Loren Tate: Health key for offense
Continuity in coaching, so we’re told, is critical to success.
Maybe that has been part of the Illini’s football problems.
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Since the autumn of 2000, when Ron Turner was pushing toward a 2001 Big Ten championship, there have been 50 assistant coaches. That’s a revolving door of 50 aides in 15 seasons, including five newcomers ahead of last season. And that’s not counting Larry Fedora and Joe Wickline, who left Ron Zook before they got started, and at least two others, Jon Tenuta and Jim Bridge, who changed their minds after committing to Tim Beckman.
So it’s encouraging to know the staff is intact from 2013. Except for one minor adjustment: Recruiting coordinator and tight ends coach Alex Golesh has incorporated the running back position into his duties, allowing Tim Salem to concentrate entirely on special teams.
Golesh will work with two positions that already were intertwined.
“The way we scheme, the way we use Jon Davis (TE) as a back, and the way we use Josh Ferguson (RB) as a wideout, it makes sense,” Golesh said. “It’s not a personal thing. For two years, I coached the protections for Jon, the way we use tight ends in the backfield for passes and runs. We always put them together.
“The change is good for the running backs. It gives them a different perspective. It helps the tight ends to better understand where the fits are, and the running backs can run any route because they understand it conceptually. We can line up Fergie anywhere. He represents the kind of back we’re recruiting, one that can go anywhere on the field.”
Golesh believes he has two special athletes in Ferguson and Davis ... if they stay healthy.
Davis has dealt with nagging injuries (mostly knee) through three seasons, only sporadically displaying his full talent. The 240-pound senior from Louisville is presently sidelined with a dislocated elbow.
Ferguson sat out most of his freshman season after suffering a hamstring injury. As a redshirt sophomore last season, the Joliet Catholic product beat out Donovonn Young and erupted onto the scene with 779 yards rushing, caught passes for 535 and scored 11 touchdowns. At a rock-hard 195 pounds, he could be something special.
“Fergie can make plays out of nothing,” Golesh said. “He has pure speed and twitch. The biggest thing we’ve had to fix are the negative-yardage plays.”
Statistically, Ferguson had 32 negative yards on 141 carries. All things considered, that doesn’t seem particularly bad.
“At times you’ve got to put your foot in the ground and make 1 yard,” Golesh said. “There’s nothing wrong with 1 yard. You’re moving the chain. It doesn’t always have to be a big play, and we’ve made a big deal out of that. If you’re going to lose yards on a run play, you’re not going to play.”
Golesh still sees Young as an “every-down guy,” capable of keeping Ferguson fresh as a “changeup guy.” Young showed strong potential as a sophomore when he rushed for 571 yards and caught 38 passes. The 220-pound Texan considered transferring after the disappointment of 2013 but appears back in stride.
“He did some things last year that he didn’t do as a freshman. We want him going north and south. If you read Running Back 101, you can’t make a spin move in the backfield. He might have been trying to be too much like Fergie.
“We’re working it out. Where do you make the cut, where’s your read key, what do you see? And the fumble issues. Those have been huge. We stress the heck out of ball security. We don’t talk about it during a scrimmage or a game, that’s an expectation. You put the ball on the ground, you don’t play.”
Depth remains concern
My nutshell on the UI offense:
Ferguson is elusive, a bona fide breakaway threat. Wes Lunt has a big arm and is accurate with it. Davis has untapped potential as a tight end.
But all three have had disabling injuries. For Illinois to attain full potential offensively, these three must be healthy.
Much of the responsibility falls on the front five. Returning starters Ted Karras, Michael Heitz, Simon Cvijanovic and Alex Hill are 300 pounds or better, and they appear mature and well developed. They’ve worked with sophomore tackle Austin Schmidt this spring, and this is developing as a cohesive unit.
Keeping this gang intact is the key for Beckman. Face it, the UI doesn’t have another breakaway threat like Ferguson, another passer with Lunt’s precision, another tight end with the versatility of Davis. Nor do they have another guard like Karras or a tackle equal to Cvijanovic.
As for receivers, coordinator Bill Cubit has confidence in the talent level and is watching to see who steps up. There are plenty of good signs there.
No, this won’t be Florida State or Oregon, nor will it be Ohio State. But this offensive unit, as it stands right now, belongs in the upper half of the new 14-team Big Ten.
That’s not going overboard, is it?
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.