2012 Illinois Preview – Offense
Illinois C Graham Pocic
CollegeFootballNews.com 2012 Preview - Illinois Fighting Illini Offense
Preview 2012 - Offense
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What You Need To Know:
Co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty have some work to do to jumpstart an attack that died down the stretch. It might be a season-long effort to find the right mix and enough stars to build around, but there’s plenty of upside. Nathan Scheelhaase is a playmaking quarterback to build around, but he needs help from a backfield that doesn’t have much experience and needs back Josh Ferguson to shine like he did this offseason. The loss of A.J. Jenkins hurts a question mark of a receiving corps that has to unearth playmakers as soon as possible. There’s speed, but there’s not much in the way of proven stars. A line that struggled in pass protection has a nice mix of young prospects and proven seniors with center Graham Pocic and guard Hugh Thornton needing to dominate.
Star of the offense: Junior QB Nathan Scheelhaase
Passing: Nathan Scheelhaase
184-291, 2,110 yds, 13 TD, 8 INT
Rushing: Nathan Scheelahaase
191 carries, 624 yds, 6 TD
Receiving: Spencer Harris
26 catches, 226 yds, 1 TD
Player who has to step up and be a star: Junior WR Spencer Harris
Unsung star on the rise: Redshirt freshman RB Josh Ferguson
Best pro prospect: Senior C Graham Pocic
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Scheelhaase, 2) Pocic, 3) OG Hugh Thornton
Strength of the offense: Speed, Nathan Scheelhaase
Weakness of the offense: Proven Playmakers, Line Depth
The offense fell flat over the second half of last year, but junior Nathan Scheelhaase did what he could and stayed relatively effective. There wasn’t anything happening down the field, but he managed to complete 15-of-19 passes against Wisconsin for just 99 yards with a pick. He lit up Northwestern for 391 yards and three scores, but all but didn’t show up against Penn State throwing for 63 yards and a score. However, when the passing game wasn’t working he tried to make things happen with his legs running for 89 yards against the Nittany Lions and finishing up with 110 on the ground in the bowl win over UCLA. Now he has to do even more to be a steady leader.
He led the team with 624 rushing yards with six scores while completing 63% of his passes for 2,110 yards and 13 scores with eight picks, but he could stand to be a better decision maker and steadier as a downfield passer. The 2007 Gatorade Illinois Player of the Year was a top dual-threat spread quarterback recruit when he came to Champaign, and now he’s growing into the starting role starting for his third season. At 6-3 and 195 pounds he has the size and the mobility, but now he has to start leading the way to more big wins.
6-4, 220-pound sophomore Riley O’Toole stepped in from time to time as a true freshman when the passing game needed a little more of a boost. He wasn’t able to kickstart the attack completing 60% of his throws for 270 yards and a touchdown with four picks, but he’s a big, strong passer with a live arm and great upside. The 2010 Gatorade Illinois Player of the Year has the smarts, the tools, and the athleticism to do a little of everything for the offense, and while he’s not the runner Scheelhaase is, he can move a little bit.
Junior Miles Osei will do a little of everything for the new coaching staff. He was supposed to be a key backup last year but was quickly replaced by O’Toole in the No. 2 role. Now he’s likely going to be used more as a runner and maybe a receiver to get his athleticism and skills on the field. At 6-0 and 200 pounds he’s built like a slot receiver, but he’s a quarterback.
Watch Out For … Scheelhaase to be more of a passer. The coaching staff wants mobility out of its quarterbacks, but it also wants to be throwing the ball a bit more. He’s not a big-time passer and he doesn’t have the best arm, but he’ll get his chances.
Strength: Veteran options. This is Scheelhaase’s third year as the starter, and even though he’s in a new system he knows what he’s doing. O’Toole got just enough work in to potentially be ready if he has to step in, and Osei has been around for a while and isn’t green.
Weakness: Consistency. It wasn’t there last season in the passing game and that needs to change – fast. The problem is that all the Illini quarterbacks can’t be put together into one package, and with the way Toledo had no problems switching around quarterbacks, there’s a chance O’Toole could see plenty of time and action.
Outlook: Scheelhaase is a good player who needs to be fantastic for Illinois to take a step forward. He’ll always run, but the key to the offense and the team is his development as a passing threat. O’Toole can throw and might get a lot more work, while Osei will find a role in some way in the offense.
