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.

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! 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…


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

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?

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
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?

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)
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″.


Sometimes I type things and immediately have an internal conversation with myself. “Mailbageddon? Really? Does this end with William Fitchner talking to my son and saying ‘Requesting permission to shake the hand of the son of the greatest blogger I know’?”

See, and there it is again.  I constantly have these “WHY ARE YOU TYPING THIS?” conversations with myself.  But I always leave it.  I have this belief that the moment I start deleting things, I’ll lose the ability to ever be funny again.  So there it is.  Please know that when you read something tremendously unfunny here, I’m doing it to clear room for the one joke that lands.  You’re welcome.

To the mailbag.  First, my apologies.  I asked for questions 13 days ago, and I’m just now getting to the rest of them.  I’ve decided that instead of doing Mailbag 5 and 6 and 7 and such, I’ll just get to the rest of the questions in one giant post. I’m not really sure why. I had part of this post completed several days ago, and could have posted #5 and #6, but the idea of a 4,000 word Mailbageddon was too enticing. Since this is the final Camp Rantoul post, I wanted it to be EPIC. And now I’m posting it 10 days after Camp Rantoul ended. I’ll never learn.

Isn’t Pocic our best offensive lineman going into this season? If so, why move him to guard, the least important place on the line?

I’ll challenge you on two points there; both that Pocic is our best offensive lineman and the guard is the least important.  Feisty mailbag Robert is feisty.

I’d say it’s between Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton for “best offensive lineman going into the season”.  In Rantoul, my vote would have gone to Hugh Thornton. But that’s probably a bit unfair because they were never in a full-out, full-pads scrimmage.  I was mostly watching blocking during 11 on 11 drills.  And in all drills, Hugh Thornton was a monster.

As for the position changes, I’m all for it.  What we were trying at the end of last season wasn’t working.  The lines this spring were kind of a mess.  So our staff got creative, said that they needed to find a way to get guys like Feldmeyer and Hill in there, and came up with this solution.  With a new staff, and with a new offensive scheme, and especially with an offensive line that really needs an identity, I’m all for moving guys around.  This isn’t the NFL where you have to have a certain size/frame to play left tackle.  In the spread offense, you can spread your O-linemen around.

What were your impressions of the coaching staff collectively during Rantoul? Do they seem to gel? Anything amusing that stands out to you?

The biggest difference to me – the assistants joking with and busting on each other.  It carries over to Twitter, too…

That’s the biggest difference I see between this staff and Zook’s assistant coaches. Maybe it’s just that they’re all new, and it’s like Forbes Hall 2-South in late August of 1991 compared to Forbes Hall 2-South in March of 1992 when we were all cliqued-up. But these guys seem to be having a blast coaching together.

And it’s possible that’s intentional. Beckman will often have his coaches or grad assistants go through a drill (like maybe Coach Clink covering Coach Gonzales in a route-running drill). If Clink breaks up the pass, the defense will go INSANE. The practices are structured and disciplined, but they’re having fun out there.

Who is coaching the receivers and is there hope the offense will be improved over 2011?

Billy Gonzales is the receivers coach.  He coached receivers for Urban Meyer at Bowling Green (when Beckman was on the staff), at Utah, and at Florida, and then he left Florida for LSU where he was the passing game coordinator.  So the passing game is his thing.  Specifically, passing within a spread offense.

If you could get him to honestly answer the question, I think he’d say that he doesn’t have the receivers he needs to run the offense the way he wants it run.  At least not yet.  Darius Millines looks the part (if he can stay healthy), and Ryan Lankford is much improved as a route runner (over what I saw last year in Rantoul), but I still think he needs a new crop of 5 or 6 receivers that he can mold into the passing game he wants to run.

Will the offense be improved?  Yes.  It has to be.  We averaged 259 yards and 11 points over our final seven games last year, which I believe was second worst in the nation over that time period.  So unless we’re shooting for worst in the nation, yes, this offense will improve over what we saw at the end of the year.  Can we put up 30 points per game?  Doubtful.  Too many question marks.  And the roster lends itself to “don’t make too many mistakes on offense and let the defense win you games”.

How does the punting game (both kicking and returning) look this year? Have you seen any drills? How do the punters and the return teams look?

My guess on the kicking game:

+ Nick Immekus will be the placekicker.  The last two days I was there they put him through seven pressure kicks.  He made all seven.  I was a Zalewski guy before camp and an Immekus guy after camp.

+ Taylor Zalweski will kick off.  He still has a great leg (which is why he was My Guy in the kicker battle), but I noticed that the trajectory on most of his kicks was pretty low.  This is great for kicking off, especially if you can boom it like Bubba Watson hitting a driver.  But if your placekicking has the same trajectory, you’re gonna get some blocked.

+ Oh, why not: Ryan Frain wins the punting job.  I have very little to go on besides a few boomers I saw him send skyward.  But I did see DuVernois struggle several times with flat-out shanks during punt return drills.  Frain has a huge leg, and I think he can win the job as a true freshman (and maybe contend for the kickoff job, too).

For the return teams, I didn’t see one return drill.  Which was AWESOME.  All Zook did was line up 11 guys here and 11 guys there and “practice” kickoffs.  Tim Salem, at least for the week in Rantoul, only worked on the specifics of each special team.  How to shed a block.  How to protect the punter.  How to beat a jammer if you’re a gunner.  How to avoid a block on kick coverage.  This, of course, had me dancing.  Actual, legitimate, special teams skill work.

