To wrap up at look at the newcomers for the Fighting Illini football team, let’s take a look at what may be the key to the offense improving (or not) in 2019, the new receivers and tight ends.
The most important question regarding AD Miller, the graduate transfer WR from Oklahoma, isn’t if he can play well for Illinois, at this point. The most important question is if he will ever play for Illinois in the first place.
An easy to overlook quote from Lovie Smith’s press conference in which he announced his son as a permanent assistant coach on staff is that AD Miller is not yet on campus and he “Needs to work on some academic things.”
Any time you hear academic issues and Illini athlete in the same sentence there is always trouble for concerns. There is far too many recruits and players we have lost to these issues in the past that other schools of similar or even greater academic quality don’t run into.
Illinois needs Miller to come. If he doesn’t, Illinois in in for a world of hurt in the passing game. They need playmakers on the outside desperately and without AD Miller, I fear the passing game will suffer with a lack of playmakers for a young QB.
But, at the same time, AD Miller may not be the answer. He played very little at OU in three season (one injury redshirt season), only appearing in 16 games total, making a combined 21 catches. Now, Oklahoma has quite a lot of talent at WR each year. Just because he wasn’t good enough to play there doesn’t mean he can’t help Illinois, but also, OU has a lot of blowout games where backups can play, and Oklahoma choose to not play Miller...
He has size. He has good enough speed to be a deep threat, and if he comes to Illinois I expect him to be the X-receiver without question.
Ceiling: Ryan Lankford
The best version of Miller is to become a deep threat for Illinois to help open up the offense a la Ryan Lankford. Now this isn’t the best comparison because Lankford was much faster of course, but in terms of the role they will be asked to fill and the production, it fits.
In Lankford’s junior season he caught 37 balls for 469 yards and 5 TDs. In the ideal season for Miller, expect similar results.
Floor: Sam Mays
This may seem a lazy comparison, because Miller is being brought in to replace Mays on the team, but both are 6’ 3” receivers who had some talent but were never able to pull it fully together. Miller is a bit quicker and fits the offense a bit more than Mays, so there is plenty of reason to hope for more out of Miller, but it may turn out the reason he played so little at Oklahoma wasn’t just to do with the talent ahead of him.
Washington is a three-star 6-foot-2 WR out of Pflugerville, Texas. His only other power five offer was from Kansas and he also held offers from Tulane, South Alabama, and UTSA.
Ceiling: A better Spencer Harris
When you watch the tape on Washington, it’s clear he doesn’t have the great separation ability or speed you would expect out of a power-five WR, but that doesn’t mean he can’t overcome some of those deficiencies.
He is comfortable catching the ball in traffic and using his larger body for leverage. He reminds me of former Illini Spencer Harris in that regard, but Harris was never able to reach what I thought he could be because of some issues with hands, and in my opinion, concentration. He could make some great catches, but also make routine plays hard.
Washington could bring the best traits of Harris to the table and more, and he could end up becoming a good second or third option WR for the Illini with his size and hands.
Floor: Dominic Thieman
Oh, what’s that? You don’t know/remember Dominic Thieman.
Thieman was also a low-ranked recruit with low interest from power-five teams that came to Illinois. He was 6-foot-3, but didn’t have the best athletic measurables. Thieman played two seasons at Illinois where he wasn’t able to make much of an impact and struggled to get open against Big Ten defensive backs. He transferred from Illinois after two seasons to go to Duquesne.
Washington parallels the profile of Thieman to a scary degree. Here’s hoping that unlike Thieman, Washington can have a better Illini career.
Moore is a three-star TE out of Bloomington, Ill. who also happened to play quarterback in high school. He had only one other offer from Illinois State, but it should be noted he committed to Illinois rather early and would have received more offers if he wasn’t already off the table.
Moore will need a few years before he will contribute. He needs to put on some weight and also learn his new posistion for college.
Ceiling: Solid second-string, jack-of-all-trades TE
Rod Smith likes some versatility out of his TEs/H-backs, and Moore can give that. He can put on some more weight to help with blocking and he has some ok speed for his size. I think he will be mainly used as an H-back where most of his touches would be in check-downs or dump-offs.
With his experience at QB in high school, Rod Smith could even get creative with Moore and have him take snaps in a power running situation or have him throw some trick passes.
Floor: Special teams player
This is also what I think may be the floor and most likely case for Moore. When I look at his tape and given that he didn’t play TE in high school, I just don’t see. I’d love to eat my words here, and see him become a solid contributor on offense, but I have my doubts, especially with the next player coming in.
Luke Ford is a former top-100 recruit from the class of 2018 who played one year at tight end for Georgia before decided to transfer to Illinois to be closer to his family. He is applying for a hardship waiver to gain immediate eligibility, but no news yet on if that will be granted. If Justin Fields can get one at Ohio State, Ford should be able to as well to play at Illinois.
