Rantoul 2014 XVIII: Mailbag 5

OK, so I asked for questions in the comments sections of the posts, and I haven’t answered any of those yet.  So now I have exactly 59 minutes before the Thursday practice starts.  How many can I answer in that time?  Five?  I think I can answer five.  (Acutally, this first question asks for six things, so that’s like six questions, so I’m going to answer five and then claim it was eleven.  Why am I still intro-ing I have 58 minutes left… [Read more...]

Rantoul 2014 XVII: Mailbag 4

This first one is probably one of my favorite mailbag questions.  We live in a Twitter world, and while there are some things that are shortened in life that should be lengthened (people used to actually connect through long telephone conversations), I do like how Twitter keeps everything brief.  I asked people for questions, and this one was brief: [Read more...]

Rantoul 2014 XVI: Mailbag 3

I didn’t intend for the mailbag to go this way, but let’s pick questions from the message board thread for this mailbag.  First two mailbags were all from Twitter, this one will be message board questions, then maybe a mailbag post from the comments section, then back to Twitter.  Even as I type this out I realize this is dumb.  It’s a mailbag – it doesn’t matter how the mail is delivered.  Just start answering questions, man. [Read more...]

Rantoul 2014 XIII: Mailbag 2

I covered several offensive questions with the first mailbag, so I’ll try to cover some defensive questions in this one. And I’ll use Twitter again for this one, but I promise to get to the questions on the message board and in the comments as well. As I say each year, I’ll try to get to them all, either directly or as a combination of several similar questions answered one time. There were several questions about the safeties, so I’ll start there. [Read more...]

Rantoul 2014 XII: Mailbag 1

It’s only 12:29 on Mailbag Day – still plenty of time to get your questions in.  There’s another practice at 4:15, so if you get me your question before then, I can try to watch for it this afternoon.  Or, say, you want me to ask a specific player a specific question after this practice – I can do that as well.  Bottom line, Mailbag Day is “whatever you want me to watch” day. So if you’d like to ask a question, use Twitter, the message board, or the comments section. [Read more...]

Rantoul Mailbag III

Ready… go.

What will be our biggest need in the next recruiting class?
~ Kevin

We have twelve scholarship seniors (there were only ten, but former walkons Ben Mathis and Tim Russell were given scholarships this season). Six of those twelve either throw or catch passes. We’ve taken care of the quarterback leaving by adding Bailey and Lunt, but we probably need to address the pass-catchers, given that five of them are graduating (four wide receivers and a tight end) and there probably aren’t enough players we can trust behind them. So while you should always be recruiting three years ahead (right now we should be filling the holes for the 2016 team), there’s a need for immediate impact at WR.

Thankfully, we’ve already addressed that with four wide receivers in the 2014 class. So now I’d say the biggest need is defensive line. Specifically, defensive end. We have to find some kids for future teams who can get to the passer.

Wait – you might have meant “the next recruiting class” as in “2015″ since this class is already mostly full (we’ll add maybe 3-4 more players before February). If that was your question… good question.

For starters, holes in the 2015 team should have been addressed last year (and mostly were). So where are we thin in the future? We addressed offensive tackles last year, so I’d say some interior offensive linemen are a must. Need two running backs. Some pass rushers. We have a lot of young guys in the secondary, so that’s probably not as big of a need next year as linebackers might be.

So I’ll put it this way: we’ll need interior guys next year. Interior linemen. Interior defensive linemen. Linebackers. Running back. Not so much on the edges with corners and receivers, lots of guys in the middle.

Are the juco kids going to make an impact? Barr yes anyone else? Not hearing much about cajuste.
~ Michael

Let’s just go one by one.

+ Trevor Kanteman is a juco guy but he comes in as a freshman. He’s been injured, so he’s in a purple jersey off to the side. He’s already used his redshirt year (at the juco, for an injury), so if he can come back he might play this year. Not sure what the injury is, though.

+ Eric Finney you’re aware of. Slated to start at the Star, injured his knee, no bad tears, had it scoped, they hope to have him back right around the opener.

