The return of We Love No Other! After taking the summer off, the podcast returns with a very special episode. Don’t worry, my recording issues, the volume changes, and the parts where I sound like I’m speaking from a cave – they’re all still there. It’s a special episode because I have five guests, and they’re here to tell you about the best job on campus: [Read more...]
Some of you may have noticed the little floating ticket showing up this morning. Some of you notice the floating ticket every day, but for subscribers, specifically the people who subscribed on the first day last year, one year is up as of this morning. So let’s talk about subscriptions and renewals, shall we? [Read more...]
Sometimes, you simply discover a star. And because of that star, your whole team is better.
Take the 2011 Illini. 59% of the reason that team went to a bowl and won it: Whitney Mercilus. Not just the 15.5 sacks, but the 22.5 tackles for loss and the nine forced fumbles (seriously, nine – second most in NCAA history). And the quarterback hurries. And the corner he held on a running play forcing the tailback outside giving time for Nate Bussey to get into that space and bring down the tailback for a 1 yard gain instead of a 6 yard gain. When you have a star like that, nearly every series he makes a play to impact the game. There aren’t any “wins above replacement” stats for college football that I know of (too many players), but Whitney Mercilus in 2011 was as singularly responsible for a bowl game as any Illini player has ever been.
This is all over college football, of course. Look at Boston College last year. They had gone 4-8 and then 2-10, and Andre Williams, as a junior that 2-10 season, rushed for only 584 yards. Then, in 2013, a Mercilus year. Williams rushes for the 5th-most yards in NCAA history (2,177 yards) as a senior, and Boston College goes 7-5 and bowling. Credit goes to the new coaching staff for discovering a star on the bench, so I’m sure BC fans hate the former staff for not giving the ball to Williams when he was a sophomore and a junior, but it’s also kind of a perfect storm thing. The right scheme, a player coming into his own, the necessary linemen, and presto, a 2-10 team goes 7-5. Mostly on the back of one player.
And it doesn’t have to be a “fifth most rushing yards in NCAA history” kind of thing either. Ra’Shede Hageman last year somewhat transformed a so-so Minnesota defense into an 8-4 bowl defense with his ability to constantly get in the backfield (and his somewhat crazy ability to knock down passes). Penn State’s offense is nothing last year if they can’t throw jump balls to Allen Robinson, who finished with almost 100 catches. Auburn discovered a running game with Tre Mason (and Jay Prosch!) and went from 3-9 to the national title game. Sometimes, one really, really good player can make a huge difference.
Why do I bring this up? Because I’m always scanning the horizon for a star. Every team lucks into a star every now and then. Sure, some of it is recruiting at a high level, but every once in a while, you recruit a 2-star defensive back from Kansas City with very few offers (Brandon Lloyd) and he becomes one of the best wide receivers in team history. It’s a big game of roulette, and every now and then, you hit on the right number out of 38.
I should note here that I don’t mean to suggest that finding a star is the reason teams are successful. You still have to do all of the other things – implement a scheme, recruit to it, fill your two-deep with upperclassmen – but finding a star can sometimes push you over the top.
Which begs the question… is there a star on this roster? Whitney Mercilus was completely unknown going into the 2011 season, having been a backup defensive end who played sparingly in 2010, but halfway through the season he was showing up on potential first-team All American lists. Suggesting that he’d be a first-team All American before that season would have been similar to suggesting that Kenny Nelson will be a first team All American after this season. You would have called me crazy.
But still… is there a player that could break out like that? I’ll give you three – two of which are obvious and one which is not.
1. Josh Ferguson
This one is obvious. He put up 1,314 yards rushing and receiving last year, which was good for 9th in the Big Ten in All Purpose Yards. APY also includes return yardage, of which Ferguson only had 37 yards before concentrating fully on tailback, so if we’re just looking at rushing + receiving, he was seventh in the conference. Three of the players above him on that last graduated, so he’ll likely be battling Ameer Abdullah from Nebraska, Tevin Coleman from Indiana, and Melvin Gordon from Wisconsin for the Big Ten lead in that category.