Unit Rating: 7.5
The running back situation was considered a possible issue, but redshirt freshman Josh Ferguson appeared to answer the questions this offseason showing off good all-around ability as both a runner and a receiver. At 5-10 and 180 pounds he’s not all that big, and he didn’t get much time last season running 52 yards on 14 carries while catching two passes for 14 yards before suffering a hamstring injury Quick and extremely good in the open field, he’ll be used in a variety of ways and will be a good three-down playmaker.
6-0, 215-pound sophomore Donovonn Young turned in a surprising true freshman season finishing fourth on the team with 451 yards but tied for second with six scoring runs. Smart, tough and good as an all-around back, he can catch a little bit and can work inside or out averaging 5.2 yards per carry. He’ll get at least ten carries a game, while quarterback Miles Osei will be the third option in the mix to get his quickness and athleticism on the field. If disaster strikes he’ll be under center, but he’ll mostly be a running back and a receiver.
If and when the new offense uses a fullback it’ll be up to 6-3, 250-pound senior Zach Becker, a strong blocker and occasional tight end who can’t seem to stay healthy. The smart walk-on saw plenty of work in his first few years as a special teamer but was hurt throughout his 2010 season with a foot problem. Last year he started the first few games before breaking his leg and getting knocked out for the year.
Watch Out For … Ferguson. While the running backs might not rock like Mikel Leshoure and Rashard Mendenhall did under Ron Zook, the chance will be there for a feature back to take the job by the horns. Ferguson appeared to do just that this spring.
Strength: Toledo. The Rocket rushing game was good over the last few years and was fantastic last season rushing for 214 yards and was explosive. Can Beckman get the same production out of his backs? Ferguson and Young are young and talented. They should be ready to shine.
Weakness: Nathan Scheelhaase. The quarterback was the team’s leading rusher because he had to be. Young got in a little work and Ferguson had a few carries, but the Illini backs have to prove they can carry the load on a regular basis.
Outlook: The backs will do more than they did last year. After finishing 11th in the nation in rushing in 2010 the Illini sputtered in 2011 averaging 172 yards per carry. The hope was for Jason Ford to be a breakout star, but that didn’t happen. Now the hope is for Ferguson to be the breakout star, and this time, it has to happen.
Unit Rating: 6.5
A.J. Jenkins caught 90 of the team’s 226 completed passes and eight of the 14 touchdowns. A new No. 1 target has to be found with the hopes that junior Spencer Harris can potentially be the guy. At 6-3 and 195 pounds he has size to go along with good athleticism. However, while he finished second on the team with 26 catches for 226 yards and a score he only averaged 8.7 yards per catch. Smart and with good potential, the Arkansas native should be a deep threat and could be a dangerous option at the Z. He’ll be backed up by 6-2, 190-pound redshirt freshman Jeremy Whitlow, a deep play prospect with decent skills on the inside.
Looking to stretch the field from the outside X is 5-11, 185-pound junior Darius Millines after finishing fourth on the team with 19 catches for 218 yards and a score. With 4.4 wheels he can be used as a returner as well as a dangerous playmaker in single coverage. Now he has to produce on a consistent basis after missing time with a foot injury and struggling to come up big when he returned. He started the year with five catches for 119 yards and a score against Arkansas State with a 45-yard score, but failed to come up with more than 38 yards in a game the rest of the way. He’ll work in a combination with sophomore Fritz Rock, a 6-1, 210-pound former safety with excellent speed and toughness. There’s big-time upside after he gets a little time in the rotation.
6-0, 175-pound junior Ryan Lankford was a part-time starter in the middle of the year when Millines went down. A fill-in over the first part of his career, the speedster from Florida now will take over one of the starting jobs after catches 12 passes for 108 yards. He didn’t come up with any big plays as a receiver or a punt returner, but he has the speed and athleticism to do far more at the H. Redshirt freshman Jordan Frysinger came close to winning the Gatorade New York Player of the Year honors two years ago as both a runner and receiver. As good a football player as he might be, he was a better lacrosse player coming out of high school.
Is Jon Davis a tight end or a big wide receiver? He’s a bit of both at 6-3 and 230 pounds with good athleticism and great hands. He finished third on the team with 22 catches for 187 yards and a touchdown, but he can do more down the field either in two tight end sets or as a fourth wide receiver.
