Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino faces the daunting task of finding playmakers to step in for departed running back Mikel Leshoure, who produced 1,893 yards and 20 touchdowns for the Illini in 2010. Leshoure declared for the NFL draft after his break-out junior season and was taken in the second round by the Detroit Lions.
While replacing Leshoure's numbers won't be easy, Petrino has been successful at each of the stops in his career. He guided a Louisville offense in 2004 that led the nation in scoring. At Illinois, he resurrected an attack that had sputtered in recent seasons. The Illini set a single season school record for points scored in Petrino's first season in Champaign. Though his scheme is complex, with multiple sets and a thick playbook, Petrino guides his unit with a simple coaching philosophy.
"We always talk about FTS - feed the studs," Petrino said. "You just have to get your best players the ball and take advantage of any mismatches that you can find. Give the studs as many chances as you can to make big plays."
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The trick for Petrino will be identifying who the studs are this coming season. Some of the top candidates have talent, but have yet to build much of a resume. An exception is sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who was named Big Ten Freshman of the Week six times and fourth-team Freshman All-American.
Scheelhaase was solid in his first season as a starter. Petrino will once again tailor the offense, which has built-in flexibility, to fit Scheelhaase's strengths. That likely means fans will see Scheelhaase play a big role in the running game following a 2010 campaign in which he rushed for over 800 yards. Still, Petrino believes Scheelhaase has improved his arm strength, accuracy, and knowledge of the passing attack enough to add a new wrinkle this fall.
"It all starts with the quarterback and what he can do best," Petrino said. "I think he will run for 1,000 yards this year. That's the type of play we'll need from Nathan. He also spread the field a lot more in the spring and we will continue to do that this fall."
More will be expected from Scheelhaase now that he has a year of experience as a starter in the Big Ten on the books. Petrino insists that he didn't hold much back last season, however, and he believes Scheelhaase will have an even deeper understanding of the scheme as a sophomore.
"We put a lot under his belt last year," Petrino said. "We carried around a big menu and we'll continue to carry it. We probably didn't always call all of it but we carried probably more offense than most people even have in their book"
While the quarterback position appears rock solid heading into camp, there will be competition for some keys spots in the starting offense. Besides losing Leshoure, Illinois also graduated tackle Ryan Palmer. The 2011 recruiting class produced two outstanding athletes at tight end in Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse. Petrino talked about the positions where he envisions the most intense competition for playing time.
"I would say running back would be number one, our strong tackle would be number two, and probably tight end number three," Petrino said. "I don't think any of the young guys are ready to beat out Evan Wilson at tight end but that's what camp is for."
The candidates to replace Leshoure at running back include seniors Jason Ford and Troy Pollard, and true freshmen Donovonn Young of Katy (Texas) and Josh Ferguson of Joliet (Ill.) Catholic. Ford has shown flashes. He has been nicked up, however, and has battled to keep his weight down, but he should get the first shot at starting in the backfield
When Scheelhaase airs it out, wide receiver A.J. Jenkins will be his top target. The senior from Jacksonville (Fla.) hauled in a team-leading 56 receptions for 746 yards in the 2010 campaign. Look for the tight ends to play a bigger role this season as well, as Petrino tries to create mismatches for his best athletes.
"I think with speed that we have at the position with you will see us throwing to the tight end more," Petrino said. "Ryan Lankford, Darius Millines, and Spencer Harris will also play big roles for us. Some of those big plays that went to Mikel (Leshoure) last year will have to be picked up by them."
With seven returning starters and solid play at quarterback, the 2011 edition of the Illinois offense should be able to move the ball and put points on the board consistently. The running game is becoming a staple of Fighting Illini football. Petrino said it will continue to be the focal point of his offense in the season ahead.
"Our strength is going to be our running game again," Petrino said. "That's something we're always going to do well. I think our play action is strong and that will continue to be a big part of it. Our offensive line and our receivers will be a bigger strength for us this year than they were last year. "
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