Spring football has eclipsed the halfway point and the coaches are beginning to release some interesting information about the team. While there aren't too many storylines yet, and there's still plenty of time left for players to improve, all of these bits and pieces come together to provide a nice picture of what the team will look like in August. Today, we'll see what we can learn about next year's offense, position-by-position.
@ALionEye Yeah, he does that. It's been hard for me not to hype him. Made a couple NFL out throws last week.— Jeremy Werner (@WernerESPNCU) March 15, 2014
Despite what the Illini staff wants you to think, I have good reason to believe the "race" for the starting quarterback job is already wrapped up. Wes Lunt has been lauded by just about everyone on the planet at this point, and would appear to have the best arm Illinois has seen in over a decade. Lunt is the type of QB that OC Bill Cubit loved at Western Michigan (see: Alex Carder) except with loads more talent. If I were making a depth chart right now I'd have Wes Lunt in first place, written in Sharpie.
Again, I'd be shocked if Lunt didn't win this job. His arm allows him to make throws on the hash that open up the field even more for Cubit.— Jeremy Werner (@WernerESPNCU) March 21, 2014
That does not, however, mean the other two men won't see playing time. Though Reilly O'Toole plays somewhat like a poor man's Lunt, Aaron Bailey brings an excitement to the quarterback position that was apparent throughout last year. I certainly wouldn't rule out a two quarterback system, with Lunt receiving the majority of the snaps and Bailey coming in roughly 20 percent of the time to provide a change of pace for the offense. Ultimately, Bailey is extremely skilled in his own right and I'll bet we see him in at least a role similar to last year, but with more responsibilities.
Running back is another position where Illinois is in good shape. Junior Josh Ferguson, the presumed starter this fall, is coming off a year in which he averaged just below 100 all-purpose yards a game. Ferguson is explosive in the open field and Cubit will do whatever he can to get him the ball in space. I haven't personally heard much about Josh this spring, but I think it's safe to assume that he'll deliver more of the same this fall. And of course, it always helps to get some tips from Dwight Howard when you're playing running back (no it doesn't):
In terms of depth, running back is probably just slightly above average compared to other positions. Senior Donovonn Young was rumored to be considering a transfer but he ultimately decided to come back to Champaign. I've seen in multiple places that Young is working really hard to get more touches next season, so we can hopefully expect him to perform well in a backup role.
At his best, Young is a strong downhill runner that would pair nicely with the shifty Ferguson. At the back end of the depth chart, sophomore Devin Church and redshirt freshman Kendrick Foster will have to step up in case of injury.
Four senior wide receivers departed after last season, which means there is quite a bit of production to replace at the position. If the early hype train for Mikey Dudek is any indication however, there's plenty of talent to replace them. Coaches Beckman and Cubit simply cannot stop talking about this freshman. Dudek, or "Dude K" to Robert of Illiniboard, was an early enrollee and has impressed throughout the spring practices:
Cubit: "I thought Mikey Dudek had the best day of anybody. He just makes plays. He made some really great catches today."— Matt Daniels (@mdaniels_NG) March 31, 2014
#illini coach Tim Beckman said that if season started today, true freshman WR Mikey Dudek would start. Really impressive spring.— Jeremy Werner (@WernerESPNCU) April 2, 2014
Dudek is just five-foot-eleven and 180 pounds, so he'd likely be a slot receiver in most formations. Standout freshmen wide receivers are pretty uncommon, typically because they need to bulk up before taking on Division I defensive backs. For Dudek though, we may not have to wait long before he makes an impact.
Junior college transfer Geronimo Allison has reportedly been contributing quite a bit throughout spring ball as well. Allison is tall and quick, but still needs to put on some weight before the season (six-foot-three, 180 lbs). In his most recent Slapdash post on Illiniboard, Robert predicted Allison to finish with more catches than any other wide receiver. This seems fine to me, as Allison has the height and speed to be a good outside receiver. Out of all the new wide receivers Illinois brought in this year, I was most impressed with Allison's highlight film.