Regarding the O line, I find your comments about these guys bulking up to 300 over a couple years very interesting. On the FightingIllini.com website, I went back and looked at the rosters from when I was in school (fall 1971 to 1975) to check out the sizes of the guys then. Larry McCarren, all Big 10 center and starter for the Packers, lived across the hall from me in Newman Hall my freshman year. He was listed as 6-3, 237. Gerry Sullivan (played for Cleveland a long time), John Gann, Mason Minnes also lived in my dorm and were under 240. John Levanti, starting guard for 3 years was 6-2, 225. Stu Levenick was in my class (and in one of my classes) and was 6-3, 247 or so. He was good enough to be drafted by the Colts but never made the team. Bob Standring was another guy in my dorm. He was starting Rover (weak side linebacker) at 6-1, 190. All those guys were bigger than most people but didn’t seem all that big and certainly not obese. It’s amazing (and kind of scary) to see how much bigger the players have become, especially the linemen.

I love questions like this. I love Illini football names I’ve never heard before. Stu Levenick is a fantastic 1970′s offensive lineman name. I want to hang out with his mustache. I just know he had a mustache.

Yes, O-linemen have certainly grown over the years.  I was listening to The Solid Verbal podcast with Luke Zimmerman talking about Ohio State’s offensive line, and he was discussing a true freshman tackle (Taylor Decker) who might be able to play right away.  And he kind of just casually mentioned that Decker was 6′-8″ and 325 pounds.  College freshman.  Presumably 18 years old.  6′-8″, 325.  What’s next?  Take Mike Tisdale, put him on an 8,000 calorie diet, and plug him in at right tackle as a 7′-0″, 410 pound superbeast? (Wait, can we do that?)

But I don’t think you’ll see us reaching Wisconsin levels with our line.  They seem to get all of their starters up to 315 lbs or so – I think we’ll average considerably less than that.  Mostly because in this spread (or at least what I think this spread will be), mobility for the linemen will be more important than running someone over.  So hey, maybe Stu Levenick would have had a shot.

Strength coach – forgot the new guys name, but man, I would have loved for the Beck-man to keep sweet Lou. Any insights on that guy? Different, similar, are the guys taking to him? I thought Mendenhall and Leshore should have built him a shrine, he did a great job with both of them (not to take away from their personal efforts, of course).

Big fan of how Aaron Hillman runs stretching.  Lots of interaction with the players.  For the morning practice, a “good morning, men” followed by a “good morning, coach” response.  Structured.  Intentional.  Interpretive.

He does have two negatives, though.  He came here from Michigan, where he was an assistant strength coach.  Strike one.  And he graduated from Missouri. Oof.  Strike two.  But if he can add weight to Pat Flavin and add speed to Jeremy Whitlow, I don’t care where he went to school.  Heck, he could have gone to Mizzou and come here from Michigan and I wouldn’t care.

What is your overall feeling for the offense? With reports from the Spring game and your reports of dropped passes, I have the feeling that the non-conference portion could be pretty rough. I’m bracing for the worst.

I’d say bracing for the worst is accurate.  I watched the KFHB again the other day, and was reminded that our offense was a bit of a complete mess at the end of the season.  No rhythm, no flow, seemingly nobody on the same page.  Our third down conversion percentage, which I want to say was over 50% after our 6-0 start, fell to 42.3% by the end of the year (which would mean we were, what, 35% or so during our swoon?)

So with that, I’d say a scheme change would be great.  Mix things up, fit your personnel better, right? But a scheme change might also be awful.  We might look like Michigan in 2008, trying to figure out how a spread offense really works.

What gives me confidence?  Nathan Scheelhaase having started 26 games.  Sometimes, with that much experience, a quarterback can get into a groove that just builds week to week.  What was a tuck-and-run as a freshman is a stay in the pocket and hit the receiver in stride.  What was a poor decision in the read option last year becomes the right decision this fall.  As we switch schemes, we have to find a leader, and with no upperclassmen at tailback, it has to be Nathan.  He MUST take a big step forward.

Is Miles Osei our next “Eddie McGee”? He appears to be good athlete and have a great attitude like Eddie, but can’t seem to find a role.

I’m not sure if “can’t seem to find a role” is fair just yet.  This is just his third year, and as you may know, I’m a “first two years are useless for 95% of all college football players” guy.  Give me true juniors and redshirt sophomores or give me death.  At some point, when I’m a trillionaire, I’m going to commission a study of all Division I college football programs and the on-field impact of sophomores, redshirt freshmen, and freshmen.  And I think the numbers will come out that 94.7% make no real impact until their third year in school.  OK, maybe that’s a bit high.  Let’s say 91.6%.

So for Osei, this is the year to start to make his mark.  He’s a great athlete (I originally thought we might move him to safety if QB didn’t work out), and I think he looks really solid in the run game.  But it will probably take a bit of time until he’s really comfortable out there.  This will be his first significant playing time, so it will take a bit before the game slows down.  My expectation: around the time of the Purdue game, he has a “6 catches for 77 yards, plus 3 rushes for 31 yards and a touchdown” performance that has everyone taking notice.

If Zook’s practices were ADHD, how would you characterize the vibe of a Beckman practice?


