- Brian Bennett, ESPN Staff Writer
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In the Illinois offensive staff room, there's a board where the coaches list their top five playmakers. The goal is to identify which players need to touch the ball most often, and then to build the offense strategy and scheme around that.
How much has that list changed in the last several months?
"It's changed quite a bit since we got here," co-offensive coordinator Billy Gonzales told ESPN.com, laughing. "It's everchanging."
The Illini want that top five to stay fluid to reflect competition. But there also haven't been as many candidates for that list as the coaching staff would like.
The team is switching to the spread offense this season under new coach Tim Beckman, and that's an attack that usually requires lots of depth at the skill positions. Illinois, though, doesn't have that luxury and continues to look for more playmakers, especially at receiver.
"We are extremely, extremely thin there," said Gonzales, who oversees the receivers. "Depth is a major need for us, and we have to go out and recruit that. Of the guys we have right now, I probably feel comfortable with three of them, and they are the three with experience at the Division I level. After that, it's a dogfight."
Gonzales said a spread offense should ideally be four deep at each of the three receiver spots and added that the Illini "are not even close to that right now." He also said the Illini have "not by any means" identified a true No. 1 receiver among those they are sure will contribute. A big key for the staff, he said, will be to continue to develop young wideouts like sophomore Fritz Rock and redshirt freshman Kenny Knight.
While the receiver position is a big question mark, there are higher hopes at some of the other skill positions.
Gonzales said the running back group, considered a weakness going into the offseason, is now "one of the strengths of our team." Though it's not particularly deep, the duo of Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young has Gonzales excited. He said there are packages where both will be on the field at the same time.
"Donovonn played for us last year, and Josh understands what's expected of him after this spring," he said. "Both of those guys have the ability to run the ball in our offense, and both of them are strong and powerful."
The tight end spot is another area for optimism. Gonzales feels the team is four-deep at that position with Evan Wilson, Jon Davis, Matt LaCosse and Eddie Viliunas. The tight ends, he said, "have had a really good football camp," and you could see multiple tight end sets this fall even in a spread offense.
"We've got to put our best 11 players on the field, and if the best 11 players includes tight ends over receivers or running backs over receivers, that's what it is," Gonzales said.
Gonzales also said that quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase has had a good preseason and has "really embraced a leadership role." He declined to say whether there was a plan to play backup Reilly O'Toole, as the team did last year, and said that the goal is just to get both quarterbacks and Miles Osei prepared to lead the No. 1 offense, if necessary.
There are still plenty of questions for the Illinois offense, questions that probably won't be answered until there are more players earning serious consideration for that top five list.
"Some of our guys are starting to step up, and that gives a little more flexibility to our offense," Gonzales said. "If we can get more guys to step up, that will make for a pretty good offense."