Illini receivers just starting to see how good they can be

When Mike Bellamy became wide receivers coach at Illinois last spring, someone asked him, “What are you going to do with the receiving group that you don’t have?”

Through the first quarter of the season, Bellamy thinks his receiving corps has taken the right steps to eliminate that assessment, or at least started to.

“Our whole thing is to put them in a position to be successful,” Bellamy said. “They all know their roles. If I ask (walk-on) Les Poole what his role is, he says, ‘To keep them motivated on the sidelines.’”

The Illinois passing game has been impressive, especially when one considers where it was a year ago, and the receivers have been a huge part of that success.

Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has spread the wealth among his receivers in all three games this season. Thirteen different Illini have at least one reception, with Ryan Lankford and Martize Barr leading the way with 10 apiece.

Lankford, who led the team in receiving yards last season, said offensive coordinator Bill Cubit’s offense has been a big part of the culture change.

“Whenever there’s a choice between throwing a five-yard pass or taking a 20-yard gain, coach Cubit always says take the 20,” Lankford said.

That’s something the Illini didn’t do last year: air it out. Under Cubit, Scheelhaase has consistently looked deep. Sometimes it’s worked, and other times it hasn’t.

Steve Hull dropped a pass early in the Illini’s last game against Washington that would surely have gone for a touchdown. Bellamy said the praise following Illinois’ impressive win over Cincinnati may have gotten to the receivers’ heads.

“Sometimes you hate to say that these are what you need to grow,” Bellamy said of the letdown against Washington. “That’s why we’re having such a great week (of practice). They understand that they let something slip through their hands.”

In Hull’s case, quite literally.

But despite dropping that pass against the Huskies, Hull has been a central piece in turning around the Illini passing attack. Having played defense for three years, Hull knows how the other side of the ball thinks. And he tries to impart that on some of the younger receivers.

“They probably make fun of me, to be honest,” Hull said of the younger guys. “It’s because I’m kind of a perfectionist in a lot of ways. I see things that they’re doing, things I really harp on and they don’t see as a big issue. It’s just tiny cues that they can pick up. Pre-snap alignments and stuff like that.”

It all goes back to knowing your role; being a mentor is part of Hull’s role on this team.

Bellamy says that in the offseason, the coaching staff broke down what strengths each receiver has and where each one would fit into the system.

“We don’t have Spencer Harris running the deep ball like Ryan Lankford,” Bellamy said. “We understand what his role is and what his benefits are. It’s coming out to where they’re selfless, they know who they are.”

And this receiving corps is only beginning to understand who they are.

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