Illinois: Beyond the Box Score Offensive Preview

Confused?  Catch up with the BTBS Primer.

We've spent much of our time recently talking about things that might be -- potential changes to the college football landscape, potential changes of conferences, etc.  We've cried about the disrespect that we might or might not be seeing from others.  Well here's something absolute and concrete: Missouri opens its season at 11:30 a.m. on September 4 against Illinois at the Edward Jones Dome.  Less than three months away.  So let's take a few minutes to distract ourselves from the maybe's and the drama to talk about the next actual, definitive thing on the calendar.

Actually, no.  First, we celebrate.

Yes! Yes, yes, yes.  To the Illinois talk!

2009

Record: 3-9 (2-6 in Big Ten)
F/+: -11.7% (78th in country, 11th in Big Ten)
S&P+: 190.2 (72nd in country, 11th in Big Ten)
Scoring Margin: -72 (290-362)
Conference Scoring Margin: -58 (148-206)
Wins (F/+ Ranking in parentheses): #52 Michigan, at #56 Minnesota, Illinois State (N/A)
Losses: at #6 Ohio State, #7 Penn State, at #14 Cincinnati, #40 Michigan State, at #43 Purdue, vs #54 Missouri, #59 Northwestern, at #71 Indiana, #74 Fresno State

There is really no way around it: 2009 was an absolute debacle for Illinois.  In what was supposed to be a bounceback season, the Illini plummeted.  They went 2-9 versus FBS competition, losing their first six such games by an average score of 30-11.  They bounced back with back-to-back wins over Michigan and Minnesota, then they fell apart again.  Their season ended with a 53-52 loss to Fresno State, a game capped by one of the damnedest two-point conversions you'll ever see. (Granted, it wasn't Junior Louissaint or anything, but it was pretty bad.)

In all, Illinois went 0-5 versus F/+ Top 50 competition (average score: 32.4 to 16.2) and 2-4 versus teams outside the Top 50 (average score: 30.5 to 27.3).  Their somewhat startling 28-point loss to Mizzou was particularly bad, but choosing a single low point from a 3-9 season is usually rather difficult.

Coaching

If another picture of Zook exists, I don't want to see it.

Head Coach: Ron Zook
Record at Illinois: 21-39 (conference: 12-28)
Career Record: 44-53 (conference: 28-36)

Ron Zook has to be one of the most likable bad coaches in the country.  He's clearly a pretty good guy, and one look at his long resume suggests he is certainly a competent football mind and recruiter in one form or another.  He's just not a good head coach.  That's just the way it is sometimes.  Woody Widenhofer was one of the best assistant coaches you could imagine, but he was a debacle at the top spot.  Zook, however, is a survivor.  He abides.  And he gets one more shot to make this all work.

Paul Petrino comes aboard as the new offensive coordinator (an odd move, really -- he leaves his brother's coaching staff to come aboard what looks to most as a sinking ship; does he think he can position himself for the head coaching job or something?).  He led what was by almost any measure one of the most successful offenses in football last season at Arkansas (one that happened to have Ryan Mallett on it -- that couldn't have hurt).  Jeff Brohm comes to Champaign to coach the quarterbacks.  Vic Koenning is the new defensive coordinator.  Wholesale staff changes made to save your job rarely work, but you can't blame Zook for trying.

Staff changes aside, Zook deserves credit (as I mentioned yesterday) for not going into panic mode.  He did not stock up on JUCO prospects in the 2010 recruiting class, and he will lead a rather young team onto the field in 2010.  At least, it's as young as can be at one key spot.

Offense

Overall Ranks

F/+: 65th

S&P+: 64th
Success Rate+: 63rd
PPP+: 61st

Standard Downs S&P+: 34th
Passing Downs S&P+: 90th

Redzone S&P+: 27th

Q1 S&P+: 46th
Q2 S&P+: 82nd
Q3 S&P+: 72nd
Q4 S&P+: 22nd

1st Down S&P+: 30th
2nd Down S&P+: 80th
3rd Down S&P+: 51st

Rushing Ranks

Rushing S&P+: 52nd
Rushing SR+: 49th
Rushing PPP+: 52nd

Standard Downs: 35th
Passing Downs: 24th

Redzone: 39th

Adj. Line Yards: 38th

Passing Ranks

Passing S&P+: 67th
Passing SR+: 79th
Passing PPP+: 59th

Standard Downs: 36th
Passing Downs: 104th

Redzone: 19th

Adj. Sack Rate: 92nd
SD Sack Rate: 28th
PD Sack Rate: 117th


First, the platitudes: Illinois was pretty good in the red zone last season.  And they were pretty good at draw plays and scrambles on passing downs.  That's about it.

