Big Ten: Spencer Harris

Thirty Big Ten players heard their names called during the 2014 NFL draft, but many others received phone calls immediately after the event. The undrafted free-agent carousel is spinning, and players from around the Big Ten are hopping aboard.

Unlike the draft, the UDFA list is somewhat fluid, and other players could get picked up later today or in the coming days. To reiterate: This is not the final list.

Here's what we know right now from various announcements and media reports:

ILLINOIS
  • LB Jonathan Brown, Arizona Cardinals
  • WR Ryan Lankford, Miami Dolphins
  • TE Evan Wilson, Dallas Cowboys
  • WR Steve Hull, New Orleans Saints
  • WR Spencer Harris, New Orleans Saints
Notes: Illini OT Corey Lewis, who battled knee injuries throughout his career, told Steve Greenberg that several teams are interested in him if he's cleared by doctors.

INDIANA
  • WR Kofi Hughes, Washington Redskins
  • RB Stephen Houston, New England Patriots
Notes: S Greg Heban and K Mitch Ewald have tryouts with the Chicago Bears.

IOWA
  • LB James Morris, New England Patriots
  • OT Brett Van Sloten, Baltimore Ravens
  • G Conor Boffeli, Minnesota Vikings
  • WR Don Shumpert, Chicago Bears
  • LS Casey Kreiter, Dallas Cowboys
MARYLAND
  • LB Marcus Whitfield, Jacksonville Jaguars
  • CB Isaac Goins, Miami Dolphins
MICHIGAN
  • LB Cam Gordon, New England Patriots
  • S Thomas Gordon, New York Giants
Notes: RB Fitzgerald Toussaint (Baltimore), DT Jibreel Black (Pittsburgh), LS Jareth Glanda (New Orleans) and DT Quinton Washington (Oakland) will have tryouts.


MICHIGAN STATE
  • LB Denicos Allen, Carolina Panthers
  • S Isaiah Lewis, Cincinnati Bengals
  • T/G Dan France, Cincinnati Bengals
  • WR Bennie Fowler, Denver Broncos
  • LB Max Bullough, Houston Texans
  • DT Tyler Hoover, Indianapolis Colts
  • DT Micajah Reynolds, New Orleans Saints
  • OL Fou Fonoti, San Francisco 49ers
Notes: LB Kyler Elsworth has a tryout scheduled with Washington.

MINNESOTA
  • LB Aaron Hill, St. Louis Rams
NEBRASKA
  • QB Taylor Martinez, Philadelphia Eagles
  • OT Brent Qvale, New York Jets
  • CB Mohammed Seisay, Detroit Lions
  • DE Jason Ankrah, Houston Texans
  • C Cole Pensick, Kansas City Chiefs
  • OT Jeremiah Sirles, San Diego Chargers
Notes: CB Ciante Evans has yet to sign but will do so soon. DB Andrew Green has a tryout with the Miami Dolphins.

NORTHWESTERN
  • WR Kain Colter, Minnesota Vikings
  • K Jeff Budzien, Jacksonville Jaguars
  • WR Rashad Lawrence, Washington Redskins
  • DE Tyler Scott, Minnesota Vikings
OHIO STATE
  • S C.J. Barnett, New York Giants
  • K Drew Basil, Atlanta Falcons
  • WR Corey Brown, Carolina Panthers
  • G Andrew Norwell, Carolina Panthers
  • G Marcus Hall, Indianapolis Colts
  • WR Chris Fields, Washington Redskins
PENN STATE
  • OT Garry Gilliam, Seattle Seahawks
  • LB Glenn Carson, Arizona Cardinals
  • S Malcolm Willis, San Diego Chargers
Notes: OT Adam Gress will have a tryout with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

PURDUE
  • DE Greg Latta, Denver Broncos
  • S Rob Henry, Oakland Raiders
  • G Devin Smith, San Diego Chargers
  • DT Bruce Gaston Jr., Arizona Cardinals
Notes: P Cody Webster will have a tryout with Pittsburgh.

RUTGERS
  • WR Brandon Coleman, New Orleans Saints
  • WR Quron Pratt, Philadelphia Eagles
  • LB Jamal Merrell, Tennessee Titans
  • DE Marcus Thompson, Miami Dolphins
  • S Jeremy Deering, New England Patriots
Notes: According to Dan Duggan, DE Jamil Merrell (Bears) and G Antwan Lowery (Baltimore) will have tryouts.

WISCONSIN
  • G/T Ryan Groy, Chicago Bears
  • TE Jacob Pedersen Atlanta Falcons
  • TE Brian Wozniak, Atlanta Falcons
  • DE Ethan Hemer, Pittsburgh Steelers
Quick thoughts: Martinez's future as an NFL quarterback has been heavily scrutinized, but Chip Kelly's Eagles are a fascinating destination for him. Whether he plays quarterback or another position like safety, Kelly will explore ways to use Martinez's speed. ... The large Michigan State contingent is still a bit startling. The Spartans dominated the Big Ten, beat Stanford in the Rose Bowl, use pro-style systems on both sides of the ball and had just one player drafted. Bullough, Allen and Lewis all were multiple All-Big Ten selections but will have to continue their careers through the UDFA route. ... Colter certainly looked like a draft pick during Senior Bowl practices in January, but that was before his ankle surgery and his role in leading the unionization push at Northwestern. I tend to think the injury impacted his status more, but NFL teams have been known to shy away from so-called locker-room lawyers. ... Other Big Ten standouts like Jonathan Brown, Morris and Pedersen were surprisingly not drafted. Morris should be a great fit in New England. ... Coleman's decision to leave Rutgers early looks questionable now that he didn't get drafted.
CHICAGO -- It's easy to spot Geronimo Allison on the football field, and not just because of the green no-contact jersey he has been sporting this spring at Illinois.

