Adventures in Offense 2013: Illinois

Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. - Bradley Leeb-US PRESSWIRE

2012 Quick Stats

Passing Offense: 11th in Big Ten, 111th Nationally
Rushing Offense: 11th in Big Ten, 99th Nationally
Scoring Offense: 12th in Big Ten, 122nd Nationally
Total Offense: 12th in Big Ten, 122nd Nationally

3rd Down Conversions: 34.1% (59 out of 173 attempts)
4th Down Conversions: 40.0% (6 out of 15 attempts)
Red Zone Conversions: 74.19% (23 out of 31 attempts)
Total Points: 200 (25 TD, 8 FG, 22 extra point, 2 two-point)
Average points per game: 16.7

2012 Record: 2-10 (0-8 in Big Ten)
Record vs. Michigan: 23-69-2
Head Coach Tim Beckman: 2-10 at Illinois, 23-26 overall

What's up with the offense?

The biggest story coming out of Illinois's offense is the hiring of Bill Cubit, the former head coach of Western Michigan, as offensive coordinator. Though Cubit was moderately successful by MAC standards--he posted 4 winning seasons, 3 bowl appearances, and a record of 51-47 over eight years--he was promptly fired by Western after going 4-8 in 2012. Tim Beckman hopes Cubit can take an offense that was the worst in the Big Ten and make them at least halfway competent.

Ron Zook's offense was a True Multiple: he ran everything from Power-I to Five Wide to Two Tight End sets, and he called everything from screens to end-arounds to zone reads to play action. (Okay, maybe he didn't run everything; I don't recall seeing any Wishbone in there.) Beckman ran the Oregon/Rodriguez type spread at Toledo and was decent. He tried to bring that same offense to Illinois and took a nosedive.

Cubit says the offense under him at Illinois will be more of a return to the multiple days but they will run it at a high tempo (i.e. no-huddle). If you ever played NCAA 12 or 13 as Western Michigan, the computer classified them as a "pro-style" offense and gave you Ace (two tight end), I-formation and limited shotgun sets to work with. But if you watched the game where Michigan played Western Michigan in 2011, or any game of Western's since, you saw that they looked more like a Pistol or Air Raid team than a pro-style, ground-and-pound, MANBALL team.

Cubit says this was largely due to the fact that for the past couple years Western didn't have productive running backs. They did, however, have some decent talent at quarterback and receiver, so as Kirk Herbstreit says, "They go with da spread."

Like pretty much every coach in the Big Ten says these days, Cubit nevertheless hopes to incorporate some downhill, "north-and-south" type running in the MANBALL mold, but ultimately the offense will be heavily dependent on what works and what doesn't, just like his days at Western Michigan. He did stress that a lot of the offense will rely heavily on the leadership abilities of the quarterback, calling them "a coach on the field," so expect him to try to recruit some Kirk Cousins, Alex Carder type guys in the future, depending of course on how long Cubit stays at Illinois.

If you have some time to kill, you can check out his Illinois intro presser:


Bill Cubit is generally known in Michigan circles as a highly regimented, "Army General" type coach in the Bo Schembechler mold. He might not have the scream-and-yell, throw-down-your-hat temper that Schembechler did, but he certainly comes off as the solid-as-a-rock, no B.S. type. He'll be expected to bring discipline to an offense that was, for lack of a better term, generally undisciplined.

The Fighting Illini clearly struggled to sustain drives, as the stat that jumps out the most from 2012 is the 3rd down conversation rate of only 34.1%. They also struggled to take care of the ball, having a turnover rate of -12, losing 16 fumbles and throwing 14 total interceptions. They only averaged 16.7 points a game.

Illinois returns 9 starters on offense, according to College Football Universe, but when those starters contributed to the 12th best offense out of 12 teams, is that a good thing?

Key Players

Your tentative starter at quarterback is Nathan Scheelhaase. The 6'3", 195 lbs. senior led the team in passing and was 149 of 246 with 8 INTs, garnering a completion percentage of 60.6%. He threw for 1361 yards and 4 passing TDs. He is also known for his dual-threat capability and had 125 rushes for a net gain of 303 yards, and 4 rushing TDs.

Illinois's other option at quarterback is junior Reilly O'Toole. He's 6'4", 220 lbs. according to Illinois's athletic department website, and although he threw for less yards than Scheelhaase (65 of 87 for 564 yards, 6 TDs, and 4 INTs), he had a slightly better completion percentage of 74.7%, which is why there is some debate about who should be the starter. However, if you'd like a more concrete answer, Matt Daniels of the Illinois News Gazette wrote a quick recap of the spring game and said that it looked like the quarterback job is Scheelhaase's to lose.

At running back, junior Donovonn Young seems like the starter. Young led the team in rushing for 2012 with a modest 571 yards over 131 rushes in all 12 games, averaging 4.4 yards per carry. Though the Illini didn't run the ball much, when they did run, it seemed like it was Young who did most of it. The only other primarily ball carrier was Josh Ferguson, who had only 75 carries for 312 yards. He got some touches in the spring game, but Young seems to have the edge.

Ironically, it was also Donovonn Young who led the team in catches (38), but Ryan Lankford had the most receiving yards, with 469. Lankford, Darius Millines, and Spencer Harris were the bulk of the struggling offense in 2012 and caught for a combined total of 1,040 yards. Millines was suspended by Illinois in March, did not participate in the spring game, and has been removed from the Illinois's football website roster. Harris and Lankford, however, are expected to return as seniors for the 2013 season.

To pick up the slack, Beckman and Cubit will expect production from sophomore wide receiver Justin Hardee, who played in all 12 games as a true freshman, but had only 17 receptions for a total of 192 yards. There is also returning tight end Jon Davis, who Scheelhaase and O'Toole rarely threw to (not surprising in the 2012 offense). Matt Daniels' recap also mentioned Miles Osei, a quarterback converted to wide receiver, as a potential option for catches.

The offensive line was and continues to be a problem for the Illini, and it became so much of one that Beckman fired his offensive line coach (along with his OC) and hired A.J. Ricker, Bill Cubit's O-Line coach at Western Michigan. The biggest loss to the already-bereft Illini offensive line was senior tackle Graham Pocic. They still return starter Michael Heitz, and redshirt junior Alex Hill is expected to take over at center. Illinois football blog A-Lion-Eye put together a depth chart based on observations of spring practice, and here it is discussed on an Illini football forum.

Beyond that, the Illini hope to get some immediate help from 10 early enrollees, five of which are JUCO players. Four early enrollees are offensive linemen, and three of those four are true freshmen.

Conclusion

In his five years at Illinois, starting as redshirt freshman in 2010, Nathan Scheelhaase has been coached by a different offensive coordinator every year. He was named Big Ten Rookie of the Year in 2010 and was listed as a Fourth Team Freshman All-American by sports guru Phil Steele. Two years later, he was leading an offense that couldn't even figure out which way was backward.

The hiring of Bill Cubit may turn out to be the thing that saves Tim Beckman's job. Or it could simply be prolonging the inevitable. Cubit claims that Beckman is giving him free reign over the offense, which is probably a good thing for everybody. However, I don't think that a new offensive coordinator, a new offensive line coach, and a handful of JUCOs are going to be enough to save Tim Beckman's job, and by extension Cubit's.

I can see the offense improving marginally, but improving from nothing is not exactly worthy of a high grade. Considering that the offense bordered on grading F in 2012, the grade below may seem generous. The Illini offense hopes to at least be average in 2013, and I think they'll be close, but slightly less.

Grade: C-

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