While the cliche says that defense wins championships, offense can also be the catalyst for change. One needs to look no further than the University of Illinois for proof of that. One change, bringing in former Western Michigan head coach Bill Cubit, did the trick for the Illini offense during the Tim Beckman era.
However, Beckman was gone before the 2015 season (in large part due to the lack of defensive prowess and his mistreatment of players) and Cubit was also replaced in a bit of a surprise move in March of this offseason. That means transition for the offense, but just how much of one is the bigger question at hand.
New head coach Lovie Smith sent a message that he was serious about the offensive side of the football by going out and hiring Garrick McGee away from Louisville where he was the assistant head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the past two seasons.
It means that Illinois offense is going to look and function much the same as before, but with a few different tweaks and a lot more emphasis on the run game. Can all of that add up to better overall results for the team in 2016?
Let’s look at what the Illini are working with on offense this season.
There isn’t a single quarterback in the Big Ten with more potential to be successful in the passing game than Wes Lunt. However, last season proved to be a let down after Lunt went crazy in his sophomore season before a knee injury knocked him out after eight games.
In 2014, Lunt completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 1,763 yards and 14 touchdowns to three interceptions. After coming back in 2015, something just didn’t seem right and his completion rate dropped to 56.1 percent (partly on him and partly on a shaky offensive line), while he threw for 2,761 yards and 14 touchdowns to six interceptions.
With McGee around and Lunt another year removed from his nasty injury, it is expected that he return to the numbers that made him so intriguing heading in to last season. If his offensive line can hold up better and the run game come along for the ride, look for Lunt to be a dynamic quarterback once again.
Should anything happen to Lunt, look for sophomore Chayce Couch to be his primary backup especially with Jimmy Fitzgerald announcing his transfer plans before camp even got underway. Arguably, there are just a handful of quarterback situations better than Illinois’ in the Big Ten this season.
However, it may not be long until a real Illini name from the past becomes the starter, as Jeff George Jr. has been a highlight of both spring and fall camp and is likely the QB of the future in Champaign.
This group begins and ends with sophomore Ke’Shawn Vaughn, and if for no other reason than he is literally the only proven option in the run game. It also so happens that new OC Garrett McGee likes to run the football A LOT more than Cubit ever did while at the U of I.
Vaughn should be up to the task after proving to be a nice option during his freshman season, rushing for a team-high 723 yards with six rushing touchdowns on just 157 attempts. Don’t be surprised to see him top the 1,200-yard mark this season.
Finding a backup to Vaughn has been the big question of fall camp, especially with the loss of redshirt freshman Dre Brown to another ACL tear. It leaves a competition between freshman Tre Nation and redshirt freshman Reggie Corbin for the backup role. Whomever wins this job likely won’t matter much because they’ll both need to gain experience quickly for this team to really have a chance to build any depth in the running game.
Wide Receiver/Tight End
A return for Mike Dudek was going to ease the pain of the loss of leading receiver Geronimo Allison, but Dudek won’t be on the field in 2016 after suffering a second ACL tear to the same knee. That’s not good news for a group that was awful, like really, really awful last season.
Just how bad? Try a combined 50 dropped passes in just the first eight games alone. With Dudek out and Allison gone this group has a lot of making up to do in order to help Lunt take things to the next level.
The good news is that there is talent in the group, especially with the likes of junior Malik Turner and senior Justin Hardee. While Hardee is returning from a season lost due to a foot injury, Turner has to step his overall game up.
Perhaps the biggest question mark is whom amongst this group is going to be the deep ball threat. Allison was that last season, and is proving to be a dangerous option as a un-drafted free agent with the Green Bay Packers in the NFL.
Some hope is placed on sophomores Sam Mays and Desmond Cain, who flashed at times last season, but that may be asking a lot of the youngsters given all that transpired last season. The hope has to be a new lease on life under this coaching staff will do wonders for this entire group.
As long as the case of the drops doesn’t return in 2016, this group has the athletic talent to be very good even without Dudek in the mix.
One thing most fans will notice as a change in this offense right off the bat is the actual use for a tight end. That bodes well for the likes of seniors Tyler White and Andrew Davis, who are likely to smash career highs this season just by the sheer use of their position for a change.
This is the real scary part for the Illini in 2016, as the offensive line wasn’t exactly a great help last season and most of that line returns for another go-round.
Can the duo of senior left tackle Austin Schmidt and and junior Christian DiLauro anchor this line and help keep their quarterback upright more this season? That will be a big question heading in to the season, but with a year of experience under their belts it should all start to come together.
Perhaps the most intriguing of the offensive linemen in 2016 will be redshirt freshman right guard Gabe Megginson. He was one of the most sought-after recruits in the country during the 2015 recruiting cycle and Illinois keeping him in state was a major win. Now it’s all on him to show the hype was for real.
Joining him in the middle of the line is senior center Joe Spencer and sophomore left guard Nick Allegretti. Spencer is one of the most experienced offensive linemen in the Big Ten, coming in to his final season with 24 career starts and being named to the Rimington Award watch list.
Illinois also doesn’t have a lot of proven depth with all five starters making it through the season intact last season.
Our Projected Starting Lineup
WR: Desmond Cain, So.
WR: Justin Hardee, Sr.
WR: Malik Turner, Jr.
LT: Austin Schmidt, Sr.
LG: Nick Allegretti, So.
C: Joe Spencer, Sr.
RG: Gabe Megginson, Fr.
RT: Christian DiLauro, Jr.
TE: Tyler White, Sr.
RB: Ke’Shawn Vaughn, So.
QB: Wes Lunt, Sr.