CHICAGO — Creative deployment.
Those could end up being the most important buzzwords this season for the University of Illinois football offense.
While there was still a strong clamoring to explore aspects of the Penn State football scandal Friday at the Big Ten Conference media day gathering, there also was some actual talk of Xs and Os and how one team might go about beating another team.
Remember, when Tim Beckman was hired to replace Ron Zook as Illinois head coach last December, he had the unusual opportunity to observe the team from the sideline during its preparation for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Beckman was standing to the side, taking mental notes while trying to analyze the holes he’d have to fill this season.
What he saw was Illinois would likely be thin at running back and wide receiver, and after taking over following the bowl victory against UCLA he began looking to see if the roster included versatile players who might slide from one position to another, patching holes where needed.
That process is on-going and will resume next week when fall practice commences.
But after working with the team through 15 spring practices and after studying film and speaking with players about their willingness to play more than one spot, Beckman has discovered a half-dozen intriguing options that could — keyword: COULD — give Illinois some badly needed firepower used in unexpected ways.
“At first I had major concerns and questions about whether a guy could help us at another position,” Beckman said. “Could a tight end help us as a wide receiver? Could a running back help us as a wide receiver? We didn’t have enough wide receivers, and there’s nothing we can do about it. This is college football; we can’t bring in free agents.
“But as we went through winter workouts and spring ball, we have determined there are guys who can help us where we have depth issues.”
Here are five names to watch as Illinois moves toward the season opener Sept. 1 against Western Michigan:
The Zook staff and the Beckman staff agree Illinois may have landed a stud when Louisville, Ky., native Jon Davis picked Illinois. The 6-3, 240-pound tight end made an impact last season as a true freshman, catching 22 passes while appearing in every game.
He’ll continue to be used as a tight end, but Beckman intends to show his versatility early.
“He will play in the backfield, will flex out and we’ll run some motion stuff for him,” Beckman said.
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase called Davis, “a playmaker” who could also be a difference maker, especially inside the red zone. And it’s worth noting he averaged 14 yards a carry running the ball as a high school senior.
With Scheelhaase and Reilly O’Toole taking over at quarterback, here’s a kid who could have been lost in the shuffle. Truthfully, he still could. But he’s a favorite with the coaching staff because he’s a very good athlete and an entirely willing teammate.
“I think the two X-factors are Jon Davis and Miles,” Scheelhaase said. “You can call Miles whatever you want, but he’s a quarterback-running back-wide receiver. He’s a trifecta. And they’re both really football-smart.”
Osei can line up anywhere. And because he has been a quarterback, he’s always a threat to throw an option pass.
Hawthorne was recruited to Illinois as an All-American wide receiver. But he quickly switched to cornerback and was honorable mention all-Big Ten at that position last year. But Hawthorne has spent some time this summer flagging down passes from Scheelhaase, and don’t be surprised to see him on the offensive side of the ball in some four-receiver sets.
“We’re not expecting him to be an every-down receiver, but we want him available in certain situations,” Scheelhaase said.
Like Hawthorne, Green was recruited to Illinois as an offensive playmaker. But he seems to have found a home at cornerback. That said, the speedy former running back could be used in a number of ways on offense.
“Justin has done a little bit like running some jet sweeps,” Scheelhaase said. “And I found out this summer he has better hands than I realized.”
Ferguson got in Zook’s doghouse last season when he let a hamstring injury keep him sidelined for the final 10 games. Zook felt Ferguson should have been able to get back on the field.
But Ferguson has made a better impression with Beckman, and he has a chance to share time with Donovonn Young at running back while also being a shifty, speedy option as a receiver. And there’s another slightly undersized speedster who could make a mark as a true freshman in Southfield, Mich., native Devin Church.
“What I like about those players is that they’re willing to move around and switch positions, whatever they need to do to help the team,” Scheelhaase said. “And if that makes them a little more tired in practice, they’re still willing. It’s nice to play with players like that.”
Scheelhaase likes his core of returning receivers – Darius Millines, Ryan Lankford and Spencer Harris. And Beckman said fans will be surprised to see the way running back Donovonn Young has sculpted the shape of his body.
But it’s depth that looms as the issue. Leaning on these versatile players is an important part of Beckman’s Illini plan.