As the dog days of summer arrive, the longing for football becomes all the more intense. Well, we here at CSNChicago.com are here to provide you with a summertime football fix. Over 40 days, CSN's Vinnie Duber will have 40 posts pondering the biggest questions heading into the 2014 Big Ten football season — the B1G 40 questions. Be sure to check out the entire B1G 40 series at csnchicago.com/big-ten.
Can lightning strike twice for Bill Cubit and the Illini?
The turnaround job by Cubit, whose first season as Illinois offensive coordinator came last year, was downright remarkable. In 2012, the Illini ranked dead last in the Big Ten in scoring offense (16.7 points per game) and total offense (296.7 yards per game) and second-to-last in rush offense (127.8 yards per game) and pass offense (168.8 yards per game). Enter Cubit, and the Illini improved those numbers dramatically. Last season, they ranked sixth in scoring offense (29.7 points per game), fifth in total offense (426.7 yards per game) and second in pass offense (287.7 yards per game).
How did this happen?
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Cubit deserves a lot of the credit, taking advantage of Illinois’ playmakers and putting them in a good position to succeed. Of course, the full health of fourth-year starter Nathan Scheelhaase was a big part of it, too. Scheelhaase went from banged-up and tossed-around in 2012 to the Big Ten leader in total offense last season. And wide receivers Ryan Lankford and Steve Hull stepped up at different parts of the season, as did running back Josh Ferguson, who proved a threat in both the running game and the passing game.
While it didn’t necessarily help the Illini dramatically improve their win total — as good as the offense was, the defense was frequently as bad — it opened a lot of eyes among observers that Cubit might be on to something here. So can he continue to reshape the Illini offense into one of the Big Ten’s more dangerous units?
The roadblocks to doing that are obvious ones. Gone is Scheelhaase, who posted amazing numbers last season and ran the offense extremely well. Gone also are almost all the featured receivers from a season ago, particularly those two playmakers in Lankford and Hull. Martize Barr is the only returning player (aside from Ferguson) who had more than 25 catches last season.
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Most importantly, Cubit will be breaking in a new quarterback, which will be the story of the Illini’s season. Many figure it to be Wes Lunt, a much-hyped transfer from Oklahoma State who had starting experience but a poor touchdown-to-interception ratio while with the Cowboys. The other contender for the job is Reilly O’Toole, who’s backed up Scheelhaase in recent years. Regardless of who it is, it’s Cubit’s job to make it a smooth transition from four years of Scheelhaase to the next chapter. And he’s hoping the offensive success from last season can remain intact.
The good news is the return of Ferguson, who showed glimpses of being a dynamic offensive weapon last season. His total numbers won’t make your eyes pop, but he was one of the conference’s best running/pass-catching backs. His ability to thrive in both facets of the game, as well as his expected increased workload and usage in 2014, makes him a favorite for a huge season. That safety valve in both the run and pass game should make life easier for the new QB.
If Scheelhaase were returning, you’d expect Cubit & Co. to be primed for another successful offensive season. But without the quarterback who did it last year, it results in a huge question mark. There are high hopes for Lunt and Ferguson, but both have plenty to prove. Can Lunt deliver on the expectations? Can Ferguson succeed as a workhorse back? These are the challenges for Cubit if the Illini are going to keep improving on the offensive side of the ball.