+ Martize Barr, as you say, you know. Lots of talk about Barr this week. Even the BTN guys noted that he looks really solid out there. I think he’s an immediate help at WR.

+ Dallas Hinkhouse has been battling with true freshman Austin Schmidt for second string left tackle. He looked really skinny in the spring, but added some weight in the offseason and looks a little closer to contributing. If he can be the backup, Schmidt can redshirt.

+ Zane Petty is in the rotation at safety. Thinking about it, I haven’t really paid much attention to him. I’ll correct that at the practice later today.

+ Abe Cajuste is fighting for a backup DT spot with Jake Howe and Austin Teitsma clearly out in front for the starting spots (in my opinion). His main competitors are soph Teko Powell and frosh Robbie Bain. My guess: Cajuste is used mostly as a third down DT in pass rush scenarios, because that’s where he excels.

How does the secondary look? Still afraid they’ll give up 3-4 pass TD’s a game vs. good teams.
~Brian

I think the secondary might win two camp awards. Best Collection Of Athletes and Youngest Roster Of Players For A Certain Position. Working title on both awards.

There are athletes there that certainly look the part. V’Angelo Bentley is a super quick dude. Darius Mosely is an eye-popping athlete. Jaylen Dunlap has been a huge surprise for a true freshman. Earnest Thomas is solidly built. Freshman James Crawford (right now at Star) is a surprise as well. That’s the good news – they’re a really athletic group.

The bad news: Thomas is a junior, and everyone else is either a freshman or a sophomore. It’s really, really difficult to put together a cohesive secondary with so little experience. They’re simply going to be thrown to the wolves this year.

So I think this can be a really great secondary… in a few years.

Ease my fears regarding PR as well as WR.
~ Brad

WR was discussed earlier, but I’ll touch on it a little here: with all of these seniors and an instant impact Juco in Martize Barr, I think this WR corps has the best chance to surprise us. Seniors often do when facing their final season. It’s more likely that we get a surprising season out of our senior receivers than our freshman secondary.

But still, stack them up against the rest of the Big Ten, and I’m not sure who they’re better than. Every team seems to have good receivers. We have… seniors who need to surprise us.

Punt return? Until I see a punt returner catch the ball with space to make a move – actually, until I see a punt returner catch the ball with space to make a move at least five times – I won’t believe we’ll ever have a punt return. Our rank out of 120 teams the last four years on punt returns:

2009: 114th
2010: 117th
2011: 118th
2012: 118th

Oh God I’m so depressed again. Thanks Brad. Way to go. You just HAD to make me stare at those numbers again.

I mean, seriously, have you ever seen… I mean, is there… I can’t…. WHAT??

Last year Florida State had 536 punt return yards. We’ve had 159 punt return yards IN FOUR YEARS. I just… I can’t even.

Sorry, you asked about punt returners. Maybe Bentley, maybe Mosely, maybe Miles Osei, maybe Martize Barr. But does it really matter? *stares off into the void*

What will be the identity of this team? Last year was so bad that I’m not even going to try to figure out what that team’s identity was. But what do you think will stand out about this team at the end of the year (good or bad)? What should we expect from a Tim Beckman/Bill Cubit Illini squad? When someone nationally brings up Illinois, what will we be known for (hopefully not tripping refs and getting blown out)?
~ Chuck

Great question. Really made me think. I can tell you what the identity is going to have to be if we’re going to be successful. And by “be successful” I don’t mean challenge in the Leaders division – I mean win four, five, or (pinch me) six games.

For this team to be successful I think the coaches are pushing for two things: an offense that can put together long drives and a defense that can create turnovers.

Let’s start with the defense. They’re going to give up yards. Possibly lots of yards. They’re so young that it’s hard to see them not giving up yards. this won’t be 2011, where Koenning’s D finished 7th nationally in yards allowed. There will be yards.

BUT, if they can get some turnovers, they can be successful. Vic Koenning didn’t like gamblers – he liked assignment-sound football players. He once got angry at Miami Thomas for making an interception because he left his assignment to jump a route.

