Illini football looking to replace offensive production despite staff losses

In offensive coordinator Bill Cubit’s first season in Champaign, he took a lifeless Illinois offense and turned the unit around.

The Illini doubled their passing yards per game, added 130 yards of total offense and eight first downs per game, and, most importantly, went from 16.7 points per game to 29.7 in 2013.

Cubit received a contract extension and a $500,000 raise in salary for his efforts, but in his second season, he is facing another challenge: sustaining offensive success with new personnel.

Illinois lost six starters from last year’s unit, including quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and wide receivers Steve Hull and Miles Osei. The Illini lost 59.3 percent of its receiving yards from last season with the departures of four senior wide receivers and tight end Evan Wilson. Illinois returns only four receivers on the roster who saw game action at the position a year ago and have 38 combined catches among them.

Left to step up are upperclassmen Martize Barr and Justin Hardee, who project to be the starters along with junior college transfer Geronimo Allison at the three receiver positions. Barr said the offense is trying to build off the success of last year’s team to make another leap in 2014.

“With a good season, that just means the expectations rise even higher,” Barr said. “I think with this group, we know that we’re a good offense. So it’s time to go out there and play like we’re a good offense and not really be surprised by what we did last year and knowing we can do better than what we did last year.”

Barr is the leading returning receiver with 26 catches for 246 yards and a touchdown last season, while Hardee caught 11 balls for 95 yards. Dionte Taylor is the only other receiver with a catch, as he caught a pass for five yards last season.

The team is still very early in the development process — with opening day against Youngstown State still over four months away — but Cubit has already noticed a difference in this year’s receiving corps compared with last season’s group.

“Last year, those guys were competitors, with the guys we had. Right now, I don’t know if we have that competitive edge that those guys had last year,” Cubit said after the team’s first intrasquad scrimmage on March 12. “Are they as talented? Probably. But they have got to mature and grow up.”

With uncertainty outside the hashes, there is still the ongoing three-man quarterback competition between Wes Lunt, Aaron Bailey and Reilly O’Toole. As the young receivers are still trying to learn the position, dealing with potentially a new quarterback each drill or scrimmage could be a tough adjustment, though Barr said it’s all part of the process.

“As a receiver you just go out there with whoever is throwing you the ball and try and get in a rhythm with them,” Barr said. “It’s not difficult, it’s just what spring ball is all about.”

Illinois will have many new fresh faces at wide receiver, including newcomers Tyrin Stone-Davis and Malik Turner who join in the team in the fall, but Cubit wants to see the group’s ability with some of their first taste of repetitions on the field.

“You’ve never seen them out there, you don’t know what they are,” Cubit said. “I have faith in them, but they’ve got to go out there and show it and prove it to themselves, too.”

Stephen can be reached at sbourbo2@dailyillini.com and @steve_bourbon.