Opponents preview: Illinois offense

Part two of BadgerNation.com's three-part look at the 2005 Illini

Illinois' offense was among the worst in the Big Ten last season. The Illini, however, boast a dynamic tandem of running backs and a capable run-blocking offensive line. If Illinois can achieve mediocrity and some semblance of consistency passing the ball, the running game could be among the league's best.

2004 by the numbers

Total offense: 338.1 yards per game (No. 86 nationally); 294.4 yards per conference game (No. 10 Big Ten)
Scoring offense: 21.8 points per game (88); 17.6 (10)
Passing offense: 184.7 (85); 168.6 (9)
Passing efficiency: 112.6 (82); 104.5 (9)
Rushing offense: 153.4 (62); 125.8 (7)
Touchdowns: 28 – 15 rushing, 13 passing; 17 – 7 rushing, 10 passing
Third-down conversions: 41 percent on 67 of 164; 39.2 percent on 49 of 125 (7)
Turnovers lost: 19 – 8 interceptions and 11 fumbles (35); 13 – 5 interceptions and 8 fumbles (5)
Field goal kicking: 53 percent on 8 of 15; 50 percent on 5 of 10 (11 in percentage rank)
Kick returns: 23.2 (19); 20.7 (6)
Punt returns: 9.2 (62); 8.6 (8)

Quarterbacks analysis

The most important position on the football field is rather thin at Illinois. Junior starter Tim Brasic (6-2, 200) has played in all of two games in his career, both during his redshirt freshman campaign in 2002. He was 0 for 1 throwing that year and did not touch the field last season. Brasic put the finishing touches on what was reportedly a strong spring with a good showing in the Illini's spring game: 18 of 27 for 195 yards and a touchdown.

New coach Ron Zook has implemented a spread shotgun, no-huddle set, which seems to suit Brasic fine. If he is reasonably effective and can take advantage of a real good group of running backs, the offense will be decent.

The top backup will likely be redshirt freshman Kisan Flakes (5-11, 195), followed by junior Chris Pazan (6-1, 205), who is the only quarterback on the roster with any real experience. Pazan was 37 of 63 for 292 yards, one touchdown and one interception in four games last year. As a redshirt freshman in 2003, he completed 49 of 82 passes for 511 yards, two touchdowns and two picks.

Offensive line analysis

Last season Illinois' offensive line was good at run blocking and okay pass blocking. But with its two most experienced players (tackle Bucky Babcock and center Duke Preston) exhausting their eligibility, and the new offense to adjust to, this is a work in progress.

The line has promise, however, particularly in the form of guard-turned-center Matt Maddox (6-3, 310). The junior started every game and played every snap at right guard the past two years and was credited with 103 pancake blocks last year. He has only allowed three sacks in two seasons and could join the parade of elite centers in the Big Ten.

With Maddox's position switch, sophomore James Ryan (6-5, 310) steps into the starting right guard spot. He played sparingly in seven games last year. A big body who should be solid in the running game, Ryan was the team's scout offensive player of the year when he redshirted in 2003.

Sophomore Martin O'Donnell (6-5, 300) started the final 10 games of last season and played all but five snaps at left guard, but he heads into August camp as the No. 2 at the position behind classmate Ben Amundsen (6-5, 310), who played all of four snaps last year.

Junior left tackle J.J. Simmons (6-5, 290) started all 11 games last year and should be solid.

After four years with Babcock starting at right tackle, the new guy is sophomore Jim Labonte (6-7, 305), who has 38 plays of experience under his belt.

In addition to O'Donnell, the top reserves are redshirt freshman guard Dan Motuliak (6-3, 300), senior center Kyle Schnettgoecke (6-3, 290), junior tackle Andrew Burk (6-5, 275) and redshirt freshman tackle Ryan McDonald (6-5, 285).

Receivers analysis

The Illini want to toss three or four wide receiver sets at opponents with regularity. The only problem is that the team is currently very thin at the position.

Senior Kendrick Jones (6-2, 190) is a star in the making. He had 47 catches for 687 yards and five touchdowns as part of a passing game that was largely anemic last year. Jones will be the focal point of the aerial offense — and opposing defensive backs. Illinois desperately needs some other receivers to step up and command some attention of their own.