Of course, red zone execution doesn't really matter if you are horribly inconsistent at getting to the red zone in the first place.  Illinois often found success on first downs (a "play-calling down," so to speak), but any time they reached passing downs, it was hopeless.  The Illini had one of the worst passing downs offenses in the country; a mobile quarterback in Juice Williams could not keep from getting sacked over and over (only three teams were worse at taking sacks on passing downs).  In all, an offense with Arrelious Benn, a supposedly dynamic quarterback in Williams, and two running backs who averaged over six yards per carry ... was completely, distinctly average (or worse) in almost every way.

If ever a transfusion was needed, it was at the quarterback position.  For all his good qualities (and as with Zook, I don't think I've ever seen or heard somebody saying something bad about Juice Williams the Person), Juice just wasn't a very good quarterback, and even though his replacement -- redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase, a former Mizzou target from Rockhurst -- will almost certainly go through his share of growing pains this season, he is a blank canvas.  And with a good QBs coach in Brohm, and a proven offensive coordinator, he could become a pretty good long-term quarterback.  It's just that ... he might have to deal with a completely new set of coaches in his sophomore season if he doesn't have a serious breakout year in 2010.

Rankings History

Category 2005
Rk
2006
Rk
2007
Rk
2008
Rk
2009
Rk
F/+ N/A* 76 30 44 65
S&P+ 68 63 23 31 64
Success Rate+ 39 71 18 34 63
PPP+ 92 58 34 29 61
Rushing S&P+ 45 14 10 44 52
Passing S&P+ 76 107 48 24 67
Standard Downs S&P+ 64 43 13 18 34
Passing Downs S&P+ 83 77 35 24 90
Adj. Line Yards 37 11 5 29 38
Adj. Sack Rate 66 77 30 73 92
* F/+ data does not exist for offenses and defenses until the 2006 season, but
I now have play-by-play data all the way back to 2005.  HOORAY!

Illinois' offense has just been all over the map in recent years.  Led by Rashard Mendenhall (and the threat of Juice WIlliams' legs), they had a dominant running game in 2006 and 2007.  And over the last three years, the "play-calling downs" (I call first downs and standard downs that because you have the clear option to run or pass -- once you're in passing downs, your options are limited) have gone relatively well.  The passing downs, however, have been terrible and great and terrible again in Zook's tenure.  Illinois needed Williams to step up and make some plays in 2009, and he just didn't do it.

(Notice also how the line has apparently regressed over the past few years.  That hasn't exactly helped matters.)

Quarterback

2009 Unit Ranking: 87th in the country (10th in the Big Ten)

Projected Depth Chart
Nathan Scheelhaase (6'3, 195, RSFr.)
Jacob Charest (6'4, 215, So., 28-for-56 passing, 382 yards, 2 TD, 2 INT in 2009)
Chandler Whitmer (5'11, 190, Fr.)

(UPDATE: Not 15 minutes after this got published, this story about Charest opting to transfer popped up on the google reader.)

Illinois began spring with what appeared to be a three-way race for the starting quarterback position.  Scheelhaase was a four-star recruit last year, and he was supposed to be Jacob Charest's main competition.  Chandler Whitmer was a bit of a wildcard, a four-star signee from this past class who enrolled early and competed in spring ball.  In the end, Scheelhaase won the job by being a little better than Charest at making plays and a little better than Whitmer at making decisions.  He was solid but mistake-prone in the spring game (11-for-20, 126 yards, 3 TD, 2 INT, sacked three times), but he far out-performed Charest (1-for-6, 10 yards, 2 INT, sacked three times ... in nine pass attempts!).  Whitmer remains an intriguing piece, but I assume at this point that he will be redshirted while Scheelhaase takes a few lumps.

Running Backs

LeShoure showed promise when he wasn't in the doghouse.

2009 Unit Ranking: 49th in the country (5th in the Big Ten)

Projected Depth Chart
Mikel Leshoure (6'0, 230, Jr., 734 rush. yds., 6.8 per carry, 5 TD; 177 rec. yds., 2 TD)
Jason Ford (6'0, 235, Jr., 588 rush. yds., 6.1 per carry, 4 TD; 128 rec. yds.)
Justin Green (5'11, 195, So., 88 rush. yds, 4.6 per carry, 2 TD, 15 rec. yds.)

Peripherally, this looked like a pretty good unit in 2009, didn't it?  Mikel Leshoure and Jason Ford combined for 1,300+ yards on 6+ yards per carry.  Consistency matters, though, and neither man had any.  Leshoure was in and out of Zook's doghouse all season (and reportedly into the spring); he had 15 carries for 122 yards against Purdue and 11 carries for 184 yards against Fresno State, but he balanced that out with 10 for 25 against Minnesota and nine for 14 against Cincinnati.  Meanwhile, Ford did much of his damage against Illinois State (10 carries, 137 yards).  In Illinois' first six games against FBS competition, he managed 84 yards on just 18 carries, then exploded for 128 yards on just 12 carries against Michigan ... and then averaged about four yards per carry the rest of the season.

