Football? I Can Football.

For the first time in the history of my words on the internet, there have been complaints of too much basketball.  Yesterday’s post brought out lots of WHERE IS THE FOOTBALL, ROBERT comments.  You want football?  I can football.  I have exactly 90 minutes until midnight.  Here are all the football words I can type between now and then. [Read more...]

Leo And Star

YET ANOTHER band name.  Tegan and Sara?  Meet Leo and Star.

I received a tweet on Tuesday from a reader who had read the Chunky and The D-Line post (Echo and the Bunnymen? Meet Chunky and the D-Line.), and their question asked about those two positions – Leo and Star – and how they are used in this defense.  Don’t mind if I do.

First, a disclaimer, for I must always begin with a disclaimer.  I’m going to attempt to hit the sweet spot between layman’s terms and football X-and-O-speak.  So some of you might read this and still be confused, while others might read this, push up your football nerd glasses, and say things like “well technically in the formation you mentioned the boundary corner typically follows cover 2 principles…”  This is an attempt to explain it and keep both camps happy.  Hopefully in terms that everyone can understand.

43LBS_original_crop_exactPut simply, Leo and Star are the terms Tim Banks uses for his weakside defensive end and his strongside linebacker.  Weakside and strongside are exactly like they sound – the overloaded side of the field, typically with the tight end, is the strongside.  This chart I just GIS’d shows those two positions.  With the tight end lined up on the right tackle’s shoulder, that is the “strong side” of the field and that’s where the Star, or strongside linebacker (SLB, sometimes called the Sam linebacker) lines up.  On the other side – the side without the tight end, you find the weakside defensive end, or “Leo”.

Let’s start with Leo. Typically, you want your strongside defensive end to be the bulkier, stronger defensive end when compared to the Leo. In that formation above, the Leo is just an edge rusher while the strongside defensive end (SDE) has to take on the tight end and right tackle. There are other responsibilities based on what the offense does, of course, but put simply, your weakside ends are usually the smaller, faster ends.

Our Leo, much like Vic Koenning’s “bandit” position, has other responsibilities. In some ways, the Leo is a linebacker (think Simeon Rice, a “linebacker” in Lou Tepper’s 3-4 defense). During a game this fall, watch the Leo when the offense spreads out five wide. You’ll sometimes see the Leo drop off the line of scrimmage and cover that shallow area of the field in a defensive zone set up to combat the five wide.  Other times, they’re very much exactly a defensive end. Hold the edge on rushing plays, get to the quarterback on passing plays. It takes a special combination of size and speed to play Leo, because sometimes you’re bull rushing a tackle and other times you’re chasing a receiver. Strongside defensive ends have very specific tasks; the Leo’s tasks are all over the place.

Same as Star. Star is simply the strongside linebacker who is sometimes fully linebacker and sometimes fully safety. And maybe even sometimes a slot cornerback with coverage duties on inside receivers.

In the diagram above, the star (SLB) is lined up off the strongside defensive end’s shoulder.  In a lot of our defensive sets, you’ll see this.  The MLB and WLB will be lined up more or less behind the defensive tackles, but the Star will be out wide, sometimes right at the line.

In your dad’s defense, there was a middle linebacker and two outside linebackers, with both of the outside ‘backer’s roles being nearly the same.  The main difference was that one was on the strongside (with more tight end duties) and one was on the weakside.  In this defense, the weakside linebacker is much more similar to the middle linebacker.  In fact, that’s how they practice.  In position drills, the WLB’s and MLB’s practice together, while the Stars practice with the Leos.

Why has this changed?  To combat spread offenses, mostly.  These principles existed before the spread, but they’re used much more now that you have to have a flexible defense.

The first time this really showed up on an Illini defense was the Missouri game in 2010.  I remember on maybe the third play Michael Buchanan (playing Vic Koenning’s “Bandit” role, which is similar to Leo) sliding over to cover a receiver when Missouri went with an empty backfield and five wideouts.  A defensive end… kind of playing slot cornerback.  It takes some getting used to.

Similar to Star.  I want all of my linebackers to be Butkus-y, shedding blocks and making tackles for loss.  But at Star, you want a safety who can wrap up tackles, because he has lots of pass protection duties to go along with his linebacker duties.  Look over your safeties, pick the one who is the best in run support, and move him to strongside linebacker.  That’s how it works now.

