Illinois looks for boost in passing game
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Nathan Scheelhaase has a strong rapport with his wide receivers.
Three of them were groomsmen at his July 6 wedding to his high school sweetheart.
Ryan Lankford, the Illini’s leading returning receiver, Miles Osei, a converted quarterback entering his first full year at wide receiver, and Steve Hull, who played safety his first three seasons but came to Illinois recruited as a wide receiver in 2009, were lined up next to Scheelhaase last month in Kansas City, Mo.
Osei was Scheelhaase’s best man.
“That’s something we talk about with our team a lot is just that we enjoy being around each other,” Scheelhaase said Sunday during Illinois’ Media Day. “They’re just dudes you like being around. With having them as groomsmen, that shows what that friendship is all about.”
Friends or not, Scheelhaase knows the Big Ten’s most anemic passing offense from a year ago needs to improve this season.
Lankford and Spencer Harris are three-year starters, but haven’t had the breakout year fans want. Lankford’s 469 yards led the team last year. Scheelhaase only threw for 1,361 yards, his lowest total in three seasons, and he missed two games last year because of an ankle injury.
First-year offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, the head coach at Western Michigan the past eight seasons where his teams were known for producing standout wide receivers such as Jordan White and Greg Jennings, is in charge of implementing the makeover.
“The issue we got right now is teaching them to be great route runners,” Cubit said. “We’re a little bit lax in that area right now. We’re getting better, but we’ve still got a ways to go.”
Wide receivers aren’t Scheelhaase’s only options. Illinois has three experienced tight ends in Jon Davis, Evan Wilson and Matt LaCosse. But collectively, the trio only caught 14 passes for 129 yards last year.
Finding out how to utilize them in Cubit’s new system is a priority for Illinois tight ends coach Alex Golesh.
“People loaded the box and played a ton of man against us, so no, they’re not going to get the ball that much,” Golesh said.
“We’re hoping that we’ve got enough vertical guys who can stretch the field that now the underneath stuff is open. That’s when your tight ends are going to get balls.”
One newcomer to watch is Martize Barr. A likely starter, the junior college transfer from Iowa Western Community College helped the Reivers win the NJCAA national title last fall.
“I think he’s a great talent,” Illinois coach Tim Beckman said. “I see him as a young man who can make plays out on the perimeter. He’s got great quickness, exceptional hands. He has definitely made the stride to compete and be a starter, there’s no question about that.”
Illinois hopes the passing game makes big progress.
“With the way our season went last year, we definitely feel like we can improve,” Lankford said. “We’ve heard talk about we don’t have good receivers. That’s definitely a little chip on our shoulder.”
Cubit doesn’t mince words when it comes to what he expects out of Lankford, son of former Miami Dolphins defensive back Paul Lankford.
“I want him to be an All-Big Ten receiver,” Cubit said. “If we expect anything less, than shame on us.”