Assuming the Position: Breaking Down the Fighting Illini Receiving Corps

Writing Illini’s third installment of its football position breakdowns examines the Illinois wide receivers and tight ends.

Illinois lost a lot of receiving talent after last season, with leading receiver Arrelious Benn declaring for the draft and getting drafted in the second round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and wideout  Chris Duvalt and Jeff Cumberland and tight end Mike Hoomanawanui all graduating.

Pair this heavy loss of personnel with Illinois’ new redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, and it would seem at first that Illinois is headed for another long, bitter season.

However, Illinois benefits this season from its extreme depth at the receiving position last year.

The return of junior A.J. Jenkins and senior Jarred Fayson (pictured above with McGee), both of whom started at times in 2009, along with the movement of senior Eddie McGee from quarterback to receiver, should give the Illini a very respectable bunch of receivers this season.

The Heat Is On

Much of the receiving news this offseason has surrounded transfers and early departures.

With the exception of who will start at the tight end position, this season’s depth chart has appeared pretty clear-cut.

However, newly hired offensive coordinator Paul Petrino recently reported that some of the freshman receivers have the veterans fighting to keep their starting spots.

Petrino addressed the four freshman receivers (Ryan Lankford, Darius Millines, Spencer Harris, and Anthony Williams) who highlighted the 2010 recruiting class, saying:

You like the possibility that they can help us some way or another, whether that’s a certain role in a game or coming right out and playing a ton. They’re playmakers.

While Petrino did not go as far as to specifically say that any freshman will be starting when Illinois opens against Missouri on September 4th, it is clear that there is competition amongst the players as they head to preseason camp.

The Wide Receiver Depth Chart

Opening Day Starter: #11 Jarred Fayson

Year: Transfer Senior

Height / Weight: 6’-0” / 215 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience:

At Illinois: 9 games (5 Big Ten), 5 starts

At Florida: 11 games, 0 starts

Career Receiving Statistics:

16 receptions for 218 yards at Illinois

12 receptions for 148 yards at Florida

Career Receiving Touchdowns: 1 at Illinois

3 at Florida (all as a sophomore)

Longest Career Reception: 55 yards (2009)

Career 100 Yard Receiving Games: 0

Fayson originally committed to Florida when Illinois head coach Ron Zook was coaching the Gators.

After playing two seasons at Florida, including on the Gators’ 2006 National Championship team as a sophomore, Fayson transferred to Illinois. Fayson sat out one year at Illinois due to NCAA transfer rules, and played his junior season in 2009.

Fayson was third on the team in receptions last year, behind Arrelious Benn (38 receptions) and Chris Duvalt (23 receptions).

With Benn leaving early for the NFL and Duvalt graduating, Fayson and his teammate A.J. Jenkins are the top two receivers coming into the 2010 season.

Opening Day Starter: #8 A.J. Jenkins

Year: Junior

Height / Weight: 6’-0” / 185 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: 20 games (14 Big Ten), 4 starts

Career Receiving Statistics: 21 receptions for 410 yards

Career Receiving Touchdowns: 4

Longest Career Reception: 54 yards (2008)

Career 100 Yard Receiving Games: 1

One of the top storylines this offseason was whether Jenkins would be returning to Illinois for his junior season or transferring. After many talks with the coaching staff, Jenkins decided to remain at Illinois.

Jenkins attended Terry Parker High School in Jacksonville, Florida. He was ranked the 36th best receiver in the nation coming out of high school.

Jenkins did not have a standout 2009 season, but the coaches report that he has stepped into a leadership role on the team.

Jenkins was named the co-most improved offensive player heading into 2010.

The Backup Plan: #10 Eddie McGee

Year: Redshirt Senior

Height / Weight: 6’-4” / 210 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: 26 games (16 Big Ten), 1 start (at quarterback)

Career Receiving Statistics: 10 receptions for 152 yards

Career Receiving Touchdowns: 0

Longest Career Reception: 48 yards (2009)

Career 100 Yard Receiving Games: 0

McGee has been in the news much of the summer as the coaching staff shifts his role back and forth.

McGee was originally moved from the quarterback position to wide receiver at the end of the 2009 season. McGee spent the summer practicing at receiver, occasionally taking snaps from the wildcat formation, but he was not expected to be part of this year’s quarterback squad.

Then last week, McGee was named as the primary backup to the starting Scheelhaase as the team headed into its preseason training camp.

While McGee will probably take some snaps in both the wildcat and under center, unless Scheelhaase should get injured, expect him to spend much of his time lining up at the receiver position.

The Backup Plan: #19 Jack Ramsey

Year: Redshirt Sophomore

Height / Weight: 5’-11” / 200 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: 12 games (8 Big Ten), 3 starts

Career Receiving Statistics: 16 receptions for 182 yards

Career Receiving Touchdowns: 0

Longest Career Reception: 24 yards (2009)

Career 100 Yard Receiving Games: 0

After redshirting his first year at Illinois, Ramsey, a CPS product from Simeon High School, had a strong first year.

He played in every game last season, and should see the field even more this fall.