And that’s why Earnest Thomas is moving from Safety to Star.  And that’s why Nate Bussey moved from Safety to SLB (and then was drafted).  It usually takes moving a guy from another position when you put in this system, because you probably can’t find that guy among your linebackers.

So for me, I look over the roster, pick out the tallest outside linebacker, and move him to Leo in a few years.  And then I look over the safeties, pick out the best tackler, and move him to Star once he adds some bulk.  Three prototypical defensive linemen, two prototypical linebackers, four prototypical defensive backs… and then a Leo and a Star.

Best case scenario for this season?  Juco Carroll Phillips is the perfect athlete for Leo, and Earnest Thomas is a star at Star.  Those two things right there could keep us in games we couldn’t stay in last fall.

Chunky And The D-Line

My post titles make the best band names. “You going to Hipsterfest this weekend?” “Wouldn’t miss it – Chunky And The D-Line are playing the YOLO Stage!”

The name for this post comes from the comments section of the last post. Without The 90 Illini series this year, this place has been 59% less season preview-y so far, and commenter “HHSIllini” noted the lack of previews in the comments so I told him I would write any preview post he requested. His request was for “more about Chunky and the overall 2-deep on the D-line”. So let’s do that.

First off, we’ll have to go deeper than a two-deep. Former DL coach Keith Gilmore told me that most defensive line coaches like to have “a pair and a spare” at both defensive end and defensive tackle. Five guys, two on the first string and two on the second, and then a fifth guy who can play either spot. So at defensive tackle you want two nose guards, two 3-technique defensive tackles, and then a fifth guy who can play both. Same thing at end – two strongside, two weakside, one guy who can play both if needed.

This coaching staff – specifically this line – might go deeper than 10. Perhaps the best way to preview our line would be to describe an entire defensive series. That’s actually a great idea. Good work, Robert.

First and ten, Wisconsin has the ball at their own 22. We’re anticipating that they run the ball (of course), so we’re in our base defensive line look with the starters on the field. (“Starters” are up in the air right now, and will be changing in Rantoul, so I’m just going to list the starters from the end of spring ball and then work in the new guys after that). The starters are DeJazz Woods at leo, Austin Teitsma and Teko Powell at defensive tackle, and Kenny Nelson at defensive end. Wisconsin runs the ball to Nelson’s side for a three yard gain, and then they run to Woods’ side for a six yard gain, setting up third and one.

Now it’s time to go full house. We drop the will linebacker off the field and go with five down linemen. And we know Wisconsin will run straight at us, so it’s time for some beef on the field. We put Dawuane Smoot at Leo (our biggest Leo), take Teitsma off the field and put Rob Bain and Jake Howe next to Teko in the middle, and then we use 285 lb. junior college defensive end Jihad Ward as the strongside end. Wisconsin runs right up the middle, officials uncover the pile, first down Wisconsin at the 33.

This time we leave Ward on the field at strongside end and send in Joe Fotu to spell Teitsma. So the line is Woods, Fotu, Powell, and Ward. Wisconsin only gains one yard on first down (great play, Teko), so second down might be a passing down. We replace Woods with junior college leo Carroll Phillips and let him use his pass rush skills. He doesn’t get a sack, but he gets enough pressure off the left side that Joel Stave has to rush his throw, setting up third and nine for the Badgers. Still a passing down, but so we want our best four rushing linemen at each position, so we send in Chunky Clements to take Fotu’s spot, put Nelson back in, and rush Phillips, Clements, Powell, and Nelson. It doesn’t work, unfortunately, and Wisconsin gains 18 yards on a seam route from the tight end. Man, as I type this out I can already feel people saying “will we EVER cover a Wisconsin tight end?”

First and ten Wisconsin at the 49. We go back to the base defense but with Abe Cajuste at defensive tackle, so the line is Woods, Cajuste, Powell, and Nelson. First down is a two yard gain, but on second down, Wisconsin tries running a sweep which is read perfectly by TJ Neal, and he tackles Clement for a five yard loss. Now Wisconsin is facing third and 13. It’s time to maybe go to a nickel look. In the nickel (maybe it’s more of a dime), we have more or less a 3-2-6 look. Three down linemen with a standup linebacker blitzing from somewhere. Mason Monheim then is the only true linebacker, and then there are three safeties (including the star) and three cornerbacks in the formation.

