Illini to debut new spread offense

Western Michigan’s defensive coaches have several viewing options to prepare for the season opener against the Illini.

The Broncos staff can watch film from last season’s Illini, they can check out footage of head coach Tim Beckman’s Toledo squads or look up the history of co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty and watch tape of the teams they have been involved with in recent years — West Virginia and Vanderbilt for Beatty and Florida, LSU and Utah for Gonzales.

But none can completely reveal what Illinois’ offense will look like Saturday.

Beatty said the Illinois system is a combination of many different offenses and not just a version of what Beckman did at Toledo or the schemes Beatty and Gonzales worked in at their past jobs.

“It’s the Illini offense, not one person’s,” Beatty said.

Neither Beatty nor Gonzales have been a primary play caller for a FBS team, so the Broncos won’t have much record to go on when it comes to Illinois’ co-offensive coordinators aside from looking at the offenses the duo have been involved with in the past.

“They kind of have an idea of where we’ve been, but they don’t know where we’re going,” Beatty said.

From what Beckman and his staff have said and shown in the spring and summer, Illinois will debut an up-tempo spread offense this Saturday at Memorial Stadium.

“We’re just excited to get out there and show what we’re all about,” starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase said. “We’re doing different stuff for sure, way different than the stuff we did last year.”

A spread offense is designed to, as its name suggests, spread the defense thin with multiple receiver sets and, at times, an empty backfield, to get playmakers the ball in space with room to run. Beatty said, the Illini offense isn’t much different than a traditional spread offense, but added that they will still mix things up throughout a game.

“People tell you, ‘We’re a west coast, we’re a spread, we’re this, we’re that,” Beatty said. “Everybody is a little bit of everything the way things are nowadays.”

One noticeable difference for Illini fans will be the absence of huddling on offense before each play. More often than not, Scheelhaase and Co. will be running a no-huddle offense and alternating the tempo at various points in the game.

“Just to make sure that we’re keeping the defense on their heels,” Scheelhaase said. “They don’t know what speed we’re going and that just adds another component to preparation for them.”

On game day, Beatty will call plays in the box and Gonzales will run the offense from the field; however, Beckman said most of the play-calling decisions are made during the week by the entire staff.

“We’re going to have these four or five plays that we’re going to run in these situations,” Beckman said. “That’s what coaching football is about, the decisions on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.”

Beckman ran a two-quarterback system while at Toledo and initial speculation was that he might do the same with Scheelhaase and sophomore Reilly O’Toole, who completed 40 of 67 passes for 207 yards, one touchdown and four interceptions in limited action last season. But Beatty said Tuesday that there are no plans to play more than one quarterback in Saturday’s game.

“We’re going to go out there and see what we can do with what we have,” Beatty said. “I’m not a huge believer in rotating quarterbacks.”

Beatty said if playing both Scheelhaase and O’Toole gives the Illini the best opportunity to win, they would do just that. Like at quarterback, the rest of the offense is structured around the personnel the Illini have particularly on a roster where a majority of the players were recruited by the previous coaching staff.

“You take what your players do best, but then you kind of move it around formationally,” Gonzales said. “So the players are still doing the same thing but you’ve got to sugarcoat it, move it around a little bit, smoke and mirror some things.”

As a result, players such as running back Josh Ferguson or tight end Jon Davis could be lining up at multiple positions in various formations.

“It will definitely be a lot of moving parts, which is what we want,” Scheelhaase said. “We want to be able to cycle guys in there, get guys in there that are able to perform.”

Gonzales said receivers Darius Millines, Spencer Harris and Ryan Lankford have distinguished themselves as the Illini’s top receiving threats in the offseason and he challenged the rest of the unit to step up.

“I need to have the other guys work a little harder and push,” Gonzales said. “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.”

Harris and Millines were second and third, respectively, in receiving last season, but their numbers pale in comparison to last season’s leading receiver A.J. Jenkins who left one year early for the NFL. Combined, Harris and Millines along with Lankford caught 57 passes for 552 yards and two touchdowns to Jenkins’ 90 catches for 1,276 yards and eight scores.

Beatty said the Illini could use additional running backs and tight ends in the passing game to account for the lack of depth at receiver and said that even two or three tight ends could be on the field at the same time.

“You get your best 11 on the field as much as you can, and for us, those guys are among our best 11,” Beatty said. “We want to make sure we get them on the field.”

_The reporter can be reached at [email protected]_