Tell me all about how good Terry Hawthorne will be this year after seeing him at Rantoul. Also, tell me all about how he is going to have a Woodson-like season in all three phases of the game: Offense, Defense, & Special Teams.

I wish I could, but 1) he didn’t practice with the offense one single time in Rantoul, 2) there have been no reports of him practicing with the offense since Rantoul, and 3) I’m guessing Tommy Davis was brought in as a one-year transfer from NIU specifically to return punts and kickoffs.  Definitely the biggest downer of fall camp so far (for me).

I still think we involve him in the offense – I don’t see how we couldn’t with the only non-freshmen being the three junior wide receivers.  We need someone with some on-field experience to grab that big third quarter touchdown.  Why Not Black Cat?

I smell a hashtag.

What’s your take away from seeing Beckman in action these last few days? How’s his energy during the practices? Has his “impressiveness” level been raised in your view, perhaps approaching that of Coach Groce? When the BTN cameras cut to him on the sideline this Fall, will he exude the confident demeanor of an in-control field general?

Man, any time one of these questions says “these last few days” I cringe and internally berate myself for not answering these questions sooner. But then I remember I left Rantoul, took my family to Colorado, caught up on a backlog at work, and tried to return to an actual sleeping regimen. And then I don’t feeeel so baaaad.

To your question, my main takeaway with Beckman is his Plan.  He has a very specific plan for building a successful Big Ten football program.  He says he’s been putting together this plan since he was a grad assistant at Auburn in the late 80′s.  He’s taken things he’s learned when he worked under Pat Dye and Urban Meyer and Jim Tressel and Mike Gundy, he beta-tested the Plan at Toledo the last three years, and now he’s ready for full product rollout.

What are some of the elements of this Plan?  For the players, it’s about discipline off the field and on.  If you go to class, you arrive 10 minutes early for everything you do, if you are accountable to your position coach, if you are invested in teaching the underclassmen what you’ve learned, (and probably a dozen other things), this will be a successful football team.

For the program, I think a lot of that is found in recruiting.  He’s added a Director of Player Personnel (Paul Nichols), an Assistant Director of Player Personnel (former Illini Mike Bellamy), and a grad assistant working under them (Chad Creamer).  That’s a three man team doing a job that really didn’t exist under Zook (at least not in that capacity).  Their job is to promote this program to every high school football coach within a 6 hour radius (and beyond), to get former Illini players (especially those in the NFL) involved in this program again, and to develop relationships all across the recruiting landscape that will build Illini Football.

And that’s just two pieces of his Plan.  It’s a binder full of stuff.

As for his demeanor on the sideline, well, TBD.  But I’d guess he’ll be organized about it in some way.

How do this year’s crop of freshman stack up to previous classes at the same point in time? Obviously it is extremely early and not necessarily an accurate portrayal of their long term prospects at Illinois. I believe that, according to Rivals, this is our lowest ranked class in years. I was curious of your initial impressions after a week of practice.

I’ve been to the last five Camp Rantouls, and this was easily the smallest number of early impact players I’ve seen.  That’s not to say it won’t be a good class after the players go through the skill development and strength training that this new staff will put them through.  But when you ask me to compare this to, say, Corey Liuget/Mikel Leshoure/Tavon Wilson, that class was three times further ahead.

There will be some early impact players – Dami Ayoola and V’Angelo Bentley come to mind, and the coaching staff seems to really like Justin Hardee at receiver – but for the most part, I think this class won’t make much of an impact until 2014.

With all the emphasis on WRs, I am more interested in whether we have a RB who looks as though he hasn’t been raiding the donut store and can actually run north and south. I know Ferguson has looked good so far but I doubt he has the physical tools to be a full time BT RB. What about Young? I have been skeptical about his ability to be The Guy. Does he look like he has progressed from last year and give Alyooa a redshirt year?

What are your thoughts on this group of RB’s? Can we get production out of this spot?

What are chances we have a radically better running game with Ferguson back in the mix?

Several questions about the tailbacks, so I’ll try to answer them all here.

First, remember the Missouri game in 2010 when they ran the fly sweep over and over and over?  De’Vion Moore or Kendial Lawrence or Henry Josey, Missouri’s stable of midget tailbacks, would line up in the slot, start in motion back towards the QB, and get the handoff after a timed shotgun snap gave Blaine Gabbert the ball just before the tailback crossed in front of him?  Remember that?  When you think of our future running game, I think you need to think of that.  It won’t be Mikel following Jay Prosch through a hole as a guard pulls for a kickout block – it will be Josh Ferguson motioning from the slot into the backfield and then taking a pitch on the fake TE shovel pass option play.

Both Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales tossed around the word “multiple” the past few weeks, which means we’ll do all kinds of things with our running game.  But as for “north and south” running like Mikel?  I think you’ll see very little of that.  Sure, we’ll run some power stuff with Donovonn.  But this won’t be the Petrino Pistol.  Nor will it be the Locksley spread.  Speed and shiftiness will be the key.

As far as the carries are concerned, I think Ferguson gets the bulk (just like Josey got the bulk of the carries for Missouri).  Smallest and fastest tailback gets the ball.