For this look, we go with Jihad Ward at one end, Chunky Clements in the middle, and Joe Fotu on the other “end”. Three almost-DT’s with pass rushing skills, with TJ Neal as the standup linebacker rushing the QB. It works, and Stave has to rush the throw, but a defensive pass interference call gives Wisconsin another first down. Bogus call, man.

Now Wisconsin is in our territory and threatening. First down you’re assuming run again, so you go back to the base defense but with Smoot at Leo. Smoot is the guy we’re grooming as the future at that position, so we have to get him snaps. Second down we rotate Nelson out at DE and put in Ward, because we really have two starters there at this point. Keeping players fresh will really help in the fourth quarter. Wisconsin gains six on first down but loses a yard on second down, so it’s third and five.

Time to bring in Paul James. We’re going to blitz on third and five, so maybe our hopefully-future-superstar freshman end can make a play. It works. Mike Svetina blitzes from the right side, and the right guard and fullback shift to him, and James is one-on-one with the tackle. Stave tries to spin out of the collapsing pocket, and when he does, James is in his face. He’s hit as he throws, and the ball floats in the air, and the Turnover Fairy directs it right to Darius Mosely, who returns the interception to the Wisconsin 41. Interceptions! They do happen!

That’s generally the defensive line rotation. Woods, Smoot, and Phillips at Leo. Teitsma, Powell, Fotu, Chunky, and Cajuste at defensive end, with Bain and Howe providing beef. And then lots of Nelson and Ward at defensive end with maybe some Paul James sprinkled in here and there. We obviously won’t rotate as much as the series listed above, and it’s likely that by the time the Wisconsin game rolls around, we won’t rotate 12 players on the line – more like nine or ten. But you get the idea. There’s depth now, and the coaches intend to use it.

Maybe I should preview every position this way? I liked this. Especially the part where Mosely made the interception.

Looks Like (Tom Brattan Will Be The New Offensive Line Coach At The) University Of Illinois

I know I’m going to misspell his name at least 15 times.  Put me down for 11 “Bratten” and four “Bratton” this fall.  Tom BRATTAN is the new offensive line coach, replacing AJ Ricker who left to drink Keystone Light in the carports of Columbia, Missouri.  Given the circumstances, I feel really good about this choice.

Our only two options when replacing a coach this late in the game are to find someone who is currently out of work (a rarity, given that everyone has moved to some job somewhere by July) or to poach someone from a smaller school. When Jim Bridge left in March of 2013, that’s what we did to get Ricker – poached him from Middle Tennessee State. I was guessing that was what we’d do again, but then a curveball: we hired someone who was likely contemplating retirement.

Let’s back up. Brattan was the offensive line coach at Maryland for 13 years but was let go this past winter to make room for Dave DeGuglielmo. But then DeGuglielmo only lasted a week at Maryland before leaving to take the New England Patriots job. So then Maryland hired Greg Studrawa, who had just been fired by LSU. And now Brattan, who hadn’t landed anywhere else after Maryland pushed him out, is on his way to Champaign.

Was he planning on working anywhere else? I haven’t read anything indicating that he would. At age 63, I’d assume many coaches might start thinking about retirement at that point. 13 years at the last job, 63 years old – I certainly would.

As always, there’s a coaching connection. Tom Brattan was at Maryland from 2001 to 2013; Outside linebacker coach Al Seamonson was at Maryland from 2001 to 2010, and Defensive Coordinator Tim Banks was at Maryland from 2003 to 2006 before leaving to take the defensive coordinator job with Butch Jones at Central Michigan. Now, all three will be coaching together in the Big Ten… against Maryland.

I think it’s interesting how the complexion of the coaching staff has changed during Beckman’s three years. When he arrived, he hired a bunch of young recruiters as assistants: Billy Gonzales, Chris Beatty, Steven Clinkscale, Luke Butkus. But that lasted one year, and after those four left (plus Keith Gilmore leaving to join Vic Koenning at North Carolina), he changed the type of assistant he went after. Beatty and Gonzales were replaced by Bill Cubit. Gilmore was replaced by Greg Colby. Clinkscale was replaced by Seamonson. Butkus was replaced by Jim Bridge (and, later, AJ Ricker after Bridge jumped ship). The only inexperienced coach that was added last year was wide receiver coach Mike Bellamy who was promoted from a recruiting position to an assistant coaching spot. The rest were all coaches with at least 25 years coaching experience.