6-6, 250-pound junior Evan Wilson is a big, strong target who caught nine passes for 89 yards and three scores on short plays. However, he has mostly been a blocker when given the chance. While he can stretch things a bit and was able to come up with 13.5 yards per grab two years ago, he’s mostly going to be used around the goal line and as a blocker. 6-4, 250-pound senior Eddie Viliunas started out his career as a walk-on quarterback but quickly moved over to tight end. A good blocker, he also showed he could make a few big plays here and there catching four passes for 61 yards in his limited role.
Watch Out For … Lankford. Millines can’t stay healthy and Harris has been a midrange target so far. Lankford doesn’t have to be Jenkins, but he has the potential to be dangerous. The offense needs him to be.
Strength: Speed. Losing Jenkins takes away a warp speedster, but this is still a really, really fast group of targets who can all run from all spots. Even the tight ends can move. However, for all the speed and athleticism there aren’t enough …
Weakness: Big plays. Jenkins was the one dangerous playmaker on the lot. Millines came up with one long touchdown in the opener, but that was it for a receiving corps that averaged 10.6 yards per catch. Take Jenkins’ numbers out of the mix and Illinois averaged fewer than ten yards a grab.
Outlook: This is one of the team’s biggest X factors. The passing game didn’t do much of anything when Jenkins wasn’t making big plays, and now several average players have to step up and produce. Millines has to stay healthy and Lankford and Harris have to be better. It would be nice if there was a surprise breakout performer.
Unit Rating: 6
The line struggled in pass protection and didn’t do nearly enough to pound away for the ground game in a very, very disappointing year. There’s enough talent returning to hope from more production and it all has to start in the middle with senior Graham Pocic, an all-star in 2010 and a 13-game starter last season. At 6-7 and 305 pounds he’s built like a tackle and is way too tall for a center, but he’s a talented enough player to have been wanted by Florida, Wisconsin and other big-time programs, and now he has to be an anchor. He looked like he stepped up his game this offseason.
Also back in a starting spot is 6-5, 310-pound senior Hugh Thornton who spent last year as the weakside guard but is athletic enough to work at tackle if needed. He’ll start at left guard again and needs to stay healthy after missing part of last year with a leg problem. A mauler, the former two-time state heavyweight championship wrestler is a blaster for the ground game. He’ll be backed up by sophomore Alex Hill, who stepped in late in the year and started. While the 6-3, 325-pounder didn’t see too much time throughout the season, the 6-3, 325-pounder is a big hitter with the potential to be great for the ground game. He can play center if needed.
Stepping in at left tackle for Jeff Allen will be 6-5, 285-pound Simon Cvijanovic after starting four times late last year at strong tackle. While he’s not huge and wasn’t a top recruit, he’s quick is great on the move. Adding even more quickness is the undersized Patrick Flavin, who at 6-7 and 260 pounds has an excellent frame with the ability
6-5, 295-pound sophomore Michael Heitz started the first eight games of the season and came back late to start in the bowl. He was deep in a battle with Cvijanovic for a starting job last year and despite struggling with his consistency as a pass protector he should lock down the gig for another three years. A star recruit, he has the potential to bulk up a few more pounds and could be a whale of a guard if needed.
Right guard is the biggest question mark after Jack Cornell started all 13 games. 6-4, 290-pound redshirt freshman Ted Karras was a decent recruit and the nephew of NFL great Alex Karras. While he has the frame and he’s ready to step in and produce right away, he has to prove he can hold up. 6-5, 305-pound senior Tyler Sands adds more bulk to the position. He got in a start against Northwestern, but he’s mostly been a special teamer so far. An academic all-star and a one-time star recruit, he can play almost anywhere on the line.
Watch Out For … Cvijanovic. He got his feet wet late last year and now he’s being tried out on the left side. He has the feet and he has the athleticism, but he’s not the mauler or all-around blocker that Allen was. It might take a while to prove he can handle the work.
Strength: Pocic. Combined with Thornton the interior of the Illini line should be solid Pocic is a veteran anchor to work around while Thornton has been as steady as they come. The line needs senior leadership, and these two provide it.
Weakness: Pass protection. The numbers are a bit off because Nathan Scheelhaase is a mobile quarterback who gets dropped behind the line too often, but the line struggled last year to keep him upright. Allen might be gone, but the experience and quickness are there to improve.
Outlook: The line should’ve been better. Now under the command of Luke Butkus it has a nice blend of tough veterans on the inside and underclassmen ready to play big roles. It’s going to take a little while before everything comes together but there’s good upside and there’s surprising experience. It’s not going to be a great line, but it won’t be a liability.
Unit Rating: 6.5
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