At 6-foot-3 and wiry, Allison fits the mold of an outside receiver. He has good speed and agility, as he showed Friday at Gately Stadium on Chicago's South Side, leaping for a pass from Wes Lunt in the corner of the end zone. Allison, who enrolled at Illinois in January, is quickly gaining attention midway through his first spring with the Fighting Illini. And not just because of his name.

"He's got a ton of potential," Lunt said. "He's picked up the offense really quick. He's already running with the [starters], and he's going to help us this year."

Allison never has had a problem performing on the field. His plight was getting there.

Geronimo Allison
Illinois Athletic Media ServicesGeronimo Allison is ready to take advantage of an opportunity at Illinois.
As a senior at Spoto High School in Riverview, Fla., Allison averaged nearly 22 yards per catch with four touchdowns. But his prep bio, at least for football, ends there.

Allison finished ninth grade with a grade point average that had dipped to 1.4. He was ineligible to compete as a sophomore and junior. Although he returned for his senior season, the opportunity to play major college football, at least right away, wasn't available.

"I realized you can't really play this game without grades," Allison said. "It will hold you back."

Allison landed at Iowa Western Community College, a junior-college powerhouse located in Council Bluffs, Iowa, near the Nebraska border. He helped Iowa Western to the 2012 NJCAA national title and led the Midwest Conference in catches (69), receiving yards (872) and receiving touchdowns (8).

More importantly, Allison boosted his grades, earning a B average by the end of his second year.

"He graduated in three semesters, which is pretty darn good for a kid who had some academic issues coming out of high school," Iowa Western coach Scott Strohmeier said. "He had his mind set that he was going to class and do the work. His goal was to get to Division I. We knew he had the talent. The only thing that would hold him back was his academics, and he wasn't going to let that happen."

The offers that could have come in high school started to flow in. Kansas State and Iowa State pursued Allison, but he settled on Illinois. Two of his teammates on Iowa Western's title-winning team, wide receiver Martize Barr and tight end Dallas Hinkhouse, already played for the Illini.

"I didn't come over here empty-handed," Allison said.

Barr considers Allison like a younger brother. When Illinois offered Allison a scholarship, Barr became his primary recruiter.

"I knew I could get him here," Barr said.

Both men have taken the long way to Champaign.

Barr, a native of Washington, D.C., began his career as a safety at New Mexico, playing for former Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley. When Locksley was fired in September 2011 after going just 2-26 with the Lobos, Barr transferred to Iowa Western. He had hoped to follow Locksley to Maryland, where Locksley went as offensive coordinator, but instead wound up at Illinois.

Barr was the juco receiver generating buzz last spring with the Illini, but his numbers during the season (26 catches, 246 yards) didn't meet expectations. The coaches want more from Barr this fall and have high hopes for Allison.

Illinois needs help at receiver after losing top target Steve Hull and veterans Spencer Harris and Ryan Lankford. Barr actually is the top returning wide receiver. (Josh Ferguson, who had 50 catches last year, plays running back.)

[+] EnlargeTim Beckman
Keith Gillett/Icon SMITim Beckman likes what he sees so far out of juco transfer Geronimo Allison.
"We won a national championship together," Barr said of himself and Allison. "I love him to death. We can't wait to get back on that boundary together and get that championship pedigree here to Illinois."

Strohmeier considered redshirting Allison in 2012 because Iowa Western had so much firepower at receiver. But much like this spring at Illinois, Allison "stood out, stood out and made plays."

"Athletically and running and catching the football and understanding the game, he's not going to have any problem [at Illinois]," Strohmeier said. "He's also not afraid to block somebody in the run game."

Allison is spending the spring familiarizing himself with a more sophisticated, pass-oriented offense based on timing and tempo. Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit wants the ball out quickly, and receivers have to be precise with their routes.

The academic transition, so far, has been smooth.

"G-Mo's doing outstanding in school," Illini coach Tim Beckman said. "He's only been here for a couple months, but he's proven and shown everything that he needs to do to get himself better."

Allison doesn't lack in confidence in his ability, which isn't surprising for a guy named Geronimo. His mother, Melissa Golver, wanted a unique name for her son.

It led to some teasing during his childhood, but Allison eventually grew accustomed to the name.

"I'm planning on naming my son after me," he said, "if I have one."

If Allison's plan comes true, Illinois fans soon will know the name. After catching up in the classroom, Allison is primed to catch plenty of passes this fall for the Illini.

"It's going to be fun," he said. "I'm going to put on a show."

Offseason to-do list: Illinois

January, 17, 2014
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The offseason is in its early stages, and to get us through the long winter, we're taking a look at what each team must do in the months ahead before actual football returns to the field.

Up next in our series: Illinois

1. Get better up front on defense: The Fighting Illini ranked last in the Big Ten and 116th nationally in stopping the run, allowing 238.6 yards per game on the ground and an average of more than 5.5 yards per rush. Illinois was also second-to-last in the league in sacks generated. When you can't slow down an opposing running game or put pressure on the quarterback, that's bad news. It doesn't help that the best player in the front seven -- linebacker Jonathan Brown -- is graduating. Just about everybody else is back up front, though, and head coach Tim Beckman brought in a junior college transfer (Joe Fotu) and a high school player (Paul James III) as early enrollees to help bolster the defensive line. Illinois simply must get better in the trenches defensively, and that starts in the weight room this winter.

2. Develop weapons in the passing game: Under first-year coordinator Bill Cubit, the Illini had one of the best and most consistent passing attacks in the Big Ten. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is graduating, but Oklahoma State transfer Wes Lunt should be able to fill his shoes. The bigger question is at receiver, where the team's three starters at the end of the season -- Steve Hull, Miles Osei and Spencer Harris -- were all seniors, as was Ryan Lankford, who was one of Scheelhaase's top targets before getting hurt. The leading returning wideout is Martize Barr, who was underwhelming with 26 total catches after transferring in from junior college. Beckman brought in help at this position as well with juco transfers Tyrin Stone-Davis and Geronimo Allison, along with early enrollee Mike Dudek. All three will get a chance to play right away, and the Illini need them to pan out.