Question: Is Illinois going to an Oregon/Tiller type spread a bad move? Are they making things too hard on themselves? I mean this in two ways

1. What will the impact be on recruiting offense? Specifically, the Illinois recruiting pitch to me seemed to be gaining steam. Come to Illinois, develop, get drafted. RBs (Leshore, Rashard, Thomas), WR (Jenkins, Benn, Cumberland), OL (Allen, Asomah). It would seem this takes a step back. There will be players that will not consider the spread because they want to be groomed for the pros. tOSU, Oklahoma, etc can get away with this…but I am not sure Illinois can long term. Illinois needs to be Iowa, MSU, and Wisconsin for the preferred 3-star players, does the spread hurt in those recruitments?

2. Is this offense the way to gain sustained success in the big10? Again, tOSU and the like can do what they want. But the three schools who have level jumped recently are Iowa, Wisconsin, and MSU. All built with pro-style offenses and recruiting to match. Purdue (under Tiller) had success but could not sustain without long careered NFL QBs (Orton, Brees). NU cannot make the jump despite more than its fair share of good pub and improved recruiting.

First off, let’s not call this a Tiller spread.  I don’t think we’ll use any “basketball on grass” concepts in this offense.  I think Chris Beatty said it best when he said it’s a “hybrid between recent West Virginia and Florida offenses”.  A spread’s spread.  To your two questions:

1. I don’t think the spread hurts recruiting.  At least not like it scared people 10 years ago.  Yes, there will be big tailbacks like Ty Issac at Joliet Catholic who won’t go to any school that doesn’t have a pro-set tailback spot for him.  But Ohio State is recruiting to a spread now.  And Missouri built their entire program once they switched to a spread and started recruiting speed from Texas.

Personally, I like the idea of a Wisconsin or MSU – build a solid defense and a run-heavy, ball-control offense and win Big Ten football games.  But that’s not where we’re headed.  We’re headed for a spread and we’re looking for specific athletes to fill those spots.  And that’s the key, at least to me.  We can recruit specific talent to our system.  Hey Aaron Bailey, want to come run our spread for four years? BOOM.  Hey Josh Augusta – want to play for an aggressive defense that features the DL? (Boom? Please?)

2. A fair point (and I agree with you).  But when I’ve made this argument with friends before (the “we should build a pro offense and play power, Big Ten football” argument), their response has always been “worked SO WELL for Tepper and Turner”.  I think their “been there, done that” point has merit.  We tried building that, and it didn’t work.  Zook was able to recruit spread athletes immediately, but he couldn’t maintain it.  I’m willing to put that on Zook the coach and say that Beckman can recruit speed to Champaign and build the program like is program building idol: Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State.

(Please to note that Robert is not saying we’ll build another Oklahoma State in Champaign.  I’m saying that if you want to know what program Beckman is using as a model for how to go from the bottom to the top by recruiting speed, it’s Oklahoma State.)

After seeing what you saw at the spring practices and at Camp Rantoul, and given the current talent on the team and commitments, how have your views towards what we need or don’t need out of the 2013 class changed? Are there positions that you think are stronger now than they were before Camp? Weaker? Do the additions of players like Nowicki and Klachko change things?

Yes, I think Nowicki and Klachko change a lot (and not just because they reduced our potential class from 23-25 players to 21-23 players.  I think offensive line is much less of a concern.  Klachko joins a deep group for the three inside spots (Hill, Karras, Spencer, Durkin, Boles, Bain), and Nowicki joins the three tackles in the 2013 class (Chadwell, Schmidt, and DiLauro) to shore up that position.  So I’d guess we’re done with offensive line (although we probably wouldn’t tell Dennis Finley no).

From what I saw at camp, I’d say wide receiver is now the biggest concern, with defensive end being the sleeper concern.  WR you probably already know about, but DE/Leo is a bigger issue than I realized.  At Leo, there’s Michael Buchanan backed up by Darrius Caldwell and a walkon.  So after this year, it’s Caldwell and???  And then at defensive end, it’s Justin Staples (senior), Tim Kynard (junior) and then, well, no idea.  Maybe redshirt freshman Kenny Nelson (who still needs to fill out his lanky frame)?  Or DeJazz Woods (who looks more like a DT to me).  I really think we need to pull in two defensive ends in this class, with at least one of them versitile enough to play the hybrid Leo spot.

I want to know your read on Beckman so far. He’s got a lot going on…music, stripes, t-shirts, dinner tables, awards, northwestern signs, purple jerseys, slogans, Beckman time, apparently lasagna dishes frozen in his basement ready for the season. But how is it coming together?? Is it needed?? I’m guessing an all out culture change is what he’s shooting for…but the x’s and o’s and focus on winning football games…is there the right balance?

That’s the question, isn’t it?  I describe above how he has a Plan, and how everything you mentioned (stripes, awards, slogans, “Illini Time”) fits into this grand Plan.  I agree with most everything he’s done.  This idea he has for “Becks Balcony” – setting up a BBQ and tents during the game for students to use the patio outside his office (northeast corner of the stadium)? BRILLIANT.  I love it so very much.  We’ve done so very little to promote student involvement over the years besides WE MUST SELL MORE STUDENT TICKETS campaigns.  Football Saturdays should be a campus-wide event, and we’ve always treated it like a football game.  I love everything that Beckman is doing to try to involve the student body.

