CHAMPAIGN – It was Wednesday of this week and Bill Cubit was window shopping.
He scanned the practice field, sizing up an array of options as Illinois’ offensive coordinator prepares to dive into the upcoming college football season with a mostly new group of pass catchers.
In the wide receiver window, Cubit looked over 15 prospects from which he’d like to feel good about seven. In the tight end window, he sized up seven, of which he’d like be able to count on three or four. And there was an assortment of running backs who know their chance to get onto the field increases if Cubit views them as viable pass-catchers.
In the next three weeks, Cubit will get serious about his hunt to remake a receiving group that lost four of the top five pass-catchers from a year ago.
“The nice thing about the wideouts is that from one through six or seven, they are very comparable,” Cubit said. “At this point, some are a little better, some not quite as good, but we have some pretty good-looking kids running around out there. It looks to me that we have a pretty good group of receivers who can get open.”
Knowing that graduation would claim Steve Hull (59 catches, 7 TDs), Spencer Harris (39 catches), Miles Osei (35 catches) and Ryan Lankford (15 catches in just 7 games), Cubit and head coach Tim Beckman brought in three junior college wideouts and two freshmen as part of the 2014 recruiting class. Right now, it looks like all five could play.
Running ahead of the pack is 6-foot-4 Geronimo Allison, a fast, slender wide receiver who arrived in January from Iowa Western Community College.
Coaches and teammates call him “G-Mo,” and his combination of size, speed and a willingness to fight for the ball in traffic could make him the favorite target of whoever wins the quarterback competition.
“G-Mo has obviously done some great work over the summer,” Beckman said. “You can see how much he has progressed. Same with Martize Barr. He has really progressed. He looks smoother and has a better understanding of things this year.”
Barr was a junior college arrival last year but didn’t make a big impact. He is now operating in the slot along with true freshman Mike Dudek and he admits he is way ahead of where he was last season.
“Knowing the offense makes a big difference,” Barr said. “This is actually the first time in my life I’ve played the same offense two seasons in a row. And this year I have the confidence to know I can play in the Big Ten.”
Also looking good so far is junior college transfer Tyrin Stone-Davis, a 6-3 speedster who did not have the advantage of enrolling early and playing in the spring. Cubit watched him run a route and laughed.
“He’s taking a little longer to understand what we’re doing but he can run. Actually, he’s the most awkward-looking fast guy I’ve seen. But that guy can run, and as soon as he figures it out he’s going to be something special.”
Impressing the coaches because he seems to have gained an immediate grasp on the offense is true freshman Malik Turner from Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin.
The 6-3 Turner is a smooth strider who has caught the eye of fellow wideouts.
“He’s good,” Barr said. “He’s a lot further along than I thought he would be. And that guy has got confidence.”
It’s not just the new faces who will land in Cubit’s shopping basket. He’s hoping junior Justin Hardee is ready to step into a bigger role and he’d like to see someone like Kenny Knight or Dionte Taylor break through.
But Cubit believes the passing game will extend far behind wide receivers. He has two tight ends NFL scouts constantly ask about in Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse and running backs Josh Ferguson (50 catches) and Devin Church are capable of breaking off big gains.
If sorting through the candidates and choosing the best group is a tough job, Cubit doesn’t show it.
“I’m not worried,” he said this week. “We’ll get the best player out there, and that could change as the season moves along. I guess I feel good because I think we have some pretty good ones to pick from.”