The old adage is that it takes time for a new coaching staff to reach its potential until its roster is filled with players that fit their system.
No position represented this sentiment more than quarterback for Illinois football in 2016.
Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee, fresh off a two-year stint as assistant coach/offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach at Louisville, has had success in the past with dual-threat quarterbacks — the polar opposite of last year's starter Wes Lunt. As a freshman in 2015 under McGee's tutelage, Lamar Jackson was like a baby Xenomorph that just hatched: Very dangerous, but not the full-fledged killing machine he became during his 2016 Heisman campaign. Jackson threw for 1,840 yards and ran for 960 yards while splitting time with Kyle Bolin.
Now that Lunt's eligibility has expired, McGee and co. will have plenty of new playcalling options in 2017 with dual-threat junior Chayce Crouch calling the shots.
Illini fans saw glimpses of the future midway through the second quarter against Purdue last year, after Lunt injured his back and left the game on a late hit from Boilermaker linebacker Danny Ezechukwu.
In just over two quarters of play, Crouch was 10-for-14 passing for 142 yards to go along with 17 carries for 137 yards and two scores. He used his bulldozing style of running (with his 6-foot-4, 230-pound frame) to become Illinois' diet-diet-diet version of Tim Tebow for one afternoon in October.
After scoring just six points before Lunt's injury, the Illini tallied 25 points with Crouch at the helm and rushed for a staggering 315 yards as a team on the day. Crouch's, and Illinois', day was doomed however, when Crouch fumbled inside the 10-yard line in overtime and the Boilers hit a field goal to leave Champaign with a victory.
Let's pump the brakes a little bit on Crouch's Heisman candidacy and future career as a single-A baseball player/motivational speaker, though.
First, Purdue was 91st in total defense and 115th in rushing defense last season. Furthermore, when given a week to prepare for Crouch that next Saturday, Rutgers (97th total/126th rush defense) limited the junior to 6 of 14 passing for 92 yards with a touchdown and interception and 11 carries for 25 yards on the ground.
Some of that inconsistency can be chalked up to an AC joint separation in his throwing shoulder that Crouch sustained during the game and would later have surgery on, ending his 2016 campaign.
Crouch didn't practice in contact with the Illini this spring as he rehabbed, and while he should be fully healthy come this fall, it was one of the reasons Illinois had such an early and limited spring practice, due to lack of numbers on both sides of the ball.
So Illinois' projected starting quarterback is in an interesting position. The junior has been in the program for four seasons -- long enough to cycle through three different head coaches -- and has appeared in 14 games over the past two years, but only held the reins as a sole starting quarterback for about six quarters.
The bottom line is that Illinois' offense is going to look a lot different in 2017. Crouch is already shown he is adept in running read option and inverted veer plays.
Let's rewind to Jackson in 2015. McGee will almost certainly incorporate this Y-lead read option (watch the tight end come across the formation while Jackson reads the defensive end to become the lead blocker) in the Illini's repertoire this year:
Another classic RPO that McGee could employ this season gives the same look as a read option (Crouch can either hand to the running back up the middle or keep it himself and run outside) but with a twist. Instead of "reading" the defensive end, Crouch would read the linebacker. If the linebacker flows toward the middle of the formation, the quarterback would pull the ball out and throw immediately to his slot receiver (hopefully Mikey Dudek) on a slant route. Here's a great explanation from ex-Miami quarterback Brad Kaaya on ESPN's "Gruden's QB Camp" this spring (start video at 9:20):
Another cool wrinkle to look for is the "pop pass" that Auburn has used for quite a few years. Same concept of an RPO, but the slot receiver works a bubble. Once again, read the key defender, hand it off, throw it or keep it.
There are a million different ways to play offense effectively. McGee and the staff is very creative. These are just a few easy to explain examples of how to maximize the talents of a quarterback whose forte isn't slinging the ball all over the field.