I think Tim Banks might treat this defense differently. I think he might encourage the secondary to take a few risks. Taylor Barton told me their focus is forcing turnovers. I think they’re going to try to make their identity two things: turnovers and a stiff redzone D.

On offense, there aren’t many home run hitters. We’re not going to dropping bomb after bomb. I think Bill Cubit is going to try to mold this offense into a steady, quick-release, I’ll take this five yard completion and this four yard run and keep moving the chains, thank you very much.

Which means they’ll have to be really solid on third down. Which I’m not sure they can do since we were 103rd in third down conversion rate last year.

So there you go. If this team has any chance at success, it will be a long drive offense and a bend-but-don’t-break-while-we-punch-the-ball-out defense.

No problem, right?

Late for practice. No time to edit. Sorry if there’s typos. We’ll call it a Stream Of Consciousness mailbag.

Rantoul Mailbag – HOT SPORTS TAKE Edition

Man, that last mailbag was boring.  Guh.  So bad.  I wince when I read it.  I need to do another one and, with this one, give some RED HOT SPORTS TAKES.

Who is our home run hitter on offense? When we need the big play, who is the GUY?
~Mikey D

Easy. Donovonn Young. BANG. Next question.

You want more to this take? OK. In 2007, we had a tailback who wore the number five. He’d had some struggles as a freshman and a sophomore, including fumbles, but junior year, BANG. Big Ten Player of the Year.

In 2010, we had a tailback who wore the number five. He’d had some struggles as a freshman and sophomore, including getting his jaw broken, but junior year, BANG. First team All Big Ten. Actually, I can’t remember if that’s true or not. But I’m on a roll and don’t want to stop to research.

In 2013, we have a tailback who wears the number five. He’s had some struggles as a freshman and sophomore, including fumbles, but junior year, BANG.

At least that’s the hope. He has the tools. He has the ability to flat run people over. Seriously, stop reading this post and go watch these highlights of the scrimmage on Monday. About 1:40 in you get to see Donovonn Young send someone flying. That’s why he’s the Truckmaster.

So this won’t be a home run offense. But it might be a solid offense that can always get three yards on 3rd and 2. Because TRUCKMASTER.

Who has the best/worst beard on the team?
~Kevin B.

Best beard on the team? Spencer Harris.

Worst beard? Corey Lewis. As he told me the other night, “this is two weeks of growth and there’s nothing”.

See how much better this is? Hot Sports Takes can be short yet also amazing. Let’s do more.

Who do you think we can most likely upset? MSU?
~Bryce

Bryce! My man. Only 12 more years until you take over Illiniboard from me and dominate the internet with some hot sports takes of your own.

You ready Bryce? This hot sports take is scalding. The team I think we can most likely upset is…

WISCONSIN.

They come to Champaign fresh off a game with Northwestern and they have a bye the week after. So they’ll stroll into Champaign for a night game all “we’ll just put away weak little Illinois and then coach is going to give us off until Thursday.”

And then BANG Donovonn Young and then BANG TayBar two interceptions and then BANG Martize Barr has a breakout game and then BANG Taylor Zalewski hits a 41 yarder at the buzzer to win it. I can see it. Can you?*

*Robert would like to note that this is a “most likely to upset” post and not an actual prediction. Unless it happens. If it does happen, I’m removing this whole asterisk business and claiming this as the hottest sports take of all time.

Looks More Likely University of Illinois for Leron Black?
~ Steve

Wait, I can’t do that, can I? Mix a basketball recruiting question in with a mailbag post? JUST WATCH.

Yes, everything is looking up on Leron Black. Florida was the favorite for a long time, and now he’s apparently eliminated them from his list. And then that Memphis writer – the one who correctly called Black’s high school teammate Chris Chiozza to Florida several months ago – said on the Tay and J show today that Indiana and Tennessee, two other schools in his final four, aren’t even sure he’ll make it for a visit.

Which means that when he visits here on August 31st, all of Illini nation will be watching for a verbal. Because Groce has shown he can close with a kid on campus.

