In the weeks leading up to the start of the 2010 season when the Illini play in St. Louis against the Missouri Tigers, I will be heading up to Camp Rantoul several times to look at the current Illini squad and offer my take on what I see unfolding. Here is the first such installment after taking in workouts earlier this week. What follows is the offensive preview for the upcoming season:
The offense that Illinois trots out on the field on September 4th at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis will look vastly different than squads of the past. Gone is Juice Williams, and for a lot of Illini faithful, the consensus is good riddance. Enter Nathan Scheelhaase, a redshirt freshman from Kansas City, Missouri who is much smaller than the aforementioned Williams, but apparently more mobile in the pocket. Experience will be an issue with Scheelhaase, as he is one of three quarterbacks on the roster that has never thrown a collegiate pass. Backing him up are true freshmen Chandler Whitmer and Miles Osei, the latter of which seems likely to redshirt this season. Don't be surprised to see Eddie McGee take some snaps as well, as he worked out under center a little last week.
Running the ball shouldn't be an issue for the Illini, as they return their top 4 rushers from a year ago. Led by Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford, the ground game seems poised to continue its greatness under new offensive coordinator Paul Petrino. When Petrino was introduced as the new OC last spring, he unveiled his philosophy to "Feed The Studs", or FTS as he so mildly put it. With horses such as Leshoure and Ford, that shouldn't be a problem. Also returning to the mix is Troy Pollard and Justin Green, who are both fully healed and should be ready to contribute. Added to the mix is redshirt freshman Bud Golden, who may be asked to fill in on certain situations.
On the receiving end of things, gone is Arrelious "Regus" Benn to the NFL, but a stable of speedsters remain. Catching the ball may be the toughest part with this group, and here's hoping that Scheelhaase can get the rock to them. Chris James, Jarrod Fayson, and A. J. Jenkins anchor the cast returning for one more go at it. It was Jenkins that was here, then all but gone from the program, then back again. He said that it was the philosophy of the new offensive coordinator that played a huge part in his decision to return to the team, and thinks he can catch a lot of passes as a result. Added to the mix of this talented group are Fred Sykes and true freshman Steve Hull, as well as a pair of players from the Sunshine State with blazing speed, Darius Millines and Ryan Lankford. Head Coach Ron Zook has said early on that several true freshmen may see action in the beginning of the season, and those two speedsters in particular may be among the ones that see action early. Rounding out the receiving corps are the tight ends, which can be used in several different capacities. They can block on the line, come out of the backfield as an H-Back, or go for the occasional pass as well. Early favorites at the position include local product Zach Becker, Justin Lattimore, and London Davis. Becker appears to be the favorite right now, and said that he will either come out of the backfield as a fullback, or be used in the tight end formation. Whatever the situation calls for and the coaches want, Becker is willing to contribute in any way that he can.
Of course, it all starts up on the offensive line, and those horses pave the way for the glamour position players to do their jobs. The O-Line is experienced, and should give Scheelhaase plenty of time to work. Jeff Allen and Randall Hunt anchor a line that has a lot of upside, and with Ryan Palmer, Hugh Thornton and Graham Pocic returning as well, should bolster the rotation pretty well. Add Corey Lewis and Craig Wilson in there as well, and you have some much needed depth for this group, that will need some breathers every now and then, especially early in the season when the temperature is still an issue. The offensive line has taken some heat in the past for not allowing Juice to move in the backfield like he was meant to do, but hopefully that mindset has passed and this year's group can put that behind them and move on to bigger and better things.
It is hard to predict how a team will do by simply watching them in training camp, but for a team that finished 3-9 a year ago, the prognosis is not rosy. There are a lot of undecideds about this particular Illini team, and as it has for the past few seasons, will begin on a neutral field against the Missouri Tigers on Labor Day Weekend. The excitement level has been there for the past 2 meetings, but soon has leveled off considerably once the lights went down and the team returned to reality. This year, the expectations are not nearly as high, so there is room for some optimism. The defense will play a huge role in that, and next week, I will break down the defense group by group and assess what needs to be done in order for the Illini to start the season off on a winning note. Until then.