Last season, the Illini receivers had to catch passes from three different quarterbacks while the coaching staff looked for the right quarterback. Heading into this season it appears that Tim Brasic has taken control of the starting quarterback position, so it should be much easier for the quarterback and the receivers to get a good rapport with each other on the field.
Right now, the star of the receiving corps is senior Kendrick Jones. Jones returns to the starting job that he had last year, a season in which he lead the Illini in receiving yards (687, the next closest Illini was full back Jason Davis at 340 yards), receptions (47, the next closes Illini was Davis as well with 41), and touchdown catches (5), and receiving yards per game (62.5). No other wide receiver was even close to Kendrick's numbers last season, and the only statistical category that he did not lead for receivers was yards per catch, and that is because Ade Adeyamo only played in 4 games and averaged 15.0 yards per catch, barely beating out Jones' 14.6 yards per catch on the season.
During spring practice and fall drills, Ron Zook wanted to make a point to Kendrick that he needed to be more focused on the field, so he demoted him to second string wide receiver. But during Camp Rantoul, Jones took that as an opportunity to show he would be more focused and reasserted himself as the Illini's Number One receiver. The one knock on Jones throughout his career has been dropped passes. During his first two seasons, practice observers noted that Jones would routinely drop easy passes from the Illini quarterbacks, and this was why he was not seeing the field more. When he got on the field, these drops were also seen, but they always seemed to coincide with the spectacular catch coming just a few plays later. The question observers and the coaching staff always had was simple: Were these dropped passes doing more harm than the spectacular receptions were doing benefit to the Illinois offense?
To answer this question, I decided to look at the play-by-play statistics from last season. Using the official play-by-play available from FightingIllini.com I was able to tell when a pass was thrown in the direction of Kendrick. Unfortunately, the play-by-plays do not tell whether or not the pass was a drop or a bad throw from a quarterback, but it does tell us how many passes were thrown towards Kendrick that were not completed. (The play-by-plays from all of Illinois' road games do not detail the type of pass, so there will be no delineation between
FLORIDA A & M
In Illinois' domination of Florida A & M, Kendrick caught all three passes that were thrown his way, including two deep passes.
Of the nine passes that were directed towards Kendrick, three were incomplete, and three were converted into first downs. After the slant pass, Kendrick did fumble the football, turning the ball over.
Of the five passes that were directed towards Kendrick, only two of them went for incompletions. The other three passes were converted into Illinois first downs, including Kendrick's first touchdown catch of the year.
Of the eleven passes that were directed towards Kendrick, only four of them went for completions. The other seven passes thrown is his direction were not completion. Of the four completions, three of them went for Illini first downs.
Against Wisconsin, Kendrick either caught a pass for a first down, or the pass went incomplete.
In Illinois' loss to Michigan State five of the ten passes that were thrown in Kendrick's direction went incomplete. Of the other five passes, three of them went for first downs.
The Wolverines did what they could to take Kendrick Jones out of the Illini passing offense, so despite eleven passes getting thrown his way all game, only two of them were completed.
In the Metrodome, Kendrick caught six of the ten passes thrown in his direction and converted two of them for first downs.
The game against Iowa may have been the best game of the season for Kendrick as he had seven receptions (only four passes thrown his way were not completed) for five Illinois first downs, and two touchdowns.
Against Indiana, four of the nine passes thrown in Kendrick's direction give were caught including one touchdown pass.
Outside of the Michigan game, the Northwestern game was Kendrick's least effective as a pass catcher. He only caught two of the nine passes thrown his way, but both of them did result in a first down for the Illini.
After breaking it down for the season, the Illini quarterbacks looked Kendrick Jones' way last season 91 times, and they completed 47 passes, or 51.6% of the passes thrown in his direction. Unfortunately, the ideas that many people have that Kendrick drops many easy passes, but still makes the spectacular plays will not go away based on these numbers. While not all the incomplete passes directed towards Kendrick were dropped balls, these numbers still show that his reputation for dropping passes is probably well founded.
To help Kendrick in the receiving corps, Ron Zook will look to numerous other wide receivers who have yet to prove their worth on the college level. Outside of Kendrick Jones, the leading receiver returning for the Fighting Illini is Franklin Payne. Payne had 25 receptions last year for 214 yards and one touchdown pass. After Payne, there is no real experienced wide receiver that will be returning for the Illini.
DaJuan Warren is an athlete and brings speed to the wide receiver position, but since he is a converted quarterback he is still learning the wide receiver position. Last season he played in eight games, and only had six receptions totaling 52 yards with a long of 14 yards.
The player at wide receiver that is the Illini fans are the most excited to see is star recruit, and high school All-American Derrick McPhearson. McPhearson will be recovering from a broken ankle that he sustained this summer, and he will probably miss the first four games of the season. It will be difficult for him to get into the swing of things at the college level without a full training camp, and the pre-conference schedule, but with his skill, he is expected to step in and contribute right away for the Illini. If my NCAA 2006 season is any predictor, McPhearson will be a dominant punt returner for the Fighting Illini, and will become the deep threat that keeps opposing defenses honest on Kendrick Jones. Now, unfortunately, we know that NCAA 2006 is not real football, but there is always something to hope for from the freshman.