Junior Ade Adeyemo and sophomore Kendrick Jones emerged from the spring as starters. But there figures to be plenty of competition in spring for those spots. Senior Jamaal Clark has switched from his safety position and is expected to see considerable playing time in the fall. And Turner is excited about seeing Kelvin Hayden in action. Hayden, a junior college transfer, was the NJCAA National Offensive Player of the Year in 2002.
Much like the Badgers, the Illini will also split a tight end wide in certain formations, using the athleticism of 6-5, 220-pound tight end Melvin Bryant in a receiver capacity.
This is the one area of the offense that seems fairly secure entering the fall. The Illini returns three starters, including senior tackle Sean Bubin, a 6-7, 300-pound monster that is considered one of the best linemen in the league.
Turner will shift veteran Bucky Babcock from guard to tackle to help fill the spot vacated by Tony Pashos, while the line also returns center Duke Preston, a 6-5, 305-pound junior. Competition for the two open guard spots will leak into the fall, but junior Bryan Koch (6-3, 285) and freshman Matt Maddox (6-4, 290) are considered the frontrunners.
The Illini offense won't be quite as potent as some of the Turner outfits of recent years. But in a year of transition, a number of skilled athletes will get a chance to perform early, and learn the system to set the program up for some outstanding seasons down the road (similar to Wisconsin's efforts over the past two years).
The key to success is really in the hands of Beutjer, who won the quarterback battle that lasted the duration of the 2002 season. But now he must take the next step and become a top Big Ten quarterback for the Illini to be a bowl contender this season.
The Illini are probably a year or two away from returning to a top tier Big Ten team. But the offense is certainly capable of putting up points against anyone in the league.
Illinois Week: Offensive Preview
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