3. Build some excitement: Illinois wasn't all that far off from being a bowl team in 2013, and it was competitive in many games. That didn't do much to boost fan interest or create turnout at home games. The biggest threat to Beckman's long-term security is fan apathy. Beckman needs to continue to sell his vision for the program to Illini Nation, and the team has to show improvement -- especially defensively -- during the spring. Allowing more fan access to practices last season was a good idea and a good start. Ultimately, Beckman will have to show he can win Big Ten games to bring the fans back.

More to-do lists

Illinois season preview

August, 21, 2013
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Can Tim Beckman turn around Illinois in his second year? That's one of the many questions surrounding the Illini heading into 2013:

ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI

Coach: Tim Beckman (23-26, 2-10)

2012 Record: 2-10 (0-8 Big Ten)

Key losses: WR Darius Millines, G/T Hugh Thornton, C Graham Pocic, DE Michael Buchanan, DT Akeem Spence, DT Glenn Foster, LB Ashante Williams, CB Terry Hawthorne, CB Justin Green, S Supo Sanni.

Key returnees: QB Nathan Scheelhaase, RB Donovonn Young, RB Josh Ferguson, WR Ryan Lankford, WR Spencer Harris, LG Michael Heitz, RG Ted Karras, RT Simon Cvijanovic, DE Tim Kynard, LB Mike Svetina, MLB Mason Monheim.

Newcomer to watch: Defensive lineman Paul James III was the only ESPN 300 recruit the Illini picked up last season, coming in at No. 200 out of Miami. Considering the heavy losses for Illinois on its defensive line, especially Buchanan, James could have the chance to play early. On a roster in need of a lot of retooling, getting him some early playing time could be key.

[+] EnlargeNathan Scheelhaase
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhNathan Scheelhaase returns for his fourth season as the Illini's quarterback.
Biggest games in 2013: For a team still trying to figure out its way out of the depths of the Big Ten, this season’s schedule will not help. Nonconference games against Cincinnati and Washington will be tough -- even if both are in the state of Illinois (Cincinnati in Champaign and Washington in Chicago). The Big Ten schedule isn’t too favorable for Illinois, either, with a tough opening stretch at Nebraska and then home against Wisconsin and Michigan State. By the middle of October, Illinois might know if it still has anything other than pride to play for.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: There are a lot of them, but the overriding one is if the second season under Beckman will be better than the first. Theoretically it should be, considering Illinois returns a chunk of its offense, led by QB Scheelhaase. But its defense will have major retooling to do as only four starters return. Considering the potential strength at the top of the Leaders Division, it could be a rough season no matter what.

Forecast: Not good. With a tough schedule, a rebuilding roster and already some pressure to win and win now, Year 2 of the Beckman experience might look eerily like the first season.

If not for Scheelhaase, its offense would lack a lot of experience. And the defense is already filling a lot of holes left in the secondary and on the defensive line.

Beckman is attempting to change that. Hiring Bill Cubit, an experienced offensive mind with head coaching experience at Western Michigan, is a start. He should be able to help Scheelhaase improve, and the Illini have a good running back to work with in Young, a junior who started 10 games last season, averaging 4.4 yards a carry.

The other reasons for optimism in Champaign come from two junior college players who could make pushes to start: receiver Martize Barr and linebacker Eric Finney. Safety Zane Petty, another juco transfer, played Division I football before at Colorado State and could fill a need if he can move up the depth chart.

Illinois could also be strong at linebacker, led by Monheim, who led the Illini in tackles in 2012 with 86. Just a sophomore, he’ll be looked at to focus a young defensive group.

All of that said, for Illinois to have a successful season, it will need every possible thing to go right. If it doesn’t, the Illini will be watching bowl season from home again this winter.
Illinois' search for playmakers to spark its sputtering offense in 2013 won't include wide receiver Darius Millines.

Head coach Tim Beckman confirmed to The (Champaign) News-Gazette that Millines and defensive lineman Darrius Caldwell are no longer members of the Illini program because of an unspecified violation of team policy. Millines was suspended in March for violating team policy and missed spring practice, and Caldwell also sat out the spring because of academic issues.

"We gave them both opportunities," Beckman told The News-Gazette.

Millines, a senior, started three games as a true freshman in 2010 and had been pegged to be a major contributor, but injuries limited his production the past two seasons. He still finished second on the team last season with 319 receiving yards on 32 catches despite being hobbled.

Caldwell appeared in all 12 games last season in a defensive end/linebacker hybrid role, and showed some promise with 2.5 sacks and five tackles for loss. He could have been in the mix to start at the "Leo" position, but that job likely will go to Houston Bates this season.

Beckman didn't specify why Millines and Caldwell aren't playing this season, and didn't say where they could transfer.

Illinois made Miles Osei and Steve Hull full-time receivers this spring, and both players should be part of a rotation that will include Ryan Lankford, last season's leading receiver, junior-college transfer Martize Barr, and Spencer Harris.
The rosters are set for Illinois' Orange and Blue Spring Game, which will kick off at 8 p.m. CT Friday at Memorial Stadium.

Illinois' seniors on Tuesday night drafted the two teams, which you can see here. Because of depth issues, eight players -- Robbie Bain, Abe Cajuste, Tim Clary, Chase Haslett, Samuel Ogunkoya, David Reisner, Cameron Tucker and Sean White -- will play for both squads.

Not surprisingly, top quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase (blue) and Reilly O'Toole (orange) will match up in the game. The two have competed for the starting job throughout the spring and will continue to do so in fall camp.

