CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Yes, Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit has an idea of how he wants his side of the ball to play in 2014. And though that plays into how the starting quarterback battle will shake out, no, Cubit insists he doesn’t yet have that part of the depth chart formed in his head.
Yes, longtime backup QB Reilly O’Toole will be given a fair chance to compete against former transfer Wes Lunt and rising sophomore Aaron Bailey in the spring. According to Cubit, there were times last spring, in fact, when O’Toole had inched ahead of Nathan Scheelhaase. Cubit believes in what O’Toole can do more than a lot of Illini fans do, as you’ll see below.
Not sure the same can be said regarding Cubit’s opinions about running back Donovonn Young and the group of wide receivers who’ll be back in the mix next season.
Yes, what many Illini fans suspect is really very accurate: Cubit operates with near-total autonomy on offense. His play-calls, his recruits.
Most important: Cubit isn’t going anywhere.
“The likelihood of anybody being interested in me for a head coaching job, I don’t think it’s there,” Cubit, 60, told the Sun-Times during a long interview in his office one day before he headed out to recruit.
Among the topics discussed:
It would be foolish to take anyone but a one-year-at-a-time approach to this subject. If Illinois has another losing season in 2014 and Tim Beckman loses his job, Cubit’s own career will be thrown for another loop.
The Illini offense improved by at least 60 spots in the national rankings in at least 10 categories — Cubit considers it the biggest one-year turnaround of his long career — but this is a man who was fired, after eight seasons as head coach, by Western Michigan barely a year ago.
For now, he’s all-in at Illinois.
“The idea of a career path — go be this guy, be a coordinator, be a head coach — I’ve been there, done that,” he said. “I wanted to go somewhere and be a difference guy. That’s why I came here. Whatever I can do to be a difference, that’s what I’m going to do.
“I’m making good money and have pretty much a lot of freedom, calling [plays] and doing what we need offensively. In recruiting, I get to pick [offensive] guys: ‘no, I don’t like him’ or, ‘I like him.’ I think that has helped me and [Illinois] out.”
HIS WORKING RELATIONSHIP WITH BECKMAN
“To me, I’m a much better assistant than I was before the head coaching job, because I understand all the ramifications that go on in [Beckman's] seat. I’m here to help. There are a lot of people [on staff] who have to be managed in terms of assignments, and for the head coach it’s just too hard; there’s too much going on. I think he trusts that we’re getting our [offensive] stuff done in here. That relieves a little bit of his tension, maybe, as a head coach.”
ON THE OFFENSIVE COACH HE DEPENDS ON MOST
It’s offensive line coach A.J. Ricker, who was on Cubit’s staff at Western Michigan and played center at Missouri the year Cubit was coordinator there (2000).
“A.J., he’s like my second son. We’ve been close since I coached him down at Missouri.
“He really helps out. That’s a big, big plus, when you get your line coach you feel real comfortable with. He’s got to be the most trusted guy you have when you’re a coordinator, and he’s got that from me. He’s got my back, I’ve got his back.”
WHAT ARE WE WAITING FOR? ON LUNT, BAILEY AND O’TOOLE
“There’s three of them with a chance to [start] — I mean that. Reilly pushed Nate pretty well in the preseason. In the spring, there were some times you could make the argument Reilly could be the guy.
“Reilly has had some really noticeable turnovers, and everybody looks and says, ‘He ain’t the guy.’ I’ve seen him every single day. He knows the offense, knows what we’ve got to get done, does some really good things. He’s got to be the guy who says, ‘I’m gonna be the guy.’ You know? Instead of just being one of the guys. They’re all going to have to take charge now. The guy who goes in there and says ‘it’s my job’ is going to have a leg up on everybody.”
Is Cubit more inclined toward a gifted pocket passer like Lunt (or, OK, O’Toole) or a dual-threat guy like Bailey?
“I’ve seen what Wes can do; he’s really talented throwing the football. You see what Aaron can do with a little bit different skill set. … We can do it either way with the offense, but I think we’ve been pretty successful throwing it.”
Sounds a bit more promising for Lunt, doesn’t it?
ON WHO WILL REPLACE STEVE HULL AS ILLINOIS’ NO. 1 RECEIVER
“It’ll probably be someone who isn’t here yet. The [Justin] Hardee kid has played a little. He’s got to get better. He knows that. Martize Barr, he’s got to make that big leap. Almost every JC kid I’ve ever had, they play OK their first year and then the second year is when they make the big leap. With Barr, I was hoping for more [in 2013].”
ON THE SECRET TO HULL’S BREAKOUT SEASON, AND HIS FUTURE
The secret, Cubit said, was the persistence of first-year wide receivers coach Mike Bellamy.
“I didn’t see [Hull] much because he was hurt all the time in the spring. For me, I’m kind of a show-me guy; I don’t want to hear what he can do, I want to see it. But Mike kept on saying all the time, ‘I’m telling you, he could be one of our better ones.’ Mike did a great job.”
Can Hull play in the NFL?
“He’s quick and he’s got good quick-twitch; he can sit down on routes and get out of them quickly, and has great ball skills. The biggest concern is going to be medically. If he goes out there and gets cleared, keeps himself healthy, he can play in that league.”
And if not?
“He’d be a hell of a coach, not that I want that for him. He’s a football junkie. In the meetings rooms, you can talk coverages with him and be so complex. [Against Northwestern], he picked up on a couple of signals he saw on the field where the cornerbacks and safeties were communicating. He knows what’s going on out there better than most.”
ON YOUNG’S FUTURE AT RUNNING BACK, GIVEN JOSH FERGUSON’S EMERGENCE
“I thought he worked every day in practice. He was not an issue there. It’s just a matter of Fergie can give you a little bit more. Sometimes you need an outside-inside guy who can make plays; Fergie just gives you a better chance in that. There’s still a place for D-Y.”
Would Dami Ayoola — dismissed from the team in September but widely expected to be rejoining the Illini — have played a lot had he been available in 2013?
“Yeah. I think he’s a good player.”
ON WESTERN MICHIGAN GOING 1-11 IN ITS FIRST SEASON AFTER FIRING CUBIT
“I feel bad for those kids. Anything I say, people are going to twist it. I love the kids there. The kids were just absolutely fantastic. I hate to see them go through a tough season — the kids.”
And only the kids, sounds like. Is Cubit completely over being fired?
“Probably not. I’m human. I’m not going to hide the fact I thought we had some good things going there.”