Dienhart: New wrinkles in Illini offense

Here are my observations from Friday night’s Illinois spring game, as Tim Beckman moves toward his second season leading the Fighting Illini coming off a 2-10 season. There were 40 players going through their first spring game, showing the youth of this squad.

Here’s what I saw:

1. Most were curious to see how the offense looked. After all, this was a moribund attack that ranked last in the Big Ten and 119 in the nation in scoring (16.7 ppg). New coordinator Bill Cubit is changing things up. Illinois will run a quick-passing spread offense with most passes being of the short variety. Signal-callers won’t look to the sideline for plays; motion and run-fakes will be minimized, too. When it comes to running the ball, Cubit wants to go north and south. Previously, Illinois employed a zone-block scheme that saw backs often work east-west before heading up field.
2. The running backs Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young are capable, though Ferguson seemingly always is battling injury. Young is a physical back who can carry the load. He did a nice job tonight and was used as a work horse. A preview of things to come, perhaps? He has said he loves Cubit’s offense. Ferguson didn’t play. Dai Ayoola is a quick back with vision. No player ran for over 600 yards last season for Illinois.
3. The pass catchers remain a work in progress. JC transfer Martize Barr may end up being the team’s top wideout. He’s a physical receiver who possesses quickness. Darius Millines continues to be suspended indefinitely for violating team rules. In 2012, no Illinois player had more than 500 yards receiving. Spencer Harris, ex-QB Miles Osei and speedy Ryan Lankford–who along with Osei looked good tonight–are other nice options. The wideouts are having to adjust to new routes in a scheme that emphasizes timing and space.
4. The offensive line was a mess last season, but the unit flashed some potential tonight. Yes, top blocker Hugh Thornton is gone, but three starters are back in Michael Heitz, Simon Cvijanovic and Ted Karras. And Corey Lewis is back after knee injuries ruined the last two seasons. He has had five in his career. Alex Hill looks good at center. These guys will be asked to be maulers/straight-line blockers this season. The fronts looked good on this night, as points and yards were plentiful.
5. Nathan Scheelhaase had his moments, but is he the answer at quarterback? No doubt, his experience will be beneficial as he deals with his fourth coordinator. Reilly O’Toole has better skills than Scheelhaase; but his lack of experience puts him behind in this race. Still, O’Toole looked very good on this night—save for the picks. The QBs work from under center more in this offense. The work by each signal-caller was a mixed bag in this game.
6. There was lots to watch on defense. Tackling was spotty, but turnovers were plentiful. JC transfer Eric Finney looks like a natural at the STAR (hybrid linebacker/safety) spot. He’ll team with Jonathan Brown (who didn’t play) to give the Illini some building blocks. Houston Bates looked good playing the LEO spot. LBs Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina were all over the field. But the secondary basically is being rebuilt. Finney is physical, can move and loves the game. He looked good on occasion tonight. Taylor Barton—who had two picks and a pick six–looks like the other safety; V’Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence showed promise as the corners. End Tim Kynard is the lone starter back up front for a line that needs some players to step up.
7. We didn’t see a bunch tonight from the tight ends, but Cubit has said they will be a big part of the attack. That’s good, because Illinois has some promising ones. Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse didn’t play, but Evan Wilson is a good one.

***

About Tom Dienhart BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men’s basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at btn.com/tomdienhart, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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