Hmmmm… thinking about that… Kendrick Nunn verballed to Illinois and cancelled his other visits last September an hour after we beat our FCS opponent Charleston Southern. Leron Black will be visiting the day we play Southern Illinois, our FCS opponent for 2013. And – AND – Aaron Cosby verballed to Illinois and cancelled his visit to Missouri during the spring football game in April, which is kind of like playing an FCS opponent.

See, there I go again. I’m trying to be all hot sports take-y and I go and insult the team I love. Now I feel bad. This last answer is probably going to be, like, 94% less HST.

The site is so cool. Great look. Makes a mom super happy. How often do stories change? XOXO
~Mom

Crap, that’s not a mailbag question. That’s an email from my mom. This is embarrassing.

Well, mom, the stories change quite a bit. It’s August 15th and I’ve had 37 posts in 15 days. We’re paying a photographer, too, so now we have some great pictures to go with the content. And Brumby has poured hours and hours into the site (with hours and hours to come). In fact, I’ve emailed him at least six times from Rantoul so he can bail me out of some mistake I made that might crash the whole site.

Oh, and the guys are going out for pizza later. Send money.

Rantoul Mailbag I

Thanks for all the questions.  If you want to include one on the upcoming mailbags, ask me on Twitter or send me an email at Robert {at} illiniboard {dot} com.  Right to it.

Robert, Is there something being notably done differently by the coaching staff that is resulting in the changes you mention? Or is it just maturity? Or everyone having had to suffer through last year together that has brought them closer? To what do you attribute the change?
~Grogs

In all of the interviews during Big Ten Media Days, and in several of the post practice interviews last week, Coach Beckman mentioned a meeting the players had at the beginning of December after the Northwestern loss. How they didn’t want this to happen again, and how they wanted to implement offseason changes. Beckman talked about how they improved in the classroom and how they improved with their offseason workouts and how they cranked up their community service and everything else.

This is the knock-on-woodiest knock-on-wood statement of all time, but what was the last off the field incident you remember? Zook’s program had several DUI’s and a few bar fights and even won a Fulmer Cup one year. I’m not saying those problems are gone forever, but have you noticed that those issues have mostly disappeared? The last incident I can think of was Tajarvis Fuller’s “violation of team rules” last September, and he was immediately dismissed from the team. With Zook’s teams, it felt like there was something every three months.

So that’s what is noticeable. There appears to be a buy-in that maybe wasn’t there last year. I’m not sure what was said in that post-Northwestern meeting, but the team’s GPA, the comments from the strength coach on the offseason workout attendance vs. last year, the general team comradery, it’s all apparently greatly improved. Will it mean more wins? Maybe not with a young team. But over time, I could see this foundation being successful.

How do the wide receivers look? I hear a lot of chatter about Martez Barr but Spencer Harris seems to have dropped off the map. Perhaps you could provide a quick breakdown of the wide receivers in camp.
~Mike Z.

Hardest read in camp.  The numbers last year are hard to avoid.  No receiver had more than 470 yards, and a running back (D. Young) led the team with 38 catches.  AJ Jenkins in 2011: 1,276 yards.  Lankford, Harris, Millines, and Hardee combined last year: 1,232.

Holy crap.  You ever look up a statistic and then say something like “holy crap”?  Holy crap.  Here, I’ll play some statistical roulette.  I’ll close my eyes and spin through all of the team statistics on ESPN’s website and land on a team and list their top four receivers.

Landed on San Jose State.  Yards for their top four wide receivers last year: 1,307, 742, 691, 639.

Total yards receiving for Lankford, Millines, Harris, and Hardee last year: 469, 319, 252, 192.

So how could anyone look at those numbers and not say “12th best receiving corps in the B1G”?  Those numbers are staggering.

Of course, you need a quarterback to get you the ball.  And you need a line to give the quarterback time to deliver the ball.  And you need coaches to make the correct play call.  And we didn’t really have any of those things last year.

