RANTOUL — Bill Cubit carries the hopes of Illini multitudes as he installs a new pass-oriented offense, and he wasn’t pleased Monday morning. Each of his top three quarterbacks threw interceptions in a sloppy session.
But he was all smiles as darkness covered the Chanute practice field Monday night. Quarterbacks, receivers and ball carriers excelled as they punished a youthful defense in August’s first full scrimmage. If you could overlook the fact that the defense appeared green, it was an uplifting performance.
Statistics tell the story.
Each QB was again intercepted once but, otherwise, Nathan Scheelhaase completed 14 of 21 passes for 252 yards, Reilly O’Toole 18 of 29 for 166 yards, and freshman Aaron Bailey 4 of 9 for 66 yards. Scheelhaase boosted his numbers with a 40-yard bomb to juco transfer Martize Barr and a 97-yard rainbow to a racing Ryan Lankford. Scheelhaase avoided sacks as a response to Cubit’s call to get the ball out quickly, while O’Toole was caught four times for minus-24.
The first 16 plays were passes without tackling, diminutive redshirt Devin Church spearing four of the first seven completions. When coach Tim Beckman whistled full-go, rotating offensive units took the ball 25 yards out and scored six straight times. When Beckman put the ball back on the 3, Lankford burned rookie Darius Mosley for a 97-yard TD.
The runners weren’t to be outdone as Nos. 5 and 6, Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson, excelled. Ferguson snapped off an early 9-yard TD scamper and Young followed in the next series with a blistering 13-yard burst to the 1.
Now a junior, the 220-pound Young appears ready to fulfill the ball-carrying destiny he brought from Texas.
If the line continues to provide openings, these alternating halfbacks will be more than sufficient while also serving as receivers out of the backfield.
Bailey made an auspicious debut. His second and third passes found Texan Marchie Murdock for a 22- and 25-yard scores, both brilliantly executed by the two freshmen.
Since the scrimmage was situational, it isn’t fair to count the touchdowns as Beckman moved the ball all over the field, and set it down as close as the 5-yard line. The second half wasn’t nearly as explosive as the first, in part perhaps because the gathering darkness closed in after the 8 o’clock hour.
“I loved the enthusiasm,” Cubit said. “The guys came ready to play, and I felt we showed good progress. It got a little sloppy in the second half, but all three quarterbacks did well. I thought Nathan went downfield with authority.”
Cubit emphasizes that his ball carriers “run downhill,” which he said “is what they’re best at. They showed toughness. We’re going to need two strong runners and we’ll alternate them.”
Bailey, showing why he might be a factor if the veteran QBs falter during the long season, “was rough around the edges,” Cubit said. “But he was smiling and having fun. That’s what we want to see.”
More will be written about the defensive side later. Clearly, it is a work in progress with only three seniors likely to make the two-deep, and one of those, linebacker Jonathan Brown, was withheld Monday for precautionary reasons.
One of those seniors, end Tim Kynard, spoke frankly:
“We didn’t come out strong in the first half. The young guys are still getting a feel for it. I thought we picked it up in the second half.
“Coach (Tim) Banks reminded us that there’ll be lots of ups and downs in the season, and it all depends how we respond to adversity. We need to get better.”
On this night, we are left with serious doubts. The linebacking, especially when Brown returns, is Big Ten-level, but 2013 graduates took with them tons of experience from the front four and secondary. Even if line coach Greg Colby can get 70 percent playing time out of junior run stoppers Jake Howe and Austin Teitsma — which is asking a lot — the other 30 percent must be filled. And where will the pass rush come from? That young secondary won’t survive without better up-front pressure.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.