The Fighting Illini desperately need playmakers to emerge on the offensive side of the football this fall. It's not so much who will be the playmakers, but who has to be.
The hope for Illinois fans is that the scheme implemented by new offensive Bill Cubit will better utilize the skill sets on this Illini roster. The word is Cubit was handed the keys, and that's a good call by Tim Beckman.
In our continuing Illinois football preview series, Orange and Blue News takes a look at five potential playmakers for the Fighting Illini offense in 2013.
1. Nathan Scheelhaase, senior quarterback
It's the most important position on the field and doubly important when you run a spread offense. Cubit has said he will tailor the offense to the talent, so don't look for him to put the ball in the air 50+ times per game as he did at times at Western Michigan. If it's not Scheelhaase making plays at QB, then it needs to be someone - whether it's junior Reilly O'Toole or true freshman Aaron Bailey. Illinois didn't recruit a stud athlete like Bailey to ride the bench, so look for him to get involved one way or another. Big-armed Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt is sitting out his required year, but Tim Beckman can't afford to wait another year to get things done. Scheelhaase has won at Illinois and he's the kind of kid you root for, but he looked snake-bit in 2012. If he's the guy again - for the fourth straight season - then he needs to get things turned around.
2. Donovonn Young, junior running back
Ron Zook and his staff thought they got a steal in the 2011 recruiting class when they plucked Young from Texas powerhouse Katy High School. The in-state schools shied away from Young due to a history of injuries - North Texas and McNeese State were his only other offers. But Zook's evaluation of Young seemed to be spot on during Young's first camp as a freshman. He showed a great burst, something not expected from his high school film. Young is yet to break out on the field for Illinois, however. He averaged just 4.2 yards per carry as a sophomore a year ago, and reached the end zone just 3 times. Spotty offensive line play and a scheme that wasn't a good fit were factors. With a new system in place - more of a downhill running game - Young needs to be the engine powering the Illinois ground attack.
3. Martize Barr, junior wide receiver. .
The staff will say that senior and leading returning receiver Ryan Lankford needs to have a big year, and he does. But if the spring is any indication, JUCO transfer Martize Barr has the tools to be the go-to receiver in this quick-strike offense. He should catch a lot of passes for Illinois running quick hitters from the "Z" receiver spot. Barr has a good release off of the LOS and is physical enough to shed press coverage and make tough catches over the middle - something the offense has been sorely missing. Barr also has swagger (also missing since AJ Jenkins graduated). He is more quick than fast - Barr should thrive on quick slants and intermediate routes, and that's a perfect fit for what Cubit likes to do. Positive yards and 3rd down conversions is what the Illini need from Barr.
4. Justin Hardee, sophomore wide receiver
Hardee entered the Illinois program as a raw athlete out of storied Glenville Academy in the class of 2012. He's still learning - his route running is a work in progress - but Hardee is the most physically gifted player in the Illini receiving corps. He has the size and athleticism to be a big factor for Illinois as the outside receiver in Cubit's offense. Hardee saw action in all 12 Illinois games a year ago, breaking out with a 99 yard receiving day (including a 48 yard reception) against Charleston Southern. That could be a hint of things to come for Hardee. He's a player who is used to winning, and plays with that type of confidence. With Darius Millines gone from the program, Hardee steps into a starter's role and he looks ready for the challenge.
5. Josh Ferguson, sophomore running back
The Illini will move Ferguson around and get him involved in the offense in multiples ways. A good space player, Ferguson has the allusiveness to make big plays on screens, swing / wheel routes, jet sweeps, etc. He averaged nearly 9 yards per reception last season - solid for a RB. "All purpose" is Ferguson's niche. While Young should be the workhorse inside the tackles, Ferguson is a good change of pace back. Again, play-calling wasn't Ferguson's friend in 2012; Cubit should have a different set of plays for him. To take the next step and be a consistent threat, Ferguson needs to improve his vision and do more running to daylight. He has quick-cut ability, but doesn't always use it. The combination of experience and the confidence that comes with it could be a game-changer for Ferguson this fall.
* Aaron Bailey is the most talented athlete on the roster. If he pushes Scheelhaase, that's a good thing.
* Ryan Lankford has sprinters speed, but he needs to make more plays.
* Freshman Caleb Day will start out on defense. Will he finish there?
* Sophomore RB Dami Ayoola has the best vision among the Illini backs
Next up: Orange and Blue News discusses the Illini defense with coordinator Tim Banks.