Last year's Illini squad was sorely lacking in playmakers, and no where was that more evident than at the receiver and tight end position. The leading receiver in 2012 was Ryan Lankford who finished the year with 37 catches for 469 yards and five touchdowns. In the Big Ten there were 19 players -- including Donovonn Young -- who finished with more receptions, 18 with more yards and 12 who finished with a yards per catch average greater than Lankford's 12.68.
Oh, and let's not forget to mention that when you look at Lankford's final numbers it's important to remember that he had seven catches for 97 yards and two touchdowns against Charleston Southern. So that means he had 30 catches for 372 yards and three touchdowns in the other 11 games.
Further complicating matters is that Darius Millines, who finished second on the team in receiving, is no longer with the program.
So, obviously, there's some work to do. The good news, though, is that while there isn't a superstar at the position on the roster there are plenty of options available. Spencer Harris will have a chance to step up and take on a bigger role, and with his size he could prove to be a valuable red zone target. Then there's Justin Hardee who did not have a huge season in 2012 (17 for 192) but he looked great during the spring game and has continued to show that improvement over the summer.
Of the returning receivers Hardee may have the biggest upside.
Then there are the newcomers like Martize Barr, Marchie Murdock and Dionte Taylor. Barr is the most likely to see the field early in the year, as the junior college transfer figures to be used out of the slot, but he might not be the only one. Marchie Murdock has been a favorite target of Illini quarterbacks the last few weeks, and though he's had some problems with drops, it's clear the quarterbacks trust him.
There's another sleeper in the bunch to in Devin Church. Church, a three-star member of the 2012 class, was impressing the coaching staff last summer before tearing his ACL and being forced to redshirt the 2012 season. He's not a big guy at 5'8 and 180 pounds, but he's fast and could prove to be a big play waiting to happen once he gets the ball in his hands.
As far as the tight ends are concerned, well, there's not much to report with this unit. Tight ends just have not been a big part of the Illinois offense but hopefully that will change this year. Odds are that Evan Wilson will see the majority of the time because he's the best blocker at the position, and lord knows we need as much help on the offensive line as possible.
That being said, it'd be nice to see Matt LaCosse and Jon Davis get some work in the passing game. LaCosse in particular could be a big asset on the offense. First of all, at 6'6 and 240 pounds he's a big ass target, but he also has good hands. Hands just that haven't been utilized. If given a chance LaCosse could prove to be a force on third downs and in the red zone.
Again, there's no superstar in this bunch, but there are plenty of viable options. The numbers of this unit should improve by default given the change in offensive philosophy, so what we should really hope to see is somebody emerge from this unit as a go-to guy.
Position Grade: C-
There's plenty of options and potential in this unit, but until we see the performance on the field I can't justify giving it a higher grade than this.
2012 Stats And Big Ten Rankings
223 receptions (7th), 2,026 yards (12th), 5.7 yards per catch (12th), 11 touchdowns (11th), 26 receptions over 20 yards (10th), four receptions over 30 yards (12th).
300 receptions, 2,800 yards, 7.5 yards per catch, 20 touchdowns, 35 receptions over 20 yards, 12 receptions over 30 yards