Wide receivers step up after Millines’ injury

With five touchdown passes in Saturday’s game against Charleston Southern, Illinois quarterback Reilly O’Toole received much of the postgame attention. But it was two of the sophomore’s targets that accounted for 196 of his 333 yards.

After wide receiver Darius Millines left Saturday’s game with a "shoulder injury":http://www.dailyillini.com/article/2012/09/injuries-stacking-up-for-illinois-football, junior Ryan Lankford and freshman Justin Hardee stepped up to fill their teammate’s shoes. Lankford caught seven passes for 97 yards and two touchdowns — both career bests — while Hardee pulled in five passes for 99 yards, including a game-long 48-yard reception in the third quarter.

Hardee came into training camp in August as a defensive back but was moved to wide receiver during the first week with the team to support a thin wide receiving corp.

“He’s a quick learner,” co-offensive coordinator Billy Gonzales said Tuesday. “To be out there and be able to change multiple positions, multiple formations, he’s done a great job as far as that. He stepped up and wasn’t afraid to go out there and make plays.”

"O’Toole":http://www.dailyillini.com/article/2012/09/otoole-finally-has-passing-game-clicking said "Saturday’s game":http://www.dailyillini.com/article/2012/09/illini-roll-against-charleston-behind-play-of-otoole_0917 showed his young receivers’ strengths, including Hardee’s. When an upperclassman, like Millines, goes down with injury, O’Toole said, the younger guys don’t miss a beat.

Hardee played both offense and defense at Glenville High School in Cleveland. With 190 pounds on his 6-foot-1 frame, he is bulky, but Gonzales said Hardee has great speed and quickness for his size. He is a good complement to Lankford, who is smaller and faster.

“(Lankford) gives you some top-end speed,” Gonzales said. “He’s always an attention-to-detail type guy, he cares about what his responsibilities are and he wants to create a winning performance. You never have to tell Lank to go hard.”

Alluding Hardee’s success, Lankford said the mystique of the college game began to fade away following his initial plays as a freshman.

“A couple of young guys got that first play down this week and realized that it’s really not that different (from high school),” he said. “It’s a little bit faster, but once you get in and get a couple plays you say, ‘OK, I can do this.’”

After three games, the Illinois passing attack is evenly distributed compared to 2011, when A.J. Jenkins accounted for more than half of the Illini’s receiving yards. Five Illini have 50 or more receiving yards after three games, and Illinois’ seven passing touchdowns have been thrown to five different receivers.

Millines status for this week’s matchup with Louisiana Tech is still unknown. It is likely that Lankford and Hardee will play major roles in the game either way. The Bulldogs’ high-powered offense — which has scored 56 points in each of its first two games against Houston and Rice — will put a lot of pressure on the Illini to score points. Whether O’Toole or the injured Nathan Scheelhaase starts against Louisiana Tech, the Illini will be pressed to keep up with their opponent.

“If we can control the ball and let our defense do their job, we’ve just got to execute,” Gonzales said. “At the same time, we’ve got to be able to produce points when we have (the ball). We’re not worried about trying to get in a track race with anybody.”

Sean can be reached at sphammo2@dailyillini.com and @sean_hammond.

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