All of that and I’m just now getting to your question.  Power ranking of receivers this camp:

Martize Barr
Ryan Lankford
Justin Hardee
Marchie Murdock
STEVEHULL
Miles Osei
Spencer Harris
Devin Church
Peter Bonahoom

Murdock still needs to learn the offense, so there’s a chance he redshirts. But I’d say those eight other guys will all get catches this fall. Maybe in that order.

Outside of Aaron Bailey/Wes Lunt who is your biggest man crush on this #Illini football squad?
~Micah D.

This question gets harder and harder to answer the more I do this.  It’s all good and fun to answer a question like this, and then I’ll go to the interview tent tomorrow and as the players walk by on the way to the locker room Chase Haslett will say “hey A Lion Eye, if you want, I can bring Aaron Bailey over so you can say hi”.

But I shall not be deterred from answering this question.  I’ll pick one on offense and one on defense.  I’d say that The Player I’m Really Excited About This Year And Especially In The Future on the offense would be left tackle Austin Schmidt.  He’ll probably still redshirt so he can add weight, but I’m ready to pencil this kid in at left tackle in 2015, 2016, and 2017.

On defense, The Player I’m Really Excited About This Year And Especially In The Future is Darius Mosely.  He’s flying around out there for a freshman.  I think he can contribute in other areas besides cornerback, too, like punt return and kickoff return.

How different is Beckman now that he’s coaching CBs?
~Sweetchuck13

Well, he has even less of a voice than he had before. Yelling instructions is an adventure for him at this point. But that’s true of 90% of all college football coaches on August 15th.

He has a graduate assistant, Justin Hood, helping him with the corners.  So he’s not with them every time they go to “indie” (individual drills with position coaches).  But that’s where he is most of the time, and when they’re in meetings (media aren’t allowed in meetings), he’s said he’s always with the corners.

I wonder how much of it is a disappointment with the way things went with the cornerbacks last year (under Coach Clinkscale) and a desire to fix it himself.  He coached corners at Ohio State (and at other stops earlier in his career), so it will be interesting to see what he does with this group.  It’s also interesting that it’s almost all his group.  He’s only been here 18 months, but every corner but one (Eaton Spence) is a player he recruited.

It’s also worth noting that he worked with the Stars some last year in breakout sessions, so the head coach taking a position group isn’t completely new this year.  But yes, completely different from Zook.

How does the chemistry look for (1) the QBs and (2) team as a whole? Last year it seems like it just cratered.

I wrote some about the team unity last night (much improved), so I’ll concentrate on the QB’s.

It’s always been interesting to me how close Reilly O’Toole and Nathan Scheelhaase have become. They’re really close friends (to the point where O’Toole was a groomsman in Scheelhaase’s wedding last month). Because they’re so close, I’ve always wondered if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Do you want unity among your quarterbacks or do you want individuals competing against each other?

Whatever the case, it doesn’t appear to be as buddy-buddy this camp as it has been in the past (especially with Miles Osei – Nathan’s Best Man – now at wide receiver full time). Last year in camp the quarterbacks seemed like best friends (probably because they were). This year, Reilly and Nate hang around together, but it doesn’t seem like the same close-knit group with all the new guys. Maybe that’s a good thing.

Spring Mailbag – Part II

As the Buckeye’s are generally considered the gold standard of the B1G, I would be curious to know if you feel any of our 2013 starters would be good enough to make the 2-deep at OSU? Okay, how about the 3-deep? Maybe 2-3 guys?

Since I like comparing us to OSU, can you arrange a call between Gene Smith and Mike Thomas to swap 2013 non-conference schedules? Ours would really help the Buckeye’s case to get into the NC game and offers exposure in the Chicago market. Their’s would give us a chance to eke out maybe 3 wins. Sounds like a good deal to me.
~ Andy

Man, this was the perfect question for the fall of 2010. We’re coming off a 3-9 season, and I could have said “easy – Whitney Mercilus, Corey Liuget, Martez Wilson, Tavon Wilson, Jeff Allen, AJ Jenkins, and Mikel Leshoure would all start for the Buckeyes” and you would have been all WE WERE 3-9 LAST YEAR and I would have been “Ron Zook gave Leshoure three carries in the Michigan State game last year” and then you could have been like “WHAT??” and I would have gone “Remember when we lost to Fresno State after we got the ball back with the lead with three minutes to go and instead of having Mikel Leshoure get the one first down we needed to run out the clock Zook and Reggie Mitchell decided on Jason Ford because ‘it was his turn’?”

