2013 Illinois Preview – Offense
Illinois RB Donovonn Young
CollegeFootballNews.com 2013 Preview - Illinois Fighting Illini Offense
Preview 2013 - Offense
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What You Need To Know:
Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit inherits a wealth of experience, but will there be any production? Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase regressed behind a leaky line that didn't give him any time to operate, and the backfield didn't provide enough help for an offense that finished second-to-last in the nation in both scoring and yards. The first step will be to get more out of the line that was the worst in the Big Ten in pass protection and did nothing for the ground game. However, it was a young line that should settle in now. More time for Scheelhaase has to translate into more pop and explosion for a passing game that went absolutely nowhere. Fortunately, three starters are back in the receiving corps, while Donovonn Young leads a quick and young group of running backs.
Star of the offense: Senior QB Nathan Scheelhaase
Passing: Nathan Scheelhaase
149-246, 1,361 yds, 4 TD, 8 INT
Rushing: Donovonn Young
131 carries, 571 yds, 3 TD
Receiving: Donovonn Young
38 catches, 172 yds, 1 TD
Player who has to step up and be a star: Junior C Alex Hill
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore RB Josh Ferguson
Best pro prospect: Junior OG Michael Heitz
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Scheelhaase, 2) WR Ryan Lankford, 3) RB Donovonn Young
Strength of the offense: Experience, Scheelhaase
Weakness of the offense: Big Plays, Scoring
There's taking a step back, and there's Nathan Scheelhaase's junior season. The 6-3, 200-pound veteran turned in a solid 2011 for a struggling offense with a few big performances with both his legs and arm, but last year he couldn't seem to get much of anything working deep with just 1,361 passing yards and four scores with eight picks. He was fine on his short-range passes, completing 60% of his throws, but they didn't go anywhere. After running for 624 yards two years ago, he was bottled up with defenses keying on him, gaining just 303 yards with a team-leading four scores. The 2007 Gatorade Illinois Player of the Year still has time to close things out with a big performance in his fourth season as the starter, but he needs more help from the rest of the offense and has to show he can take the team to another level.
Junior Riley O'Toole has stepped in from time to time and at times looked like the team's strongest passer, throwing for 333 yards and five scores when getting his chance against Charleston Southern and hitting on 19-of-25 passes against Louisiana Tech, but for just 120 yards. At 6-4 and 220 pounds, the 2010 Gatorade Illinois Player of the Year has the size along with 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. He'll work with 6-1, 195-pound sophomore Chase Haslett isn't all that big, but the son of NFL coach Jim Haslett is tough with a decent, accurate arm.
Watch Out For … star recruit Aaron Bailey. An excellent get for the program, he slid down the recruiting rankings after being hurt as a senior, but at 6-2 and 220 pounds he has decent size with tremendous rushing skills and playmaking ability. A great athlete, he fits the Illinois dual-threat mode with a huge upside.
Strength: Mobility. When he's in a groove, Scheelhaase can be as dangerous as any non-Braxton Miller quarterback in the Big Ten. O'Toole can run for his size, and Bailey is a terrific rushing options.
Weakness: Throwing deep. The Illini quarterbacks can complete passes, but they can't do it for big yards and huge plays. Illinois QBs combined to hit 63% of their throws, but they averaged a horrendous 9.1 yards per completion.
Outlook: There's way too much talent and way too much experience to be so bad. Scheelhaase knows what he's doing and needs to use all his time logged in to be far better, while O'Toole has the skills to take over the job if there are problems again. There are options, but Scheelhaase has to improve and be more consistent.
Unit Rating: 7
The hope was for Donovonn Young to grow into more of a playmaker and take the running back gig by the horns, and he tried, leading the team with 571 yards and three touchdowns averaging 4.4 yards per carry. He also led the team in receptions with 38 grabs, but he went absolutely nowhere averaging a paltry 4.5 yards per catch with 172 yards and one touchdown. At 6-0 and 220 pounds he's big and tough with the smarts do what he needs to for the offense in an all-around role, but after coming up with just one 100-yard day – 124 yards against Indiana – he needs more room to move.
Sophomore Josh Ferguson showed the ability and skill last offseason to become the No. 1 running back to carry the load but he got a bit dinged up and wasn't as effective as Young, rushing for 312 yards averaging just 4.2 yards per carry with no scores. A nice receiver, he finished fourth on the team with 29 catches for 251 yards, but he has to stay healthy. Quick and extremely good in the open field, he can be used in a variety of ways. He'll be in the rotation with Young, by 5-10, 205-pound sophomore Dami Ayoola could quickly become a much bigger factor after getting a little bit of work rushing for 117 yards and two scores. The Florida native was a good recruit with excellent quickness through the hole and good deep speed.
Watch Out For … Kendrick Foster, a good recruit with tremendous speed adding more flash to the attack. An ultra-productive Illinois high school back, he's a home run waiting to happen with shifty moves and a great burst. He's only 5-9 and 190 pounds, but he can fly.
Strength: Quickness. Young, Ferguson and the rest of the lot might not be bangers and might not be workhorses, but they can all cut on a dime and go. They need room to move and better blocking up front, but they all have the skills to crank out big yards with a little help.
Weakness: Pure power. Of the team's 12 rushing touchdowns, the backs only came up with five of them and didn't show any pop whatsoever when the hole wasn't there. These are quick runners who weren't able to make enough plays on their own and didn't finish up runs with enough strength.