At first blush, the Blue squad looks much, much stronger. Scheelhaase is joined by top running backs Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young and veteran receivers Spencer Harris and Ryan Lankford. The Orange also has the team's top two healthy linebackers in Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina -- Jonathan Brown (shoulder) will miss the game -- as well as Tim Kynard, the only returning starter on the defensive line.

The Orange team needs a big night from players like wide receiver Martize Barr, a junior-college transfer practicing with the first-team offense, and Miles Osei, a former quarterback now playing exclusively at receiver. Tight end Evan Wilson also will play for the Orange. The defense includes linebacker Houston Bates, linemen Teko Powell and Vontrell Williams, and cornerback Darius Mosely, a true freshman who enrolled early and has made an impact this spring. The Orange squad also has top specialists Justin DuVernois and Taylor Zalewski.

Several players will miss the game, including Brown and wide receiver Steve Hull, who was having a good spring before being slowed by a hamstring injury.

The game will feature a normal clock for the first three quarters and a running clock in the fourth quarter aside from the final two minutes. There will be no kickoffs or returns (kickoff or punt), and quarterbacks won't be live.
Greg Colby and Mike Bellamy both have seen better days at Illinois.

During Colby's first stint as an assistant at his alma mater (1988-95), Illinois shared a Big Ten championship in 1990 and reached six bowl games in seven seasons. Bellamy starred at wide receiver for two of those Illini bowl teams (1988 and 1989). Illinois went 10-2 during Bellamy's senior season, when he earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and second-team All-America honors as a kick returner.

Both men played for the Orange and Blue, and both are in their first seasons as full-time assistants on Tim Beckman's revamped coaching staff. Their challenge: recapture the winning ways after a 2-10 disaster in 2012.

"When I was here before, we had some pretty good success," Colby recently told ESPN.com. "A championship, six bowls, and played pretty well. I want to see Illinois be successful. I have all along, and now I've got [a job] where I can have a little bit of an influence, at least. So I've got a very strong vested interest.

"It is personal for me."

[+] EnlargeRyan Lankford
Bradley Leeb/USA TODAY SportsNew Illinois receivers coach Mike Bellamy will aim to get more production from Ryan Lankford in 2013.
Every Friday during the offseason, Beckman has speakers address the team to talk about the program's history. Colby and Bellamy recently made a joint presentation, discussing their playing days in Champaign and, in Colby's case, his first run as an assistant.

Colby returned as defensive line coach after five years as head coach at Division II Millersville University in Pennsylvania. He has made four stops since leaving Illinois following the 2005 season, including two at other Big Ten schools (Michigan State and Northwestern). Bellamy, who played for four NFL teams between 1990-95, takes over as Illinois' receivers coach after serving as the team's assistant director of player personnel and relations in 2012.

"Last year, being around the guys, I told them I was one of them," Bellamy told ESPN.com. "So that made it easy during this offseason, being in their ear and watching them work out, giving them tips here and there on how to study. So when the choice was made, some thought it would be a natural fit and Coach Beckman wanted to make sure he got the right guy.

"I was excited."

Bellamy works with a group that, like the rest of the offense, underperformed in 2012. He inherits veterans like Ryan Lankford and Spencer Harris, and has seen some good signs this spring from converted safety Steve Hull and Miles Osei, a full-time wideout after serving as a reserve quarterback for three seasons. Junior-college transfer Martize Barr also has been a bright spot.

Colby oversees a group that has been Illinois' strength despite the team's recent struggles. Two Illini defensive linemen -- Whitney Mercilus (2012) and Corey Liuget (2011) -- have been selected in the first round of the NFL draft in the past three years. Linemen like Michael Buchanan, Akeem Spence and Glenn Foster could hear their names called later this month.

Although Colby is aware of the recent track record, he's not focusing on it.

"It’s all attitude right now," he said. "That's what the offseason is. If you don't develop it now, you're not going to have it in the fall during the season."

Colby inherits a young group that includes only one player (senior Tim Kynard) with significant game experience. He hopes Jake Howe and Austin Teitsma can blossom, and he's seen flashes from redshirt freshman Vontrell Williams.

"I don't think we're going to have the All-American, All-Big Ten that they’ve had in the past, but who knows," Colby said. "That's not something we really focus on. We've got to be blue-collar players up front. That’s what we're trying to instill, the kind of work ethic. Don't depend on your athleticism to make plays for you.

"Depend on your work ethic, and let your athleticism be the icing on the cake."

Both Colby and Bellamy often talk to players about forging a legacy, one the coaches helped shape as former Illini.

"I told them a couple times, 'At some point, you’ve got to take this personally,'" Bellamy said. "To me, this is personal right now.

"We can't go anywhere but up.”

CHICAGO -- Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit knows what he represents: another round of changes for players who have experienced plenty of them.

Cubit is Illinois' fourth offensive play-caller and fourth offensive coordinator in the past three seasons (Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales shared play calls and the coordinator role in 2012). No unit in the Big Ten has endured more recent transition than the Illini offense. Cubit understands what his players have been through, but he's not decelerating the learning curve this spring. Just the opposite.

"Like I told those guys, what you did in the past really doesn’t make a bit of difference," Cubit said Friday before Illinois held a spring practice/scrimmage at Gately Stadium on Chicago's South Side. "We've just got to get this thing done. ... Ohio State, Penn State, Northwestern, none of these people really care. You've got to face the facts."

The facts are Illinois had one of the nation's worst offenses in 2012. The Illini finished 119th nationally in both yards per game and points per game, 107th in passing and 97th in rushing. Big Ten play brought even greater struggles for Illinois, which averaged just 272 yards and 11.8 points in eight league contests.

Cubit, a longtime offensive coordinator before spending the past eight seasons as Western Michigan's head coach, is tasked to turn things around in a hurry. He's not wasting any time installing his system, and not downplaying what it entails for the players.