The Third Stringer: #17 Fred Sykes

Year: Junior

Height / Weight: 6’-0” / 190 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: 24 games (16 Big Ten), 10 starts

Career Receiving Statistics: 22 receptions for 231 yards

Career Receiving Touchdowns: 3

Longest Career Reception: 50 (2008)

Career 100 Yard Receiving Games: 0

The Tampa native chose Illinois over Kentucky and South Florida. Despite not having outstanding numbers, he has played in every game and will likely see an increase in stats this year as he moves up the depth chart.

Now-and-Then

The following Illini players are wide receivers who are active members of the team, but are not expected to see action on the field this year. An asterisks by the player’s name denotes that they are available to redshirt the season should the coaches choose for them to do so.

→ #4 Steve Hull

→ #6 Chris James

→ #9 Darius Millines*

→ #12 Ryan Lankford*

#80 Spencer Harris*

→ #81 Jake Kumerow*

→ #82 Anthony Williams*

→ #83 Arshan Pouladdej*

→ #86 Tim Russell

The Tight End Depth Chart

Opening Day Starter: #41 Zach Becker

Year: Junior

Height / Weight: 6’-3” / 250 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: 23 games (16 Big Ten), 0 starts

Career Receiving Statistics: 1 reception for 2 yards

Career Receiving Touchdowns: 1

Longest Career Reception: 2 yards

Career 100 Yard Receiving Games: 0

Becker was mentioned earlier as the starter for the fullback position. Becker goes into Camp Rantoul as the first on the depth chart in each of the positions. Becker has more size and experience than most other players fighting for both positions so he will most likely spend time at fullback and tight end.

The Backup Plan: #40 London Davis

Year: Sophomore

Height / Weight: 6’-4” / 245

Collegiate Game Experience: 9 games (7 Big Ten), 0 starts

Career Receiving Statistics: 1 reception for 2 yards

Career Receiving Touchdowns: 1

Longest Career Reception: 2 yards

Career 100 Yard Receiving Games: 0

Davis is Becker’s main competition for the starting spot at tight end. The two have virtually identical statistics, with Becker’s experience and speed the only things separating them.

With a strong showing at Camp Rantoul, Davis (a Cahokia, Illinois native) could move to the top slot in the tight end position.

The Third Stringer: #85 Andrew Carter

Year: Redshirt Freshman

Height / Weight: 6’-4” / 290 lbs

Collegiate Game Experience: None

Career Receiving Statistics: None

Career Receiving Touchdowns: None

Longest Career Reception: 0 yards

Career 100 Yard Receiving Games: 0

Carter was a four-star recruit coming out of Leon High School in Tallahassee, Florida, where he received all-state honors.

Carter chose Illinois over Florida State, Miami, and Michigan among others.

Now-and-Then

The tight end position is very young in 2010 with the graduation of fan favorite Hoomanawanui and the talented if not underachieving Cumberland. Both players are trying to stick in the NFL, with the St. Louis Rams and New York Jets respectively.

With Becker rotating between tight end and fullback, there could be some true freshmen who see playing time.

The following Illini players are tight ends who are active members of the team, but are not expected to see action on the field this year. An asterisks by the player’s name denotes that they are available to redshirt the season should the coaches choose for them to do so.

→ #18 Eddie Viliunas*

#88 Justin Lattimore

#89 Evan Wilson*

Some Thoughts on the Illini Receiving Game:

Last year, Illinois had one of, if not the, top-rated receiving corps heading into the season. While last season did not pan out the way the team had hoped, many of the receivers on that squad return this year.

With its strength at running back and Scheelhaase a green quarterback, Illinois will most likely try to run the ball again in 2010.

With that said, don’t be fooled into thinking that Petrino’s offense is the same as Mike Schultz’s from last season.

Petrino’s pro style offense lends itself much more to the passing game than Schultz’s option offense did.

While Illinois will still probably finish in the bottom half of the Big Ten in passing this year, there should still be a noticeable improvement from past years.

Writing Illini Projection:

Despite low numbers the first few games, things start to pick up as Illinois begins Big Ten play.

A.J. Jenkins has a breakout year and Jarred Fayson and Jack Ramsey both improve on their numbers from 2009.

Eddie McGee will take a few games to get comfortable in his new role but become someone that opposing defenses must continually plan around with his threat as a receiver and in the wildcat formation.

The tight end will be an end zone only position this season, used mainly as additional blockers to help with the run game.

Preseason Receiving Grade: B-

The Illini receivers have a lot to prove in 2010.

After squandering the most talented group in recent memory last year, this squad will aim to silence critics and prove themselves as legitimate threats.

Their job will be made harder by the fact that Illinois is starting a new quarterback, but enough experienced players are returning that Illinois should be able to air it out when defenses get caught focusing on the run game.

Tags: A.J. Jenkins And Anthony Williams Andrew Carter Arrelious Benn Arshan Pouladdej Chris Duvalt Chris James Darius Millines Eddie McGee Eddie Viliunas Evan Wilson Football Fred Sykes Illinois Fighting Illini Football Illlinois Football Jack Ramsey Jake Kumerow Jarred Fayson Jeff Cumberland Justin Lattimore London Davis Mike Hoomanawanui Nathan Scheelhaase Paul Petrino Ron Zook Ryan Lankford Spencer Harris Steve Hull Tampa Bay Buccaneers Tim Russell Zach Becker