This fall, he’ll be asked to be The Guy. The line returns four starters, which always suggests improvement, and the offense lost four receivers, which suggests a reliance on tailbacks and tight ends. He’ll need help from Donovonn Young and Devin Church – they have to provide solid minutes so that Ferguson keeps his fresh legs the entire game – but this offense will almost certainly be designed around what he can do.
So can he take a huge leap? If he provided 1,300 yards rushing/receiving last season, can he get close to 2,000 this year? Can he sniff some postseason accolades? Here’s hoping for a huge, Rashard-Mendenhall-or-Mikel-Leshore-their-junior-seasons leap forward.
2. Wes Lunt
This is the other obvious one, right? The question here is simple – what if he’s Jeff George?
That’s a lot to put on him, I know. But the comparisons are inevitable. Highly touted coming out of high school, but chose another program (George was Purdue; Lunt was Oklahoma State). Arrived as a transfer after things didn’t work out at the other school, sitting out a year while learning the offense. Big, strong arm that can make all the NFL throws.
So… what if? What if he’s everything we’re hoping he’ll be? What if he’s the perfect quarterback for Bill Cubit’s system? What if Ferguson takes some pressure off the green receivers and with two senior tight ends, Cubit constructs an offense around Lunt’s amazing arm? What if Lunt’s trip to Washington in September goes the same as George’s trip to USC in September 1989?
That’s a lot of what-ifs. But of any player on this roster, Wes Lunt has the physical tools to fulfill a crazy wish list like that. He’ll probably need some time adjusting – he’s only a sophomore – but still… what if?
3. Earnest Thomas
I considered Kenny Nelson here, just for the “fourth year junior comes out of nowhere at defensive end” Mercilus comparisons. And I thought about Teko Powell, who will anchor the interior of the defensive line as a junior. But this is a list of “and then he had this amazing season which completely transformed that side of the ball” players, and the player with the best chance of doing that on defense is Earnest Thomas.
Thomas has bounced around in his first four years in Champaign. His first two years – his redshirt year and his redshirt-freshman year – he was a linebacker. Specifically, he was learning from Nate Bussey and Ashante Williams at the outside Sam Linebacker position. When Tim Beckman arrived, he saw that he was very short on safeties, so he moved Thomas to strong safety. Now, for his final season, he’s back to his more natural position of outside linebacker.
Some are surprised to learn that Thomas was 7th in the Big Ten with 8.4 tackles per game last season. With a move to a better position for him, it’s possible that he has a very Nate Bussey-like senior season. Bussey moved to that spot as a senior, had a fantastic season, and ended up getting drafted by the Saints because of it. The hope is that Thomas’ move there produces similar results. Maybe even “where did THAT come from?” results.
That’s the hope, anyway. When looking over this roster, those are the three players who might have a Mercilus- or Leshoure-like “where did THAT come from?” season. And really, it doesn’t have to be one of those three. Makes no difference who they are. That’s my heart’s desire, anyway.
Took another son to college yesterday. We’ve been over this – I’m the world’s oldest 41 year-old – and now I get to include “empty-nester” to the list. This won’t be another long personal post – I just wanted to point out the life milestone. World’s most well-equipped blogger in understanding the mindset of college dudes? I have three of them, so I win. [Read more...]
I watched a little bit of everything this morning, trying to keep track of mailbag questions and tweets and such. I’ll get to the mailbag here in a bit (I compile a master list of questions first, so if you don’t see your question answered, I likely consolidated it with someone else’s question), but first, here’s some audio interviews with Coach Ward talking about his inside linebackers and Coach Cubit talking about his offense (specifically his receivers and tight ends). [Read more...]
That was it last year, right? Young defensive line, one senior in the rotation, played OK in the non-conference but once the Big Ten season arrived, opponents seemed to get six yards every carry. If your opponent doesn’t have to throw, you’re in trouble.
So today, I spent every single moment watching the defensive line. I wanted to see the newcomers, I wanted to see the improvement of the underclassmen, and I wanted to see if we’re developing the right mix of scheme and personnel. I watched them in drills, I watched them in 11 on 11 – it was simply all defensive line all the time. If you ask me how Lunt, Bailey, and O’Toole looked, I won’t have an answer for you. I think they might have been out there?
