Tate: Receivers holding key to offense

Tate: Receivers holding key to offense

Opponents know all about Robert Holcombe, and they’ll try to gang up on the Illini ball-carrying ace next fall.

This is preventable only if UI receivers are clever enough and fast enough to stretch defenses and burn them deep ... an all too infrequent occurrence during the 2-9 season of 1996.

Illinois trailed the Big Ten in yards per throw (5.4) while tossing the most interceptions (20).

For the second year in a row, it was an offense to forget.

“Speed is still a concern,” new head coach Ron Turner said. “And the only receiver we’re bringing in, Nick Piazza (Lincoln-Way), is not a speed guy.

“We’re working on timing patterns, and we’re trying to get vertical (downfield) quick. The receivers must reach the right place at the right time. It’s all timing and rhythm, and having faith that the ball will be there. There have been times when the receivers haven’t turned quick enough, and I still praised the quarterbacks in those instances.”

Said Greg McMahon, a carryover from the Lou Tepper staff:

“There is more detail and it’s more timing-oriented. It’s an NFL offensive system, and Turner has been with it so long that he has an answer for everything. They do this, and we do that.

“I feel fortunate to be working with the tight ends because I’m involved in both the pass game and the run game. We use high-percentage throws and we don’t require the quarterback to be back there a long time.

“As for who’ll replace Jason Dulick, that person hasn’t stepped forward yet, but somebody will. Somebody always does.”

Mosely has most experience

The now-departed Dulick had 141 catches the last three seasons, and the UI has had a receiver with 40 or more in 16 of the last 17 years, this after a 12-year period (pre-Mike White) in which no receiver caught as many as 40.

All eyes are on 187-pound Bloomington senior Marquis Mosely, returning for a redshirt (fifth) season after catching 28 balls last year. He is listed as the “weakside” receiver ahead of young Key West (Fla.) products Michael Dean and Anthony Thompson.

“We’re into deeper routes,” Mosely said. “We don’t go by the yard markers anymore. It’s all steps and timing. When we get it down, the quarterbacks can close their eyes and know we’ll be there. I want to be our go-to guy. I watched Dulick and (Jasper) Strong, and I know what it takes to be the receiver in clutch situations.”

If the UI possesses a true deep threat, it is 190-pound Californian George McDonald-Ashford. But the former Orange County sprint champion caught only 12 balls last season.

“There is a knack that some receivers have to create separation and get open,” Turner said. “It’s a sense of timing. All fast guys don’t change direction quickly or know how to use their speed.”

Listed with Rob Majoy and Lenny Willis at flanker, former halfback McDonald-Ashford will be given every opportunity to excel.

“The hardest part of my conversion from the backfield is over,” said the tightly wound junior.

“This is the most comfortable I’ve been. I have a better chance to use my speed in a vertical-attacking offense, and that also allows the underneath people more room. I’m working on getting out of my breaks quicker, and becoming more physical after catching the ball. We’re multi-dimensional now, and we have too many options for the defense to take everything away.”

In practices so far, the receivers have been adequate but not spectacular. Turner is on the lookout for a pleasant surprise, as is happening at right tackle with rookie Marques Sullivan.

Tate’s tidbits

– With high winds and the threat of rain, Turner moved Saturday’s practice into a billowing stadium bubble, and 1-2 QBs Mark Hoekstra and Tim Lavery continued their close duel. Said Turner: “I was pleased with it. The guys were flying around. We did some good things on both sides of the ball, and we made some mistakes on both sides.”

– The bubble is scheduled to be brought down after next Saturday’s 10 a.m. session, one week ahead of the 10 a.m. spring game April 19.

– Linebacker Dennis Stallings, who led the Illini in tackles, has seen his National Football League stock shoot up after showing the pro scouts 40-yard times of 4.63 seconds in Indianapolis and 4.53 here last month. Said Turner: “We had 22 scouts here and he was under 4.6 every time. Dennis should go in the middle rounds.”

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette.

Categories (3):Illini Sports, Football, Sports