Illinois set team records for points scored (423) and points per game (32.5) in Paul Petrino's first season as offensive coordinator.
Here's the scary part: Petrino thinks the unit can be even better this fall.
Quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is the biggest reason why, as he returns for his second year as the starter. Illinois boasts good depth at running back despite the departure of first-team All-Big Ten selection Mikel Leshoure, and the offensive line could be the team's strongest unit.
I checked in with Petrino after Wednesday's morning practice in Rantoul, Ill. Here are his thoughts:
How would you rate the unit a little more than halfway through camp?
Paul Petrino: I'm very happy. We've definitely come out and shown improvement. Nathan has improved 100 percent, throwing the ball really well. Our O-line is playing well, excited about our backs and our receivers have gotten better. Overall, all the way around, we've really improved. We're a lot better offense right now than we were last year.
Are there examples with Nathan where you see him taking those steps?
PP: No question. He's got such a quicker release. He's getting the ball out of his hand, he's got a lot stronger arm. Any phrase you can use about throwing the ball, he's doing better. And he understands the whole offense better. He gets us out of bad plays, gets us into good plays. Our quarterback has to do a lot at the line and in the running game, too, getting us to our best plays, and he's done a great job of that.
Can you do extend him in the passing game this year?
PP: There's throws he's making right now I wouldn't have even called for him last year in games -- or in practice, for that matter. That's great. Just got to keep it up. We'll pass more. We're still going to run the ball to win. There's no question our strength is still going to be running the ball, but we'll pass the ball more. If we can be like the bowl game and the Purdue game, throw for about 220-240 yards and run the ball like we always do, that would be perfect.
What has stood out to you about the running backs?
PP: Jason Ford is being a punisher, running hard and really doing a good job. And those two freshmen are studs, Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson, they're going to be great players. They're playing so good they keep Jason on his toes, but Jason's been running really hard, I've been really happy with him. And then Troy Pollard gives us a little different wrinkle. He has great vision and he's just a great kid and a leader. Those four guys are going to be good.
Did you have to challenge Jason a bit?
PP: Yeah. The best thing that happened to Jason was those two freshmen. They both have great attitudes, they both work hard, they're always upbeat. Jason saw, 'Oooh, I better make sure I'm busting my tail every minute to keep my job.' And then when he does that, with his talent, he's a great player.
How would you describe the freshmen from a style standpoint?
PP: Donovonn Young is just an aggressive, violent, downhill runner. Obviously not as good a player yet, but the kind of style like Adrian Peterson, just violent, downhill and hard. Josh Ferguson's just super fast. He can really cut, runs low to the ground and has great speed.
How many backs do you anticipate playing?
PP: I would say all four. Ford being the main workhorse and then Donovonn and Josh a lot. Then Troy has different little things he does for us, too.
How does the depth situation look at wide receiver?
PP: Darius Millines has been playing great. He played a bunch for us last year as a freshmen, had a great catch in the bowl game, and he's had a great camp. He's probably had the best camp of all of them. There's three of them that all played as true freshmen: Darius Millines, Ryan Lankford and Spencer Harris. You've got A.J. [Jenkins] and those three, those are our four best players. It's a pretty good group. Ryan's been playing well, been real consistent, plays with great effort. But Darius has played the best of all of them. He has been real explosive, making all kinds of big plays for us.
How is the offensive line shaping up? You have quite a lot coming back.
PP: Yeah, it should be our strength. We've got four starters back. Jeff Allen should be a great player for us. Hugh Thornton plays right next to him, and then Graham [Pocic] and Jack [Cornell]. Those four should be very good players. Then our [strong-side] tackle will be a freshman, Michael Heitz or Simon [Cvijanovic]. Michael is ahead right now.
How are things looking for the backup quarterback spot?
PP: It's pretty neck and neck. They're two different styles. Miles Osei can really run and is good at our option stuff, and Reilley O'Toole has been throwing the crap out of the ball and doing a really good job for us.
How high are your expectations for this offense?
PP: High, real high. We're always going to set our expectations high. We set the school record last year, and we're going to break it this year.