And recruiting – he’s really impressed me with his recruiting so far.  One of the best spread quarterbacks in the country plays his football in this state? Beckman landed him.  Ron Zook left the secondary cupboard completely bare?  Mosely Day Dawson Jones Kelly Cazley.  He’s added a Director of Player Personnel (with two assistants) to cultivate relationships with coaches and players within driving distance of Champaign, setting us up for future recruiting wins.  I really think he gets it, and he’s assembled a staff to help him get there.

But… can he coach?  Can he settle the team in a timeout with 1:44 to go and come up with the correct play call?  Will he make the right call on fourth down?  Will our players be disciplined and avoid penalties and turnovers?  Those are the questions, aren’t they?

Rantoul2012 XXXIII: Mailbag 4

As I’m going through these mailbag questions, I’m noticing that many of you asked similar questions. So if you don’t see yours answered, please know that I’ve set the following guidelines as I’m responding to the questions:

1. If you sent me multiple questions, I’ll try to answer at least one of them.
2. If you asked a similar question to someone else but they worded it in a way that made my answer easier, I probably chose theirs.
3. But seriously, thanks for all the questions. I’m kind of overwhelmed by so many people sending so many questions. Thanks, seriously.
4. When you ask five really good questions like this next guy, I might just answer them all.

1. Is Church working at RB at all, or is he just a slot receiver? Is he returning kicks at all? I really liked his film and was thrilled when he came on board. However, I have a hard time seeing him as receiver given how small he is. I can’t see him doing anything but catching swing passes and bubble screens, which of course would be obvious to the defense.

I read this email right before I got to practice on Thursday, so I was able to watch for a lot of these things. As for Church, I saw him going through drills with both the tailbacks and the receivers. Which makes for an even more overwhelming camp experience for a true freshman. Learn two playbooks, adjust to the speed of the college game, adjust to being away from home for the first time – there’s a reason 90% of college football freshmen make zero impact their first year.

As for him being a “receiver”, without seeing the offense, I’m not exactly sure how that works, but I think our slot receiver position will be way more tailback-y than receiver-y. My guess for the players who get the most reps there: Miles Osei, Devin Church, and Justin Green. Maybe even some Josh Ferguson moving out and getting creative from that spot.

2. How’s Karras doing? I was under the impression that he would be the favorite to be a starter this fall and haven’t heard anything. 2a. Is Boles in shape? I had high hopes for him too but haven’t heard anything.

Dinged up and dinged up. Boles wasn’t even in Rantoul. They can only bring 105 players, and because Boles was injured, he didn’t make the trip. Karras was there, but they limited his role a bit as he nursed an injury (or maybe it was an illness, but pretty sure it was an injury).

3. Is Hill working at center at all? He was listed as a center coming out of high school, he’s clearly got talent (I like him as much as you), and our current starting center is undersized and is apparently the weakest link among the starters. You would think Hill could push him aside.

In my view, Hill is way too mobile to be a center. I want him pulling all day every day. Get him out around the corner and let him blow somebody up. I generally want my tackles to destroy people with powerful arms, I want my guards to be mobile like Jon Asamoah, and I want my centers to be drain plugs.

I think Feldmeyer can be a solid drain plug. And I think Hill can eventually be a great guard once he gets in tip top shape. Both might take some time.

4. I saw that Feldmayer is currently listed at 295, which is plenty big of course. However, its a huge step up from the weights he’d been listed at previously. Is that a legit number? Is he really 20 or 30 pounds bigger than he was when you saw him last year in Rantoul?

It’s deceiving. You see him standing between Graham Pocic and Michael Heitz and you think he’s tiny. But when I stood next to him while interviewing him, he’s plenty big to play center in the Big Ten. Especially in a spread.

5. You’ve highlighted Teitsma as a good player. Who are your other two guesses for the “two pair and a spare” at DT along with Foster and Spence?

Spence and Foster are the obvious starters. Teitsma backs up Foster, and Jake Howe backs up Spence. Both are ready to fully get their feet wet before starting next year. As for the spare, I think one of Teko Powell and Vontrell Willams redshirts and the other is our spare. Twist my arm and I’ll say… Powell is the spare.

OK, a few more for today…

Haven’t heard much on Hayden Daniels since he got on campus – there was talk of a greyshirt and he ended up redshirting last year. He’s a big body at receiver, was an athletic spread option QB in high school and comes from a family where all four siblings have played college athletics. Any chance he gets minutes later in his career? Could he bulk up and play TE like his QB-turned-NFL TE brother Owen?

Pat, is that you? Wait – the question didn’t revolve around all the things he’s done right. Wrong Fitz.

Hayden Daniels was in a green no-contact jersey all week, so he didn’t play much. Not sure what the injury was that kept him out, but he was no-contact the whole time I was there.

It’s interesting that you asked the TE question, because I was thinking the same thing. He’s pretty tall with broad shoulders, and his brother plays tight end in the NFL, so it’s only natural to think he could bulk up and move there (worked for Eddie Viliunas). But I just haven’t seen enough from him to get a read on whether he could do it.

Once healthy, he should have the opportunity, though. We’re down to seven scholarship receivers, and he’s one of them.

I know it is very early in camp, but what role do you see Tommy Davis in? Do you think he could be our primary punt and kick-off return man?

I didn’t see one punt return in Rantoul. They hadn’t gotten to that yet. They worked on the fundamentals of catching the ball, and playing the wind, but they didn’t run any full-on punt return drills. So all I know about Davis is what you know – he was the two-time first-team KR in the MAC. Which means he’ll more than likely be our returner.

