2010 Illinois Preview – Offense
Illinois RB Mikel Leshoure
CollegeFootballNews.com 2010 Preview - Illinois Fighting Illini Offense
Preview 2010 - Offense
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What You Need To Know: There were some major disasters and mega-disappointments across the college football landscape last year, but few were more stunning than the lack of production from an Illinois offense that had all the pieces in place to blow up. While the ground game was fine, the passing attack that was supposed to be strength was shockingly mediocre. While things aren't changing up too dramatically scheme-wise, new offensive coordinator Paul Petrino will have plenty of tinkering to do. The quarterback situation is starting from square one with redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase needing to show right away that he can be the franchise for the next four years, and while he's a dangerous dual-threat prospect, he'll have to work behind a big, veteran line that's great for the ground game and struggles in pass protection. Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford are home run hitting backs who should make the ground game shine, and the receiving corps has some excellent talents even though there isn't a true No. 1, Arrelious Benn-like star to work around.
Star of the offense: Junior RB Mikel Leshoure
Passing: Eddie McGee
25-47, 303 yds, 1 TD, 3 INT
Rushing: Mikel Leshoure
108 carries, 734 yds, 5 TD
Receiving: Jarred Fayson
16 catches, 218 yds, 1 TD
Player who has to step up and be a star: Senior OT Ryan Palmer
Unsung star on the rise: Junior WR A.J. Jenkins
Best pro prospect: Junior OT Jeff Allen
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Leshoure, 2) Allen, 3) OG Hugh Thornton
Strength of the offense: Running Game, Line Size
Weakness of the offense: Quarterback Experience, Proven No. 1 Receiver
Projected Starter: Redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase came to Illinois to be a dual-threat, spread quarterback. While his talents don't necessarily mesh with what new offensive coordinator wants to do, he was by far the best quarterback throughout the offseason before struggling in the spring game. At 6-3 and 195 pounds, he has good size and the running skills to be one of the Big Ten's most dangerous playmakers on the move. The 2007 Missouri Gatorade Player of the Year will still have to fight for the starting job, but it's his for the taking with his mobility to help the running game go.
Projected Top Reserves: Chandler Whitmer , your table is ready. The 5-11, 190-pound recruit was supposed to get a little bit of time to ease his way into the program, but now he's the No. 2 man with Jacob Charest transferring. Whitmer isn't all that big, but he has a nice arm and great mobility to run the spread offense and crank out yards in chunks. Already considered a top high school prospect, he would've been wanted by everyone if he was a few inches taller, but he has no problem making the throws with his mobility allowing him to make tosses on the move.
Sophomore Jacob Charest stepped in when Juice Williams was struggling and came up with a nice performance leading the Illini to a win over Minnesota before struggling a bit in a loss to Northwestern. The 6-4, 215-pounder finished the year completing 28-of-56 passes for 382 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions, but even with his experience and his live arm, he wasn't able to make a big push for the No. 1 spot and ended up leaving the team. He was a better pro-style passer than Nathan Scheelhaase and has the résumé throwing for 7,683 yards and 73 touchdowns in his North Carolina high school career, but he didn't wow when needed. Even so, his loss is a big disappointment for the depth.
Watch Out For … Scheelhaase to be allowed to sink or swim. No, wide receiver Eddie McGee isn't going to be moved back to quarterback and Whitmer isn't likely to see time unless there's an emergency. Scheelhasse was so good this offseason that Charest, a very, very good prospect, took off.
Strength: Mobility. There's talk that Scheelhaase will be every bit the runner that Juice Williams was, and while he doesn't have the same arm, he should be a more consistent passer. Whitmer is also a passer, but he runs extremely well.
Weakness: Experience. When the most experienced passer on the roster is a wide receiver, there's cause for concern. There's great promise and potential among the prospects, but there will be some rocky moments.
Outlook: The season depends on the emergence of Scheelhaase to be a steady playmaker. The offense had a four-year veteran in Juice Williams under center last year and it didn't matter, but Scheelhaase has to be better. If Whitmer can redshirt, great, but he'll go into the year as the clear No. 2 being thrown to the wolves right away.
Unit Rating: 6
Projected Starters: Junior Mikel Leshoure quietly had a nice season leading the team with 734 yards and five scores highlighted by back-to-back 100-yard weeks. He ran for 122 yards against Purdue and ripped off 150 yards and a score against Michigan, but he saved his best for last with 184 yards and two scores in the season finale against Fresno State. At 6-0 and 230 pounds he brings good size, strong running ability, and shiftiness for his bulk. Able to be used as a receiver, he caught 14 passes for 177 yards and two scores.
Ready to play a big role in a position that hasn't been used much in the Ron Zook era is Greg Fuller , a 6-1, 240-pound redshirt freshman who was considered among the nation's best fullbacks when he was brought aboard last year. He would've been a featured player at Wisconsin or Notre Dame, but he'll mostly be a blocker and an occasional receiver for the Illini.
