Illini Offense Makes Dramatic Turnaround under Cubit
Sept. 26, 2013
By Lexi Shurilla, fightingillini.com staff writer
It's no secret that the Illini have made a dramatic improvement from last season. The stats speak for themselves when comparing Illinois' offensive slump last year, to their offensive explosion three games into the 2013 season.
Illinois finished 122nd out of 124 teams in average yards per game in 2012-13. Giving up 39 sacks - last in the Big Ten and 111th in the country - left quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase in rough shape at the end of the season. Although, first-year offensive coordinator Bill Cubit may be just what the doctor ordered.
Through the first three games, Illinois has unveiled a variety of packages, spread the ball around to multiple receivers and already surpassed some key Illini offensive totals from last season. Scheelhaase has already thrown for more touchdown passes this year (seven) than he did all of last season (four). The Orange and Blue have gained more than 500 yards and scored 45 points in a game for the first time since 2011, numbers that were unthinkable last year.
And the biggest statistic is the Illini already have their second win of the year, matching their win total from all of last season.
"There are a lot of factors," Scheelhaase said. "I don't think you can pinpoint one thing. Throughout all those experiences, through the highs and the lows, it's all a learning process. There's stuff you learn from the good times and there's stuff you learn from the bad times. I felt like I learned a lot.
"Going into your senior year you want to leave your legacy. It's a great opportunity for that. Coach Cubit has done a great job working with our guys, helping us to understand what he's trying to get across and that's been a smooth transition."
So, really, what's the secret? What can possibly account for the sudden turnaround? Cubit claims he doesn't have a big secret - although his early success may make you think otherwise - he attributes his offensive knowledge to his 32 years of coaching experience.
"It's really a long history of experience being around different guys," Cubit said. "The biggest thing is we don't put anything in that doesn't fit. Way back when I was at the University of Florida, Ernie Zampese did some things that just made sense to me for the quarterback. The whole thing about it is we always want to be quarterback friendly. I took some of Steve Spurrier's stuff here and there, picking and choosing, seeing some tape. I love watching tape. I spend hours and hours just in a room watching. If there's an idea out there, let's do it. Then sometimes the kids come up and are like, `Hey coach, I think I might be able to do this.' And we think, `Hey, that's a pretty good idea.' It's everybody, but if it doesn't fit, we don't use it."
So Zampese, a former NFL offensive coordinator, and Spurrier, who had great success at Florida before taking over at South Carolina, might be a clue to what's happening with the Illini offense. But they aren't the ones making the play calls at Illinois.
Most recently the head coach at Western Michigan, Cubit did face Illinois in recent years, including a 23-17 victory over the Illini in 2008 in Detroit before losing to Illinois in 2011 and 2012. Before his eight years at Western Michigan, the Pennsylvanian was an offensive coordinator at Stanford for eight years.
At Illinois, Cubit has implemented an offense that is unrecognizable compared to last season.
"He does have a very deep playbook," senior wide receiver Steve Hull said. "But I think that we spend so much time together off the field as players, without the coaches around, that has allowed us to develop such good relationships with everybody on the offense. It's very easy for us to adapt to it because we spend so much time together. Even if we're just sitting in apartments and watching TV, at a commercial break we'll start throwing out formations. It sounds funny, but those are things we had to do. We had so much stuff thrown at us at one time. The relationship we have has helped keep us on the same page and really learn quickly."
Coming in together as freshmen, Hull and Scheelhaase used to run routes on Zuppke Field back when Hull was first a receiver and they were roommates their first year as Illini. Hull adjusted to defense the next three years, and now the tandem is able to play on the same side of the ball during their last year in Illinois uniforms. But it was a group effort that helped get Cubit's playbook set in their mind.
"There's just a challenge with getting it where it's second nature in your head," Scheelhaase said. "That's the biggest thing as a quarterback. When I walked out there for the first game, I wanted to really understand things and be comfortable and not be second-guessing anything. Throughout the spring, you're working through things and trying to figure things out. In the summer, you're feeling better and better. It really has been a good process for all of our players. It's one thing if the quarterback understands it, but if all the guys understand, that's what makes it work out on the field Saturday."
During the season opening win against Southern Illinois, a healthy Scheelhaase threw for a career-high 416 yards - 10th highest in school history - including 340 yards in the first half. Working comfortably in Cubit's offense, Scheelhaase completed 28 of 36 passes, including two touchdown passes and one interception.
"There have been a lot of great improvements," Scheelhaase said. "I've seen a lot of strides from not only myself but from all of our guys on the offensive side. Moving forward, we definitely have a good foundation to build on and definitely have established an identity of what we want to be. That's really important for us as an offense."
"For us to just keep improving and to understand the little things," Cubit said. "If we did some of the little things, we'd come out with a win. They're smart enough to understand that they've got to improve on some of those things. We're just trying to get better and be confident that we can compete. I really believe that we can compete with anybody. Everywhere we've been, we've been able to score points no matter who we're playing. I think that experience will help us out."
"Cubit has changed a lot," Hull said. "He's changed a lot of the culture and the expectations of our offense. The receiving corps was kind of a big question mark coming into this season. I think Cubit and (receivers coach Mike) Bellamy have done a great job just raising the standards and expectations, and really opening up the playbook. They have gotten us to really believe in it and be selfless and unselfish in everything that we do."
"We do some things unconventional and kids like that," Cubit said. "Because of Coach Beckman, he sold us to the coaches and when he goes in there and tells the kids, `I've got a guy for you and we're here to help you win.' You know [it's good] when the head coach has got your back."
With the University of Oregon setting the standard for speed in college football, Cubit wants Illinois to play at a faster pace and isn't holding back with the number of plays or how fast he's calling them.
"That's one thing I think we have taken advantage of, they're really smart kids," Cubit said. "They remind me of the Stanford kids. They understand what this game is. When you explain this game, they understand how it all fits with other games. We do a lot of different personnel packages. There are a lot of guys out there playing. Everyone has a role and everybody understands that. When you define it, all the kids understand to buy in. They go out there and are getting plays in some key moments. Nate's really a smart kid. He could be another coach out there. He goes out there and teaches the kids exactly what we want taught."
Illinois only topped 80 plays once (82 against Indiana) in 12 games last season, averaging 66 plays per game. So far, the Illini offense has averaged a tick higher at 68.3 in 2013, and they have lined up in so many formations, Cubit actually loses count sometimes.
"I've always liked challenges," Cubit said. "It seems like every program I ever walked into was kind of near the bottom when I got there. You just take great satisfaction in bringing it up. Because when you walk in, the kids are so eager. I'm in coaching because of the kids, nothing else. I just like being around those guys. When you come in here, you see the hurt by some of those kids because they haven't been successful offensively. You give them a plan and give them a little bit of confidence in it, and then all of a sudden, you see them follow the plan and look at you like, `Hey, you guys know what you're doing.' Then, they follow you and it's so much easier and so much more fun to coach."