Sorry – got lost in a timewarp. To your question: I really can’t think of one. Had Jonathan Brown been healthy last year and built on his 2nd-team-all-B1G sophomore campaign, then I’d pick Brown. But we haven’t seen that Brown since 2011 (and we still didn’t see that Brown this spring because he’s still injured), so I don’t think I can pick him. Mason Monheim would probably be in their top-6 rotation at linebacker, but likely on the second string.

On offense, I can’t really think of many. Jon Davis is probably their second string tight end. Donovonn Young is in the rotation at tailback. Darius Millines has all world athleticism, and I’ve seen him look like an All Big Ten receiver in practice, but he’s always injured or suspended. And, if the rumors floating around on message boards yesterday are true, his spring suspension is going to turn into “Millines is no longer with the team”.

WAIT. Justin DuVernois was 3rd in the Big Ten in net punting last year. And Ohio State’s guy was 6th. And I think the Ohio State guy graduated. So yes, Justin DuVernois would be the starting punter at Ohio State. Eat your heart out, Suckeyes!

As for the schedule, yes, we’re still getting Guenther’d, even almost two years after he left. If you asked him, I think he’d be proud of the fact that he set up games with Cincinnati and Washington while Ohio State plays Buffalo, San Diego State, and Cal. He’d want high fives for not being a pansy. He would actually see our schedule as a positive and Ohio State’s as a negative.

And now you see why we played the toughest non-conference schedule of any FBS team since 2000. And now you see why I have to move on to the next question on the advice of my blood pressure doctor.

We all know that we can’t simply look at our record this fall to see if the team has improved and/or if it’s worth keeping Beckman around. Based on not only last year’s performance but what you’ve seen so far, what specifically will you be looking for on a game-by-game basis to determine if the arrow is pointing up? Could be a simple list of things, could be a whole post…up to you!
~ BKenny

This is a hard question. My initial reaction is to say penalties and turnovers. Limit the dumb mistakes and it tells me that this coaching staff can get their players to focus.

But then I realize that this will be our least experienced team since maybe 2003. Only 10 seniors, lots of sophomores and even some freshmen in the starting lineup. We’re experienced at quarterback, wide receiver, tight end, and linebacker, and that’s it. When you have that much youth, you’re simply going to make mistakes. Both penalties and turnovers.

So my eye test is going to center around hope. Just show me some things that tell me the plan is working. Which include.

1) At Illinois, it’s nice to hire a coordinator on the way down. If we hire a young coordinator who really knows what they’re doing, they’ll be snatched up by a bigger school immediately. But when we hire a coordinator on the way back down – climbed all the way to head coach, had a decent tenure, fell apart last year and got fired – then there’s a chance they might stick around for a long time. And I’ve been waiting years for a coordinator to stick around for a long time (like Norm Parker at Iowa or Mick McCall at Northwestern). So for the first thing, show me Cubit is the guy.

2) Show me that the 2013 class has much more talent than 2010, 2011, and 2012. Show me that Beckman’s staff has an eye for talent. As I’ve mentioned before, I think the world of Alex Golesh. He gets it. Seriously gets it. Understands what it takes to build a roster that can compete in the Big Ten. I put him above even Reggie Mitchell as far as recruiting coordinators go. So show me some more in recruiting – more guys like Bailey, Mosely, James, Clements, and Day.

3) Fight. Young players will make mistakes, but don’t give me a team that folded like last year. That was the biggest difference in the two sides of Kirby Ave. this past year. Guys on the south side FOUGHT when the going got tough. Guys on the north side fell apart. So much of that is on the coaching. I’m willing to give the north side some slack given the roster holes and the injuries. But I need to see some fight this fall.