Luke Ford has all you want out of a TE. At 6’ 6” 250 pounds, he has all the size you could ever want and he has very good speed and agility for his size to be able to be a big play threat in the passing game.
I reached out to Jeremy Attaway from Dawgsports to ask his opinion on Ford’s single lone season at Georgia where he didn’t see much of the field as a freshman.
Luke played in 10 games this season, so it’s pretty safe to say Kirby Smart and tight ends coach/OC Jim Chaney were at least willing to rely on him as much as any true freshman on the roster. Ford actually played some H-back as well, and while he could be more physical, I expect that will come with time and development. Tight ends sometimes take some time to get used to blocking Power 5 defensive ends and linebackers, and I expect Ford will get there. He only had one reception on the year, but Georgia didn’t really throw to the tight ends a great deal because of the presence of several veteran NFL-caliber receivers. So I wouldn’t read too much into that either.
He was third on the depth chart behind juniors Isaac Nauta (who left for the NFL) and Charlie Woerner and was likely to be in the mix for greater production this season. While Georgia will have five tight ends on the roster this year, Ford would have been one of the more highly rated, and I think could have made a significant impact in the SEC.
The question for Ford coming to Illinois isn’t one of his talent like some transfers. It’s one of how he fits into the scheme.
It’s not hyperbole to say that Rod Smith has never really used TEs heavily in his offense. He simply hasn’t. In an RPO heavy system, where pace is key, it’s hard to get TEs the ball. A TE or an H-back won’t have a passing route in an RPO because they have to be blocking in case of a run. They can potentially release into the flat for a check-down on a broken play, but Rod Smith is not going to often call for specific plays to go to a tight end.
Rod Smith has been an assistant coach in college football since 2001, mainly as a QB coach and a co-offensive coordinator under Rich Rodriguez, but with some other stops at Indiana and USF. In all that time, no tight end on an offense with Rod Smith on staff has had a 300 yard season. The best season for a TE was with Arizona in 2017 where Bryce Wolma had 28 catches for 241 yards.
*It should be noted, Terrence Miller was listed as a TE to start his Zona career, moved to WR under Smith and had a 40 catch, 467 yard season in 2013, so since he wasn’t a TE under Rod Smith it doesn’t count.
Before last season, Rod Smith told Jeremy Werner of 247 that he was asking the TEs “to do a lot more”, but with Lou Dorsey eventually being kicked off the team, and a lack of good talent at the position in terms of pass catching, we weren’t able to see it. Austin Roberts was an excellent blocker and used often, but he was not a threat in the passing game. Daniel Barker caught on touchdown in his freshman season, but was lightly used.
You can blame the talent, but as mentioned before, receiving tight ends and a heavy RPO and option offense don’t mix. Ford has the size to be an excellent blocker for the system, but Smith will want to use him as more than that.
On plays that don’t come in hurry-up situations (after a long incomplete pass, a timeout, penality, etc.), could Rod Smith call a play action pass to Ford? Of course, but that may be too predictable. Ford could also be put into the slot or out wide for some plays, but that may limit what plays are able to be called, and if you line up Ford on the outside for a play that gains positive yards and Smith wants to push tempo, he will have to keep Ford on the outside for multiple plays.
Ford is a great pickup for Illinois, but it is an odd fit. Rod Smith now running his own offense in year two may have some new ideas, but he has been running an RPO and option heavy system for this whole career. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Ceiling: T.J. Hockenson
Hockenson was a big play threat for Iowa last season gaining 15.5 yards per catch, and made big plays for the Hawkeyes in almost every single game. Noah Fant may be getting more of the NFL love currently, but Hockenson was the more productive and physical TE.
The best version of Ford will be to provide a big play target for Illinois just like Hockenson in play-action on wheel routes or on short dump offs to the flat where he can use all of his 250 pounds to gain yards after the catch. He could potentially become an excellent blocker in the run game and screen game, which is desperately needed for the Illini.
Floor: Matt Lacosse
Matt Lacosse is almost the exact same size at Ford, if not a bit taller and also had plus speed and agility for his size, but he went incredibly underused for the Illini in his four seasons with the team.
Lacosse caught 20 passes for 237 yards in his best season with the Illini, and it was always head scratching why he wasn’t used more. It was maddening in fact. Matt Lacosse was obviously talented and had the ability to make plays. He made the NFL after a few years bouncing around practice squads before landing with the Broncos. But in four years, Illinois could only find a way to get him the ball 38 times.
Lacosse was in more TE friendly offenses in his time at Illinois than the one Ford will be coming into for the final two or three seasons of his college career. It’s possible that despite Rod Smith saying he wants to use the TEs more, that he will be unable to find a way to get the ball to Ford that doesn’t sacrifice the core principles of his offense. If that happens, Ford could yet again be another Illinois tight end that goes underused joining the likes of Jeff Cumberland, Matt Lacosse, Jon Davis, Evan Wilson, and Michael Hoomanawanui.