Projected Top Reserves: Expected to be the main man to start last year, junior Jason Ford ended up being a complementary runner finishing with 588 yards and four scores averaging 6.1 yards per carry. A powerful 6-0, 235-pounder who was a star recruit a few years ago, he's strong around the goal line running for eight scores in 2008, and he has shown some nice moments running for 128 yards with a 79-yard score against Michigan and 172 yards and three touchdowns against Indiana two years ago. He'll get around ten touches a game and will occasionally be used as a receiver after making 11 catches for 128 yards.
Junior Troy Pollard has the speed and has the experience to step in here and there and crank out some decent yards. He got the start against Illinois State, but he only ran for 26 yards, and he ended up running for just 67 yards on the year. With a career average of 6.3 yards per carry he can come up with some big runs, but he needs the ball more. At 5-8 and 190 pounds, though, he's not a workhorse and he has had some injury issues.
Watch Out For … Leshoure to be the main man and be fed the ball early and often. If things work out according to plan, the big, bulky junior handles the ball 15 times or more a game, even though he only had to games with more than 15 runs last year, and he puts up some big numbers here and there. He's a slot machine; keep feeding him and he'll eventually pay off.
Strength: Yards per carry. The line is great at opening up holes, and while the rushing production isn't steady, there are enough home runs to make the average yards per carry impressive. Leshoure averaged 6.8 yards per pop, Ford averaged 6.1, and Pollard averaged 6.1.
Weakness: Consistency. The ground game blew up for 377 yards against Michigan and 331 against Fresno State, but it was relatively mediocre throughout the rest of the season running for fewer than 175 yards in six games. 13 of the 22 rushing scores came in three games.
Outlook: In Leshore and Ford the Illini have a nice 1-2 punch with speed and power to do a little bit of everything for the ground game. Having a running quarterback like Nathan Scheelhaase will help open things up a bit for the backs, and the line is good enough for the ground game to open up some big holes.
Unit Rating: 7.5
Projected Starters: Things weren't working out for A.J. Jenkins a tremendous recruit out of Florida who caught 21 passes for 410 yards and four touchdowns in his first two years. There were rumors that he was going to transfer, but instead he stuck around and was one of the stars of the offseason. At 6-0 and 185 pounds he's not huge, but he's a blazer who can get in and out of his cuts in a hurry. While he might not be a No. 1 receiver right away, he has a world of upside and could quickly be the main man for the passing game.
6-0, 215-pound senior Jarred Fayson finished third on the team with 16 catches for 218 yards and a score as he didn't play as big a role as expected. He started out his career at Florida working as both a returner and a runner, and while he has the upside and explosion to become a deep threat as long as there's more consistent play from the quarterbacks.
A dangerous running quarterback, senior Eddie McGee had a few nice moments completing 13-of-17 passes for 164 yards and a touchdown with an interception, while running for 55 yards and two scores against Illinois State, but he wasn't able to beat Juice Williams out for a job. At 6-4 and 210 pounds with excellent athleticism, he's too good to not be on the field and is being used as a receiver after catching four passes for 108 yards, with one catch in each of the last four games to close out the year. With his smarts and tools, he should be a dangerous weapon no that there's no question what his position is.
With Michael Hoomanawanui gone, the Illini must find a new dangerous tight end to become a bigger part of the attack. 6-3, 250-pound junior Zach Becker didn't catch a pass after making just one grab for two yards in 2008, but now he's the safety valve. Mostly a special teamer so far, he's a tough, strong blocker with good athleticism. He won't blow up, but he should make around 15 catches.
Projected Top Reserves: 5-11, 200-pound Jack Ramsey was decent in his first year in the rotation making 16 catches for 182 yards, but he didn't score. A very strong, physical target who can work inside or out, the sophomore will be a key piece to the puzzle working in combination with A.J. Jenkins to stretch the field. Extremely quick, he can be used as a kick and punt returner if needed.
Junior Fred Scott is a promising 6-0, 190-pound junior from Tampa who made a little bit of a splash last year catching ten passes for 75 yards and two scores. He got the starting nod in five games and was strong in the loss to Cincinnati with two scoring grabs, and now he'll be a part of the three and four wide sets while working in a variety of spots. He'll mostly play behind Eddie McGee.
Redshirt freshman Steve Hull is a field stretcher who'll get his chance behind Jarred Fayson. The 6-2, 195-pounder can jump out of the stadium and could be dangerous around the goal line, but for now he'll have to take advantage of his few opportunities in the rotation to hit a home run here and there.
Getting his feet wet last year was backup tight end London Davis , a 6-4, 255-pound sophomore with the physical ability to be a solid blocker and just enough athleticism to grow into a receiver. He made the most of his one catch scoring against Michigan on a two-yard play, and now he'll get plenty of action in two tight end sets while also pushing Zach Becker for the starting job.
