Big Ten Breakdown 2012: Illinois Fighting Illini, Part 2, Offense
Last week, I got my feet wet with Illinois, looking at the program, what it has done over the last five years and what that might tell us about what the Illini will do this season.
This week, I'll look at the 2012 Illinois offense.
2011 scoring offense: 22.6 PPG (ninth in the conference), total offense: 355.7 YPG (ninth), rushing YPC: 4.06 (eighth), passing efficiency: 123.52 (eighth)
Average scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: 6.2
Best scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: Third (2008)
Worst scoring offense conference ranking over last five years: Ninth (2011)
Returning starters: QB Nathan Scheelhaase, WR Ryan Lankford, WR Darius Millines, WR Spencer Harris, TE Evan Wilson, C Graham Pocic, OL Hugh Thornton, OL Simon Cvijanovic, OT Michael Heitz
Open Positions: RB, OL
Offensive Formation: Spread
Offensive Philosophy: Up-tempo
Passing Scheme: Possession
Rushing scheme: Read Option
As was mentioned in the first installment of Illinois' breakdown, the Illini began 2011 on a tear. They won six straight games by an average score of 34.7-17.8. They then lost their final six games of the season, including an embarrassing 7-27 end-of-the-regular-season loss to three-win Minnesota.
While the second half of the season was more challenging and included two ranked opponents and three road games, the first half of the season was not easy enough to account for the collapse of the team, and specifically the collapse of the offense.
The first half of the season did only include one road trip, but the Illini faced four bowl-eligible teams, one 10-win team—albeit a 10-win Sun Belt team—and an Arizona State team that was also ranked before it faced its own end-of-the-year skid.
Getting back to the offense, the defense maintained respectability during the end-of-the-year slide. The issues were almost entirely on the offensive side of the ball.
Illinois averaged 11 points-per-game during the six-game slide, only once breaking 14 points.
However, that was then, and this is a brand new age with a brand new coach and a brand new offense.
The new coach, Tim Beckman, has a defensive background, but is more well-known for his offenses. His Toledo Rockets were the Nos. 1, 3 and 2 ranked offenses in the MAC between 2011-2009.
The quarterback coach and co-coordinator is Chris Beatty. This will be his first play-calling assignment on the FBS level. He has previously worked as a position coach at Vanderbilt, West Virginia and Northern Illinois. He was also the OC at FCS Hampton.
The bigger star is the other OC, Billy Gonzales, who owns two national championship rings. He spent the last two seasons as LSU's passing coordinator and before that, he was with Urban Meyer at Florida, Utah and Bowling Green from 2001-2009.
The Illinois offense will become a spread team, which is vague, as even Iowa and Wisconsin employ elements of the spread.
That said, according to Gonzales via the Big Ten Network, "'We want to be a team that establishes dominance at the line. From there, we will build on. We want to make the defense defend the entire field.'"
Again, somewhat vague coachspeak, but Illinois fans can expect an offense that lines up sideline-to-sideline, creates and exploits mismatches and open up lanes for a multi-headed, multifaceted, multi-directional rushing attack.
It is no coincidence if this sounds like Urban Meyer's or Mike Gundy's offense, as Beckman has worked under both of them.
Returning junior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was symptomatic of whatever ailed the Illinois offense in the second half of last season.
Scheelhaase, like his fellow Fighting Illini, began the season on a tear. Along with six straight wins, Scheelhaase posted an efficiency rating of 174.16. If he had continued that production for the remainder of the year, he would have finished 2011 as the fourth-most efficient quarterback in the country, ahead of Andrew Luck, Matt Barkley and Case Keenum.
Nevertheless, he didn't finish the season the way he started. In fact, in the final six games, Scheelhaase's efficiency rating was a pathetic 103.67, which, if it had been indicative of how he played the entire year, would have left him as the least efficient quarterback in the country by a wide margin.
As it happened, his cumulative 133.38 efficiency rating left him almost in the middle of the pack.
If last year is proof of anything, it is that Scheelhaase has the tools to be a successful quarterback.
While he isn't as good as those first six games indicated, he is closer to his early-season apex than his end-of-the-season nadir.
And that should be good enough to get the Illini offense moving.
Perhaps a new coach and a new offensive system will give him the consistency he needs. After all, Ron Zook was, well, Ron Zook.
True sophomore Reilly O'Toole will back up Scheelhaase. O'Toole gained valuable experience last year, picking up 67 passing attempts in a late-season effort to reinvigorate the offense (it didn't work).
He is less of a rushing threat than Scheelhaase, but he is not a statue, and Beckman's offense does not require a dual-threat signal-caller.
According to The Daily Illini, the two quarterbacks "split reps with the first team in spring practices, but head coach Tim Beckman said the job is currently Scheelhaase’s to lose."