"The system is vastly different from what they've done," he told ESPN.com. "The routes are vastly different. The quarterback reads, the quarterback steps are vastly different. We're going to play underneath the center at times."

Quarterbacks Nathan Scheelhaase and Reilly O'Toole, who are competing for the starting job, are absorbing the brunt of the changes under Cubit. In addition to taking more snaps under center, both are working on getting the ball out quickly.

Cubit's target is 2.2 seconds, typically out of a five-step drop. He notes that even the slightest delay, like holding the ball at chest level rather than shoulder level, where it can be quickly released, makes a big difference.

"I don't think we have the personnel that we just sit back there and take seven-step drops and guys will be open," Cubit said.

Scheelhaase and O'Toole also have had to change their footwork and throwing mechanics, a process which, according to Cubit, has been fairly easy. Because neither quarterback worked much under center before, they haven't had to break longtime habits.

Although Scheelhaase has a major experience edge (36 career starts), Cubit said the quarterbacks are "about equal" so far this spring. Cubit is focused more on installing his system than evaluating a potential starter, and the competition likely will last through the summer and into preseason camp. It's highly unlikely Illinois will use a rotation at quarterback.

"Let’s find the one guy we know we can win with and go," Cubit said, "and prepare that other guy in case something happens."

Whomever emerges will need a lot of help, as Illinois struggled to find playmakers in 2012. Cubit likes the potential of the tight end group: Evan Wilson, Matt LaCosse and, when he gets healthy, Jon Davis. Running backs Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young have had good springs.

There are bigger questions at wide receiver. Although Illinois returns a few familiar names (Ryan Lankford, Spencer Harris), it needs others to emerge and could be turning to several players who have switched positions (Steve Hull, Miles Osei) as well as a junior-college arrival (Martize Barr).

"The biggest change has been Steve Hull moving from defense to offense," wide receivers coach Mike Bellamy said. "He's polished, he's excited, he's energized, he's competitive. He's making big plays."

Head coach Tim Beckman called the offensive line Illinois' "biggest concern" after a season where the group surrendered a league-worst 39 sacks and the Illini averaged a league-low 3.5 yards per carry. The silver lining is players like Michael Heitz, Simon Cvijanovic and Ted Karras have experience under their belts. Alex Hill has moved from guard into the top center spot this spring.

Cubit has tried to tailor his scheme to help out the offensive line.

"We've got to play to their strengths also," he said. "The one thing I see there is willingness. Probably a scarred group, like the whole offense. When you’re next to last [nationally] in offense, you're going to have some gaps out there. But I just keep on telling them how good they can be. And they can.

"They've got a shot."
On Wednesday, we ranked the top individual wide receivers and tight ends in the Big Ten heading into 2012. So of course that means it's time to look at the position group as a whole throughout the league. Remember, we're weighing past performance heavily here with consideration given to potential.

It's go time.

1. Northwestern: We didn't rank a single Wildcat in our top 10 individual receivers or tight ends, yet we have the group No. 1. Have we lost our minds? Well, maybe. But we really like the depth of this group, even with star Jeremy Ebert off to the pros. Demetrius Fields, Christian Jones, Tony Jones and Venric Mark are all very good, and if Kyle Prater gets eligible this might be the deepest receiving corps in the league. The drawback is the lack of an experienced tight end to take over for Drake Dunsmore, but that's less important in a spread offense.

[+] EnlargeChristian Jones
Dennis Wierzbicki/US PresswireNorthwestern's Christian Jones helps form one of the best wide receiver groups in the Big Ten.
2. Nebraska: The Huskers might not be the most prolific passing team, but they've got a lot of options. Kenny Bell emerged as a real weapon last season, and Quincy Enunwa, Jamal Turner and Tim Marlowe all bring something to the table. Add to that one of the league's top tight end duos in Kyler Reed and Ben Cotton, and this is a strong group.

3. Wisconsin: Bonus points here for star power, as receiver Jared Abbrederis and tight end Jacob Pedersen enter the season as the top-rated players at their respective position. There are a lot of other question marks at receiver, though the Badgers have a large cast of candidates. And they're loaded at tight end.

4. Iowa: Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley form one of the best returning receiving tandems in the Big Ten. C.J. Fiedorowicz could become a star at tight end. Marvin McNutt is gone, but James Vandenberg should still have plenty of targets.

5. Purdue: The Boilers bring back three of their top four pass-catchers from a year ago, led by Antavian Edison. They need to stretch the field more, and perhaps star kick returner Raheem Mostert can add more playmaking ability to the group. They have a deep group of tight ends that could be one of the strengths of the offense.

6. Michigan: Junior Hemingway is gone, but the Wolverines are hopeful Roy Roundtree can fill his role. Jeremy Gallon is tiny but manages to make big plays. Michigan will need a third receiver to emerge and for someone to take over for Kevin Koger at tight end. Brandon Moore is the top candidate for that.

7. Penn State: Justin Brown gives the Nittany Lions a solid top option, but the loss of Curtis Drake and Devon Smith hurt the depth. Penn State's tight ends have mostly been anonymous, but that -- along with overall passing game production -- should change with the new staff.

8. Indiana: There's talent here, if the Hoosiers can harness it. Kofi Hughes can be one of the league's top receivers and is complemented by Duwyce Wilson, Cody Latimer and the diminutive Shane Wynn. Ted Bolser had a nice spring and looks ready to be very productive at tight end.

9. Ohio State: By now, you know the stat. No Buckeye had more than 14 catches last year. No matter how many times you hear it, it's still a little hard to believe. At least Ohio State has talented players to work with in guys like Corey Brown, Devin Smith and freshman Michael Thomas. And Jake Stoneburner could thrive under Urban Meyer at tight end. Expect the group's numbers to soar.

10. Illinois: It was almost A.J. Jenkins or bust for the Illini receivers last year. They'll need to find new playmakers in the spread offense. Darius Millines has to step up, along with Spencer Harris. Jon Davis had a promising freshman year at tight end.

