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updated: 8/26/2013 5:53 PM

Illini ready to get going with ground game changes

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  • Illinois football coach Tim Beckman addresses the media at his first news conference of the season Monday at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. The Illini will host SIU on Saturday in the season opener.

    Illinois football coach Tim Beckman addresses the media at his first news conference of the season Monday at Memorial Stadium in Champaign. The Illini will host SIU on Saturday in the season opener.
    John Dixon/The News-Gazette

Associated Press

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- At Western Michigan, Bill Cubit's teams were known for their quick passing attack, a style of offense that let the Broncos roll up big offensive stats along with a healthy win total in most of his eight seasons as head coach.

At Illinois, where he is offensive coordinator, Cubit says his running game will look a lot more like the straight-ahead attacks closely associated with the Big Ten.

"It's more downhill runs," Cubit said Monday. "Look, a good run may be just one yard. You get us in a second and nine, that's manageable. And keep us in those manageable-type situations. ... Whereas sometimes when you go east and west you can get yourself in a second-and-long really quick."

The Illini will get its first chance at improving on 2012's 2-10 record when they kick off the 2013 season at home against Southern Illinois on Saturday. SIU, a Championship Subdivision school, was 6-5 last season.

The run game wasn't the only problem for the Illini last fall, but it was a big reason Illinois scored just 16.7 points a game.

The Illini averaged 127.8 yards a game on the ground in 2012, 11th in the 12-team conference. And the team's third-down conversion rate, held down in part by those big losses Cubit talked about, was a Big Ten-worst 34 percent.

Illinois' backs -- particularly the top two returners, junior Donovonn Young and freshman Josh Ferguson -- spent much of the off season going through what Cubit called a coaching clinic on how a line blocks in this new-straightforward running game, and how to run behind it.

"Guys are pulling so you've got to understand what gap you're looking for," he said. "Instead of just run, this is how it's going to be blocked, this is what you should expect, this is where it should be (opening)."

And the coach made the two backs take a hard look at what they did last season that could -- and, if Illinois is going to improve, has to -- get better.

"I made both of them this summer critique every run they had -- `OK, give me a report and tell me what you think, where you went wrong," he said.

The offensive line, another weak spot in 2012, should be better suited to block for straight-ahead running than anything else, Cubit said, if for no other reason than it has some size. Last year's group included four 300-pounders, and this season the five likely starters all weigh more than 300 pounds.

Like just about every part of the Illini roster, though, depth is a problem.

Coach Tim Beckman credits line coach A.J. Ricker, who followed Cubit from Western Michigan, with starting to build depth.

"What I think you want to see is to continue to see them gel and the younger guys that are behind them," Beckman said. "They have to start continually getting their game better so that we can build that offensive line into a solid unit of eight instead of six."

Notes: The National Weather Service forecasts a high of 93 Saturday in Champaign. Beckman said that will provide another test of his team's depth, but said he'd play his young players no matter the weather. "You're going to see some freshmen out there playing on Saturday. That's just the way we're going to get better." ... Nathan Scheelhaase is the starting quarterback but Cubit hopes to be able to play both second-stringer Reilly O'Toole and freshman third-stringer Aaron Bailey, too. ... Cubit will likely script out the first couple dozen plays, something Scheelhaase says he doesn't have too much input into but says the two have discussed some of what they'll run early. "There's certain plays you feel comfortable. He's a guy who likes to script things out."

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