Watch Out For … Jenkins. With so many good receivers who weren't used correctly, like Arreloius Benn, the passing game didn't have room for many new playmakers to emerge. Jenkins was frustrated, and rightly so, but now he's the main guy and he should be blossom if the quarterback play is solid.
Strength: Speedy options. Illinois hasn't had much of a problem bringing in good-sized, fast recruits who can stretch the field. While there weren't nearly enough home runs hit last year for a corps that should've been among the most productive in the country, this year's group should be able to come up with several big plays.
Weakness: The quarterbacks. Nathan Scheelhaase will be a good one, but he's starting from scratch. The passing game didn't really work last year a veteran in Juice Williams at the helm, and now the hope has to be that the reset button is being pushed and the passing game can simply start over.
Outlook: There isn't an Arrelious Benn-like marquee name to make the new starting quarterback better, but Jenkins is a talent, McGee is a veteran who knows what he's doing, and Fayson is a playmaker who should shine if he gets the ball thrown his way more. Last year's corps turned out to be way overrated, but this year's crop of new starters might be underrated.
Unit Rating: 6.5
Projected Starters: The line needs better pass protection, and it's going to have to start with Jeff Allen , a 6-5, 305-pound junior who started every game and has been a far better run blocker than a pass protector. He earned All-Freshman honors from several sources two years ago and has the talent, the strength, and the athleticism to be an anchor who grows even more into the job over the next two seasons.
The spotlight will be on senior Ryan Palmer to hold down the strong tackle job after Corey Lewis went down with a torn ACL. At 6-7 and 310 pounds, he's a big, veteran blocker who started three games in 2008 before suffering a foot injury and started the first five games of last year before getting banged up again. He's not as good as Lewis or Jeff Allen, but he's versatile, isn't coming in cold, and isn't bad in pass protection.
6-5, 310-pound sophomore Hugh Thornton stepped in as a true freshman and took over the starting right tackle job starting the final seven games of the year. A far better fit for the inside, even with the frame to play outside, he'll get the starting nod at weak guard where he can use his strength and mauling ability to keep the production for the ground game going. A star high school wrestler winning the Idaho state heavyweight title twice, he has no problems getting physical.
Sophomore Graham Pocic was one of the team's top recruits in 2008 and was considered good enough to take over a starting spot right away. He could've gone anywhere with Florida, Tennessee, Michigan and Wisconsin putting on the full court press, and his signing was considered a major coup for the Illini. Now he has to live up to the hype. He has been tried out in several spots as a reserve, and now he'll try to jump-start his career at center. At 6-7 and 305 pounds he's way too tall for the position, he should be a tackle, but he has the talent to eventually become special.
Senior Randall Hunt took on the starting left guard job doing a fantastic job for the ground game. At 6-6 and 315 pounds he's a very big, very physical run blocker who was originally considered a top tackle prospect and was considered a possible defensive tackle when he first signed on. The veteran now has grown into the position on the offensive front and he should be a key, steady blocker once again.
Projected Top Reserves: Sophomore Tyler Sands is one of the team's key reserves getting the start at left guard against Purdue and seeing a little bit of time in a few other games in his true freshman campaign. At 6-5 and 305 pounds he has good size and great smarts, earning Academic All-Big Ten honors, and now he'll push for time at center as well as weak guard.
Mostly a special teamer so far, 6-5, 320-pound Craig Wilson needs to bring it at tackle. With the depth paper thin, he has to use his good feet and nice size to be a steady pass blocker when he gets his chances on either side. Mostly used as a backup behind Jeff Allen, he'll have to fill in where needed.
True freshman Shawn Afryl was considered one of the nation's top guard recruits and he'll get a look at tackle to see if he can be a capable reserve. A great pass protector in high school, he has the feet, and at 6-3 and 310 pounds he has the size to be ready to go from Day One. There's a chance he could be used as a defensive tackle with his ready-made physical tools.
Watch Out For … Pocic. There isn't talk of him being a bust, but he hasn't quite been the killer everyone was expecting him to be when he arrived on campus. The coaching staff would love nothing more than to have him shine at center.
Strength: Size and talent. The Illini line is full of prep stars who were all great recruits who upped the talent level in a big way over the last few years. Everyone is 6-5 or taller, and everyone is 305 pounds or bigger. Great for shoving people around, the bulk has been used well to pave the way for the Big Ten's second best rushing attack.
Weakness: Pass protection. Part of the problem was the quarterback play with Juice Williams trying too hard to make something happen, and often too indecisive in doing it, but the line also struggled in a big way to keep the quarterbacks upright. The line allowed 25 sacks two years ago and gave up 29 last year.
Outlook: There are plenty of great prospects, tons of size, and some versatile players who are expected to grow into major stars. At least that's the hope. The tackles are the biggest concern after the loss of starter Corey Lewis to a torn ACL, and there might be some shuffling just before the season to find the right combination. However, if everyone plays up to their potential the line will among the best in the Big Ten, but that's probably not going to happen. The running production will be great behind this group.
Unit Rating: 7
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