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Scouting Illinois – Offense

Scouting report is back this week.  Though Illinois is a conference foe, they’ve undergone a coaching change, with Bill Cubit out and Lovie Smith in.  With that, the man of the hour is Garrick McGee, the piece of shit fine offensive coordinator who stole Desmond Fitzpatrick from wide receivers coach Keith Williams late in last year’s recruiting cycle.  I suspect there will be no pleasantries exchanged pregame between McGee and Williams, though the #w4l signal might get thrown across the field a few times.

But we’re here to talk about McGee ON the football field, not about him wooing sketchy fathers off of it.  So let’s take a look at what his first-year Illini offense has to offer.

Initial Thoughts

Game(s) Scouted: North Carolina, Western Michigan

As much as it pains me to say it, I like the look of McGee’s offense.  They’re short on personnel right now, most notably on the offensive line and at quarterback.  But they do have a couple good to great players, and McGee has done about as good a job as possible getting them the ball given the Illini’s issues up front.  The offense has started out games pretty solid, jumping out to an early lead against North Carolina and playing Western Michigan tough early as well.  The former may have something to do with this guy:

John Papuchis’s UNC LBs have given up 2,233 rushing yards in their last 7 games.

Eventually, though, the Illinois offense has just run out of gas, as opponents have overwhelmed Lovie’s defense and McGee’s unit hasn’t been able to keep pace.

My player(s) to watch are both running backs, sophomore Ke’Shawn Vaughn and junior Kendrick Foster.  The Blackshirts should be pretty familiar with Vaughn, as he put 97 yards on them last year, including this 48-yard run right before the half:

Foster is a lesser known quantity, playing only 6 games last year after not playing at all his redshirt freshman year.  Vaughn is impressive and one of the better backs we’ll see all year.  At 210lbs, he’s got the size to be an every down back and he’s got speed to go with it.  Foster is the 5’9″ change of pace back, and he reminds me of a less talented Mikale Wilbon.  Given Nebraska’s issues this year defending perimeter runs, as well as Illinois’ reliance on a heavy dose of sweep plays, I think we’ll have some moments where Vaughn and Foster do damage.


Formations and Personnel

Illinois does a nice job of varying their personnel throughout the game, lining up in anything from 10 personnel up to 22 personnel.  By and large, they’ve been their best out of 11 personnel, though they’ve run a fair amount of 21 personnel as well.  In short and medium yardage, they’ll go 21 and 22 personnel, and they love to run ISO and Sweep out of it.

No matter what they line up in, they’ll do it with a large amount of shifting and motion.  They’ll change the strength in the run game before the snap, and they’ll also put receivers in motion to give them a head start against tight coverage.  By this point in the season, though, the Blackshirts have seen a pretty wide variety of both personnel groupings and formations, so I don’t think they’ll be fooled.

Regarding their offensive talent, the aforementioned running backs are by far the strength of the Illinois offense.  They both have speed, and despite not being overwhelming physical specimens, they break a ton of tackles as well.  Unfortunately for Illini fans, the offensive line in front of them is largely suspect.  They’re not bad in the run game, but they are abysmal in pass protection.  They are also penalized too often, leaving the Illini offense is long down and distance situations which are trouble with their pass protection issues.  

Though the Nebraska pass rush hasn’t hit its stride this year, this could be the game to do it, as they probably won’t face a weaker offensive line all year in conference play.  And as we’ll see below, if the Blackshirts can pressure Illinois early, their QB will struggle.

Concepts and Motions

In the running game, Illinois loves to pull offensive linemen.  They’ll pull back side linemen to the front side on Power, but what they really love to run is the Dart play.  They’ve hit this big a couple of times a year, including this one early against North Carolina:

They also like to pull play side offensive linemen on outside runs and sweeps, frequently trying to get the play side guard to the edge while logging inside pursuit from the linebackers.  This will be a test for the Blackshirts, as they’ve already struggled to defend the edge runs this year.  That said, pulling linemen as frequently as Illinois does also opens up opportunities for front 7 defenders to shoot gaps.  One of those guys who could have a big game is Michael Rose-Ivey, who shows the downhill instincts you need to play against these types of offenses.

Illinois also has a pretty robust passing game.  They love to run the slip screen to Vaughn and Foster, and they also do a pretty solid job leaking tight ends out on delayed routes.  They’ll attack vertical with junior Malik Turner, who is really the only Illinois receiver of note.  He’s smooth for a big target, though I think the Blackshirts will have an answer for him with either Chris Jones or Joshua Kalu.  The Illini also do a nice job working their tight ends against LBs, including on the mythical Wheel route, but ultimately they lack talent at this position and have suffered from too many drops.  

Despite McGee’s best attempts, I don’t think the Illini will have much success through the air.  A lack of great receivers, coupled with poor pass protection, should make for a long day in Lincoln.  And if they don’t blow it, the QB play certainly will.

QB Play

One more year for Wes Lunt before some senseless NFL team falls in love with his “measurables” and makes him the next Christian Hackenberg.  When he’s given time to throw the ball, Lunt actually has pretty good pace and accuracy on it.  But Lunt gets a serious case of the yips the first time he’s pressured, and from there, it’s all downhill as he anticipates pressure whether it shows up or not.  

He’ll go one drive looking like an NFL player, and then the next few drives he’ll skip balls all over the field.  He’s not a threat to run, and he’s only marginally more of a threat to throw it.  If Illinois can’t get the running game going, they’re in trouble because he can’t carry that team for the entire game without turning the ball over.

I’d look for the Blackshirts to force one fumble by Lunt on a sack and at least one interception as well.  About the only way that Lunt hurts us is if Illinois’ offensive line has the game of their lives early, allowing Lunt to settle into a rhythm throwing the ball.  He can get hot, but much like Husker QBs of the last 8 years, he’s also prone to going wildly off the tracks at any minute.  My money is on that happening at some point in Lincoln, hopefully sooner rather than later.

My Prediction

I think the Illini will come out and have some early success running the ball, perhaps even popping a big play or two on the ground in the first half.  Vaughn is a handful, and the Illini offensive linemen move around so much that run fit issues are certain to pop up at some point.  I don’t think it’ll be a pervasive issue, but I could see them scoring 14 points in the first half before the Blackshirts settle in during the second half.  And really, you just can’t bottle up a player of Vaughn’s caliber unless you have a pretty dominant front 7.  We couldn’t pull it off last year, and the front 7 thus far in 2016 can’t match that 2015 group in run defense.

The good news is that, despite a nasty defensive line, the rest of Illini defense has been hot garbage for the most part.  No doubt that defensive line will cause some issues, but the Illini linebackers and secondary are so bad it shouldn’t matter much over a 60 minute game.  Don’t be surprised if this ends up as a 45-24 type affair.  Lovie may get there in Champaign, but he’s not doing it in Lincoln this year.


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