Tate: Where have all the No. 1 receivers gone?
What would be more frustrating for a receiver than to run patterns all day long ... and maybe get one pass ... or none?
At some point, you'd think he might begin to drift mentally like the day-dreaming right fielder in Little League.
This doesn't happen to top receivers. They demand the ball. They're good and they know it. David Williams freelanced in the Mike White system, and the Illini All-American caught 101 passes in 1984. Brandon Lloyd, now with New England, was too explosive to overlook for long. And UI quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase always had an eye out for A.J. Jenkins (90 catches) last year.
On this squad, there are plenty of promising young receivers with good hands and speed, reserves like Kenny Knight, Jeremy Whitlow, Justin Hardee, Fritz Rock, Peter Bonahoom and Tim Lukas. But where's the one with Williams' ability to separate, Lloyd's catlike skill on long throws or Jenkins' evasiveness?
For now, receivers coach Billy Gonzales is going with three juniors: Darius Millines, Spencer Harris and Ryan Lankford. None has, as yet, distinguished himself. On Saturday, Illinois completed 13 passes in a 24-7 win against Western Michigan, seven to the running backs, six to wideouts and one to a tight end. The aerial game, particularly the vertical aspect of it, took a conservative tone after Lankford shocked the Broncos with a long TD catch early. He caught no more, extending a personal pattern that shows 13 receptions in the last 14 games, six of which he has started. Harris caught three short ones Saturday, Millines one.
Here's the problem. With a revamped line and young ball carriers, the Illini running game won't be effective unless these receivers can pose a serious threat to loosen rival defenses. UI foes stacked Paul Petrino's offense last year, and they'll follow that overloaded pattern until forced to change.
On Saturday night, you can be sure Arizona State will use a strategy of daring Illinois, which will presumably have Scheelhaase back at the controls, to beat them with the pass.
Sticking to the plan
Gonzales is planning to alternate three inexperienced youths with three junior starters at Arizona State.
"Over the last couple of weeks, I wasn't excited about the growth of the younger ones," he said, "but they've taken it to heart and stepped it up. Hopefully we'll get them in. They've got to earn it on the field. The three who have come up a bit are Rock, Knight and Hardee. If they continue to have a good week of practice, I want to play six."
Referring to last Saturday's so-so performance, Gonzales said:
"We have to eliminate the errors. We put ourselves in bad positions with third and long. If we can keep it third and short, it'll make a big difference. We have to eliminate the stupid mistakes. That hasn't changed. At the end of practice (Tuesday), we made some errors. It is all about fundamentals.
"You can develop wide receivers. Some are taller, and some are quicker. You have to play to their strengths.
"Jenkins was a first-round NFL draft choice," reminded Gonzales. "It's no different than when we coached Percy Harvin (Florida). When you have special players, you try to get the ball in their hands. There's one rock (ball) on the field, and you have to earn the right to touch that rock."
Ask the experts
Here's what some former Illini standouts have to say.
— John Wright: He was the UI's first truly elusive receiver, setting the school record with 47 catches in 1965 and adding 60 and 52 the next two years.
"No. 1 is the ability to get open," Wright said, "and No. 2, which is very close, is going aggressively to the ball and reaching out with your arms extended.
"It isn't all about speed. The greatest receiver, Jerry Rice, didn't have blazing speed. But he had great moves and great focus. You know you're going to get hit when you catch the ball. I had the attitude that I'd rather get hit with the ball than get hit without it.
"There is a difference when you go from practice to the games, and that's where you cross the line from good to great."
— Shawn Wax: Heady and smooth, he caught 102 passes from 1987 to ’90. He is now executive director for a $100 million neurosurgery fund- raising campaign for the Carver Hospital in Iowa City, Iowa.
"I would break it down to the physical, the mental and the intangibles," Wax said. "To be great, you need speed, quickness and the ability to separate, and strong hands to make tough catches in traffic and bad weather.
"On the mental side, you have to know your assignments, read defenses and understand defensive techniques.
"Among the intangibles, the great ones are game-changers, a threat on every play, and able to take physical punishment. The great ones won't be guarded one-on-one."
— Mike Bellamy: A junior college transfer, Bellamy caught 59 balls in the 10-2 season of 1989.
"It's 80 percent mental and 20 percent physical," said the UI's new player personnel director. "You have to challenge yourself and be confident in your skills. It's a one-on-one game unless they put two on you. You have to keep working because everything you've strived for could be determined on one play.
"I always believed that if I wasn't getting the ball, there was something I wasn't doing. When I played with Jeff George, he knew I'd go after everything, and my confidence carried over to him. Jenkins was that kind of receiver last year.
"I consider Millines' athleticism off the charts, but he has to master the mental part. Can he counter what the defenses are doing? Can he make that step?"
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.