Players and coaches come and go every year in the Big Ten, but oftentimes trends continue on offense even with the new faces. This week at Land of 10, we’re going to take a look at every offense in the league and compare it to a year ago, making a determination if they should be better or worse in 2016. We’ll assess a team a day in each division. Today, we address the Illinois Fighting Illini.
New offensive coordinator Garrick McGee says Illinois is committed to the run this fall, which is change of pace from 2015, when the Illini fielded a rush game that nearly had its fans committed.
Unless it’s 1998 and you’re Joe Tiller and your quarterback is Drew Brees, it’s going to be a bear to try and score consistently in the Big Ten, if you can’t pound it between the tackles when you have to. Illinois was all over the map on the ground last autumn, running for 140 yards or more as a team in five games and being held to 80 or fewer rushing yards in five of its last seven games — all of them losses.
Which segues neatly into McGee’s most-pressing clean-up job: The red zone. The Illini’s scoring percentage of 72.5 inside the 20 was the worst in the league, and 117th of 127 FBS schools, company kept with the likes of Florida Atlantic (116th), North Texas (119th) and Colorado (120th). For an attack that averaged nearly 245 passing yards per game, an awful lot of between-the-30s yards … and not a whole heck of a lot of points to show for it.
Nor did it help that Illinois converted just 16 of 25 field-goal attempts last fall, a 64 percent clip that was third-worst among Big Ten programs — and which brings us back to the whole red-zone points thing again. Illini kickers were just 5 of 9 from between 40 and 49 yards out, and only 6 of 13 from 40 yards or more. It’s awfully tough to play things close to the vest if the dang cards keep slipping on to the floor.
Here’s what else you need to know about the Illini:
Illinois by the numbers
Total yards per game: 372.7 (10th in Big Ten/No. 88 nationally)
Rushing yards per game: 129.3 (14th in Big Ten/No. 110 nationally)
Passing yards per game: 243.4 (3rd in Big Ten/No. 47 nationally)
Key players lost: RB Josh Ferguson, G Teddy Karras
Key returning players: RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn, RB Kendrick Foster, C Joe Spencer
The skinny: The upside of the turnstile health of tailback Josh Ferguson (280 rushing yards, 7.6 yards per carry last fall) is that it forced the staff to get Vaughn up to speed a little quicker than folks had originally planned.
When the highly touted prep prospect out of Nashville managed at least 80 rushing yards last fall, Illinois went 3-0. When he scored at least one touchdown, the Illini were 3-2. Sense a theme? Coach Lovie Smith knows depth is a premium here, especially given the program’s recent injury history.
Key players lost: WR Mike Dudek, WR Geronimo Allison
Key returning players: QB Wes Lunt, WR Malik Turner, WR Desmond Cain, OT Christian DiLaurio, OT Austin Schmidt
The skinny: And speaking of that history, we turn to Dudek — a Wes Welker clone and one of the stars of 2014 who’s out for a second straight year with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
The onus turns to Turner (a big target at 6-foot-3) and Cain (a not-so-big 5-11) to help pick up the flag, especially with quick-armed Lunt (2,761 passing yards, 14 touchdowns last fall) under center. At least one pro scout told Landof10.com that the senior signal-caller might be the second-best NFL quarterbacking prospect after Iowa’s C.J. Beathard, although his lack of mobility raises more than a few red flags. Fortunately, a line that only surrendered 20 sacks all season returns both starting tackles.
One stat that must improve
As in the percentage of times Illinois came away from a red zone trip at home — at home! — with a touchdown (10 in 22 tries). A typical offense will usually find its way to six points 60-70 percent of the time in friendly environs, depending on the circumstance. To dip below 50 percent is unusual, and to be sniffing close to 40 percent is rare. And when you consider that Ron Zook offenses from 2008-’11 managed touchdowns out of 67.4 percent of their red-zone visits (64 out of 95) in Champaign, it’s also more than a little soul-crushing.
- Is there life without Dudek? On third down with 7 or more yards to go last fall, Illini passers completed just 36 of 82 throws (43.9 percent) for only 16 first downs.
- Can Lunt stay healthy? Backup Chayce Crouch is well-regarded, but, as a sophomore (44 percent completion percentage last fall, two touchdown passes, one pick), is he really ready to be tossed into the deep end of the pool?
- Under interim-not-interim-never-mind-you’re-fired coach Bill Cubit, the Illini turned the ball over just 1.2 times per game in 2015 against FBS opponents — the fourth-lowest giveaway average in the Big Ten after Michigan State, Iowa and Indiana. Will fortune — and good decision-making — smile on Champaign again, given all the new faces?
Better or worse in 2016?
BETTER. (MAYBE. PROBABLY.)
Like the team itself, the Illinois offense is one of the division’s bigger enigmas. Lunt has a pro arm with a pro release, but the beatings have a cumulative effect down the stretch. As is commonplace during a coaching regime change — especially when you’ve had two regime changes in the span of 13 months — the Illini return the lowest percentage of lettermen in the Big Ten (57.6).
Although, heck, based on the numbers from last fall, though, that might very well turn out to be a blessing in disguise. McGee has done more with less, but how well old personnel blends with a new scheme and new staff is anybody’s guess.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler