Illinois Football Preview: Can Scheelhaase’s swan song be a happy one?


Yesterday we took a look at the defense and as bleak as that picture was, the offense was it’s equal in 2012. However, we aren’t here to re-hash what went down last year and that’s as much because it’s painful as it is pointless.

Why pointless? That’s because the co-offensive coordinator experiment from last season is thankfully over. Illini fans and the administration made it abundantly clear that that situation wasn’t going to fly.

So, heading into 2013 there is a new feeling to the offense and that’s because they’ve brought in veteran offensive genius and ex-Western Michigan head coach Bill Cubit to bring in a much more up-tempo offensive system. Early returns on this change were all positive in the spring game and with some good talent available at all the skill positions this group could easily go from averaging under 20ppg to 25-27ppg and that could be the difference between wins and losses in 2013.

However, there are plenty of question marks and one spring game doesn’t a new team make. So, what does the 2013 season look like for the Illini offense? Let’s explore, shan’t we?


So um, will the real Nathan Scheelhaase please stand up? Just asking because the version we saw in his freshman and half of his sophomore season was awesome, but the version of Scheelhaase we’ve seen over the past year and half has been AWFUL.

It’s not all his fault, but there’s about a 70/30 mix to it – 70 percent his doing alone that is.

If Scheelhaase returns to form, and it appears bringing in a new offensive system from Bill Cubit has given him new life, then the Illini could be a dynamic team on that side of the ball. The Illini can’t afford a repeat of last year, where the QB’s on the whole threw for all of 1,925 yards with only 10TD’s to 12 INT’s.

Just in case things don’t work out with Scheelhaase there is at least an experienced backup in Riley O’Toole. He showed well in games against Charleston Southern and Louisiana Tech last season, but struggled against the better defenses he faced, throwing for 564 yards with 6TD’s and 4TD’s in spot duty behind Scheelhaase.

Perhaps the best bit of news came in the form of star recruit Aaron Bailey coming on board. He’s a dynamic athlete and could be a game changer at QB – in fact, some are arguing to get him on the field in some way, shape, or form in 2013. Chances are slim to none though as head coach Tim Beckman strongly believes in the redshirt for all freshman players.

Running Backs:

Try Hard – that’s all great and wonderful and it’s exactly what the RB unit did a season ago. Too bad try hard did not equal better results. After all, it’s never a good thing when you’re game is supposed to be about running the ball and your leading RB only rushes for 571 yards.

On the bright side of things is the fact that Donnovan Young and backup Josh Ferguson will get a 2nd shot to make an improvement and prove those critics wrong. Young has the talent to be a mid-level Big Ten back and with a more consistent offensive line in front of him he could see his 4.4 yard per carry average move up over 5.0 per carry and that’s a sign of good progress. It would also be helpful if this unit could produce more than a whopping 12 TD’s rushing as well. This is the Big Ten after all – not the pass happy Big 12.

We’re willing to give Ferguson a mulligan as well because he never was healthy a season ago, after looking like a potential star in the making entering his freshman season in the Illini backfield. He’s got the brighter future, but needs to prove it on the field in 2013.

The 3rd back is likely to be Dami Ayolla, who rushed for all of 117 yards and 2 TD’s last year. He’s got good feel for the holes in the line and good speed in the open field, but he needs to learn to hit the hole with more power if he wants a bigger role moving forward.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends:

While Scheelhaase appears to be in better form, judging off the spring game of course, that’s only half the equation and that means he needs people to catch passes. That’s where the major problem comes in. This group isn’t very deep or very good frankly and it took a massive hit when

However, not all is lost as leading receiver Ryan Lankford does return. Problem is he caught all of 37 passes last season. On the other side is the fact that he caught half of the teams passing TD’s.

Joining Lankford as a returning starter from last year is Spencer Harris, who is the bigger of the two starting targets. The issue for Harris is he has a bad habit of flashing and then never showing up again. If he could put the talent together with results Harris could be one of the surprise players in the Big Ten this season.

This is a group that needed a serious overhaul and Cubbit and Co. will be looking to JUCO transfer Martize Barr to be that shot in the arm to this unit. The 6-0, 190-pounder brings more of a toughness that hasn’t existed in the past two years; the question is can he get off the ball fast enough against what are some of the better secondaries in the country throughout the Big Ten and in the Leaders division especially.

Offensive Line:

If there was a so-called “Patient X” for the issues on the offensive side of the ball last season it was the O-Line.  The question is can the experiences of 2012 help this group grow, or was that the best this group can provide?

The only starter missing from last season that the Illini may want to have back is center Graham Pocic. His replacement, Alex Hill will have some big shoes to fill and lucky for him, he’s got big shoes. Hill has some starting experience already under his belt and while he may not be as polished as Pocic, he is a mauler and that could be exactly what this O-Line needs.

Illinois could have one of the best “feel good stories” of the 2013 season on their hands in right tackle Corey Lewis. He hasn’t seen the field in over two years and has suffered through FIVE knee surgeries and is still coming back. His 6-6, 310lbs. frame certainly has to be a welcome sight for Scheelhaase and the RB’s. The question is if Lewis can hold up for a full season and if he’s got the speed to deal with some of the faster pass rushers that are in the league now vs. when he first saw the field.

Joining Lewis on the right side of the line is sophomore Ted Karras (yes, related to NFL legend Alex Karras), who started last year as a true freshman. He’s perhaps the most talented O-Lineman on the roster right now, but he needs to prove the inconsistencies of last season are in his past or potential may not meet actual production.

The left side of the line is in competent hands thanks to Simon Cvijanovic and Michael Heitz at tackle and guard respectively.  Both are returning starters and both have the potential to be the rocks of this O-Line.

Questions to be answered in Camp:

Was spring performance fools gold or start of something good? There is no doubt something was different about the offense in the spring game, but was that just an anomaly, or can this team really turn a corner that fast? Only fall camp and consistent performances will answer this one.

Can the O-Line gel? This group has experience but not a ton of it together in the positions they are all playing in 2013. Fall camp and the grind it provides could be what is needed for this group to prove it’s a unit and not a bunch of individuals. 

Andrew Coppens

About Andrew Coppens

Andy is a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA). He is the Managing Editor of MadTownBadger and associate editor of Bloguin's World Cup site, 32flags.com as well as Publisher of Big Ten site talking10.com