As for playing much safety, I’m just not sure. I think the top-4 are clearly Supo Sanni, STEVEHULL, Earnest Thomas, and Patrick Nixon-Youman. The fifth safety is probably a tossup between my guy walkon Ben Mathis, Tommy Davis, and maybe freshman safety Taylor Barton who stuck out to me in Rantoul. So to answer your question, I think Tommy Davis was brought in to return punts first, return kickoffs second, and play safety fourth.

Rantoul2012 XXXI: Mailbag 3

Who has been used at KOR and PR? Who is the holder for kicks?

Watched for this on Thursday. In fact, I shamed myself for not watching to see who the holders were the first three days.  How could I forget to watch for holders?

KOR and PR – every non-lineman.  Seriously.  Every single one.  All I saw them work on in Rantoul was proper form for catching a punt or kickoff, and they worked on this with every tailback, linebacker, safety, wide receiver – everyone.  Maybe they’re saving specific punt return drills for closed practices.  Maybe they simply have an open competition and everyone has a shot at the job.  All I know is, there was never a “Terry and Tommy – you go over there and work on punt returns”.

Who do I think will handle it?  Total guess, but I’d say it’s between Ryan Lankford, Terry Hawthrone, and NIU transfer Tommy Davis for punt return.  Wildcard: Miles Osei.  For kickoff return, I’d guess some of the freshmen tailbacks get a look (Devin Church, LaKeith Walls), as well as some receivers (Lankford, Darius Millines).  Josh Ferguson, too, plus some secondary guys like Hawthorne, Davis, and Justin Green.  Wildcard: Miles Osei.

Holder? Looks like two guys.  Tim Russell and, you guessed it, Miles Osei.  My guess is Osei wins the job.  Maybe all of them.

I am intrigued by T J Neal. Will he play a role at all this year. I understand his back up role at linebacker, but is special teams in the mix, or is this a wait and see year?

I have to be honest – I didn’t see much from Neal in Rantoul.  The majority of time I noticed him, Mike Ward was teaching him something in breakout drills (positioning stuff).  I can’t remember him in any 7 on 7 or 11 on 11 drills.  Maybe he was nicked up and they held him out of contact?  Not sure.

I DID notice both Mike Svetina and Mason Monheim.  Monheim was running with the twos one day (Bates-Brown-Williams first string, Monheim-Dickinson-Fuller second string).  Does any of this mean much?  No.  It’s the first week of fall camp.  I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Neal is ahead of both Svetina and Monheim next week.

But from what I saw from the freshmen linebackers, I’d say Monheim was in front with Svetina being kind of eye opening for a lower ranked kid.

If you were the OC, what WR/TEs would be in rotation?

*sits forward in chair*  Me?  You mean, I’M the offensive coordinator?? I’m glad you asked.  Here we go.

I’d make the following “touches” list, and then I’d gameplan around these 10 guys getting touches in this order:

1. Darrius Millines
2. Jon Davis
3. Justin Green
4. Terry Hawthorne
5. Matt LaCosse
6. Ryan Lankford
7. Spencer Harris
8. Evan Wilson
9. Peter Bonahoom
10. Devin Church

Why? So glad you asked.

Millines because he can be junior year AJ (if he stays healthy). Davis because he’s the best overall athlete on the offense (size and strength without losing speed or agility). Green because I wanted everyone to react with YOU PUT GREEN IN FRONT OF HAWTHORNE? Hawthorne because he was born to play football. LaCosse because he can be the Iowa tight end we’ve all hated over the years. Lankford because he and Nathan have that McCoy/Shipley friendship that sometimes translates to a full understanding of each other on the football field. Harris because I still want you all to see him go up and highpoint a pass in the endzone. Wilson because we need a tall target. Bonahoom because we need a possession receiver who won’t drop the ball. And Church because he’s shifty.

What two players (one on each side of the ball) will be standouts on our 2015 Rose Bowl team?

I love this question.  Question of the day award for Trevor.  That was magical, Trevor.

Since I obviously can’t pick Aaron Bailey, because Aaron Bailey isn’t in Champaign yet which means he wasn’t in Rantoul which means I can’t pick him for a “what two players that you saw in Rantoul will be standouts on our 2015 Rose Bowl team” question, I’ll go with our two most fortunate redshirts, Darrius Caldwell and Josh Ferguson.

If Caldwell stays on the same path as Michael Buchanan (get stronger every year, get better every practice), then he can be just as good if not better.  Give him four years in the same defense and I think he emerges in 2015 as one of the top pass rushers in the nation.  He’d definitely win the award for “most salivating player” in Rantoul.

Honorable mention: TaJarvis Fuller.  That 2015 defense is the Caldwell/Fuller defense that we’ll talk about for years.

For Josh Ferguson, well, I haven’t said anything crazy in a while, have I?  Nothing on the level of “Juice will be Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year”, right?  I’ve felt this one building for a while, so I might as well toss it out there.  Ready?  Here goes:

In career all-purpose yardage, Robert Holcombe is tops in Illini history with 4,737 yards.  Ferguson should shatter that.

Rantoul2012 XXX: Mailbag 2

More mailbag…

Would we have the best DL in the country if Whitney stayed?

Yes. Well, the best starters at least.

Three NFL players (plus Glenn Foster with a shot to hang on somewhere). Two of the top three defensive ends in the Big Ten. We were 6th out of 120 teams in sacks last season – you’d have to think we could be #1 had everyone returned.

