Illini offense needs playmakers

While Whitney Mercilus was the highest NFL draft pick from Illinois in April (26th overall to Houston), the Illini's other first-round pick might be missed more when Illini football practice starts on Monday.
That's no slight to Mercilus, the NCAA's sacks leader last year. But Illinois seemingly has some capable pass rushers, including Michael Buchanan and Justin Staples, to help fill the void. The more painful task will be filling the cavity left by the departure of A.J. Jenkins, whom the San Francisco 49ers drafted 30th overall.
"Obviously I miss A.J," Illinois quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. "I'll miss all the things he brought to the table. We already miss him in the locker room because he's a fun guy to be around. Just those parts, we miss already. On the field, he was a heck of a player."
New co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Billy Gonzales' take: "Can we petition the NCAA for another year (of eligibility for Jenkins)?"
The reason he's missed is clear: Jenkins caught 90 passes for 1,276 yards and eight touchdowns last year. The rest of the Illinois roster accounted for 136 receptions, 1,116 yards and six touchdowns. Spencer Harris was the second leading receiver with 26 catches for 226 yards, followed by tight end Jon Davis (22 catches for 187 yards) and Darius Millines (19 catches for 218 yards).
Suffice to say, the Illini lack proven playmakers.
"The cupboard might be bare in one area - just by numbers, not by talent but by numbers," Illinois head coach Tim Beckman said of his receivers.
Switch it up
With just six scholarship wide receivers on the roster - Millines, Harris, junior Ryan Lankford, sophomore Fritz Rock and redshirt freshmen Jeremy Whitlow and Kenny Knight - Beckman has been forced to dip deeper into the well to search for playmakers, borrowing depth from other positions. On Monday, the receiver line will feature defensive backs, running backs, tight ends and even a quarterback.
Starting cornerbacks Terry Hawthorne, Parade Magazine's top receiver in 2009 after a prestigious prep career at East St. Louis, and Justin Green - a prolific running back out of Louisville Male - each will receive reps on offense.
Davis, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound sophomore, will split out, as will agile, speedy redshirt freshman running back Josh Ferguson.
Illinois also has rejuvenated the "slash" role, made famous by former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart, for third-string signal caller Miles Osei. The 6-foot junior will take snaps at running back, wide receiver and possibly kick returner. Searching for even more options, Beckman said on Friday that freshmen Justin Hardee (recruited as a defensive back) and Devin Church (a running back) also will play receiver.
"We're going to get the 11 best on the football field," Beckman said. "If that means two of the tight ends that are in at the same time, and we have to flex one of them out wide, we'll do that. Jon does a bunch of that stuff. He can play wide receiver, he can play running back, he can be our H, he can be our Y, so he can do a couple things. We can also do that with our running backs. I think both our running backs could be flexed-out slot receivers."
Black Cat
Hawthorne wasn't supposed to be a defender. Former Illini coach Ron Zook recruited Hawthorne, Rivals' sixth-ranked wide receiver of the Class of 2009, to be a top playmaker on offense. But the team needed him on defense, and he performed well at cornerback, earning Freshman All-Big Ten honors from The Sporting News before an injury-riddled sophomore season.
The defense still sorely needs Hawthorne, a physical (60 tackles, 5.0 for loss last year), play-making (team-leading three interceptions) cornerback. But an understaffed offense now needs him too. But how does Beckman balance the player nicknamed Black Cat between the two sides of the ball?
Beckman, a former cornerbacks coach at Ohio State, points to former Buckeye Chris Gamble, who preceded Beckman's time in Columbus. Gamble caught 31 passes for 499 yards as a sophomore in 2002, but had just four receptions for 38 yards as a senior as he focused on the defensive side of the ball. 1997 Heisman winner Charles Woodson and former Georgia star Champ Bailey may be the most famous two-way players of the last 20 years. Bailey had 59 career receptions for 978 yards and five touchdowns, while Woodson's career totals equaled 24 receptions for 395 yards and three touchdowns.
Hawthorne's level of impact will depend on two things: how badly Illinois needs him on offense and how his body holds up playing double-duty.
"We have those types of plans that worked," Beckman said. "In all honesty, it's going to be based on how much that individual can do, how great of shape he is and those sort of things, how well he picks things up. You've seen it, and you know it can be done."
