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The Evolution of Illinois’ Passing Game

Jadon Thompson will bring a game-changing set of skills to the Illini in 2020.

Twitter: @Jay_Thompson5

Jadon Thompson’s decision to commit to Illinois on April 8 loaned a massive amount of credibility to Illinois’ in-state recruiting efforts in 2020, but much more importantly, Illinois has its go-to receiver for 2020 and beyond.

In Thompson, Illinois is getting a big-bodied outside receiver who has both the speed and strength to dominate many Big Ten defensive backs. Even his junior highlights show Thompson as a force while playing at Marist in the tough East Suburban Catholic Conference.

Both Rod Smith and Lovie Smith have been adamant about establishing the primacy of the run game in Illinois’ offense, and we saw at least a glimpse of their vision last season as AJ Bush, Reggie Corbin and Mike Epstein led one of the most explosive rushing attacks in the country. But a one-dimensional offense is limited and can be easily exploited by well-prepared defenses, as the Illini were in many of the final games in 2018. (Basically everything post-Minnesota.)

A dominant wide receiver like Thompson changes that narrative. Adding Thompson allows the eventual Illinois quarterback to be both a running threat and a passing threat on any down. AJ Bush tended toward running first in part due to his skillset, but also to a large degree due to the inconsistency of the receiving corps. Thompson’s presence on the edge will force defenses to respect the pass and open the run game for Illinois’ talented backfield.

Thompson has the potential to play a role similar to that of Geronimo Allison on the 2015 Illini team. Allison was a consistent target for Wes Lunt throughout the season in what was then a clear pass-first offense under Bill Cubit. Though defenses knew that the Illini were going to try to get the ball to Allison or Malik Turner, the existence of a fairly reliable passing game allowed Josh Ferguson to post 708 yards rushing despite his year being cut short by injury.

The same dynamic could occur between Thompson and Mike Epstein, Isaiah Williams, and Reggie Love come 2020 and beyond. With consistent threats both on the edge and in the backfield, the Illini could find a way to be truly multidimensional under Rod Smith and establish a dominant running game, in part through a serious any-down threat like Thompson at wide receiver.

The impact of Jadon Thompson should be bolstered by contributions from 2020 upperclassmen at wide receiver like Ricky Smalling, Dominic Stampley, and Carlos Sandy. No football team could have too much talent at the wide receiver position, and between the experienced and incoming talent, Rod Smith should have plenty to show in 2020, thanks in large part to Jadon Thompson’s decision to stay home.

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