It would be one of those topics where we’d throw out the stat in front of an Alabama fan and they’d LOLOLOLOL for a while and then we’d show them some draft guru’s rankings of Mercilus and Buchanan and Spence and they’d start to quiet down and then we’d show them last year’s sack and TFL totals and they’d stammer and grumble and him without hawing, finally mumbling “roll damn tide” and sulking away. Woulda been epic.

Alas, Whit is gone, so we’re, like, 9th best.

What do you think the biggest difference is between the Zook regime and the Beckman era? My impression was that the talented guys never fully blossomed because they always knew Zook had their back. Does Beckman et. al. seem to be the type to light someone up if needed?

Similar to the question from the last mailbag, but I like that this dicussed Zook as a “had their back” coach. TOTALLY true. He fancied himself as a father figure to his guys – the kind of father figure that cancels your grounding and hands you the car keys when mom goes to bed. He loved coaching young men and being there with an open office door. This was both a positive (look at his relationship with Eddie McGee) and a negative (as you mentioned, many players somewhat coasted with a coach who they knew would give them a hug when they came off the field).

I think it’s too early to say yet, but if I had to guess, Tim Beckman won’t be the “light them up” type. I could see him more as the organized father type. “Your father wants to see you in his office”. And then you walk in and he pulls out the code of conduct and lets you know exactly how you’re letting yourself down and your family down.

To your concern, I don’t think that will be an issue. Meaning, coasting players and undisciplined play because of a “we’re just one big happy family” head coach. I think Tim Beckman wants to build the depth to where you play because of your effort, not because you’ve earned it by being a junior or senior. Make a mistake, and it won’t be “we’ll get that fixed”; I think it will be “he’s not holding up his end of the bargain so he’ll sit at the start of the next game”.

What drills are being used to ingrain proper footwork with the quarterbacks? While this scheme would seem to prioritize quick decision-making and accuracy, could you comment on the drills being used to improve accuracy and velocity? (Hey, it’s memorial stadium; at some point, the QB’s gonna hafta drive the ball on a quick slant.)

If (or more accurately, “when”) Nate wins the starting job, are the coaches concerned about O’Toole transferring to a program that can offer him PT? If so, how do they intend to keep him “involved” in the offense in 2012-13?

Second part first. I really have no concerns about an O’Toole transfer. First, because I think we’ll use both quarterbacks and try to do different packages. Heck, we might see three quarterbacks used in one game, with a package for Miles Osei as well.

Second, if you follow our players on Twitter, you’ll see that Scheelhaase, Osei, and O’Toole are ridiculously tight. Best friends tight. Travel to Cedar Point to ride roller coasters tight. Tweet about a 2:00 am meal tight. Those three plus Ryan Lankford are apparently very close friends. I asked both Nathan and Reilly about it those four in Rantoul, and both of their answers were pretty much “cause we’re the four best friends that anyone could have”. When Nate comes out and Reilly comes in, I think he’ll legitimately be pulling for Reilly to go 7 for 7 and lead a touchdown drive.

As to the first part of your question, which I’m answering second, even though I opened the last two paragraphs with the word “second”, the first week of camp seemed to be specifically catered towards installing the offense. So the majority of the offensive drills seemed to be focused on “trips right, tight end in motion, you read the mike and the weakside DE to determine if…”

I did see several “here’s the footwork for this turn and fire” drills, though. Take the snap in the shotgun, footwork to load the arm, quick release. The quarterback who performed best in those drills? Miles Osei.

I would like to know if guys like Terry Hawthorne, Miles Osei, and Justin Green are taking snaps at the WR position. As you have well articulated many times, the Illini are thin at WR and I would like to know what the coaching staff are really doing beyond speculation.

Osei? Absolutely. I saw him run through position drills with the quarterbacks, the running backs, and the wide receivers. I think we’ll see him all over the field.

Hawthorne and Green? Didn’t see a single drill or a single 7-on-7/11-on-11 formation where they lined up with the offense. Does this mean they won’t really be used there? Does it mean that the defensive coaches want to install the entire defense before they lose their fastest two guys to an offensive drill? Not sure. But if you went looking for guys at multiple positions this camp, you’d have seen Jon Davis and Miles Osei, not Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green.

Rantoul2012 XXIX: Mailbag 1

Finally sitting down to go through some mailbag questions. And by “sitting down”, I mean “sitting in the passenger seat typing on my laptop while my wife drives”.

The urgency I feel to answer every mailbag question before I forget everything is astounding. I woke up thinking about it. I keep refreshing my memory (“Nowicki at right tackle, McDowell mostly at left tackle”) just to make sure nothing is forgotten. With seven observed practices comes great responsibility. Or something like that.

To the mailbag:

Which backup/starter battle is the most interesting to you?

This is hard to answer, mostly because injuries play a role in most all of them. There’s a battle between Earnest Thomas and STEVEHULL at strong safety, but that’s mostly because Hull’s shoulder injury still lingers and he’s limited in practice (and wearing a green no-contact jersey). I’d guess there’s a battle for right guard between newly-moved Michael Heitz and redshirt freshman Teddy Karras, but Karras has been injured and Heitz gets all the reps.