Secondary still looked suspect in Spring Game. Have the coaches indicated how they’ll try to hide deficiencies?
~ Brian

I’m not sure we can. How do you hide inexperience? Again, as I mentioned in that Q&A I did with that Big Ten blog yesterday, when Beckman got the job, and he looked at the scholarship players in the secondary, here’s what he saw:

Terry Hawthorne (SR)
Justin Green (SR)
Jack Ramsey (SR)
Supo Sanni (SR)
Patrick Nixon-Youman (SR)
STEVEHULL (JR)
Eaton Spence (FR)
Nick North (FR)

He moved Earnest Thomas from Sam linebacker to safety, and he recruited some guys in his first six weeks on the job, but the 2013 Illini Secondary table was set long before he arrived. The only scholarship senior is my boy Ben Mathis, who just moved from walkon to scholarship player this year. The only juniors are Thomas (who moved from linebacker) and the juco guys we brought in like Zane Petty. We’ll start two sophomores at corner with two freshman playing a lot of backup minutes there (and they have to – no juniors or seniors). One guy – ONE GUY – on our secondary two deep (Eaton Spence) was in that chair 15 months ago. And he was a redshirting freshman at the time.

I’m not sure I can emphasize how green that is. I’ve never seen anything like it for any Illini position group in my 25+ years of obsessing over this team. The only comparison I can make is maybe SMU after their death penalty when all of their position groups were like this. Not a single player with much game experience at all, and most all of them freshmen and sophomores, but hey – good luck guys.

There’s no way to hide that. There’s nothing you can do. You find walkons and juco guys who can maybe fill the holes. And then you pray.

Spring Mailbag – Part I

I feel like I did five of these posts last spring (or was that Rantoul?), so there’s still time to get a question in if you’re one of the 93 people who still cares about Illinois Football.  Just email me at Robert {at} alioneye {dot} com.  Right to it.

How good will Mosely become on a scale from 1 to Vontae Davis?
~ SouthBendFan

Great comparison. That’s exactly who I want Mosely to become. Lofty goal, sure, but I love his high school tape so much. Explosive athleticism.

After getting my eyes on him this past month, I’ll say… poor man’s Vontae Davis. So let’s give that a 7 (assuming Vontae is a 10, which he totally was). Does he have that “holy crap this kid will start from day one as a true freshman” that Vontae had? No. Maybe five Illini defensive players in my lifetime have had that. But I was perfectly pleased when I saw Mosely.

My favorite viewing. 11 on 11 drill (no tackling), O’Toole throws a pass to, hmmm, I want to say Fritz Rock, and Mosely dives and breaks up the pass. Fantastic play. Receiver came in on the slant, Mosely followed him immediately out of his break, gained his inside shoulder, got an arm out to deflect the pass away without any arm-wrap PI.

But that wasn’t my favorite part. He got up and talked smack. Kind of a “not in my house” statement. It wasn’t a dance. It wasn’t a celebration. Just some “do not throw to my side of the field” confidence.

This riled up the seniors on the offensive sideline. “That was a FRESHMAN saying that?” I’m sure some team balance was restored later on. But I still love that from Mosely. Bring it, kid.

Fill in the blank. Aaron Bailey = ____________
~ Adam

Since it’s apparently Poor Man’s Day, Aaron Bailey = Poor Man’s Braxton Miller.

Miller, obviously, is a much more accomplished passer. But if you watch high school tape side by side of Miller and Bailey – seriously, go watch this and then watch this – it’s kind of crazy how similar they are running the ball from the QB position.  Maybe it’s just because they have the same build (and their high schools have similar uniforms), but after Miller’s freshman year at Ohio State, when Bailey was considering us, I remember watching this film back-to-back and wondering if he’d be Braxton Miller 2.0.