And now, with Ricker (age 33) leaving, we’ve replaced him with Tom Brattan, age 63. Which means that now, old is the new young on the Illini coaching staff. Alex Golesh just turned 30, Tim Banks and Mike Bellamy are in their 40′s, and then every other coach is 50′s or 60′s. Such a sharp contrast to Beckman’s first staff with Butkus, Gonzales, Clinkscale, and Beatty.

Beyond that, I don’t have much to share until I get a chance to chat with Coach Brattan in Rantoul and watch him take players through drills. He has to be thrilled to be taking over a line with nearly 100 starts between the players. For 2014 at least, the players know the scheme and the assignments and he can concentrate fully on teaching technique.

And his main task from day 1: find a right tackle. Maybe it’s Michael Heitz with Joe Spencer and Alex Hill covering center and right guard. Maybe one of the guys from the 2011 class is ready, like Pat Flavin or Scott McDowell. Maybe one of the guys from the 2013 class is ready, like Austin Schmidt or Christian DiLauro. That will be his main focus this next month. All this experience at the other positions; find a guy who meshes in well.

There we go. That’s our word for the day: mesh. Brattan will have to seamlessly mesh with Cubit’s offense. And then Brattan will have to find a right tackle to seamlessly mesh with all of these returning starters. And now I need to go seamlessly mesh with this new breakfast taco from Jack in the Box. Hope it’s good.

Edit: it wasn’t.

Comparing Zook and Beckman

I spend a lot of time wondering how I can best make this point.  The list inside this post was compiled more than three months ago, but I haven’t found the right time to post it.  Mostly because it’s something that can so easily be interpreted the wrong way.  But hey, it’s 11:24 pm, and this is the first chance I’ve had to blog in four days, so let’s do this.

The topic: Zook’s recruits leaving and Beckman’s recruits sticking around.  [Read more...]

Looks Like University Of Illinois – Sam Mays

They’re both around 6′-3″ and close to 180 lbs. They’re both wide receivers from Texas. They’re both members of the 2015 Illini recruiting class. They committed to Illinois within 24 hours of each other. Whether they like it or now, Sam Mays and A.D. Miller will forever be linked. This is a good thing. [Read more...]

Looks Like University Of Illinois – A.D. Miller

This recruiting class will have, I don’t know, maybe 23 players. Which means from March to February, I get to write 23 of these (plus two or three more for basketball) in the span of 365 days. So OF COURSE we land three players in four days while I’m in Michigan on vacation. Not that I’m complaining. [Read more...]

Looks Like University Of Illinois – Henry Enyenihi

A Juco discussion broke out in the comments section of the Butkus Statue post, so I figured I should maybe talk about The Whole Juco Thing while addressing our latest junior college commitment, Henry Enyenihi.

First off, how great is a name like Henry Enyenihi? Specifically, how great is it that someone with the last name Enyenihi has a first name with a “hen” sound and a “ree” sound? Hen-ree-enn-yen-ee-hee. Say it to yourself eleven times. It just flows, right?

Wait, is it Henry en-YEN-uh-hee or Henry EN-yen-NEE-hee? You know what? Either one works.

First, let’s talk jucos. Here’s my personal opinion on junior college players. Please take this in an “if I was the head coach” sense, not necessarily how I see Tim Beckman’s approach to jucos.

Mike White went to the Rose Bowl with California jucos back in the 1980′s, and that started a trend of “jucos are great for the program” among Illini fans. Even when I was in school in the early 90′s, if we added a junior college recruit, everyone would repeat the same “you know Mike White went to the Rose Bowl with junior college players” mantra. There is a distinct advantage to juco players: you get to screen them a second time.

When you recruit a high school player, you’re mostly recruiting what the player might become. Good frame, good feet, add 75 lbs to him and you’ve probably landed a great right tackle. With junior college players, you’ve watched that development and are mostly recruiting what the player has become after a few years of growing and maturing. That’s not the case for every junior college recruit, of course, but you do have the advantage of further watching their development. Prep school works like this as well. Peter Cvijanovic didn’t get an offer out of high school but he went to prep school, added the 50 lbs recruiters were wondering if he could add, and here he is now as a scholarship tackle.