Against Purdue in the red zone, McGee gave Crouch the freedom to choose between running and throwing by dialing up a play-action bootleg from inside the five-yard line. It's safe to say that rolling out of the pocket wasn't a strength of Wes Lunt last year:
It goes without saying that Crouch will have to improve his passing in order to be an effective Big Ten quarterback. His throwing motion isn't exactly orthodox -- Crouch has a short-arm delivery that isn't the prettiest in the world, and his career 50 percent completion rate will need to drastically improve. But there should be a certain, newfound comfort in being the starting quarterback and not having to shuttle in and out for a play or two at a time.
McGee will dial up plenty of screens in an effort to keep opposing defenses from overloading the box and packing it in against the run. Take this play-action screen against Rutgers, except replace Ke'Shawn Vaughn with a healthy Mikey Dudek. Notice how the linebacker to Vaughn's side of the field is aligned pre-snap cheating toward the middle of the field to stop the run; Vaughn makes one guy miss and is off to the races:
(Quick sidebar warm take: Dudek, if healthy (and that's a pretty massive if), will flirt with catching 100 passes this year. As a freshman, he caught 76 balls for 1,038 yards and six touchdowns.)
I think back to 2014 during the "high point" of the Beckman Era (lol), when the Illini topped Penn State 16-14 and Dudek had 11 catches for 114 yards (No one else on the team had more than three receptions) with the more mobile Reilly O'Toole under center. Or how about the following game when O'Toole was 17 of 28 for 147 yards through the air, while adding 21 carries for 147 yards. Dudek had seven catches for 63 yards and a touchdown, and became a constant security blanket in the slot for O'Toole. Having that blend of rushing and completing short passes is Illinois' key to moving the ball in 2017.
Another thing working in favor for Crouch is having a big receiver outside the numbers in Malik Turner. At 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, the senior Turner is able to muscle smaller corners and create mismatches. He's made a significant jump in production each year:
Freshman (2014): 25 catches, 256 yards, 1 touchdown
Sophomore (2015): 39 catches, 510 yards, 3 touchdowns
Junior (2016): 48 catches, 712 yards, 6 touchdowns
Turner is damn good, but I would be surprised if Turner improves on those numbers in 2017, only because the Illini expect to pass less and Dudek will soak up a decent chunk of his targets.
The other ingredient that McGee could sprinkle in this season is playing with pace and tempo. When you play up-tempo, you force the defense's hand to play base, vanilla coverages because they are forced to get lined up so quickly. Making the reads easier on Crouch, especially early in the year, could help him get settled in.
Illinois was 128th in the country in adjusted pace last year, one of the slowest tempos in the nation. Going no-huddle as a change of pace to throw off the defense is at least worth looking at for McGee going into 2017.
McGee is going all-in on running quarterbacks for the future, as seen by the commitments of Dwayne Lawson and Cameron Thomas in 2017 and Coran Taylor in 2018. Though 247 Sports lists Thomas as a pro-style quarterback, he threw for 1,715 yards and rushed for 1,017 as a senior at Marian Catholic last season.
Lawson is a total wild card. Many speculated that the former Virginia Tech quarterback could have come in and won the starting job if he had enrolled early, but academic issues have delayed his arrival in Champaign.
Whether he ever joins the team is a mystery, but it would be difficult for him to show up in August and unseat Crouch by opening day, even if Lawson, a former four-star recruit, is perhaps more talented.
Illinois was 123rd in the nation at 315.1 yards per game last year, 105th at 140.5 rushing yards per game and 109th with 174.6 passing yards per game a year ago, so it won't take much to get better. Those numbers are especially diluted due to having to play essentially the fourth-string quarterback in Jeff George Jr. down the stretch against the meat grinder of the Big Ten.
Last season, Illinois used its pace to control time of possession. Even if the Illini went 3-and-out, the coaches wanted to give their defense a chance to catch its breath. Illinois should have a more potent offense in 2017 and be able to control the ball by stringing together long drives with the running game.
Basically, Illinois hypothetically should be able to move at a faster pace in 2017 without sacrificing time of possession if the Illini are able to run the ball effectively.
Pair a rushing quarterback with the dynamic duo of Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin (who combined to rush for 1,243 yards last year on a ridiculous 5.9 yards per carry), and the Illini could have an effective offense that relies on running the ball — a staple of Lovie Smith’s previous teams. What is for certain, however, is that Illinois' offense will look a whole lot different than it did last season.