Both of these backs seem to have a decent amount of upside, and junior seasons tend to be when players peak.  If their spring game performances are any indication (228 yards on just 18 carries ... albeit against the backups of what could be a truly putrid Illinois defense), then they might be a very strong pair of backs.  Obviously a good running game could take copious amounts of pressure off of a redshirt freshman quarterback, so we'll see what these guys are capable of in 2010.

Wide Receivers / Tight Ends

Jenkins turned heads this spring.

2009 Unit Ranking: 53rd in the country (7th in the Big Ten)

Projected WR Depth Chart
Jarred Fayson (6'0, 215, Sr., 16 catches, 218 yds., 1 TD)
A.J. Jenkins (6'0, 185, Jr., 10 catches, 123 yds., 1 TD)
Jack Ramsey (5'11, 200, So., 16 catches, 182 yds.)
Eddie McGee (6'4, 210, Sr., 4 catches, 108 yds.)
Fred Sykes (6'0, 190, Jr., 10 catches, 75 yds., 2 TD)
Steve Hull (6'2, 195, RSFr.)
Chris James (6'0, 195, Sr., 4 catches, 61 yds.)

Projected TE Depth Chart
Zach Becker (6'3, 250, Jr.)
London Davis (6'4, 255, So., 1 catch, 2 yds., 1 TD)

While Leshoure and Ford both dominated in the spring game, much attention was paid to the receiving corps.  Scheelhaase will obviously need a go-to guy, and while Jarred Fayson is the most experienced receiver in the unit, A.J. Jenkins might have the most potential.  He had just 123 receiving yards all of last season (77 against Indiana), but he and Scheelhaase connected six times in the spring game for 95 yards.  Of course, Jenkins also fumbled once, and at least one of Scheelhaase's two picks was an attempt to force one to Jenkins, but in a unit devoid of proven quality receivers, Illini fans will take what they can get on this one.

It also bears mentioning, of course, that Eddie McGee is a potential starter.  Like Darius Outlaw, McGee will probably be a decent possession receiver, and though I obviously hope he doesn't do much damage in the first game of the season, I can't keep myself from liking ol' Eddie.  First of all, he's seemingly been around forever (seriously, how long ago does that '07 game feel?).  Second, he's still at Illinois -- he has persevered through lots of time as a backup, and he is still looking for a way to make a positive contribution.  I hope he has a very good final 11 games of the season.

It should also be noted that Illinois signed a pair of reasonably touted receivers in their 2010 recruiting class -- 6'0 Darius Millines and 5'11 Ryan Lankford -- and on a unit thin on proven talent, either or both could sneak their way into the rotation pretty early on.

Offensive Line

Yes, Allen was called for holding on this play.

2009 Unit Ranking: 46th in the country (5th in the Big Ten)

Projected Depth Chart
T Jeff Allen (6'5, 305, Jr., 21 career starts)
G Randall Hunt (6'6, 315, Sr., 11 career starts)
G Hugh Thornton (6'5, 310, So., 7 career starts)

T Ryan Palmer (6'7, 310, Sr., 8 career starts)
G/C Tyler Sands (6'5, 305, So., 1 career start)
C Graham Pocic (6'7, 305, So.)
G Jack Cornell (6'5, 315, Jr.)
T Craig Wilson (6'5, 320, Jr.)

As seems to be the case with most teams, the spring claimed one projected starter from the Illinois offense.  Projected starting tackle Corey Lewis tore his ACL and will likely miss the 2010 season.  That leaves a unit with 48 career starts -- not a great number, but certainly not terrible -- and three returning starters.  Thornton started seven games as a true freshman last season (impressive considering the OL was the strongest unit the offense had), and there are a couple of former high-profile recruits (Pocic and Wilson are both former four-star signees) coming off the bench.  For all we know, Illinois could be a disaster at QB and WR, but the running game could be a strength ... unless defenses are able to key on the run because Scheelhaase can't beat them in the air.

Summary

While Illinois will likely struggle overall in 2010, they will have the element of surprise on their side the morning of September 4.  Mizzou recruited Scheelhaase and probably has a decent idea of his skill set, but with a new offensive coordinator (one whose work last year was almost unscoutable, considering it came with a completely different type of quarterback), new quarterback, and mostly unknown receivers, Mizzou will have little clue what will be thrown at them.  The element of surprise could be worth at least 10-14 points.  (In the case of Brad Smith in 2002, it was worth about 33.)  Of course, Mizzou beat Illinois by 28 points last year, so maybe 10-14 points aren't much of a concern, but Illinois will have a bag of tricks ready to go, that much is certain.

In all, this looks like a team that will try to get Leshoure and Ford rolling behind a decent offensive line in the hopes of taking pressure off of their young buck.  If he can deliver anything at all, this is an offense that will likely improve off of last year's debacle.  But with the defense we will preview tomorrow, more than incremental improvement might be needed.

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