I also talked to the coaches about the line afterwards – both the defensive line coach (Greg Colby) and head coach Tim Beckman. Enough prefacing – you get it. Defensive line all day. My thoughts:
Players Who Stood Out
Before I start with the first name, you have to promise me something. Clean slate your defensive line thoughts. If you hated Jake Howe or you loved Kenny Nelson last year (or whoever), toss out those thoughts. Players change from year to year, mostly for the better, and sometimes a player can look like Glenn Foster as a sophomore and then suddenly you’re watching Glenn Foster as a senior and it’s not even the same guy. So toss it all out and give ‘em a clean slate.
Austin Teitsma goes harder in practice than any other defensive lineman. If practice effort was graded on a scale of 1-50, Teitsma is at 48 while the next closest lineman would be around 34. Watch every drill, he’s the fastest, goes the hardest, and draws the most praise. If football were simply effort and heart, Teitsma is first team All Conference. As it is, he’s a shorter, somewhat smaller guy playing nose tackle. He’s not going to play in the NFL.
But he can still be a very solid defensive lineman for us this year. He appears to have reached max strength to combine with his max effort. Here’s hoping for a solid senior season.
The second player who stood out to me – and this was the biggest surprise – was DeJazz Woods. I feel like I’m in this unique position of remembering players from Camp Rantouls past – most of the media and even the coaching staff has changed over from five years ago – and I’m not sure I can come up with words to describe DeJazz Woods the freshman vs. DeJazz Woods the fifth year senior. He was so lost in 2010. No strength, no speed, no size – totally overwhelmed by the whole thing. And today was DeJazz Woods… jumbo athlete? He had put on weight (intentionally) for years so he could play defensive tackle, and then he dropped some of that weight so he could play defensive end, and then he dropped even more of that weight so he can play Leo.
On signing day, I said something like “I hope Carroll Phillips is ready at Leo because Dawuane Smoot isn’t ready yet and DeJazz Woods isn’t the answer.” After today I’m thinking… maybe Woods is the answer? Still a long way to go – a few great plays in practice mean nothing when compared to lining up across from Nebraska’s offensive line – but his transformation from freshman to 5th year senior is pretty surprising.
Another pleasant surprise: Paul James III. Not so much a surprise in that he’s a good player (*cites Alabama and Florida State offers for 100th time*), but surprised that he looked much better than the spring. I watched these same drills with most of these same players in the spring, and James is the one who has come the farthest in the last five months. I’m super excited for what he gives us in two years. Because go ahead and mark him down in ink as the starting defensive end in 2016 and 2017 no matter what coach or system is here.
This year will be a learning and growing experience for him. I’m sure some OL will make him look silly at times, especially in the run game. But that right there is an NFL frame. Put him on the same path as Woods and what we get in 2017 should be pretty amazing.
One other standout was Rob (not Robbie anymore) Bain. He moved over from offensive line to defensive line and has been learning the position for 18 months. He played a fair bit last year as a freshman, and if today was any indication, he’s still on track to increase those minutes this year. It looks like he’ll be more of a first-down, run stopping defensive tackle, but that’s fine – we really need those.
Players Who Were Right About Where I Expected Them To Be
I think Jihad Ward met every one of my expectations. Not just that he’s a physical specimen, but also that he has so much technique to learn. It’s so much more than “push past that guy and go get the quarterback”. So many of the running plays that went for 12 yards last year could have been reduced to three yards if the defensive end had only gotten one shoulder and arm inside one offensive lineman’s block. So they practice these off-the-line moves over and over and over and over in fall camp. The players need to be ready to explode off the line with excellent technique if we’re going to stop anyone this fall.
Ward is a monster – every bit of 6′-6″, every bit of 295 lbs. He’s just this giant, supersized human. So when the players line up across from each other to practice hand technique (block the offensive lineman’s right wrist like this and then fork the lineman’s left arm between your thumb and forefinger, etc), he’s lined up across from walkon defensive tackle Brandon Roberts and Ward just dwarfs him. Roberts is no small guy, but Ward is just that much bigger.