There’s also a drawback to junior college recruiting: player development. Look at every program you admire (Wisconsin, Oregon, etc) and you’ll see this huge player development program. You redshirt a lot, you keep the same schemes, you train your recruits in those schemes, and you keep cranking out winning season after winning season. Once that Wisconsin guard or that Oregon wideout has had three years of learning everything there is to know about the offense, you unleash them as a redshirt junior and just keep winning and winning.

You can’t really do that with jucos. Maybe the first year they learn your system and the second year they’re gone, and then suddenly you have to replace them. You can win that way (see State, Kansas), but you have to keep adding more and more jucos because these are already graduating. Once you get into that cycle, it’s hard to get out.

So to me, adding junior college kids is a balance. If you know you have immediate needs on your roster, yes, by all means, load up on jucos. We struggled on the defensive line last year and so the staff went out and landed three junior college defensive linemen. Bravo. Exactly what we needed. However, guess what? Those jucos will be gone 18 months from today and we’ll have to start all over on the defensive line. Juco recruiting is fine, but you must add high school recruits at the same positions so that the high school recruit will be ready to go when the junior college guy graduates.

This offer (and verbal) here – Henry Enyenihi – makes sense in that regard. We lost Matt Domer to grades. We lost Dami Ayoola. Ty Isaac picked Michigan. LaKeith Walls was tried at RB but has moved to linebacker. Donovonn Young will be graduating. We’ll really need some depth at tailback next season, so that’s what we’re doing with Enyenihi.

And I like that we’re adding both high school running backs (Brown, Corbin) with a junior college running back in the same class. As I said above, that’s always ideal to me. Enyenihi plays in 2015 and 2016 and then Brown or Corbin (or both) are ready in 2017 after two years of development.

OK, let’s actually talk about Enyenihi and where he fits. When I heard about this my first reaction was that this is the Matt Domer replacement. But given the fact that Domer is going to attempt to enroll again in January (the Paul James Plan) and might arrive at the same time as Enyenihi, I think it’s more accurate to say that Enyenihi is the Dami Ayoola replacement. In fact, I think he’s nearly exactly the Ayoola replacement. More of a power back than a shifty back, ready to take over the power role after Donovonn Young graduates next year – yep, that’s exactly what this is.

In fact, Rivals’ list of junior college recruits lists Ayoola as the #67 juco nationally (he’s at Arizona Western CC and is already verballed to Arizona in 2015) and lists Enyenihi as the #91 juco nationally. I’ll track both their final two years of college ball at Arizona and Illinois and let you know which one came out with the better college career.

Film – looks solid. Runs “low” like Ayoola, so he might be able to deliver some hits and keep on running. Nothing really all that crazy on film – I don’t think he’s a future pro – and I don’t see the vision that maybe a Mikel Leshoure had, but overall, perfectly decent junior college film. I think he can contribute to the rotation.

Tom Cruises: The fact that we were his only FBS offer gives pause (although, again, most programs wait for sophomore year film to chase jucos – at least they used to), but seeing him ranked on Rivals juco list is very encouraging. It means that someone on Rivals juco side saw his film and was impressed. And with Ayoola gone and Domer not in school, this fills a huge need for next year – immediate help after Young graduates. So that all settles on 2.5 Toms for me.

HenREE EnYENuhHEE – two and one half Tom Cruises.


Build The Butkus Statue

There are two.

Two sides to Memorial Stadium. We call them East and West. Your seats are in the West Main or maybe they’re in the East Balcony. A few years ago, the west side became the Grange side. A statue, outside the walls, dead center on the 50, memorializing the greatest college football player of all time. That’s the Grange side.

It’s time for a Butkus side.

[Read more...]

Looks Like University Of Illinois – Zach Heath

With this verbal, I’m struck by something. It’s easy to mechanically go through these posts, evaluating film and projecting future lineups to see where this new player might fit into future Illini football depth charts. But sometimes, it’s helpful to remember what’s really happening here. So I’ll get to the film review, but first I want to talk about something else. [Read more...]