Historically speaking, few college teams have produced more standout quarterbacks than Purdue. Familiar names rattle off the tongue: Dawson, Griese, Phipps, Herrmann, Campbell, Everett, Brees, Orton, Painter.
But get this. In 38 years, and it’ll soon be 39, Purdue has had no receiver drafted higher than the NFL’s fourth round —and only four altogether. Little more than one per decade. The last pass-catching draftee was Vinny Sutherland in 2001.
My point is: Great receivers help — or to be honest, elusive speedsters can tear a defense to shreds — but it’s possible to build a productive aerial game without All-Americans. And that’s exactly what Bill Cubit, Mike Bellamy and the Illini will attempt as they undertake drills this week alongside Memorial Stadium.
This is one of the most severe challenges facing the team. Bellamy, first-year receivers coach, takes charge of a pass-catching unit ranked 11th or 12th in the Big Ten. And that rating came out before senior Darius Millines (32 catches in 2012) was suspended this summer.
The graduation of A.J. Jenkins, coupled with the early-season injury to quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, contributed to a fall in total offense from respectable numbers: 5,162 and 4,624 yards in the 13-game seasons of 2010-11, to 3,560 in 12 games last year. Scheelhaase returns for his fourth season as starting QB.
Long way to go
“When you look at our production last year, our ranking is understandable,” Bellamy said.
Of 120 FBS teams in 2012, Illinois ranked 107th in passing, one notch ahead of run-oriented Northwestern and just ahead of winless Southern Mississippi. Illinois was 11th or 12th in the conference in scoring, passing yards, TD passes, rushing, turnovers and total offense.
In other words, the attacking unit sputtered. Co-coordinators Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales lasted one season.
“We’re working to be better and we have goals, but we realize we have a long way to go,” Bellamy said.
His first problem will be reducing from 17 to a workable number. His group includes three-year starters Ryan Lankford and Spencer Harris, and two seniors who switched positions, Miles Osei and Steve Hull. It includes two second-year squadmen with potential, Justin Hardee and Devin Church, and two lean freshmen about whom we know little, Texan Marchie Murdock and Floridian Dionte Taylor. It includes two walk-ons from Champaign-Urbana, Kevin Carroll and Kameron Fry. And it features a JC transfer who could be the best of the bunch, Martize Barr.
If, as Cubit hopes, there’s a 70-catch receiver out there, it’ll be a surprise to one and all. This has the look of receptions by committee. Harris caught seven balls in the last six games. Lankford caught 23 in the first five games but trailed off to 37 for the season. Barr had 31 at Iowa Western. All modest numbers, creating the strong likelihood that the UI’s versatile tight ends and running backs might become equally friendly targets.
Here’s my question: If you have 17 candidates, all of whom run well, all of whom had shown they can catch, what separates the good ones like Brandon Lloyd, Arrelious Benn and Jenkins?
They are separated, according to Bellamy, by the ability to gain separation ... by whatever means, evade defensive backs. Get open.
“It begins with desire and confidence, all the little things ... explosion off the ball, creating space in the secondary,” Bellamy said. “When we studied it, what we saw was our receivers weren’t getting separation from the defensive backs. That’s been the emphasis in the spring and summer.
“We don’t have Jerry Rice on one side and Cris Carter on the other. If Lankford is our best deep threat, we’ll use him that way. We are looking for guys with certain skills, and we’ll put them in position to do what they do best. We might find six, seven or eight guys and take advantage of what they do best.”
Bellamy, a 1989 Big Ten all-star who returned to campus last year as assistant director of player personnel, helped recruit Barr. Bellamy was also a JC transfer, having starred as a sprinter and receiver at College of DuPage.
“I knew one of Barr’s coaches in Washington, D.C., and we had the same junior college story. We talked together. (Barr) didn’t catch the most balls at Iowa Western, but he fits what we need. He looks good out here. He dropped about 10 pounds after he arrived. He was crisp in his assignments (Monday), and he caught the ball well.”
Bellamy is the third Illini to join Beckman’s staff here. Luke Butkus came and went last year as offensive line coach. Bellamy came aboard alongside Danville’s Greg Colby, who’ll handle the defensive line.
“I was the Midwestern guy when Mike White was bringing all those JC guys from California,” Bellamy said. “He told me that he wasn’t leaving my house until I agreed to come to Illinois. My mother loved that. They had followed me from high school (Kenwood) and made sure I got my grades in order at DuPage.”
He has one year of college coaching as an assistant at Clark Atlanta University in 2011, having served in high school three years previously.
“I coached Division II, and I’ve always been a student of the game,” he said. “I had been coming back when Ron Zook was here, and I spent the week of the Michigan game to learn from Paul Petrino. I did camps with the Zook staff. When Coach Beckman came, he told me about a position he had open (in the office), and I fit into that. I wanted to help the program. When the receivers position came open, he thought I was ready for the job. I was prepared for the opportunity.”
That’s not a lot of experience, and he couldn’t be tackling a tougher assignment. But, as challenges go, that’s true of everyone on this Illini staff.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.