So with Ward, it will come down to technique. Can he pick it up quickly? Will he understand the defense and his play-by-play assignment? So much to learn in the next three weeks.
Two other guys who are right where I expected them to be are Teko Powell and Chunky Clements. Both were very talented, high three-star kids coming out of high school so much more is expected from them than the other DL recruits (in my book). Both seem to be on track – Teko for a solid junior season and then a really great senior year; Chunky for a decent sophomore campaign, followed by a solid junior season and then a really great senior year. From my read, they were definitely in the top three of the DL rotation. Teitsma, Powell, Clements, and then up for grabs as to the fourth and fifth guy.
Jake Howe was probably right about where I expected him to be. I’d really like to see him stake a claim to being the fourth guy on that list above – that’s every senior’s job. Right now, he’s probably right there – Teitsma’s backup at nose tackle while Chunky is Teko’s backup on the other side. I wish Howe was in the category above, but for now, he’s right where he’s expected to be.
Players Who Left Me Wanting More
After an outstanding spring, I wanted to see Kenny Nelson blow my mind at defensive end this morning. He didn’t. Maybe it’s because he was lining up with Teitsma a lot, and Teitsma goes so incredibly hard, but it didn’t appear that Nelson had made some of the summer strides that other players had made. Just one practice – I mean, maybe his roommate snores and he didn’t get much sleep – but I went there this morning hoping for “let’s DO this, Kenny Nelson” and I just didn’t see it.
I was also hoping Joe Fotu would be pushing the underclassmen for one of those backup defensive tackle spots, but he’s not doing that just yet. It’s still early – with juco guys, I always think of halfway through their junior season before it starts to click for them – but right now Fotu is probably the fifth defensive tackle. I think it will really help when he settles at a position. This spring he was at strongside end, and now he’s trying both defensive tackle spots. I’m not giving up on him by any means, but right now he’s fifth.
Dawuane Smoot is that “why can’t I see it?” guy. I hear the coaches refer to him all the time, but when I watch him live, I’m always “he’s getting there, but not there yet”. He’s really big (275 lbs?), so I keep expecting to see him switch to strongside end instead of weakside end (Leo). Maybe he does have the speed to play Leo, or maybe he’s just there as a placeholder until we find another player ready to fill that spot. Of course, with Carroll Phillips moving to will linebacker, maybe Smoot does stay at Leo all four years because he’s our only option. Still want more.
Finally, there’s Abe Cajuste. I just didn’t see anything from him today that would suggest he’s ready to find his way into the rotation. It’s a weird case, with Cajuste playing a fair bit and then falling completely off the radar last year, but right now, if there are six defensive tackles, he’s sixth.
Actually, there are seven defensive tackles. I think true freshman Tito Odenigbo is going to be tried at 3-technique tackle first, and I should probably put him somewhere on this list. He doesn’t belong in “Players Who Left Me Wanting More” – perhaps he’s in his own “players who are in their 6th day of college football and, just like 90% of true freshman across the country, have a really long way to go” list. Nice frame, though.
OK, I think I’ve covered everyone. Today – not sure if temporary or permanent – freshman linebacker Henry McGrew was playing Leo, as was walkon linebacker Nathan Echard. If Phillips stays at Will linebacker, one of those two guys will likely be our third-string Leo.
Overall, I do think the line is much improved over last year. To what degree, we won’t find out until September. Actually, we won’t find out until November. Can we play a deep enough rotation that the line doesn’t crumble in November? We shall see.
Thing to hang your hat on if you’re looking for positives: the 2015 defensive line is shaping up to be really solid. 2016 too. 2014 will be a work in progress.
Not everyone plays.
That’s the harsh reality in college football. Any college sport, really. Kids who dominated entire conferences in high school are suddenly fighting with 14 other high school superstars for five spots on an offensive line. And the weeding-out process continues in college, with Heisman winners failing to even get drafted. More than one million high school football players, 10,625 FBS scholarships, 256 NFL draft spots every year.