While defensive coordinator Tim Banks may not love the idea of playing Hawthorne and Green both ways - redshirt freshman cornerback Eaton Spence may be forced into expanded duty to give Hawthorne a break on defense - count Scheelhaase as one who's excited about the possibilities of Black Cat and the speedy Green on offense.
"You look at both of them in high school they both played a lot of offense and were playmakers, some of the best playmakers in the country really," Scheelhaase said. "Honestly, I can remember when I was a senior at Rockhurst and I was recruiting those guys, I was calling them up and hoping I would just get the chance to play with them because I wanted to throw them the ball, I wanted to hand the ball off to them and do different things. Now all of a sudden, maybe that chance is coming back to life at the end of their careers.
"It will help. Obviously we want the most playmakers as possible on the field."
Go-to guy?
Hawthorne's impact likely will be complementary. So who will be the primary option?
"We don't have a go-to guy yet," Beckman said. "Somebody's got to emerge."
Scheelhaase said he felt really comfortable with three receivers at this time last year, though the stats show his comfort level with Jenkins was much, much higher than others. Regardless, Scheelhaase said he'd like to have that same level of comfort with at least three receivers after Camp Rantoul.
It's clear Scheelhaase and the Illini don't have a go-to guy yet, but it'll have to be one of the top three on the team.
Lankford and Harris were the go-to guys during spring practice 2011, when Millines and Jenkins sat out with injuries, but neither looked like a future star as sophomores. Millines has shown flashes (five-catch, 119-yard game against Arkansas State last year) and appears to have the most potential of the group, but he has a small sample size (21 career catches).
The 6-foot junior has the speed and agility to beat cornerbacks one-on-one and the strength to withstand bumps at the line of scrimmage. Harris, a 6-foot-3 junior, is a tall target but lacks elite speed to run away from quick defensive backs, while Lankford lacks the strength to contend with more physical corners. Scheelhaase feels the new up-tempo, spread offense - Scheelhaase's third scheme in four years - doesn't necessitate a clear-cut No. 1.
"What we expect this year is that Darius will get more isolation, which gives him a chance to make a lot of plays,"Scheelhaase said. "We'll have to see about Week 6. We'll have to talk about it again. I'm sure there will be certain games Ryan has a bunch of catches, a bunch of yards and it seems like he's the go-to guy. Then the next game Spencer steps up and makes a lot of plays and then the next we go to the tight ends a lot."
Just because there is no star among the group right now doesn't mean that one won't emerge this season. Just look at Jenkins as an example.
"I was talking yesterday and you think back to when Arrelious (Benn) was here," Scheelhaase said. "He was that playmaker. He leaves early and everybody's wondering what the heck they're going to do without Arrelious Benn because everyone had grown so accustomed to him making that big play. Then the next year A.J. has a big year (56 catches, 746 receiving yards). …Then he has an even better season last year and was really a higher draft pick than Rejus was."
Beckman admitted wide receiver is a big priority with the 2013 recruiting class. Currently, the UI staff has no commitments from a clear-cut wide receiver prospect, though four-star athlete Caleb Day could play on offense. Illinois wants the best available pass-catchers but the ideal for its spread offense, according to Gonzales, is a player that you can "put him in a phone booth and it's hard to touch them.
"Whenever you start thinking about wide receivers, the first thing that pops in my mind is if you toss them the ball can they make people miss?" Gonzales said. "If they can do that, we can work with them. We got guys that can do that better than others. We've got guys that are big-bodied guys that can continue to get better than that but are stronger going up in the air and getting it.
"There's a role and a fit for everybody. In our offense, we'd love a guy that we'd love the ability to have a guy that can run and be one of the fastest to get down the field."
Without Jenkins on the field, Scheelhaase lacks his default security blanket of the past two seasons. But like any college football team trying to replace a first-round draft pick (or two), the motto is: next man up.
"At this time, you wonder who's going to be that next guy to step or who are going to be those guys that fill that void," Scheelhaase said. "That's the beauty of college football. There's always great players that are leaving and other players that have to step up that are waiting in the wings."
Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on 93.5, 95.3 ConnectFM in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at You can contact him at or follow him on Twitter @WernerConnectFM