Illinois football’s top 10 playmakers

There’s been a renaissance for Illinois football in 2013, especially on the offensive end. As offensive coordinator Bill Cubit has implemented his massive playbook, the Illini’s skill position players have reaped the benefits. And shared them. No Illinois receiver comes close to the top receptions leaders in the Big Ten. Despite this lack of marquee names, the Illini’s depth has made them one of the best offenses in the conference. Who are Illinois’ best playmakers? Let’s count down the top 10.

10. Evan Wilson

The 6-foot-6 senior may have piqued John Groce’s interest with his acrobatic grab in the back of the end zone in Saturday’s game against Miami (Ohio). It was his only catch of the game, however. The tight ends position is stacked for Illinois, which bodes well for the team but not the individual playmaker status of either Wilson, Jon Davis or Matt LaCosse. Wilson has just five catches on the season, third among the tight ends group, but his athleticism distinguishes him as a preeminent playmaker in the red zone.

9. Aaron Bailey

Bailey hasn’t even touched his potential yet as an Illinois quarterback, and it remains to be seen what his role will be next season when Wes Lunt is eligible to play. No matter what, though, he will continue to be a viable threat in converting short-yardage situations. He also had four runs of 10-plus yards in his first chance to operate the offense in the open field. It’ll be fun to see how his usage evolves.

8. Nathan Scheelhaase

This ranking is obviously irrespective of Scheelhaase’s arm, which makes every passing play for a pass-happy Illinois squad. This is referring more specifically to his abilities as a runner. He’s no longer needed for short-yardage situations, as Bailey now fills that role. Scheelhaase still can make plays with his legs, and while Cubit has encouraged him to use that arm more than those legs, defenses haven’t forgot his running abilities.

7. Donovonn Young

Young hasn’t had a great year, but much of the reason he’s this low is because of his teammates thriving in Cubit’s offense. It’s been clear that Illinois coaches have tried to put Young in a position to succeed, giving him bulk carries at the end of games to try and get him in rhythm. Young has improved as the season has gone along. But he’s become the change-of-pace back as Josh Ferguson has taken over the primary role.

6. Jon Davis

Davis is tied for fourth in catches for Illinois this season, with two touchdown grabs. At 6-foot-3, he’s not as tall as the other tight ends on the roster, but he’s made up for this by becoming a threat to run out of the backfield on occasion. He’s also the best of Alex Golesh’s group with the ball in the open field.

5. Steve Hull

Think where on this list Hull ranked last season. After injuries derailed his college career, Hull underwent a metamorphosis and has spread his wings as a wide receiver. Other than a crucial drop against Washington, Hull has been a consistent playmaker, getting open and making big catches in tough spots. He’s also proved himself as a threat running with the ball in space.

4. Miles Osei

Another player whose college career was floundering before a position change, Osei has found a thriving role in the offense. He’s exceedingly athletic and a threat to throw on a reverse. Osei hasn’t yet found the end zone, but it’s a matter of time.

3. Martize Barr

A surprise and an unsung hero of sorts, Barr has the second most receptions on the team, and has been a dynamic player with the ball in his hands. Classified as a junior after transferring from junior college, it’ll be interesting to see how Barr develops in his time in orange and blue.

2. Ryan Lankford

From the opening curtain of the 2013 season, Lankford has been “the guy” for this deep receiving corps. Lankford’s speed makes him the team’s most viable deep threat, and his five carries have gone for 10.4 yards per rush, mostly on reverses. A Ron Zook recruit from Florida, Lankford has fit in to Cubit’s system quite well.

1. Josh Ferguson

Saturday’s swaggerific performance against Miami completed Ferguson’s rise to this spot. Accruing nearly 150 total yards in one half of football, for a guy who’s supposedly co-starting alongside Young, cemented him as Illinois’ best playmaker.

He now leads the Illini in catches and yards with 12 for 262, all while averaging more than 6.5 yards per carry on 30 carries for 196 yards. And he’s only a sophomore. He epitomizes Illinois’ transformation under Cubit, and the thought of working with Ferguson for the next-two-and-a-half seasons surely has the new coordinator dreaming big.

Eliot is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @EliotTweet.