2011 Illinois Preview – Offense
Illinois OT Jeff Allen
CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - Illinois Fighting Illini Offense
Preview 2011 - Offense
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What You Need To Know: After a disastrous and disappointing 2009, the offense quickly rebounded thanks to the addition of offensive coordinator Paul Petrino. He didn't reinvent the Illinois wheel, but he made took what the offense did well and made it better. The running game tore off close to 3,200 yards and 29 touchdowns, and even with Mikel Leshoure gone, the production will be there again with a quick and talented group of relatively untested backs working behind a solid line. A.J. Jenkins is a good lead target for a dangerous but green receiving corps, but the biggest plus is the quarterback situation with sophomore Nathan Scheelhaase appearing to be ready to grow into a tremendous all-around star. He'll always be a good runner, and now he should be a more polished passer.
Star of the offense: Sophomore QB Nathan Scheelhaase
Passing: Nathan Scheelhaase
155-264, 1,825 yds, 17 TD, 8 INT
Rushing: Nathan Scheelhaase
185 carries, 868 yds, 5 TD
Receiving: A.J. Jenkins
56 catches, 746 yds, 7 TD
Player who has to step up and be a star: Senior RB Jason Ford
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore WR Ryan Lankford
Best pro prospect: Senior OT Jeff Allen
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Allen, 2) Scheelhaase, 3) WR A.J. Jenkins
Strength of the offense: Running Game, Scheelhaase
Weakness of the offense: Proven No. 2 Receiver, Proven Tailback
State of the Unit: The Illinois passing game was going to undergo some major changes with the loss of several key targets and with Juice Williams done, and the offense didn't get much out of its air attack finishing 111th in the nation in yards and 61st in passing efficiency. The offense, though, is about getting the running game going with the passing game along for the ride. The depth is an issue, but the Illini has its franchise starter for the next several years to build around.
Sophomore Nathan Scheelhaase came to Illinois as a top dual-threat, spread quarterback, and while he's still working on his passing game, he lived up to the billing and more as a runner finishing second on the team with 868 yards and five scores, with four 100-yard games, and he completed 59% of his passes for 1,825 yards and 17 scores with eight picks. He threw three of his interceptions in the opener against Missouri, gave away three in the loss to Michigan State, and only gave up two the rest of the way as he kept the errors to a minimum and ended up with three 200-yard games including a 242-yard performance in the bowl win over Baylor. At 6-3 and 195 pounds he has size and he's a slippery runner who can carry the offense averaging 20 carries a game over five games late in the year. The 2007 Gatorade Player of the Year is the main man for the Illini program, and it's his team to run.
Sophomore Matt Osei got to throw a pass and ran for six yards against Michigan State, and now the spotlight is on to see if he can handle the work as a key backup. At 6-0 and 200 pounds he's not all that big, but he's a great runner with a live arm and good all-around skills. He's not the playmaker that Scheelhaase is, but he has just enough talent to keep the offense rolling if he's thrown to the wolves.
On the way is Reilly O'Toole, a big, strong passer who isn't like the other Illinois quarterbacks. At 6-4 and 215 pounds he has good size and has a live arm, and he also has the smarts to know what he's doing right away. What he isn't is a runner, but he'll get the ball down the field through the air better than the other options.
Watch Out For … Scheelhaase to start throwing a little bit more. It's not that he couldn't throw; he just didn't. When he was on, like he was in the bowl win over Baylor, he was effective. He won't stop running but the more he can get the ball down the field, the better.
Strength: Running. Scheelhaase is one of the nation's best running quarterbacks and is a threat to hit the 100-yard mark every time out. Osei is a good runner who can step in and crank out five yards a carry.
Weakness: Backup experience. Scheelhaase ran 185 times last year and he might do even more. With so many carries and so many plays, he's going to get popped. Osei should be fine in time, but he isn't a seasoned vet. There's a huge drop-off.
Outlook: Scheelhaase is ready to make the next step up in his production to become one of the Big Ten's best quarterbacks, and if he can up his efficiency and if he can continue to limit the picks, he's going to be special. The backup situation is a concern, but Osei is a decent enough talent to keep developing.
Unit Rating: 7.5
State of the Unit: So who's next? Rashard Mendenhall was the star of the Illinois running game and helped carry the program to the Rose Bowl. Mikel Leshoure took over and ended his career with a phenomenal junior year finishing fifth in the nation in averaging 131 yards per game and finishing with 1,697 yards and 17 scores averaging six yards per carry. He also caught three touchdown passes. The Illini doesn't have another NFL back waiting to roll, but it has several good, talented backs to take the heat off of QB Nathan Scheelhaase, the team's second leading rusher last year.