11. Michigan State: The Spartans lost their top three receivers and their starting tight end, so no wonder they're so low on this list. The addition of Tennessee transfer DeAnthony Arnett helps, and Andre Sims Jr. and Keith Mumphery had good springs. Still, playing time here is wide open, and true freshmen will get a chance to contribute. Dion Sims has as much physical talent as any Big Ten tight end.

12. Minnesota: Quick, name a Minnesota receiver. If you're not a Gophers fan, you probably are still thinking. This is a group of largely unknown guys who'll have to raise their profile this fall. Brandon Green, Malcolm Moulton and Devin Crawford-Tufts are the leading returning receivers. Transfer Isaac Fruechte and some youngsters will be counted on to contribute. Senior John Rabe brings experience to the tight end spot.

Big shoes to fill: Illinois

February, 15, 2012
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As we count down the days before spring practice, we're taking a look at how each Big Ten team will replace key players on their depth charts. We're picking two departed players who left big shoes to fill and identifying who might be ready to do that filling.

Up next is Illinois, which loses an extremely productive player on both sides of the ball.

[+] EnlargeWhitney Mercilus
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireWho will step up and replace a defensive end as good as Whitney Mercilus was in the 2011 season?
BIG SHOES TO FILL: Whitney Mercilus, DE

Why: Mercilus was the Big Ten's top defensive end and one of the nation's best in 2011. He led the nation in both sacks (16) and forced fumbles (9), breaking the Big Ten record for forced fumbles and ranking second in NCAA history in the category. Mercilus finished second nationally in tackles for loss with 22.5, which led the Big Ten and ranked third in Illinois history. He was one of only seven unanimous consensus All-Americans in 2011 and received the Ted Hendricks Award as the nation's top defensive end. The Bronko Nagurski trophy finalist recorded sacks in 11 of 13 games and had multiple tackles for loss in eight contests. Mercilus recorded forced fumbles in six of Illinois' eight Big Ten contests.

Replacement candidates: Tim Kynard (6-3, 260, Jr.); D.J. Woods (6-3, 255, So.); Michael Buchanan (6-6, 240, Sr.); Justin Staples (6-4, 235, Sr.)

The skinny: Buchanan and Staples played the "bandit" role in Vic Koenning's defense, and while both could start under the new regime, the coaches might want a bigger pass rusher to replace Mercilus. Kynard backed up Mercilus in 2011 and recorded three tackles for loss and a sack in 12 games. Woods appeared in only one game. There should be plenty of competition this spring for Mercilus' spot as Illinois looks pretty strong along the rest of the defensive line with Buchanan, NFL prospect Akeem Spence at defensive tackle and D-tackle Glenn Foster all returning. New defensive coordinator Tim Banks will be looking out for pass rushers as his Cincinnati defense ranked second nationally in sacks in 2011 (45).

BIG SHOES TO FILL: A.J. Jenkins, WR

Why: Jenkins was one of the nation's top receivers through the first half of the season and proved to be one of few offensive weapons the Illini had in 2011. He earned first-team All-Big Ten honors and was a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award after recording a league-high 90 receptions for 1,276 yards and eight touchdowns. Jenkins ranked 16th nationally in receptions per game (6.9) and 14th nationally in receiving yards per game (98.2 ypg). He accounted for 39.8 percent of Illinois' receptions, 53.3 percent of the team's receiving yards and 57.1 percent of the team's receiving touchdowns.

Replacement candidates: Spencer Harris (6-3, 195, Jr.); Darius Millines (5-11, 185, Jr.); Ryan Lankford (6-0, 175, Jr.); Jake Kumerow (6-4, 190, So.)

The skinny: Illinois struggled to find pass-catching options to complement Jenkins in 2011. Although Harris had 26 catches and freshman tight end Jon Davis had 22, the Illini need much more from this group in 2012. The spotlight should be on Millines, who the coaches thought would be a difference-maker last season but missed time with a foot injury and never broke through. Millines had a very strong performance in preseason camp and should be ready for a bigger role. It's also time for Lankford to take another step in his development. Co-offensive coordinator Billy Gonzales will work with the receivers this spring after developing some solid wideouts at LSU and Florida.
Our postseason rankings of each position group from the 2011 Big Ten season took a short hiatus last week as signing day madness placed its grip on all of us.

Never fear, though, as the rankings are back in full force today, moving on to the receivers and tight ends as we round out our offensive skill positions.

We're looking for depth and not solely star power at the top here. This is how the preseason rankings looked. Some of these groups were undoubtedly hurt by inexperienced or underachieving quarterbacks, so we had to figure out how to weigh their performances in that light. Let's see how the list shakes out after the year ended:

1. Michigan State: The Spartans had the best combo at wideout with seniors B.J. Cunningham, a physical deep threat and No. 1 receiver, and Keshawn Martin, a speedster who could do all sorts of different things in the offense. Together, they combined for 2,083 receiving yards and 16 touchdown catches. Keith Nichol provided a solid third option who made the catch of the year in the Big Ten, if not all of college football, against Wisconsin. Tight end Brian Linthicum had 364 yards receiving and played a key role in the Outback Bowl win over Georgia.

2. Wisconsin: Depth? Hardly. But the Badgers got the most out of their front-line players. Starting wideouts Nick Toon and Jared Abbrederis combined for 1,859 yards yard and 18 touchdowns. Eight of tight end Jacob Pedersen's 30 catches went for touchdowns. And don't underestimate the importance of the receivers and tight ends in the Wisconsin running game.

3. Northwestern: The Wildcats' wideouts likely would have put up better numbers if Dan Persa had stayed healthy all season. As it stood, Northwestern still got another outstanding year out of Jeremy Ebert (75 catches, 1,060 yards, 11 TDs). Kain Colter, when he wasn't playing quarterback or running the ball, managed 466 receiving yards. Demetrius Fields and Christian Jones were among the other contributors. First-team All-Big Ten tight end Drake Dunsmore was the team's No. 2 pass-catcher with 455 yards and six scores.