Outlook: The coaching staff was able to come up with huge rushing numbers at Toledo and should be able to get far more out of this group if the line can start to help the cause. There's experience, versatility and extreme quickness to come up with a nice rotation to keep everyone fresh, but the production has to kick in. There must be more big plays and more consistency, but the players are there to do far more.
Unit Rating: 7
If the Illini are going to get more big plays, they'll probably come from Ryan Lankford, a 6-0, 175-pound senior who led the team with a 12.7-yard average making 37 grabs for 469 yards and five scores. He fell off the map over the second half of the season and didn't score over the final six games. The speedster from Florida can stretch the field and be used in a variety of ways on the outside X.
Returning to his starting spot at the inside Z is 6-3, 195-pound Spencer Harris, a big target with good athleticism and plenty of experience. While he'll come up with a few catches per game, he failed to make much of an impact cranking out just four catches over the final four games when the team needed him the most. Working at the T position is former quarterback Miles Osei, a 6-0, 200-pound senior who saw a little bit of time in the loss to Arizona State completing 4-of-10 passes with two picks, but he stepped up as a receiver last year with five catches for 44 yards over the last four games. He's ultra-quick and trying to find a role in his final season.
JUCO transfer Martize Barr could instantly become the No. 1 target. The 6-0, 190-pounder is a physical, tough receiver with excellent deep speed. He started out his career at New Mexico and went through Iowa Western Community College, and now he'll battle with Osei for a spot. 6-1, 190-pound sophomore Justin Hardee is a speedster who stretched the field catching 17 passes for 192 yards as part of the Z rotation, and 6-2, 200-pound senior Steve Hull is a veteran defensive back who's moving over to the offensive side after making 17 stops and getting banged up. He came to Illinois as a receiver and won't have any problems adjusting.
Junior Jon Davis is more like a big wide receiver than a true tight end, but he bulked up a bit to get to 240 pounds on his 6-3 frame. He has good athleticism and great hands, but he saw his production slow to a crawl with a mere nine catches for 88 yards and a score. He'll be backed up by 6-6, 250-pound senior Evan Wilson, a short-range receiver and blocker, catching just two passes for nine yards.
Watch Out For … the new tight end. Davis might have experience, but he'll have to fight off a few true freshman Tyler White, a 6-5, 245-pound receiver who has the talent and skills to be key pass catchers right away.
Strength: Speed. The raw wheels aren't the problem. There's size, quickness and the wheels to get deep, and now it has to show. If the Illini want to start throwing long, the receivers are place to start taking the top off of defenses. However, there's a problem with …
Weakness: Big plays. Where are the deep passes? Illinois averaged a pathetic 9.1 yards per catch and Lankford was the only playmaker. There have to be more deep balls, but the receivers have to start doing something with the ball in their hands.
Outlook: There was a thought that this group could've grown into a quietly strong corps last year, but it doesn't work. There isn't anyone who scares a defense, but there's depth and just enough experience to spread things out and start making the passing game work a little better.
Unit Rating: 6
The Illinois offensive front has had major problems in pass protection over the past few years and struggled once again in the ground game. The front five has to be more physical, and it has to start on the left side with 6-5, 295-pound junior Simon Cvijanovic, who got a few games in under his belt two years ago before seeing starting time last year at both tackle spots. He's not huge and he wasn't a top recruit, but he's quick and gets on the move. He'll be joined by guard Michael Heitz, a former top recruit who grew into his 6-5, 305-pound size and found a home on the inside. Originally a tackle, starting out the season at right tackle, the junior should shine with more time at guard.
6-4, 300-pound sophomore Ted Karras was a decent recruit, and now the nephew of former NFL great, Alex Karras, has the potential to do far more for the running game at right guard after struggling with his consistency in his first season. He was a rock as the only Illini lineman to start every game. He has the body, and now he has to use it. 6-6, 310-pound senior Corey Lewis is back after missing over two years trying to get back from five different knee surgeries. While he might not be all that quick, he has fought hard to earn a shot at the starting right tackle job. 6-5, 290-pound sophomore Scott McDowell was a great recruit two years ago and should be rest to fill in if needed.
Junior Alex Hill will take over for Graham Pocic at center. He's big and experienced, getting a little bit of starting time two years ago and kicking off last year at left guard. More of a blaster than Pocic, he's not as talented, but he'll hit.
Watch Out For … JUCO transfer Dallas Hinkhouse and freshman Austin Schmidt, two of the team's most talented newcomers. The two will battle for time behind Cvijanovic at left tackle, but they're good enough to be used somewhere. The 6-5, 275-pound Hinkhouse should provide ready-made depth after spending last year at Iowa Western Community College, while the 6-6, 275-pound Schmidt has tight end athleticism with the quickness to become the team's top left tackle.
Strength: The left side. Cvijanovic and Heitz should be the team's most consistent blockers who should be able to hold down the jobs for the next two years. They started to settle in a bit up front, and now they're being used together with Hugh Thornton gone on the left side.
Weakness: Blocking. The Illini hasn't protected the quarterback over the last several seasons and it didn't get nearly enough going for the ground game. There are too many options and too many veterans to not be better, but the consistency has to be there after an awful 2012.
Outlook: A massive disappointment two years ago, there wasn't the expected bounceback with too much shuffling and too many problems. This isn't a physical line in any way, but it has to be effective against the quicker defensive fronts. It's time to starting being more than a negative.
Unit Rating: 6
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