Juniors Darius Millines, Spencer Harris and Ryan Lankford “have kind of separated themselves,” from the rest of the Illini wideouts heading into the season opener this Saturday against Western Michigan, according to Gonzales.
All three played last year, but took a backseat to departed star A.J. Jenkins. Now, Harris says, the three need to make plays to help establish a balanced offense.
“I think it’s our job to take over at the position and take leadership of the whole offense as well – not just the receiver position,” Harris said. “I think camp went really well. I think the three of us stepped up to fill the holes that A.J. left.”
Gonzales’ remark about the top-heavy unit could be read as both a good and bad thing. That’s because while there is assurance at the top of the depth chart, the rest of the group has yet to earn the coach’s trust.
“I need to have the younger guys, I need to have them work harder and push,” Gonzales said candidly. “If they want to play and it’s not happening right now, they’ve got to change what they’re doing right now to continue to get to the level that I need them to be.”
Youth and inexperience has a lot to do with the lack of trusted depth.
The primary backups at each spot are currently listed as Justin Hardee (freshman), Peter Bonahoom (redshirt freshman) and Kenny Knight (redshirt freshman).
“I don’t feel great as far as having the depth right now and we’ve got to continue working on it,” Gonzales said. “That’s my job and we’ve got to continue to develop that.”
With what’s behind the starting trio still a work in progress, Gonzales says the offense could employ sets featuring multiple tight ends or running backs if necessary. He’s not going to push for a three-receiver set on every play if he doesn’t feel enough players have warranted playing time.
“You work year round to have an opportunity to come out and play,” Gonzales said. “It’s not a gift. You have to earn it. It’s not just a gift. You better earn it. We’ve got three guys right now who have stepped up and we think they’ve earned it. We’re still looking for the other group to continue that growth.”
Perhaps Millines put it best when asked what it would take for the unit to be successful this season.
“Just make plays and stay healthy,” he said.
So that it explains it…
More than a few eyebrows raised when the recent depth chart didn’t include sophomore linebacker Ralph Cooper as a backup.
In his place were two true freshmen – Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina.
Some wondered if Cooper, who played in three games last year, was injured or in the doghouse.
Coach Tim Beckman provided an answer to the quandary Wednesday.
“I’m going to sit him for the first quarter for a discipline issue that I have,” Beckman said. “But he’ll be able play in the second quarter.”
Starters Jonathan Brown and Houston Bates will log the most plays on Saturday, but the staff is finalizing a plan to get the backups, Monheim, Svetina, as well as redshirt freshman Zeph Grimes and freshman T.J. Neal, playing time as well.
“After Thursday’s practice we set a substitution pattern for everybody,” linebackers coach Mike Ward said. “We can’t play 11 guys the whole game. That’s something coach Beckman has always believed, so we’ll meet, we’ll go over it and we’ll know exactly when and where.”
The goal is get everyone game experience, but to do so in a smart way. No matter what the substitution plan calls for, Brown and Bates will handle most third down plays and will be on the field at all times when and if the opposing team enters the red zone. Other than in those crucial moments, the staff feels confident letting the younger players play.
“All three freshmen (Monheim, Svetina and Neal) come from good programs,” Ward said. “All three have a little bit of football savvy-ness about them. They’re used to winning, they’re use to preparing. I’m not saying it’s been easy, but all three of them bring a little something different to the table.”
Mums the word
Another day passed without word from Beckman regarding the status of injured safeties Supo Sanni and Steve Hull.
“Give me one more day,” he said. “We’re hoping to hear a little bit more on both of those guys.”
Beckman isn't scheduled to meet with the media this week, so the duo's status will most likely remain a question mark until Saturday.
The details of each injury are unknown, but Hull appears more game ready than Sanni. Although limited, Hull has practiced this week, while Sanni remains completely sidelined.
Earnest Thomas and Pat Nixon-Youman are in line to start if Hull and Sanni can’t play.