It is likely Scheelhaase will hold onto the job when Illinois begins its season, and all eyes will be on him, given the dearth of proven playmakers at running back and wide receiver.
Illinois is understaffed in the running back department, given what new head coach Tim Beckman hopes to accomplish with his offense.
Last season at Toledo, Beckman had the 24th-most rushing attempts in the country. He had two running backs with 125 carries or more and three with 90 or more.
This season, his top two running backs will probably be true sophomores.
In 2011, Donovonn Young was impressive in limited appearances, carrying the ball 87 times for 451 yards and 5.18 YPC. However, the majority of his carries, yards and success came in the first half of the season; not during Illinois' six-game slide at the end of the year.
Josh Ferguson got 14 carries in garbage-time duty in the first three games, after which he was injured and missed the rest of the season. Nonetheless, Ferguson was the offensive star of the spring game, gaining 130 yards on 20 carries (stats via The Daily Illini).
Young and Ferguson may turn out to be quality players, but they are the beginning and end of experienced scholarship backs currently in Champaign.
In effect, true freshmen Dami Ayoola and Devin Church will have a good chance of seeing early playing time.
Also, former quarterback Miles Osei moved to tailback during bowl game practices and continued to see reps there, as well as at receiver and quarterback, during spring.
Finally, Beckman isn't known for utilizing a fullback, but if he chooses to, he has some experience in senior Zach Becker, who moved into the starting spot after the transfer of Jay Prosch.
Illinois returns three receivers that started multiple games last year, along with three experienced tight ends.
The problem is that all returning Illinois receivers combined for 63 receptions, 577 yards and two touchdowns.
That is 27 receptions, 699 yards and six touchdowns fewer than departed-Illini receiver A.J. Jenkins posted by himself in 2011.
The three most notable returning receivers are all juniors: Spencer Harris, Darius Millines and Ryan Lankford.
There are a number of other receivers on the roster, but most of them are sophomores or freshmen that have yet to distinguish themselves or record a collegiate catch.
This lack of proven playmakers has opened the door for senior cornerback Terry Hawthorne to see some offensive snaps. According to Beckman via the State Journal-Register, "'We’re trying to create playmakers and give opportunities for our team to be successful.'" Apparently, Hawthorne, as well as safety Jack Ramsey—the Illini are loaded in the secondary—give Illinois that chance.
One of the few success stories to end 2011 was the emergence of tight end Jon Davis. He finished the season with 22 catches for 187 yards and a touchdown. He was especially strong during the six-game skid. He posted 19 catches for 170 yards in that stretch.
Junior tight end Evan Wilson and senior Eddie Viliunas also have starting experience.
New head coach Tim Beckman is not known for involving his tight ends too heavily in the passing game, but Davis might have too hot a hand to use strictly as a blocker.
Illinois boasts the third-most experienced returning offensive line (per Phil Steele) in the conference, despite losing two full-time starters. Of course, at 68 returning starts, it is not that much experience, but that speaks to how much the conference graduated in this area in 2011.
Three-year starting senior Hugh Thornton will lock down a guard spot or right tackle and will vie for all-conference honors. Two-year starting senior Graham Pocic will do the same from center.
After that, there are a number of options for Beckman to juggle. Most notably, sophomores Michael Heitz and Simon Cvijanovic shared the left tackle position last season.
Fellow sophomore Alex Hill grabbed two starts at right guard in 2011.
According to ESPN, senior Corey Lewis was set to push for starting time in 2010 when he tore his ACL. He missed last season with further knee injuries, but he will look to get playing time this season.
Also, senior Tyler Sands will try to end his thus far uneventful career on a high note.
Any one of the aforementioned could wind up in the starting five along with Thornton and Pocic. They should produce solid results at worst, and they could be the top line in the conference at best.
Nathan Scheelhaase is one of the more overlooked quarterbacks in the Big Ten. He has proven he can play at a high level; he hasn't proven he can play at a high level for the duration of a football season.
Given the regression of former Illinois signal-caller Juice Williams, as well as Scheelhaases's collapse, it is evident the problem was programmatic and had everything to do with the head coach.
In short, a new coach could give Scheelhaase just what he needs to take the next step.
The offensive line is an asset, and there is no bigger asset for a run-first team than a strong, experienced offensive line.
The issue concerns the playmakers, particularly at receiver.
Illinois' offense has the pieces to be in the top half of the conference if a couple of receivers pop up and force defenses to play honestly.
If those playmakers don't pop up, the offense will still be much better than the offense that could only eke out seven points against lowly Minnesota in 2011.
In short, look for anywhere from minimal to substantial improvement from the 2012 Illini offense.
Coming next Wednesday, an overview and breakdown of Illinois' defense.
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