Illini offense feels confident it can improve on 2013

CHICAGO — Even with the growth the Illini’s offense showed last year under first-year coordinator Bill Cubit, there is a strong belief that improvements can still be made.

Cubit was hired after the 2012 season, when Illinois finished the season ranked 122nd in yards per game in the entire nation. Under Cubit, the unit made significant strides.

Departed quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who had been the face of the program since 2010, thrived under Cubit. He set numerous personal and school records. Head coach Tim Beckman said it was a privilege to coach him and knows it won’t be easy to replace him.

“How do you replace a four-year starter and a leader? I’ve been around football now for 49 years, and there’s only one Nathan Scheelhaase I’ve ever met,” Beckman said at Big Ten Media Days on Monday.

Beckman has yet to name a starter in the three-way competition for quarterback. In the media guide’s depth chart, the starting quarterback is currently listed as “Reilly O’Toole OR Wes Lunt OR Aaron Bailey.”

In the past, Beckman has stated that a quarterback won’t be named until the team arrives at Camp Rantoul, at the earliest. The timing of the announcement will have a significant impact on the offense, said senior tight end Jon Davis.

“Honestly, the way coach Cubit does it, the guys have been rotating in and out, so we will get snaps from all three guys actually. So we get timing in that way,” Davis said.

Each quarterback has a unique playing style. Lunt is the prototypical passer who can effortlessly throw the ball. O’Toole is an underrated athlete who has been waiting to seize the starting gig, while Bailey is a dual-threat presence who runs over or side steps would-be tacklers.

Beckman said no matter the quarterback, he does not believe the offensive line, led by senior left tackle Simon Cvijanovic, will have any issues adjusting. Beckman is confident the four returning starters, whom he called “mature,” will continue their trend of not committing many mistakes.

Cvijanovic, one of the returning starters, does not have a preference who starts because, as he said, he isn’t being thrown the ball. He did add that Bailey’s running ability makes it easier to block for him.

But no matter who gets the nod, Cvijanovic said the new starter should not feel pressured.

“We have a lot of talent coming back; we have so much playing experience coming back on the offense. I’m not worried about the offense at all,” Cvijanovic said.

That returning talent, specifically the offensive line, is already helping to replace the leadership provided by Scheelhaase.

“That’s huge. We can really take the team where we want to as far as leadership because a lot of guys respect us, respect our playing time,” Cvijanovic said.

He cited examples of players who are “falling into line” and showing the commitment needed to improve, and that they might not have displayed in the past.

Because so many players, as well as Cubit, are returning, they are able to spot their mistakes from last season easier. They do not have to spend a wealth of time learning new concepts or foreign terminology.

“So we’re still a very young football team, but we’re an experienced football team,” Beckman said.

Beckman and the offensive players are confident they can improve because in their minds, their expectation levels were not met on offense last year and they specifically pointed out why.

“The issue was more of penalties, little errors, throwing interceptions, fumbles, giving up sacks. That kind of stuff,” Cvijanovic said.

Davis said red zone efficiency is another area for improvement.

“Obviously to make that next step we have to put the ball in the end zone more,” Davis added.

This is Beckman’s third year as the head coach in Champaign, and the desire to win a bowl game has never been greater. He said in the long run, it’s not about what he wants, but what the players want.

“I think we kind of feel it’s our time, and our time to do great things in this league and finally experience that bowl victory,” Davis said.

Cvijanovic did not think the team felt pressured to win, nor was “pressure” the right word to describe how much they want to win at a minimum, six to seven games.

“It’s like we’re angry to win, we’re upset. We want to win so bad that we’re pissed off,” Cvijanovic said.

Eric can be reached at [email protected]