So I’ll go with Tim Kynard and Justin Staples at strongside defensive end. I came to camp thinking Staples would be the guy, but I think it’s still a question whether Staples is strong enough – “holds the edge”, if you will – against the run. Staples is easily our second best pass rusher behind Mike Buke. But can he be an every down strongside? Or will he be a situational pass rusher? Whichever it is, Kynard will have something to say about it.

Who is coaching the receivers and is there hope the offense will be improved over 2011?

One easy question, one that might take 600 words.

Co-offensive coordinator Billy Gonzales is the wide receivers coach. That’s his specialty – he coached the receivers under Urban Meyer at Bowling Green, Utah, and Florida, and then was the passing game coordinator (and receivers coach) at LSU.

Will the offense improve? That’s the season, right there. If we see the same offense we saw in the final seven games last season, we’re 4-8 or worse. If we can improve, maybe 6-6. Recapture the first six games of 2011? 8-4 or better.

Good as our defense is, I think Louisiana Tech will put up 31 points on us. Will we get enough offense to win 41-31? Wisconsin probably runs all over us, solid run defense or no solid run defense. Can we outgain them with a crisp, up-tempo spread? There’s the season.

The reason the question is so hard to answer is because we really don’t know what kind of offense we’ll run. Up-tempo like Oregon? A stand-deep-with-short-passes spread like Missouri? Tebow jump passes? Holgersonmania? We just don’t know.

So I’ll just say this. We’re going back to the spread, which is what Nathan Scheelhaase was recruited to run. He then spent his freshman and sophomore years running a multiple pro-set with some pistol. Will he flourish in our new scheme (whatever it is)? That’s the key.

Oh, and we have to find a few more receivers. And we have to hope that Hugh Thornton works at left tackle.

One more thing – we don’t have any upperclassman tailbacks.

OK, just one more. Only two seniors on the entire offense.

But if all of that falls into place, we will OWN.

My question is about Coach Beckman. You have stated that this camp is run a lot differently than Coach Zook’s camps. My question is, how differently are Coach Zook and Coach Beckman involved in the actual practices? Do they actually coach or are they more CEO types?

There’s several layers to this question. First off, 2009 Zook and 2010 Zook were two different coaches. 2009 Zook was much more involved; 2010 Zook was relegated to Special Teams Coach while Petrino ran the offense and Koenning ran the defense.

But if I’m comparing 2011 Camp Rantoul to 2012 Camp Rantoul, I’d say the biggest difference is intentionality. As I said yesterday, the practices are actually quite similar. Walkthrough, stretching, position drills, 11 on 11, etc. I’d imagine many practices across the country are similar. The difference, to me, is that everything Tim Beckman does appears to be intentional. Zook was more, I don’t know, random intensity.

Tim Beckman has a plan. He has an “Illini Football Manual” that includes everything from player expectations to Illini history. He has a meticulous schedule for every practice and meeting. He wants his players to say “yes ma’am” to a professor. He has dozens of meetings with his coaching staff to make sure everyone is on the same page.

As such, his practices grow from that. He wants to have a solid punt coverage team, so I’m guessing he lays out the 12 specific skills each of those players will need, implementing one per practice. The gunners learn swim moves one day and downing a punt the next. The three punt protectors learn how to spot an overloaded punt blitz. The main coverage guys learn how to shed a block. Each day, something else is added. (Please note that I’m only guessing here – I’ve observed some of these things and projecting that out over an entire August camp given the way Beckman operates).

So there you go. Beckman is intentional while Zook was intense.

As for the “CEO vs. coach” thing, I’d say the last two years have been similar. Beckman is involved in breakout sessions (linebackers over here, tight ends over there), but no specific position. During 11 on 11 drills, he’s in the catbird seat, looking on from behind the QB, similar to how Zook operated. The main difference I see is that Zook oversaw special teams the last two years, and this year it’s Tim Salem.

All of that to say this. Tim Beckman has a very specific plan. Down to the minute. Ron Zook, while organized in practice structure, didn’t appear to have an overarching plan. Shocker, I know.

You have commented on the changes that you see with coaching on special teams. But how about the other coaches and their approach to coaching compared to coaches you have seen in the past at Camp Rantoul? Is there more emphasis on fundamentals? Are they “yellers”?

I want to be careful how I answer this. The coaching staff is very accommodating to mediatypes in Rantoul, agreeing to interviews and opening up the practices to the public. So I don’t want to sit here and say “I SAW COACH BUTKUS CALL SHAWN AFRYL A COTTON-HEADED NINNYMUGGINS.”

So I’ll answer the “yellers” question this way. No coach in this camp came anywhere close to Paul Petrino, who probably needed to wear a “Max, can you earmuff for me?” tshirt.

Emphasis on fundamentals? Absolutely. I’d say nearly every assistant, from Jim Pry five years ago to Mike Ward this year, is obsessed with teaching fundamentals. The difference I saw this year was the general “football” things. How to grip a ball when you’ve scooped and are running to score. How to field a pooch kickoff if you’re an up-man (and every player learns this). How to cover up a fumble (and every player learns this).

I think those examples reveal the biggest difference. Coach Zook would have his 4 returners learn how to properly catch a kickoff. Coach Beckman has every non-lineman learn. So when that kickoff into the wind falls short and some linebacker is gonna have to catch it, they’ll be ready.

I know, crazy, right?

I have a 45 second wifi window here. Posting without editing. SOC mailbag!