Ryan Lankford won’t thump his chest just yet, but he has reason to walk around with a bit more confidence these days.
The Illinois receiver realizes how much of the preseason criticism of the Illini was directed toward the receivers. There weren’t supposed to be any playmakers in the group, except for maybe junior-college transfer Martize Barr.
They were too small.
Well, a 2-0 start has changed the perception.
“Whenever we hear that kind of stuff, we just put in on the backburner,” Lankford said. “People can think what they want. But when we make plays, they have nothing else to say.”
New offensive coordinator Bill Cubit’s scheme has made life easier for everyone involved on offense. His up-tempo offense keeps defenses guessing. Plus veteran quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase is playing at an All-Big Ten level.
But the receivers have done their part in all aspects, not just catching the ball. Coach Tim Beckman jotted down a few notes during the first half of Saturday’s 45-17 win over Cincinnati that indicated just how well the receivers played. He noted that Miles Osei, Steve Hull, and Barr converted key third downs on scoring series, how Hull threw a key block on an end-around, and how Barr made a spectacular catch on a 26-yard touchdown that sealed the win midway through the fourth quarter.
“It was players making plays,” Beckman said. “If you’re going to continue drives, you’ve got be successful on third downs.”
The Illini were 9-of-15 on third-down conversions, thanks to the receivers.
Barr led all Illini receivers with five catches for 72 yards, while Hull had three for 53 and Osei three for 30.
Not to be forgotten was Lankford’s contribution. He caught just one pass for 10 yards but was the third-leading rusher against Cincinnati with three carries for 46 yards. Included was a 29-yard touchdown dash off an end-around on which he received several outstanding blocks.
“I gave everybody credit,” Lankford said of the play. “I know when I hit the sideline, Donovonn [Young] was like, ‘Hey, man, it was me. I sprung you.’ And I saw him on the instant replay.”
Cubit didn’t need to press rewind to be impressed with the receivers.
“They’re playing fast,” he said. “They’re working hard, and [wide receivers coach] Mike Bellamy is doing a great job. When you’ve got kids that really want to be good and they really want to work hard, it’s easy to coach.”
The challenge now is for the receivers and the entire team not to get too comfortable at 2-0, especially with No. 19 Washington next at Soldier Field on Saturday.
“With who we have on the schedule left, there’s never going to be any game where we can be looking past,” Scheelhaase said. “We play great teams each week.”
Martize Barr: 5 catches, 72 yards; 1 rush, 24 yards
Steve Hull: 3 catches, 53 yards
Miles Osei: 3 catches, 30 yards
Spencer Harris: 3 catches, 16 yards
Justin Hardee: 1 catch, 13 yards
Ryan Lankford: 1 catch, 10 yards; 3 rushes, 46 yards
Devin Church: 1 catch, -1 yard