Cubit, Young are coming together to rebuild Illini offense

And the answer is something Donovonn Young has been searching for in the six months since.

Why was he not great? Why had he, the go-to running back, scored only three touchdowns in 2012? Rushed for fewer than 600 yards?

There is no simple answer.

Not all of it was within Young’s control. The offensive line was depleted by injuries. And it’s not like the passing game was alleviating the pressure.

Far from it.

Co-offensive coordinators Billy Gonzales and Chris Beatty were ousted after the season.

And in stepped Cubit, a head coach at Western Michigan for eight seasons and an offensive coordinator for eight years before that.

A proponent of the spread offense with a power running game, he’s a no nonsense guy who will look you in the eye and tell it the way it is. It doesn’t matter who you are — player, opponent, reporter, or Donovonn Young.

Young didn’t have a good answer for Cubit.

“He let me know that I have the talent to be a big-time player,” Young said. “But that I have to put in the effort and focus. I have to do the little things right, and I wasn’t doing the little things right.”

Turning the page

It’s a cliche, but it’s the cliche Young has chosen. He is turning the page on the 2012 football season. Don’t bring it up; he doesn’t want to talk about it anymore.

He didn’t perform well. The Illini didn’t perform well. Enough said.

But Cubit wouldn’t let him forget it.

He made Young and running mate Josh Ferguson watch every run from last season. They, like every Illini, had to critique their own work and report it back to the coaches. Young had to figure out the answer for himself.

Why are you not great?

What he saw on the tape was a power running back leading his team in receptions. The No. 5 in orange and blue on the tape wasn’t reading his blocks properly and was trying to do too much.

Young didn’t fit the offense. He wasn’t getting enough straight handoffs, and when quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was giving him the ball on the read options, he was often stuffed before anything could get going.

Young might have hit rock bottom on an Oct. 6 loss to Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium. The Illini lost 31-14, despite just a 10-7 deficit heading into the fourth quarter.

For the game, Young had just four rushes, totaling 5 yards. After postgame interviews, he picked up the stat sheet, looked it over and simply shook his head. The numbers spoke for themselves.

He finished the season with 571 yards. Only once did he break the 100-yard mark in a game.

He ran for nearly as many (451 yards and six touchdowns) yards when he was the third-string running back his freshman year in 2011.

The season came to an end and Illini nation turned its full attention to the basketball team — but not Young, and certainly not Cubit or the coaching staff.

A new system, another chance

When the Illini take the field Saturday, Cubit will be along the sidelines with them, not upstairs in the box.

This is his offense, these are his players. When things go wrong, he wants to be the one on the field straightening them out.

Like Young, Cubit doesn’t want to talk about 2012. He wasn’t there, he doesn’t know what it was like. But what he does know is how much effort he has seen from his running backs this spring and summer.

“There’s no, ‘He’s playing, I’m not playing,’” Cubit said. “I’ve seen a cohesiveness between (Young and Ferguson). They’re a little bit different style guys, but they’re both going to get touches.”

Cubit has taken what Young and Ferguson saw on the tape in the spring and helped them see how it should be: A north-to-south running game with one cut and a burst of speed — nothing flashy, no bells and whistles.

A minimal gain — 1 or 2 yards — is not a bad run in Cubit’s mind. It’s 1 or 2 yards closer to a first down. It’s the losses in yardage that he doesn’t want to see, something Young and Ferguson saw too often on the tape.

“You never realize some of the things that you aren’t doing to get to the next level until you have somebody that’s been there and that knows what it takes to get to that level,” Young said.

That’s what Cubit is for him.

“Coming from a guy with so much experience,” Young said. “I took it as a challenge for myself to take (Cubit’s) coaching and realize that I can be better if I listen to what he tells me to do.”

Young will be getting the ball with a head of steam this year. It’s up to him to know where to go from there.

Running backs coach Tim Salem says Young is really starting to understand it better. Now when he comes off the field after a bad play in practice, he’s not afraid to question the play calling and make suggestions, something that hadn’t been happening as much last year.

“We’re really teaching them: This is how it’s blocked,” Cubit said. “Not: This is how it’s run.”

And Young has been listening. He’s a year older and a year stronger. The page has turned, 2012 is over and 2013 is here now.

Will Bill Cubit make a difference? It’s simply too soon to tell. But Young thinks he has found his answers. And now is the chance to show that he has made the adjustments, to show that he is great.

Not just that he can be.

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond.