Depth could lead to expanded role for Illini tight ends

Even with the Illinois offense setting numerous records last season, one position that didn’t quite get in on the action was tight end. Only Evan Wilson and Justin Lattimore, both true freshmen last season, recorded catches from the tight end slot, totaling just 11 between the two.

But with the addition of two freshmen, as well as the continued growth of the already-young holdovers, the tight ends could steal the spotlight in the upcoming season.

“There’s a lot of talent there,” sophomore quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said of the new depth at the tight end position. “It’s a diverse group that just has talent across the board. Old guys, young guys and everywhere in between, and that’s gonna help us too.”

The bulk of the returning experience comes from Wilson, who started 11 games last season and recorded 10 catches for 135 yards and two touchdowns. And with a 6-foot-6, 250-pound body to go with speed and athleticism, Wilson could prove to be the kind of weapon that would keep opposing defensive coordinators awake at night.

He isn’t alone, as a few true freshmen have been staking their claim for snaps as well. Jon Davis, rated a four-star prospect and the No. 7 tight end in the class of 2011 by Scout.com, and Matt Lacosse, a three-star recruit out of Naperville North, have impressed coaches so far this season.

Those two add into a mix that includes Wilson as well as junior Eddie Viliunas and senior Zach Becker, giving the Illini coaching staff a bevy of options with their opener against Arkansas State just more than a week away.

“It’s good depth right now,” offensive coordinator Paul Petrino said. “Evan’s been playing great, blocking real well. Eddie Viliunas is a tough kid, Zach Becker can play both tight end and fullback. And those two freshmen, Jon Davis and Matt, they can really run around and make plays.”

While the emergence of multiple options may ultimately hurt Wilson’s playing time, he said the competition is great for the team.

“They’re great players, and as a competitor you want that, you want that in your group,” Wilson said.

“I want my group to be better. I want this team to be better. If they’re going to help this group, then that’s the best thing, and I want them to get snaps,” Wilson added.

With all the talent at the position, Wilson also predicted a much larger role in the offense than last season.

“It’s going to expand leaps and bounds,” he said. “You’ll see we’re more involved in the passing game, and then we’re still going to dominate in the run game.”

As much as Petrino would love to use his tight ends more, he said it ultimately comes down to what opposing defenses will allow.

“Everyone always wants you to throw the ball to the tight end more,” Petrino said.

“But a lot of times it’s what the defense is doing, whether they give it to you or not. There’s a lot of routes we have where the tight end is one of the main guys in the progression, but it will just be how well we’re playing and if the quarterback takes what they give him,” Petrino added.