The Illinois football team runs a complex spread formation offense that requires many receivers. Since there may be as many as four receivers on a play, Coach Ron Zook and his offensive staff need at least 8 receivers and 2 or 3 tight ends available at all times. After all, tired receivers run poor routes.
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August 21: The Offensive Line
August 23: Running Backs
August 24: Quarterbacks
And they must do more than just catch passes. Precision route running is a necessity to help the receivers find openings in the defense and be where the quarterback expects them to be. These routes may be highly complex and require precise timing. Any slight discrepancy destroys the timing of the play. In addition, they must be willing to block both for the running game and passing game. The Illini starters will be the ones who do all these things best.
The Illini have a plethora of wide receivers, including several walkons, and a number of them are showing signs of contributing something positive this year. It is too early to know how many will see the field, but we have some idea of the best ones after the first two weeks of fall practice.
The outside receivers likely to play the most include Kyle Hudson, Derrick McPhearson, Jacob Willis, Frank Lenti and possibly Joe Morgan. "White Lightning" Hudson has been slowed by a hamstring pull this fall, but he should be healthy by the first game. Hudson has extreme quickness, outstanding leg explosion and jumping ability, and he catches everything in his vicinity. Kyle is slightly built, but he can take a hit and isn't afraid to block. And he runs precise routes, making it easy for the quarterbacks to find him. If he remains healthy, Kyle should have an excellent season.
Derrick McPhearson arrived with impressive credentials last fall, but a broken leg suffered last summer slowed his progress. He is just now starting to show his excellent athleticism and potential. A rock-hard 195 pounds, McPhearson can compete physically with aggressive corners and gain separation from them on his routes. And he should be a deep threat as well.
Walkons Jacob Willis and Frank Lenti have impressed enough to pull ahead of several scholarship athletes. Willis, the brother of former Illini receiver Lenny Willis, Jr., is a junior college transfer who runs precise routes and catches everything thrown his way. And Lenti has played the previous two years, especially as holder on kick placements but also at times at receiver. He continues to improve, and Illini coaches and quarterbacks are gaining more confidence in him. Neither Willis nor Lenti are extremely fast, but they are tacticians who can help the passing offense.
Freshman Joe Morgan was dropping some passes in early fall practices, but he shown brightly at the Rantoul scrimmage with four long pass receptions. The native of Canton, Ohio, Morgan long jumped over 24 feet as a high school senior and is one of the fastest players on the team. Morgan got open repeatedly in the secondary during the scrimmage. Needing a deep threat, it would not be surprising to see Coach Zook and his offensive coordinator Mike Locksley give Morgan some early playing time, although he is still showing inconsistency due to lack of experience.
Inside slot receivers include DaJuan Warren, Jody Ellis and freshman Chris James. Warren is in his third year and Ellis his second at wide receiver, and their experience shows. They are now familiar with Zook's offense and are playing with confidence. Warren is becoming reliable as a possession receiver and has the height quarterbacks love. Ellis is an excellent athlete and is looking forward to a full season after losing half of last season with a broken collarbone. Jody and DaJuan will also be used as trailers on our option offense and will receive opportunities to run the ball.
Chris James is just learning the system, but he has already impressed with his ability to catch poorly thrown balls. The product of Chicago Morgan Park high school is a dominant, aggressive personality who is nicknamed "Mailman" for his ability to deliver under pressure. James will likely see significant playing time as a freshman.
Other receivers battling for positions include Will Judson, Greg McClendon, Bryant Creamer, walkon Spencer Jensen, Marquis Wilkins and walkon Keiron Frazier. Judson may be the quickest player on the team but is shorter than his listed 5'-8" height. He could be used as a deep threat and on quick-hitting bubble screens, but it is hard for the quarterbacks to throw the ball low enough over tall linemen to use Judson on short passes over the middle. He will see spot duty to take advantage of his speed, but how much remains to be seen.
Greg McClendon is the largest of Illini receivers and could be someone who can battle strong corners and safeties for position and block them effectively. But he has had a leg problem that has prevented him from getting the needed reps this fall. Bryant Creamer was unable to practice all spring, so he is just now getting used to the system. He also has good size, but neither he nor McClendon have great speed. Their ability to receive playing time depends on their efficiency as receivers and blockers. Spencer Jensen has some game experience and does many things right, but he is another of our many possession receivers and lacks great speed.
Freshman Marquis Wilkins has speed, but he has not yet impressed enough to advance up the depth charts. Wilkins played mostly running back in high school and is still learning the position. Even with spring ball behind him, Marquis still runs tight at times due to his unfamiliarity and lack of confidence in the offense. But a couple outstanding catches on long sideline patterns in recent practices may signal the beginning of an improved cycle for him.
Tight end is an important position in the offense, when there are tight ends capable of playing the position properly. Unfortunately, attrition and poor recruiting by the previous coaching staff has left only walkon Tom Sullivan as an upperclassman on campus. Fortunately, Coach Zook has recruited two outstanding freshmen in Jeff Cumberland and Michael Hoomanawanui.
Since they are only freshmen, the Illini coaching staff will try to limit their reliance on Cumberland and Hoomanawanui by using a variety of different formations and personnel groups. But to be most effective, the Illini offense needs to use these freshmen whether they are ready or not. Tight ends must outrun linebackers for passes and still be strong enough to block defensive ends and linebackers in the running game. It will take them awhile to learn the system and the techniques required, but no one is arguing about their potential.
Cumberland is one of the most unique physical specimens ever recruited for the tight end position at Illinois. Listed at 6'-5" and 240 pounds, Cumberland ran 100 meters under 11 seconds in high school and registered 76 dunks his senior basketball season. Few if any linebackers will be able to run with this athlete as he is one of the five fastest players on the team. And he made an outstanding one-handed catch in the Rantoul scrimmage, proving his pass receiving ability. Jeff has the height and athleticism needed for alley oop endzone passes. He will need some time to learn the blocking techniques for the position and still lacks the strength to be a dominant blocker.
Hoomanawanui (pronounced Ho-o-ma-NAH-wa-new-e) is 6'-5" and 255 pounds and is thus thicker than Cumberland but almost as athletic. Michael has large, soft hands that can catch anything in the vicinity. And he has the strong legs and wide base needed for blocking purposes. Unfortunately, a hamstring problem has slowed his progress this fall. He needs reps to learn the system, so it may take awhile before he can show everything he has. But make no mistake, the future of tight end at Illinois is bright with Hoomanawanui and Cumberland.
There are presently no superstars. Illinois will always look for receivers who are bigger, stronger and faster. With a wide-open spread attack, these attributes are essential in our receivers. But there are several receivers now on campus who can get the job done and be a constant threat to opponents. If they stay healthy, the Illini can be a high-scoring outfit this year.