Ron Zook's Illinois squad has the best starting wide receivers in the Big Ten. Thanks to the departure of Penn State's Big 3 to the NFL, no other Big Ten team comes close. Let's take a look at the three well known receivers and then discuss how Zook and OC Mike Schultz can get them the damn ball.
Arrelious Benn. A five star recruit with great size and solid hands, Benn's best attribute is the "defensive back killing" mentality he brings to the passing game. One on one in the open field is not pleasant against this 220 lb speedster. Shockingly enough, he's scored only five touchdowns in two years. Was an all Big Ten selection last year, but was slowed in the Illini's late season swoon. Against Penn State, Benn scored two memorable touchdowns in primetime. Former OC Locksley used him in the option attack also.
Jeff Cumberland. Weighing 250 pounds and standing 6'5'', this Columbus (OH) native became more effective late in 2008 when teams began doubling Benn. You can throw the end zone fade route to this monster, but deep sideline routes are also perfect for Cumberland's unique combination of speed and size.
Jarred Fayson. The former five star Gator recruit will have an instant impact with his 4.3 speed and good size (6'1'', 215 lbs). Showing flashes of brilliance in the punt return game or running after the catch, Fayson can line up in the slot or out wide.
Last year, the Illini didn't make in-game adjustments on offense and never got a consistent running game going. The goats became Juice Williams and the offensive line. Look at the first half of the NW game - Juice was sacked three times, fumbled twice, and was picked off once. Take a look at the Minnesota game - over 400 yards of Juice-generated offense, but the game turned on a blown block by the Illini offensive line.
But anyone who watched Juice and the Illini in 2008 knew two things for sure. First, Juice's throwing mechanics had improved markedly since the Rose Bowl year of 2007. He no longer shotputted the ball and his deep throws were thrown with much more zip and accuracy. Second, the loss of Rashard Mendenhall threw off the strong Illini run game.
So what should OC Mike Schultz do to get his three playmakers the ball? Two things stick out in my mind.
Focus on lower risk passing plays. The deep sideline throws and slants that Juice was being asked to make in 2008 took a long time to develop and allowed defenders to attack the relatively weak offensive line and hurry the quarterback. I know it's tempting to bomb the ball when you have Benn and the improved throwing arm of Williams, but being aware of your weaknesses (read: OL) is important. I envision a menagerie of short screens to Fayson and slants to Benn, plays that don't require your linemen to block for an extended time.
Continue the diversification of the running game. When Illinois lit up Michigan in 2008, they did so with play action runs from the spread option, getting the ball alternately to Juice, Benn, and starting tailback Daniel Dufrene. This success led to open receivers over the top (Cumberland had an 80 yard catch). But this success was shortlived - the Illinois running game was manhandled against Northwestern, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Western Michigan. The option with Benn was pretty much phased out after the Michigan game, while RB Jason Ford and Dufrene combined for only two 100 yard games. Illinois can run successfully from the shotgun spread, as they proved in 2007. Not only will a committment to the run game take pressure off Juice, it will force linebackers to step up in coverage instead of fading back into the secondary and wreaking havoc. Finally, Benn will see less of the double coverage that blanketed his side of the field much of last year.
Seeing these changes early will take some coaching adjustments and some patience. Blessed with home run hitters all over the field, Zook allowed the offense to become one dimensional last year. Now blessed with more home run threats, will he learn from the mistakes of 2008 and focus on a complete offensive attack?