Senior Jason Ford was expected to be the main man two years ago, and while he ended up running for 588 yards and averaged 6.1 yards per carry, he was a little bit of a disappointment. Last year, the one-time star recruit finished third on the team with 480 yards and seven scores and caught seven passes for 52 yards. The 6-0, 235-pounder is a powerful back who's great around the goal line and has a little bit of wiggle when he gets into the open field. He showed what he was able to do against Northwestern, running for 86 yards and three scores, and now he'll get his chances to be the main back once he returns healthy from a bruised knee suffered this offseason.
Working in the Illini rotation will be the combination of senior Troy Pollard and sophomore Bud Golden, two quick backs who'll add more flash to the mix. The 5-8, 190-pound Pollard ran for 109 yards and got a start two years ago against Illinois State, and now he'll get the ball more as a speed specialist. However, he has to avoid the big shot, getting knocked out this spring with a concussion. The 6-0, 215-pound Golden has mostly been a special teamer, but soon he has to show the skills that made him one of the team's top recruits a few years ago. He has power, speed, and the talent to be a major factor after getting his feet wet running for 32 yards and seeing a little time as a kick returner.
6-0, 250-pound sophomore Jay Prosch turned into a factor as a true freshman playing every game and being used as a key blocker for the ground game. He didn't run the ball and he only caught a pass for a yard, but he's a tough hitter who'll do all the dirty work needed.
Watch Out For … Ford. There will be more of a running back by committee approach, but that could quickly change if Ford dominates early on. He has the talent to take over the ground game and be the workhorse, even if he's not going to be Mendenhall or Leshoure.
Strength: The offense. The Illinois attack will always crank out big yards on the ground under this coaching staff. The backs get plenty of space to move, and Scheelhaase will throw in close to 1,000 yards as the running game averages over five yards per carry.
Weakness: Leshoure. It's no coincidence that the offense blew up on the ground once Leshoure went nuts. He closed out the year with 917 yards and 11 touchdowns in the final five games, and he carried the attack over the first three games. The coaching staff would be happy if the top three running backs could combine to make up for the loss of Leshoure.
Outlook: Illinois finished the year first in the Big Ten and 11th in the nation in rushing offense averaging 246 yards per game with 29 scores, but Leshoure and 1,697 of the yards are gone and Scheelhaase accounted for 868 yards. All eyes are on Ford to be a breakout star, but Pollard and Golden have to also come up with big years with the starting job still open. The production will be better than the talent.
Unit Rating: 7
State of the Unit: The receiving corps needed to be sharp to help out the new starting quarterback, and now the veteran targets should combine with a veteran Nathan Scheelhaase to do more through the air. The passing game will always be along for the ride with the Illini attack, but there are more than enough good playmakers around a strong No. 1 target to expect more production.
The Illini desperately needed someone to step up and become the main man with Arrelious Benn gone, and senior A.J. Jenkins did just that. The 6-0, 190-pound former top recruit out of Florida started off his career slowly, was going to transfer, and then stuck around. After dominating last offseason, he came up big with a team-leading 56 catches for 746 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 13.3 yards per catch and highlighted by a six catch, 137-yard, one score day against Minnesota. He might not always be explosive, but he's consistent.
Jenkins missed time this offseason recovering from surgery, and sophomore Ryan Lankford showed he could become a factor when needed. The 6-0, 175-pound speedster from Florida is one of the team's most athletic players with track star speed and phenomenal leaping ability. He got a little work last year as a true freshman catching six passes for 129 yards and a touchdown, with a 52-yard play against Baylor and a 33-yard score against Michigan. Get the ball in his hands and let him go.
Sophomore Darius Millines came on as a true freshman and started three times and played in every game finishing with two catches for 42 yards and a score highlighted by a 32-yard play against Baylor. At 5-11 and 185 pounds he has decent size and 4.4 speed, and now he'll be a key part of the attack along with his duties as a kick returner. He'll combine with redshirt freshman Anthony Williams, a 6-4, 210-pound big, strong target with just enough speed to hit the home run.
Senior Fred Sykes only caught seven passes for 85 yards, but he's a veteran with ten career starts under his belt. The Tampa native has decent speed and 6-0, 195-pound size, but he didn't progress last year as expected. Now he'll get more of a shot in three and four-wide sets, while 6-3, 195-pound sophomore Spencer Harris brings more size. A great athlete who uses his size well, he caught four passes for 48 yards and a score with a 17-yard touchdown grab against Minnesota.
Sophomore tight end Evan Wilson starting 11 times being used mostly as a blocker. The 6-6, 250-pounder finished fourth on the team, but he only caught ten passes for 135 yards and two scores stretching the field averaging 13.5 yards per catch. Not a natural receiver, he can catch, but he's at his best when he's on the move making big blocks. Backing him up will be junior Eddie Viliunas, a 6-4, 250-pounder who came to Illinois as a quarterback and moved to tight end early on. Even though he can move, he'll mostly be a blocker.