4. Iowa: Marvin McNutt was good enough to elevate this entire group. He led the Big Ten in receiving yards, finishing with 82 catches for 1,315 yards and 12 scores. Keenan Davis contributed 50 catches for 713 yards. But Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley didn't help enough after strong starts to the season. Iowa didn't get a lot of production in the passing game out of its tight ends, either, with C.J. Fiedorowicz leading the way at 16 catches.

5. Michigan: The Wolverines didn't have any receivers finish in the top 10 in the league in the key categories, but what they had was a fairly deep group that knew how to go up and get Denard Robinson's throws. Though Roy Roundtree's numbers went way down from 2010, Junior Hemingway (699 receiving yards) emerged as a big-time playmaker. Jeremy Gallon came up with some key plays in huge spots as well. Tight end Kevin Koger gave Robinson a reliable safety valve and was a key cog in the offense.

6. Illinois: At first glance, A.J. Jenkins' tremendous numbers (90 catches, 1,276 yards, eight TDs) would make you think the Illini deserve to be ranked higher. But Jenkins did most of his work in the first half of the season; like the rest of the Illinois offense, his stats fell off a cliff in the second half. And he didn't have much assistance, as Spencer Harris and Darius Millines combined to record only half his number of catches. Jon Davis was the team's third-leading pass-catcher at tight end.

7. Purdue: It was quantity over star power for the Boilermakers, whose top four pass catchers — Justin Siller, Antavian Edison, O.J. Ross and Gary Bush — all had at least 29 receptions and 300 yards. Edison led the way with 584 yards. Tight ends Crosby Wright and Gabe Holmes combined for 29 catches. Purdue needs more playmaking ability from the tight end spot, something the team tried to address in this recruiting class.

8. Penn State: Evaluating the Nittany Lions receivers is tricky because the quarterback play was so inconsistent. Derek Moye was once again one of the most dangerous deep threats in the league, but a foot injury and an overall inability to get him the ball limited his production to 654 yards and only three scores. Justin Brown, who will likely be the team's go-to guy in 2012, put up good stats, while Devon Smith got a chance to flash his speed and averaged 16.1 yards per catch. The tight ends were rarely used in the passing game; expect that and a whole lot more to change under Bill O'Brien.

9. Nebraska: The Huskers must improve their overall passing game to take the next step as a program, and that includes a receivers group that had an up-and-down season in 2011. The good news is that Kenny Bell emerged as a potential star as a redshirt freshman. But Brandon Kinnie and tight end Kyler Reed failed to build on strong 2010 campaigns and were invisible for large stretches. Nebraska must hope Quincy Enunwa and Jamal Turner develop to go along with Bell.

10. Indiana: No one was more disappointing at this position in 2011 than the Hoosiers, whom we had pegged at No. 4 in our preseason list. DaMarlo Belcher, who led the league in receptions in '10, got himself booted off the team in midseason. Injuries hit the group hard as well. Kofi Hughes paced the group with 536 yards and found the end zone three times. Tight end Ted Bolser made only 14 receptions. We expected more from a Kevin Wilson offense.

11. Minnesota: Jerry Kill made finding playmakers at receiver a top priority in this recruiting class, and it's easy to see why. Da'Jon McKnight had a decent season (51, 760 and 4). After that, though, things dropped off quickly and the Gophers lacked players who could stretch the field. Tight end Eric Lair managed fewer than one-third the amount of catches he had in 2010.

12. Ohio State: Injuries, inexperience and suspensions combined to make this a difficult year for Buckeyes' receivers. No one had more than 14 catches all season, and no one topped 300 receiving yards. Things would have gone better if DeVier Posey hadn't been suspended for all but two regular-season games. Devin Smith showed potential as a true freshman, including his game-winning grab against Wisconsin. Tight end Jake Stoneburner scored seven times, but most of those came early in the year.
Two more Big Ten teams have produced their depth charts for Week 1. Let's take a look at Illinois' depth chart for the opener against Arkansas State, and Minnesota's depth chart for its opener at USC.

ILLINOIS

Depth chart (Page 10)
  • As expected, redshirt freshman Michael Heitz has earned the starting strong-side offensive tackle spot. Scott McDowell and Simon Cvijanovic will serve as backups at tackle.
  • Sophomore receiver Darius Millines earned a starting spot with a very strong performance in preseason camp. Classmate Spencer Harris also is listed as a starter at receiver alongside veteran A.J. Jenkins. Ryan Lankford, who had a strong spring, is listed as a backup to Jenkins.
  • Senior Jason Ford is the No. 1 running back, while three players -- senior Troy Pollard and true freshmen Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson -- are listed as co-backups. Don't be surprised if Young gets significant playing time behind Ford.
  • Interesting to see Justin Green and Terry Hawthorne listed as co-starters at cornerback opposite senior Tavon Wilson. Hawthorne has been pretty impressive when healthy, but Green is right there in the mix.
  • After starting last season at safety, Trulon Henry is listed as the starting strong-side linebacker. Sophomore Jonathan Brown enters the season as the top weak-side linebacker ahead of redshirt freshman Houston Bates.
  • Sophomore Miles Osei and freshman Reilly O'Toole are listed as co-backups at quarterback behind Nathan Scheelhaase.
  • No major surprises on the starting defensive line, as senior Craig Wilson steps into the tackle spot vacated by first-round draft pick Corey Liuget.
  • Hawthorne is the team's No. 1 punt returner, while Pollard and Millines are the top two men on kickoff returns.
  • Illinois has a good number of true freshmen and redshirt freshmen on the depth chart, including tight end Jon Davis, and defensive tackles Austin Teitsma and Jake Howe.
MINNESOTA

