Football season is almost here! In just 35 days Illinois will be facing off against Kent State at Memorial Stadium. Over the next few weeks, The Champaign Room will be previewing the 2015 season with position previews, player profiles, biggest storylines, and more. Make sure to check back each day for something new.
First up is our position preview series, where we'll examine the strength and weaknesses of each group on the field. Today's preview focuses on the Fighting Illini tight ends and how they'll fit into Bill Cubit's offense.
Returning Starters: None
Key Losses: Jon Davis (graduation) and Matt LaCosse (graduation). Both joined NFL rosters as free agents after this year's draft.
Other Returners: Tyler White (6'5", 255 lbs junior), Tim Clary (6'2", 245 lbs senior), and Andrew Davis (6'6", 225 lbs junior)
Newcomer: Caleb Reams (6'3", 240 lbs) from Gurnee, Illinois
My goodness Mother Hubbard, how the cupboard is bare. The Illini lost both of their starting tight ends from a season ago to graduation and will now look towards a core of younger players to assume LaCosse and Davis' roles. Those two combined for six touchdowns and nearly 300 total yards on offense. Those aren't enormous numbers when you consider that the Illinois offense averaged 360 yards per game and put up nearly 27 points per game, but it was still effective enough to get the job done.
This season the Illini will be very pleased if the tight end position can bring in similar stats from the 2014 campaign, because, quite frankly, you can't look at this group and expect too much from them. The experience and talent from last year's roster is gone, and while there may be a diamond in the rough amongst this group, it is unlikely they will be an important part of this offense, which will be based primarily off of the ability of the quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers. Decent tight end production would just be icing on the cake for Bill Cubit.
Illinois welcomed in two junior college transfers, Andrew Davis and Ainslie Johnson, this past offseason. Both saw the bulk of the work during the spring scrimmage game due to projected starter Tyler White's injury that he suffered before last year's bowl game. Tim Clary is the odd man out here; he mainly saw action on the special teams unit last season and will most likely take on a similar role in 2015 barring a significant injury.
White made his Illini debut on the defensive side of the ball as a freshman and recorded three tackles against the Cincinnati Bearcats, but then switched to the tight end position prior to last season. The sophomore saw some very minimal playing time in 2014, catching two passes for 37 yards. His first career reception, however, was a 13-yard grab for a touchdown against the Purdue Boilermakers.
Not a bad way to kick off your collegiate career. His role in Cubit's offense will certainly expand; he is the only Illinois tight end with any previous playing experience and will take on the majority of the workload this year. That is, if he's feeling healthy enough to do so. White suffered a torn ACL in bowl practice last December before the team's game against Louisiana Tech. His health and subsequent on-the-field development will be key for the tight end position in 2015.
Who will emerge as the starter?
Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse combined to play nearly 98 percent of the offensive snaps from the tight end position. With both players having graduated, that leaves an unproven group of youngsters who occupied the field the other two percent of the time in 2014 to take the reigns on the starting gig. While it certainly appears that Tyler White has the starter's job all but locked up, his health is still a big enough question mark that backups Andrew Davis and Ainslie Johnson should prepare themselves for a starting role. Davis is a three-star JUCO recruit from Iowa Western Community College that chose to come to Champaign over the Texas Longhorns. Johnson is more of a blocker than a route-runner, and head coach Tim Beckman mentioned after the spring game that he is looking for Ainslie to gain a little more weight to handle the blocking that the Big Ten conference will require. It's anyone's guess as to who the TE2 will be (Davis or Johnson), but look for both JUCO guys to be solid contributors to the position in 2015, and maybe even challenge for a starting role if they surprise early on in the non-conference season.
Projected Depth Chart
|1st String||2nd String|
|TE 1||Tyler White||Tim Clary|
|TE 2||Andrew Davis||Ainslie Johnson|
This figures to be the way Tim Beckman lines up his tight ends for the first game of the season against Kent State. As mentioned above, with White's injury history and the unknown quantities of Davis and Johnson, this depth chart might shuffle around quite a bit after several games are played, but for now this is the way the depth chart will look when the season kicks off on September 4th.