Loren Tate: Illini must find answers everywhere
Best Illini news so far:
Tim Beckman’s gang completed full-contact drills Tuesday without a season-impacting injury — OK, Ted Karras (ankle) is worrisome until we know more — and appears in a strong mental state with about a week to go before the opener against SIU.
But questions pop up all over the place.
— The medics have cleared Jonathan Brown, Corey Lewis and Jon Davis. But are they 100 percent?
We’ll soon see whether Brown’s damaged shoulder and the surgically repaired knees of Lewis and Davis will hold up and allow them to be the standouts they were projected to be. Brown was an extraordinarily mobile linebacker two years ago, leading the team in tackles (108) and the Big Ten (conference games) in tackles for loss.
Davis caught 22 passes as a freshman but, like Brown, was hampered throughout 2012. If he’s full-go, coordinator Bill Cubit intends to move him around from tight end to H-back to slot. A healthy Davis makes tight end the Illini’s deepest position.
“I’ve seen enough of Davis to know he gives us something that a lot of teams don’t have,” Cubit said. “We’re just trying to be careful with him.”
At 320 pounds or more, Lewis would be great in a telephone booth. We’ll soon see whether he has foot quickness to handle mobile rush-ends, and whether he is sufficiently durable for the long grind. Junior Michael Heitz has started 21 games the last two years, nearly half of them at tackle, and likely will move from guard if needed. The improvement of Ohioan Joe Spencer, a redshirt freshman, offers depth at guard as we await Karras’ return.
“We are a lot healthier than we were at this time last year,” Beckman said. “We’ve worked to get ready. I see a big part of this team saying ‘yes’ to us.”
— Who’ll emerge to pressure opposing quarterbacks?
This might be the single greatest defensive concern. If they don’t get pressure from the edges — remember Whitney Mercilus — the young secondary will be vulnerable to passes.
Line coach Greg Colby is moving Miami sophomore Teko Powell around in the front four and, if this mobile 295-pounder comes of age, he could be a difference-maker. Also, keep an eye on Dayton’s 275-pound freshman, Jarrod Clements. Powell and Clements have a chance to be exceptional linemen, but is 2013 too soon?
For now, the veteran front four of Tim Kynard, Jake Howe, Austin Teitsma and Houston Bates appears most comfortable in dealing with the running game.
— Youngest secondary ever?
If it’s not the youngest, it’s close. Recently when Beckman employed nickel (five backs) and dime (six) in pass situations, he inserted raw freshmen Darius Mosely and Jaylen Dunlap alongside two sophomores, a redshirt freshman and junior Earnest Thomas.
The dropoff in experience is stunning. Newly departed Justin Green, Terry Hawthorne, Jack Ramsey, Supo Sanni and Pat Nixon-Youman, plus converted Steve Hull, started 96 Illini games in the secondary during the last four years. That’s 96 despite several key injuries.
— So many receivers
With Hull and Miles Osei switching to the wideouts, coach Mike Bellamy is overrun with possibilities. During practices, you might see a dozen or more guys making nice catches ... No. 20 (Fritz Rock), No. 29 (Peter Bonahoom), No. 19 (Justin Hardee), No. 21 (Devin Church), Nos. 13 and 16 (freshmen Dionte Taylor and Marchie Murdock).
And these aren’t even the regulars. The top threesome would appear to be returning starters Ryan Lankford and Spencer Harris and juco transfer Martize Barr. Harris came on strong late in camp, and Barr asserted himself. At the same time, Osei impressed and Taylor surprised.
“We are going to distribute the ball to a lot of guys,” quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. “We’ll keep opponents guessing.”
But if you have a dozen equal receivers, you usually have nothing special. Cubit is calling for someone to step up and catch 70 balls in his prolific aerial system, which produced five receivers with 84 or more in his eight seasons at Western Michigan: Greg Jennings 98 in 2005, Jamarko Simmons 84 and 104 in 2007-08, and Jordan White 94 and 140 (yes, 140 with 17 TDs) in 2010-11.
Until Cubit sees someone he can emphasize, look for numerous personnel packages featuring a mix of wideouts, tight ends and running back Josh Ferguson.
— Kicking game
Having produced high-ranking special teams at Central Florida, former Minnesotan Tim Salem took small steps last season in reviving one of the UI’s weak links. The Illini will employ numerous regulars in the kick and kick return game, and they appear to have a quality punter in Justin DuVernois, who averaged 41.9 yards last season.
Having witnessed eight consecutive field goal misses by multiple kickers at the end of one Rantoul session, my confidence was shaken. But Taylor Zalewski hit 4 of 7 last year, has a strong leg and will be the guy.
Salem is searching for the “hidden yards” in the return and coverage aspects. And he points to blocking as a past weakness in kick returns.
“I was disappointed last year,” Salem said. “The numbers don’t lie. It’s body-on-body work, and we’ve got to maintain contact for a second and a half to give the returner a chance. I see a lot of improvement over where we were a year ago.”
This is critical. Illinois has been losing the “hidden yards” for years.
— The quarterback situation
Reilly O’Toole has made no gains on Scheelhaase in spring or August drills, and it remains Scheelhaase’s job to lose. The senior threw 30 TD passes in his first two seasons but, with injuries limiting him to nine starts, threw only four last season. After dealing with dual coordinators, Scheelhaase has appeared to mesh with Cubit, whose motto might be described as: “One for the money, two for the pass.”
Cubit wants quick strikes to precise routes and fewer quarterback scrambles. He has been harsh with receivers who aren’t sticklers to his regimented routes.
Freshman Aaron Bailey, flashing exceptional athleticism and a strong arm, will be brought along slowly as we see how the season develops. There are five games in November, four of which (other than Ohio State) might be deemed winnable if the Illini reach that point in good shape. Cubit might be tempted to change course at that point, depending on what happens along the way.
— The Cubit factor
It’s huge. Cubit and line coach A.J. Ricker, who served with him at Western Michigan, have reshaped the culture of the attacking unit. Cubit has drawn plaudits from all sides and is the full-blown head coach of half the team.
“Three-and-outs aren’t fair to the defense,” Cubit said. “We want to be efficient, go fast and make first downs.”
Can he turn it around? He is, in many ways, the man of the hour for an Illini team that has averaged 11.4 points in a 14-game Big Ten losing streak. More on him later.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.