Though the newcomers are interesting, perhaps the best receivers for next year were on the roster in 2013. Two upperclassmen stand out here; Martize Barr and Justin Hardee. Hardee had 17 catches in his freshman year for 192 yards. This led many to believe that a large improvement was coming in year two, but Hardee actually produced less behind all of the seniors. Now, Hardee is the second-oldest receiver on the roster and will certainly have a shot at a starting job. Barr was a junior college transfer last season and he hauled in 26 catches for 246 yards. Martize started off the season well, but quickly tailed off and recorded just four catches in Illinois' final five games. He'll have as good a shot as anyone.
If season started today, top four wideouts for #Illini would be Geronimo Allison, Martize Barr, Dudek and Justin Hardee— Matt Daniels (@mdaniels_NG) April 2, 2014
Last but not least, Tyrin Stone-Davis is a junior college transfer who will be a sophomore for Illinois next season. He wasn't able to enroll early at the U of I and will instead be joining the team in the summer. Stone-Davis is a complete wildcard at this point: nobody really knows what he can do or how he fits into the offense. We should have a firmer grip on his ability after he practices with the team in Rantoul prior to the season.
This one is super easy. Matt LaCosse and Jon Davis were involved last year and will almost certainly be the starting two this season. Like Josh Ferguson, there hasn't been much news about either of these gentlemen during spring football. They've both been held down by minor injuries thus far, but nothing seems like it'll be a problem by the time fall comes around.
Personally, I'm predicting that LaCosse has a breakout year catching the football. At six-foot-six, he's (literally) a huge weapon in the passing game. He's also just fast enough to outrun some linebackers, making him the prototypical player that every announcer loves to call a "matchup nightmare". With the potential inconsistency of new starters at wide receiver, here's to hoping that Matt LaCosse and/or Jon Davis take on a bigger role in the offense this year. Cheers.
Finally, we come to the big fellas. Perhaps one of the biggest assets on the offensive line is experience, and Illinois is overflowing with it in 2014. Four starters from last year will return, three of them seniors: LT Simon Cvijanovic, LG Michael Heitz, C Alex Hill, and RG Ted Karras will be there to protect the quarterback again. Joining them will almost certainly be new right tackle Austin Schmidt, who Tim Beckman has named the leader for the position. Beckman hasn't said too much about the returning offensive linemen, but he did say at the beginning of spring that Heitz and Karras had really emerged as leaders of the offense. I don't think the line will be all that deep this year, but interior lineman Joe Spencer seems to have emerged as the clear sixth man of the rotation.
That just about rounds out everything we've learned about the offense this spring. Overall, it all looks kinda similar to last year's offense. We lost Scheelhaase and the wide receivers, but there's a good chance the passing game doesn't slip too much. If Lunt, Bailey, and the new receivers are all they're cracked up to be, there's a decent chance it could even improve. With the offensive line a year older and wiser, we might see the run game improve as well.
I'll (almost definitely) be attending the open practice in Champaign as well as (almost definitely) the spring game itself, so I'll be sure to update with what I can glean from those viewings. There will also be a defense-focused version of this coming out soon.
Lastly, here's a quick depth chart mostly featuring players I talked about in this article. This is based purely on my impressions from the past and the spring rumors, but I'm hopeful it'll be pretty accurate. I'd like to include every single player on offense, but I just think the back end of the O line and receiver rotations are too muddy for me to take a good shot at it.
|QB||Wes Lunt (SO)||Aaron Bailey (SO)||Reilly O'Toole (SR)|
|RB||Josh Ferguson (JR)||Donovonn Young (SR)||Devin Church (SO)|
|WR-X||Geronimo Allison (JR)||Tyrin Stone-Davis (SO)|
|WR-Y||Martize Barr (SR)||Justin Hardee (JR)|
|Slot||Mikey Dudek (FR)||Marchie Murdock (RS-FR)|
|TE||Jon Davis (SR)||Matt LaCosse (SR)||Tyler White (SO)|
|LT||Simon Cvijanovic (SR)||Scott McDowell (JR)|
|LG||Michael Heitz (SR)||Joe Spencer (RS-SO)|
|C||Alex Hill (SR)||Joe Spencer (RS-SO)|
|RG||Ted Karras (JR)||Joe Spencer (RS-SO)|
|RT||Austin Schmidt (SO)||Dallas Hinkhouse (JR)|