To get there, he’d have to improve substantially throwing the ball.  Miller was a much more accomplished passer in high school (partly because Bailey’s high school ran a triple option and he threw maybe 7 times per game; partly because he’s Braxton Miller and he’s probably a Heisman finalist), but that’s where “poor man’s” comes in.  Bailey will never be as good as Miller and win us 12 games in a season.  But he can be a knockoff and win us 8 games as an upperclassman.

Where do I see Bailey this fall?  I’ve already made that declaration.  I’m not in the redshirt camp.  I’m not in the “he knows how to run – spend this entire year teaching him how to throw the ball” camp.  I’m in the “use him here and there all over the field – he’s one of the most special athletes we’ve ever recruited” camp.  I’m not sure any offense in the last 10 years in the Big Ten has screamed “we need playmakers” as much as the 2012 Illini offense.  Bailey is a playmaker.  Let’s design some things for him immediately.

What is going on with Ryan Nowicki? Will he ever be an impact player? Is he on the team?
~ Michael

He’s on the team. He’s injured. I saw him on the field after the Spring Game on Friday night wearing sweats. There are seemingly three levels of injured at Illini practices. Green jerseys mean “I’m out here, but don’t hit me”. Purple jerseys mean “I’m over here in the corner working out with trainers – not football ready yet”. And sweats mean “can’t even do the work out with trainers thing yet”. Not sure what his injury was, but he’s a sweats guy.

I should have put him on my depth chart last week, to be honest. Maybe at guard. I read somewhere that they might try him at right guard, but since he didn’t practice this spring, I didn’t see.

Which means the last time I saw him practice was Rantoul. And he looked like a guy who had a great OL frame but needed 24 months of weight room sculpting.

What is 1 surprise strength and 1 unexpected weakness?
~ Nathan

Surprise strength is easy: offensive line. “Strength” is probably a bit much, but I think anyone who watched an Illini practices this spring came away impressed with how far the OL advanced in the offseason.

*presses hard on the brake pedal and issues disclaimer*

They’re not there yet, obviously.  This is a line that finished 119th in rushing yards and 111th in sacks allowed last year.  When you’re on the second to last rung of the ladder, it’s not hard to “advance”.

*returns to response*

I expected some improvement, but I didn’t expect some of the individuals I watched to be as far along as they were.  Corey Lewis looked great.  Seriously great.  If he’s fully healthy – and I’ve still had my doubts even after he played in the final four games – then that’s a huge boost.  He certainly looks the part.

The three juniors look pretty good, too.  Again, these guys should just now be finding the field.  We should just now be learning the names Alex Hill, Michael Heitz, and Simon Cvijanovic.  But because of injuries and roster holes, all three, especially Heitz and Cvijanovic, have had to play a lot the last two seasons.  All three look better this spring.  And Teddy Karras looks really good as well.  Glad to have him as a mainstay on the line the next three seasons.  I think he’ll be really good as an upperclassman, and maybe All Big Ten by the time he’s a senior.

So put me down for being pleasantly surprised by the OL.  Bill Cubit is very involved with the OL at practice, something Beatty/Gonzales nor Petrino did much of.  I think that’s a big part of why the first unit looks pretty good together.

Unexpected weakness?  I’ll say defensive line.  I knew we had a lot to replace.  And with Houston Bates limited due to an injury, and Darrius Caldwell missing the spring because of academics, I knew it was thin.

But if you watched the spring game on Friday night, besides maybe Austin Teitsma and some decent play from defensive ends Tim Kynard and Kenny Nelson, the defensive line really got pushed around.  To the tune of four touchdowns from both offenses.  If you have an offensive line that was 119th against the run last year, and they’re able to dominate the point of attack on both squads, then maybe you’re defensive line is going to get abused by Wisconsin and Ohio State.

Some of the freshmen might help.  And getting guys like Caldwell back will help.  But for now, I’m putting the DL in the category of “I knew it would be a rough transition without Spence/Foster/Buchanan, but I had no idea it might be THIS rough”. With the only depth being redshirt freshmen and true freshman, it could get ugly quickly.

Maybe I HAVE settled on my slogan for the t-shirt contest. “If you’re gonna lose by 14, losing 44-30 is much more fun than 17-3″.