Depth chart (Page 22)
  • Junior college transfer Malcolm Moulton has made quite an impression. Moulton is listed as the starter at two receiver positions (the "Z" and "V"); freshman Marcus Jones is the backup at both spots. Senior Collin McGarry is listed as another starting receiver alongside All-Big Ten candidate Da'Jon McKnight.
  • Ryan Wynn and Zach Mottla are listed as co-starters at center, the result of Wynn battling a sprained ankle during preseason camp.
  • Although Minnesota's interior offensive line might feature three senior starters, the top tackles are a sophomore (Ed Olson) and a redshirt freshman (Jimmy Gjere). Two other freshmen, Sean Ferguson and Foster Bush, are listed as Gjere's backups.
  • The depth chart includes another redshirt freshman starter in defensive end Ben Perry. Minnesota is very young along the D-line, as tackles Anthony Jacobs and Brandon Kirksey are the only seniors listed among the top three players at each position.
  • Freshman quarterback Max Shortell has won the backup job behind MarQueis Gray.
  • Not many surprises among the linebackers, although Florida transfer Brendan Beal is just a co-backup with junior Ryan Grant at middle linebacker.
  • Eric Lair, who stood out at tight end for Minnesota in 2010, is listed as the team's starting H-back/fullback.
  • Sophomore Brock Vereen appears as the team's No. 1 cornerback opposite senior Troy Stoudermire. Shady Salamon and Kim Royston are the starting safeties.
  • Not surprisingly, freshmen and redshirt freshmen fill coach Jerry Kill's Week 1 depth chart. Quite a few young players will get their college football baptism Saturday afternoon at the L.A. Coliseum.

Q&A: Illinois OC Paul Petrino

August, 17, 2011
8/17/11
2:00
PM ET
Illinois set team records for points scored (423) and points per game (32.5) in Paul Petrino's first season as offensive coordinator.

Here's the scary part: Petrino thinks the unit can be even better this fall.

Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is the biggest reason why, as he returns for his second year as the starter. Illinois boasts good depth at running back despite the departure of first-team All-Big Ten selection Mikel Leshoure, and the offensive line could be the team's strongest unit.

I checked in with Petrino after Wednesday's morning practice in Rantoul, Ill. Here are his thoughts:

How would you rate the unit a little more than halfway through camp?

Paul Petrino: I'm very happy. We've definitely come out and shown improvement. Nathan has improved 100 percent, throwing the ball really well. Our O-line is playing well, excited about our backs and our receivers have gotten better. Overall, all the way around, we've really improved. We're a lot better offense right now than we were last year.

Are there examples with Nathan where you see him taking those steps?

PP: No question. He's got such a quicker release. He's getting the ball out of his hand, he's got a lot stronger arm. Any phrase you can use about throwing the ball, he's doing better. And he understands the whole offense better. He gets us out of bad plays, gets us into good plays. Our quarterback has to do a lot at the line and in the running game, too, getting us to our best plays, and he's done a great job of that.

Can you do extend him in the passing game this year?

PP: There's throws he's making right now I wouldn't have even called for him last year in games -- or in practice, for that matter. That's great. Just got to keep it up. We'll pass more. We're still going to run the ball to win. There's no question our strength is still going to be running the ball, but we'll pass the ball more. If we can be like the bowl game and the Purdue game, throw for about 220-240 yards and run the ball like we always do, that would be perfect.

What has stood out to you about the running backs?

PP: Jason Ford is being a punisher, running hard and really doing a good job. And those two freshmen are studs, Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson, they're going to be great players. They're playing so good they keep Jason on his toes, but Jason's been running really hard, I've been really happy with him. And then Troy Pollard gives us a little different wrinkle. He has great vision and he's just a great kid and a leader. Those four guys are going to be good.

Did you have to challenge Jason a bit?

PP: Yeah. The best thing that happened to Jason was those two freshmen. They both have great attitudes, they both work hard, they're always upbeat. Jason saw, 'Oooh, I better make sure I'm busting my tail every minute to keep my job.' And then when he does that, with his talent, he's a great player.

How would you describe the freshmen from a style standpoint?

PP: Donovonn Young is just an aggressive, violent, downhill runner. Obviously not as good a player yet, but the kind of style like Adrian Peterson, just violent, downhill and hard. Josh Ferguson's just super fast. He can really cut, runs low to the ground and has great speed.

How many backs do you anticipate playing?

PP: I would say all four. Ford being the main workhorse and then Donovonn and Josh a lot. Then Troy has different little things he does for us, too.

How does the depth situation look at wide receiver?

PP: Darius Millines has been playing great. He played a bunch for us last year as a freshmen, had a great catch in the bowl game, and he's had a great camp. He's probably had the best camp of all of them. There's three of them that all played as true freshmen: Darius Millines, Ryan Lankford and Spencer Harris. You've got A.J. [Jenkins] and those three, those are our four best players. It's a pretty good group. Ryan's been playing well, been real consistent, plays with great effort. But Darius has played the best of all of them. He has been real explosive, making all kinds of big plays for us.

How is the offensive line shaping up? You have quite a lot coming back.

PP: Yeah, it should be our strength. We've got four starters back. Jeff Allen should be a great player for us. Hugh Thornton plays right next to him, and then Graham [Pocic] and Jack [Cornell]. Those four should be very good players. Then our [strong-side] tackle will be a freshman, Michael Heitz or Simon [Cvijanovic]. Michael is ahead right now.

How are things looking for the backup quarterback spot?

PP: It's pretty neck and neck. They're two different styles. Miles Osei can really run and is good at our option stuff, and Reilley O'Toole has been throwing the crap out of the ball and doing a really good job for us.

How high are your expectations for this offense?

PP: High, real high. We're always going to set our expectations high. We set the school record last year, and we're going to break it this year.

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