Junior Franklin Payne (5-11, 195) is a capable player. He started seven games last year, catching 25 passes for 214 yards and a touchdown.

Some inexperienced but talented players will fill out the depth. Sophomore DaJuan Warren (6-2, 200), who caught six passes for 52 yards last year, and freshman Derrick McPhearson (6-0, 195), the No. 8 wide receiver in the nation for the class of 2005, according to Scout.com, will see lots of playing time and could push Payne for a starter's role in two-wide sets.

Junior Lonnie Hurst (6-1, 195) caught two passes for 13 yards in five games last year before a knee injury sidelined him. He started nine games as a true freshman in 2003, before breaking his leg.

Sophomore Frank Lenti (6-2, 185) and redshirt freshman Bryant Creamer (6-2, 200) could also work into the rotation.

But with a less than ideal situation at wide receiver for a spread set, look for Illinois to utilize the pass-catching talents of running back E.B. Halsey, fullback Jason Davis and tight end Melvin Bryant.

Bryant (6-5, 230) caught 12 passes for 111 yards and three touchdowns last year. As a redshirt freshman in 2003 he had 12 catches for 114 yards. His backup will be redshirt freshman J.R. Kraemer (6-5, 230).

Running backs analysis

Juniors Pierre Thomas and E.B. Halsey are an elite duo that have the potential to take over a game. Teams loaded up against them last season, though, and will do so again this year unless the Illini passing game can keep them honest.

Thomas (5-11, 200), an honorable mention All-Big Ten choice last year, led the conference in all-purpose yards with 151.4 per game. He rushed 152 times for 893 yards (a 5.9 average) and eight touchdowns, caught 14 passes for 95 yards and a touchdown and had 677 yards and one touchdown as a kick returner, averaging 27.1 yards per return.

Halsey was second on the team with 461 rushing yards and five touchdowns (averaged 4.2 yards per carry) and fourth with 19 receptions for 109 yards. He was more productive as a freshman in 2003, rushing for 525 yards and two scores on 140 carries and catching 37 passes for 303 yards and four touchdowns. That year he also returned 16 kicks for 378 yards. He has also been a punt returner the past two years.

Senior Jason Davis (5-11, 235) is a rare breed as a Big Ten fullback in that he is a much better receiver and runner than he is a blocker. Okay at the latter, Davis is an excellent receiver and a solid running threat who compliments Thomas and Halsey well.

Davis was second on the team with 41 catches last year and picked up 340 yards and two touchdowns receiving. He also ran 49 times for 230 yards and a score.

As a true freshman in 2002, Davis caught four passes for 28 yards, but two of those receptions resulted in touchdowns. He caught 14 passes for 114 yards the following year.

Backup fullback sophomore Russ Weil (6-0, 235) is more of a blocking back. He started two games at linebacker last year.

The next running back after Halsey and Thomas could be true freshman Rashard Mendenall (5-11, 205), Scout.com's No. 6 running back in the nation for the class of 2005.

He will have to compete with junior Marcus Mason (5-9, 200) for playing time. Mason had 214 yards rushing on 64 attempts as a true freshman in 2003, then garnered 28 yards on 11 rushes last year.

Special teams notes

Jason Reda (6-1, 195) handled most of the kicking duties as a true freshman last year and was 7 of 12 on field goals. Punter Steve Weatherford was 1 of 3 on long-range kicks (all 40-49 yards), connecting from 48 yards. Reda will likely handle all of the field goals this year and is expected to be a dependable player.

Thomas made the kick return unit one of the better ones in the nation.

The punt return game was inadequate. Halsey averaged just 8.4 yards per return but should improve in that regard this season.

Matching up with Wisconsin

A new coach, a wide open system and a pretty inexperienced cast of players, all things considered. Illinois' recipe is intriguing but probably will not lead to a lot of success in year one of the Ron Zook era.

Illinois' running back tandem should be able to make some headway against the Badgers, but only if the Illini passing game does something of merit. UW should have enough talent in the secondary and at linebacker to matchup with the Illini spread. The real key is making sure that the spread does not keep the Badgers from locking onto Thomas and Halsey, who will be the focus of the offense.

The Illini have the potential to be a respectable offensive football team and could make some noise in spurts, but do not expect this to be a consistently proficient attack. UW could certainly hold them under 20 points and win relatively easily.

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