Illinois' offense tackles another transition


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."