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 ltate@news-gazette.com.

Categories (3):Illini Sports, Football, Sports

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JimOATSfan wrote on September 06, 2012 at 4:09 am

To me this post begs the question: When will we hold the QB accountable for delivering the rock to the receivers?  (Think Missouri QB's.)  Who really cares if the QB can run the ball???

If they don't | can't light up the passing game, then it is another long season in conference play. If they do then there is no limit to the success of the Illini in 2012-2013.

Cheers

Railsplitter wrote on September 06, 2012 at 5:09 am

Lets face it, you can have Jerry Rice, T.O. ,Reggie Wayne you name your own but unless theres someone to throw the ball to them, it doesn"t matter.I like NS , but he is NOT a passing QB.

Green Shirt wrote on September 06, 2012 at 7:09 am

Let's take it a step further.  While great receivers mean little if you lack the QB to deliver the ball, a great QB can do little if the offensive line does not offer him protection.  I have never seen a QB who can effectively deliver the ball from his backside.

illini82 wrote on September 06, 2012 at 8:09 am

The passing game is a 3 part process and all 3 have to go well to be successful.


1. The OL has to be able to protect the QB. He needs 2-3 seconds to make a good read. After that it's up to the QB.


2. The QB has to be able to A. read the defense B. find the open man C. get the ball to the receiver.


3. The receiver has to find a way to get open. That might be through speed. Good moves or quicknes and by understanding/reading the defense.


And of course the WR has to catch the ball. Most of the time he'll have someone on him or the pass won't be perfect so he has to be able to adjust and be able to fight for and hang on to the ball.


Right now I see a below average to average OL.


I see QB who is an average passer. Capable but nothing special.


I see WR's that can't get separation either through speed or through technique.


I also see an offense still learning the new system as well and play calling that for now isn't very inventive.

DaisyJ wrote on September 06, 2012 at 9:09 am

The recievers are there, have always been there. Unfortunately, most of the pass plays end up

with Nathan getting cold feet and takes off and runs for nothing.

Moonpie wrote on September 06, 2012 at 10:09 am

Wideouts become good when they have a good QB-- a classic, passing QB. That isn't Scheelhaase. He's a gamer and tough and runs well, but really is just another small option type guy who isn't going to take them further than a third-rate bowl like last season.

Brownshoe wrote on September 06, 2012 at 12:09 pm

I don't care how good the receivers are, or how good the quarterback is, if the offensive line is weak, you are not going to have any kind of a passing game, or running game either, for that matter. 

IMO our offensive line is very weak and therefor all of the skill positions are negated to a great degree right from the start; and while complaining about them may be fun, it not only misses the point but is also grossly unfair.

And to expect a "vertical," or long passing game from an offense that has a weak line is completely unrealistic.

If we had five NFL-grade offensive linemen, we would probably have the best passing attack in the B1G, if not the country. It makes a big difference when the q-back has all day to throw and the receivers have all day to get open.

Our q-back is lucky to survive, much less have time to be accurate or survey his options.

 

JimOATSfan wrote on September 06, 2012 at 5:09 pm

OK, if the O-Line assesment is accurate, can anyone volunteer (that can get the broadcast & watch the game) to time the length of the blocks?  Are they averaging 2-3 seconds, or less or more? You seldom get that info on sports pages or websites.

A run first qb will require more time to get off a pass.  

Pastor J of MUMC wrote on September 06, 2012 at 9:09 pm

okay I created an account to make this point, stop bagging on NS.  The era of the stand in the pocket passer is over, we don't need Dan Marino, we need someone who can move.  NS is a gamer, by all acounts a good human being, and can make plays.  I agree the OL needs work, but I don't want some pocket passer who can't move.  The Mike White era was amazing, but it's over the game has changed, and we can't go home again, so lets move into the future, and more power to NS and Bailey when he arrives, now let's get them a line, and spread them out, and win the Big Ten!