Watch Out For … Lankford. He might be behind Jenkins on the depth chart and he might not be a starter right away, but he showed this spring that he deserves more work thrown his way. Great in the spring game, he looked the part of the No. 1 target when he got his chance.
Strength: Speed. This might not be a track team in the receiving corps, but Jenkins can get deep and Millines can fly. There's more than enough quickness across the board to crank out more big plays and come up with big yards after the catch. There weren't enough home runs hit last year, but that should change.
Weakness: Proven No. 2 target. Jenkins is a sure-thing go-to target, and Lankford is looking the part of a great running mate, but the leading returning wide receiver is Sykes, and he only caught seven passes. This isn't going to be an air-raid passing attack, but there will be enough passes to go around.
Outlook: The passing game should be better with Nathan Scheelhaase an improving passer and with the young receiving corps of last year ready to start blossoming. Jenkins has great potential, but he's coming back from missing spring ball. The same goes for Millines. There's promise and talent, but it all has to come together.
Unit Rating: 6.5
State of the Unit: The offensive line did a decent job considering a major rebuilding job had to be done. The running game was the best in the Big Ten, but the pass protection was spotty with too many problems keeping the mobile Nathan Scheelhaase upright. Enough starters return to hope for more production, but this isn't going to be a brick wall against the better pass rushers.
The star of the front five will once against senior Jeff Allen, a 6-5, 315-pound weakside tackle who earned Second Team All-Big Ten honors. A big, strong run blocker who got bigger over the last year, he's a leader and team captain who's a flattening run blocker and a decent enough pass protector to be some NFL team's starting right guard next year. The talent, the strength, and the size are all there to once again be a tremendous anchor.
Allen will be backed up by junior Hugh Thornton, who'll also get the call as the starting weakside guard again. The 6-5, 310-pounder is athletic enough to be a tackle, starting at right tackle in 2009, but he's more of a run blocker than a proper left tackle. A mauler, the former two-time Idaho state heavyweight championship wrestler is a blaster for the ground game. If the versatile blocker moves over to tackle, then 6-3, 325-pound redshirt freshman Alex Hill will step in and bring more size. A smart prospect out of Louisiana, he can play center if needed but is better suited for guard.
Returning to his spot in the middle is junior Graham Pocic, a way-too-tall center at 6-7 and 305 pounds, but he's good on the move and was good enough to earn Honorable Mention All-Big Ten honors. One of the team's top recruits in 2008, he was good enough to get the push from Florida, Wisconsin, and other big-time programs, and he was expected to shine right away for the Illini. He didn't live up to the hype early on, and then he jumpstarted his career at center where he used his size and tremendous strength grow into a potential star. He'll be backed up by 6-5, 305-pound junior Tyler Sands, a key reserve two years ago who didn't see any work last year. An academic all-star, he's smart enough to know what he's doing in the middle but could see time at guard if needed.
6-6, 315-pound senior Jack Cornell was a key part of the equation at guard and tackle seeing starting time in six games. A better guard than a pass blocker on the outside, he'll start on the strongside using his nice size and good athleticism to be a perfect fit for the position. Sophomore Andrew Carter was one of the team's biggest recruits in 2009 but hasn't done anything yet. The ultra-athletic 6-4, 290-pound guard from Gainesville, Florida, was ripped away from Florida State and Miami, and this year he'll be a key reserve.
The combination of 6-5, 285-pound redshirt freshman Simon Cvijanovic and 6-5, 295-pound redshirt freshman Michael Heitz will battle throughout the summer for the starting strongside tackle job. Cvijanovic is a quick blocker with the feet to improve the pass protection, while Heitz was a star recruit with a great frame and the potential to grow into a mauling 305-pounder with the skill to work at either tackle spot. Still trying to come back is Corey Lewis, a 6-6, 305-pound junior who was all set to be a starter last year before tearing his left ACL. On the plus side, he got a medical hardship and will get an extra year to try to get his career back on track.
Watch Out For … the strongside. Cornell has good skills to grow into the job at guard, but he's a senior while Carter is a good-looking sophomore. With two redshirt freshmen on the outside, the blocking on the right side will be under the spotlight all year.
Strength: The weakside. Allen is among the Big Ten's best tackles and could grow into an All-America candidate if he starts erasing more speed rushers. Thornton is an athletic guard who's good enough to play tackle. They'll lead a great run blocking line.
Weakness: Consistent pass protection. It's been a problem over the last few years to try to protect the ultra-mobile quarterbacks giving up 77 sacks over the last three seasons. Last season wasn't all that bad, but that's because the offense ran the ball 619 times and threw just 284 times.
Outlook: The line needed a little while to come together, and while this won't be 2010 Wisconsin, the front five will be strong enough to become a major strength. Allen is a great talent to work around and Pocic appears to have found a niche, but it's all about the strongside where the tackle position has to be a rock.
Unit Rating: 7.5
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