CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) It was all but a given that Illinois would name Wes Lunt its starting quarterback. What is less certain is the quality of the players around the transfer from Oklahoma State.
With a mostly veteran line and the addition of several new faces at receiver, coach Tim Beckman believes Lunt has what he needs to work with.
”It seems that we have more tools, as they say, to make the offense better,” Beckman said.
The offense wasn’t bad last year. Under first-year coordinator Bill Cubit and with senior Nathan Scheelhaase at quarterback, the 4-8 Illini scored 29.7 points a game, sixth in the Big Ten. Even with Scheelhaase’s limited passing ability and a thin crop of receivers, they were second in the conference in passing yards with 287.7 a game.
A look at pieces Lunt will rely on when Illinois opens Aug. 30 against Youngstown State:
The receivers: Last season’s group consisted essentially of senior Steve Holt, a converted safety who had 59 catches for 993 yards and seven touchdowns, and a cast of extras.
So Illinois added Geronimo Allison, a 6-4, 195-pound junior college transfer who provides some of that size Beckman alluded to. Freshmen Malik Turner – 6-3, 205 pounds – and Mikey Dudek have also impressed in preseason.
Cubit says they’ve all made ”vast improvements” on route running and what he called urgency, something he says they didn’t quite have early on.
”I think they’re adjusting to the speed of the ball. Wes throws it pretty good, so they better get their heads turned around,” he said.
But having a junior college transfer and a pair of true freshmen at the top of the depth chart means Cubit doesn’t yet know what his quarterback will be throwing to.
”Until we play a game, we’ll see exactly how they are,” Cubit said.
The line: The experience level on Illinois’ offensive line should make it a strength. Four players with starting experience are back and two, Alex Hill and Michael Heitz, are seniors.
But those four were a big part of the line that gave up 30 sacks last year, 2.5 a game, ninth in the Big Ten. In Lunt they’ll have a quarterback who started as a freshman at Oklahoma State until injuries sent him to the bench.
The fifth lineman at this point is an unknown, Pat Flavin, a 6-7, 300-pound right tackle.
”I feel really good about four of them, they’re the guys that played last year,” Cubit said. ”And you’re a little concerned about the other guy. Pat hasn’t got a lot of reps out there.”
But part of the responsibility will be Lunt’s, he added.
”He’s got to understand where the blitzes are coming from,” and make the right calls, or at least get rid of the ball quickly,” Cubit said.
One more potential wrinkle: Line coach Tom Brattan was hired late in the summer after the surprise departure of A.J. Ricker. How quickly Brattan meshes with the line is to be seen.
The backs: The run was secondary for the Illini last season. They averaged 139 yards a game, 10th in the conference. Their 411 attempts were about 47 percent of their plays. Only one team, Purdue, ran less.
The positive for Illinois is that the top two guys are back. Josh Ferguson led the team with 779 yards, 5.5 a carry, and seven touchdowns. Donovonn Young averaged 4 yards a carry, 376 yards in all.
”Offensive line for sure, and experience and running backs are our biggest strengths,” Lunt said.
One more factor: Illinois will be running Cubit’s very productive, fast-paced offense for a second straight year. At Western Michigan, he worked with a series of quarterbacks who used it to generate yards and points in bunches. Lunt, Cubit says, stacks up to those quarterbacks, and then some.
”Arm strength, he’s the best I’ve had as far as throwing the ball in a hole and those shots you take down the field,” Cubit said.
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