Starting today, four members of the TCR staff will convene for weekly roundtable discussions on topics related to Illinois athletics. This first post will feature Eliot Sill, Jim Vainisi, Bryce Smith, and Austin Jabs discussing Fighting Illini football's offense.
Have suggestions for next week's discussion? Drop down to the comments and let us know!
1. Illinois' offense, uh, wasn't great in 2015. What specific areas do you want to see improvement in under the new coaching regime?
ELIOT SILL: Hate to be the guy that says "everywhere," but the whole thing needs to level up. I guess the best way to say that is to highlight the offensive line. Illinois needs a more reliable running game to maintain breathing room for the passing game. Then Lunt needs to be better protected as well. With Lunt, Illinois needs a pass-focused attack. That means having a running game that can supplement a reliable passer, and giving that passer time to make his throws. Vaughn looks like he'll blossom into a solid Big Ten running back. That's all a good offensive line should need to give Lunt a running game that can support him. Further, fewer drops from wide receivers is a perennial offseason wish-list item, but here we are. You hope Mikey Dudek is able to return to full form. Repeat after me: "Modern medicine. Modern medicine. Modern medicine. Torn ACLs are nothing. Modern medicine."
JIM VAINISI: I have but one request for Lovie Smith and Andrew Hayes-Stoker: please find a way to eliminate the dropped passes. Lock the wide receivers in the indoor practice facility, give them a jug machine, and don't let them come out until the season begins. No class. No sleep. No bathroom breaks. Make them catch footballs for food.
Whoops -- almost forgot my other request. Just do the opposite of everything Bill Cubit did on offense and we'll be set!
2. Mikey Dudek missed last year with a torn ACL. What should we realistically expect out of him going forward?
Editors Note: THESE ANSWERS WERE SUBMITTED PRE-DUDEK KNEE INJURY SO LET'S PRETEND NO MORE BAD NEWS HAS HAPPENED YET, OK? COOL, THANKS.
BRYCE SMITH: Honestly, I expect Dudek to come right back into form. He's gotten a considerable amount of time off, and I believe he's fully healthy. As we saw in his freshman year, Mikey adjusts quickly, and I don't expect that he'll need too much of a recovery period. All-B1G and beyond would not be far fetched for this season, and the only thing that's stopping him from getting there is health, and the fact that defenses will key on him more, but he dealt with that at the end of the 2014 season already. His return instantly boosts the passing game, and that should lead to a better running game, and overall offense this season.
AUSTIN JABS: I think some will look at his freshman season and expect a continuation and improvement in his sophomore-ish season. Don't get me wrong, Dude-K is still the best offensive weapon we have had in years. That said, coming off ACL surgery, his second season will likely be a slight dip in what will likely be a stellar career at Illinois. I can see 800 yards, 6 TD. Still strong numbers, but not quite as solid as 2014. 2017, though...that will be a special year for Dudek.
3. Garrick McGee's offense will likely start and end with Wes Lunt. Where do you rank the senior amongst the other quarterbacks in the Big Ten West?
- C.J. Beathard (Iowa); Iowa did well last year! Beathard started for Iowa last year! That means Beathard will probably do good football things again!
- Tommy Armstrong Jr. (Nebraska); Armstrong commits so many turnovers, but he's probably the most talented quarterback in the division.
- Wes Lunt (Illinois); Lunt is the best NFL quarterback prospect on this list, and Lovie Smith will help him throw for 63 touchdowns this year.
- Clayton Thorsen (Northwestern); Did you know that Thorsen is a part of Northwestern's four-star backfield?
- Bart Houston (Wisconsin); Bill Cubit isn't coaching Illinois anymore, so I'm not sure where Houston's big games will from in 2016.
- Mitch Leidner (Minnesota); Leidner can't throw the ball into Lake Superior from the beach. The good news? He's a pretty decent runner so he's still a threat to make plays.
- David Blough (Purdue); Well he isn't exactly Drew Brees or Kyle Orton.
- C.J. Beathard (Iowa); All-around playmaker, and while his intangibles aren't perfect, he creates opportunities, and helped lead Iowa during the regular season.
- Wes Lunt (Illinois); I still think Lunt has the most talent of any quarterback in the Big Ten West, and with the departure of Connor Cook and Christian Hackenberg (overrated, in my opinion) he could be one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten. If he can stay healthy, I expect a stellar season from Lunt.
- Bart Houston (Wisconsin); If he can play the way he did against Illinois last year, watch out.
- Clayton Thorsen (Northwestern); Expecting a down year from Thorsen the Wildcats, but of course, I thought the same last year.
- Tommy Armstrong Jr. (Nebraska); Some may argue he has the most talent of any QB in the Big Ten, but Armstrong's inconsistency and bad decision making could plague a 5-7 Nebraska team that lost some key players.
- David Blough (Purdue); Should be another rough year for the Boilermakers, but Blough could help improve things.
- Mitch Leidner (Minnesota); His value is more in running the ball than passing, honestly.
4. Which underclassmen do you see making the biggest impact on offense in 2016?
SILL: Mikey Dudek! Weird that he's only a sophomore, but time seems to move very slowly for Illinois football. Hopefully he's one of those guys that'll feel like he's had a 9-year college career by the time he's graduated (except not literally, because that'd be a lot of redshirting). Dudek's one of those guys whose presence kind of adds another dimension to the passing attack. You'd hope to see someone else emerge among the receiving corps, but having one dynamic receiver opens up opportunities for others. Plus he and Lunt just seemed to have a certain chemistry. C'mon ligament!
JABS: Ke'Shawn Vaughn. Vaughn will have some of the best numbers Illinois fans have seen from a running back in quite some time. He has the ability to be a special player with his solid combination of speed and strength. If Ke'Shawn stays healthy, expect him to punish the defensive lines of many Big Ten foes.
Honorable Mentions: Gabe Megginson, Sam Mays.
SILL: On offense, it seems, fresh is good. When Cubit arrived, his offense was hot stuff. Lunt came in and was a welcome change from more run-oriented QBs. You just hope to see an offense that can go deep, both downfield and into its playbook. You want a play caller who doesn't call plays that won't work, and a quarterback that you feel free to never give up on. The potential for this offense is there. You just need your returning guys to basically all get 5 to 10 percent better, and benefit from a couple of surprise breakthroughs. Having a new head coach and offensive coordinator lends itself to that happening. Program momentum isn't always real, as we know, but sometimes it is. You just hope they're working hard this offseason, because for once it feels like Illinois has a coach who could make it pay off.
VAINISI: After initially planning to boycott my senior year football games, I've changed my mind and will be in attendance at Memorial Stadium this Fall! It'd be cool if those games featured some offensive production during conference play because I have yet to see that during my time at Illinois.
SMITH: I expect the offense to improve this season with the addition of Garrick McGee. I'm hoping for some more fluidity with the running game, and less stagnation across the board. Hopefully no more swing passes on 3rd and 20.
JABS: This likely won't be a 10 win team or even an 8 win team (I would LOVE to be wrong about this). However, the coaching staff will at very least add 1.5 wins from what I expected under Cubit. A 6 win season and a bowl berth should be absolutely attainable, and the offense should be quite fun to watch. My simple expectation is no more 2 yard out routes on 3rd and 15 anymore. This staff will let Lunt go deep and use his golden arm to bring back an aura of excitement to Memorial Stadium.