On that continuum, Shawn Afryl was the high school superstar who got one of those college scholarships but never found the starting lineup. We’re crass, so we say that they’re a “bust” or, if we’re attempting to be kind, that they “never panned out”, and we even go as far as to start to discuss who might fill their scholarship the minute they transfer. Fans have this insatiable thirst for victories, so maybe the next guy can crack the starting lineup. There’s always a next guy.
For those of us looking in from the outside, that was Shawn Afryl’s path. Graduated high school early and arrived in Champaign early. Redshirted his first year, and then didn’t play his redshirt freshman season. Then, a coaching change, with the line coach who brought him here moving on and a new scheme/position coach for his redshirt sophomore season. He did play, once, in the Charleston Southern game in 2012. I always watch for guys like Shawn during our FCS games. I want to see their reaction to their first “Afryl, get in there” moment. I hope it was amazing for Shawn.
After that 2012 season, a decision. He was still technically a “sophomore” in football terms that spring, but in school he was a senior, getting ready to graduate after seven semesters. With the new coaching staff recruiting players for their scheme, should he go to grad school and stick it out? Transfer? Go somewhere he could play? Afryl chose to graduate and leave, ending up at Winona State in Minnesota.
And that’s what he was doing last night. During an informal football practice with teammates at Winona State, Shawn Afryl collapsed and died during voluntary strength and conditioning drills. 22 years old, college graduate, the chance to play one more season of college football, and it’s gone. He’s gone.
For me, as it is for many of you I’m sure, his untimely death is an unfortunate time machine back to similar circumstances in our own lives. For me it was 1997 and my friend Mark who, just 383 days after I stood up in his wedding, collapsed and died playing sand volleyball. He was a college basketball player – he remains the all-time leading scorer at Division III Fontbonne University in St. Louis – and suddenly he was gone at age 25. The autopsy showed the cause to be hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or HCM. Reggie Lewis, Hank Gathers, Gaines Adams, and many other athletes have died suddenly from HCM. Mark was happy, healthy, and in love, and then Mark was gone.
I had the privilege of giving the eulogy at Mark’s funeral, and in preparing for it, not knowing what to say, I gathered all of our friends together to get their words about Mark. Because of that experience, and because I couldn’t begin to do Shawn Afryl’s memory justice as a blogger who spoke with him only a few times, I decided to let his friends tell you about him.
You see, he might have only played that once, but that’s not how college football works. There are film rooms. There are pregame rituals with second-stringers leading the charge. There are late night chats about football and class and life, and it’s usually not the superstars handing out the wisdom. The Illini football team is a family, and they lost a family member yesterday, and I want his brothers to tell you about him. So using direct messages on Twitter (phone calls just didn’t feel right here), I asked several of his offensive line brethren to share their thoughts about him.
Like Alex Hill. Hill arrived in Champaign with Afryl as a member of the 2010 recruiting class. The 2010 offensive line recruiting class, to be exact. I asked him for his thoughts about Shawn.
“The best man I had the opportunity to meet. He never showed signs of being down and always had a happy spirit. We came here together in 2010 and he was one of the first friends I made. Seeing him gone honestly breaks my heart. But at least he got to do what he loves one more time, and that’s football.”
Michael Heitz, also a member of that 2010 class, said the same. “Great, super caring guy. Would do anything for you if you asked. One of the hardest workers I know.”
Simon Cvijanvoic was the fourth member of that 2010 offensive line class. His response: “Shawn was a great kid. He worked really hard and I saw the love for the game in him. It’s really sad to know he’s gone. He was a great friend.”
I also wanted to get the perspective of older Illini players who played with Afryl. So I asked Jeff Allen, now with the Kansas City Chiefs, and Corey Lewis, who just finished his career, if they could share a few thoughts. Responding via Twitter can be a bit abbreviated and maybe even awkward, but I thought that they were both quite eloquent.
Jeff Allen: “Shawn was a great teammate and friend. He was always willing to put in the work and never complained. Us playing together on the O-line created a bond that we all shared and that’s a true brotherhood. I’m truly saddened to hear this news.”
Corey Lewis: “Shawn was a great dude, man. He always thought about others before himself. Never a day where he pouted or walked around feeling sorry for himself. Truly a class act, and he brought energy and effort to the facility every day. Tough to see such a great teammate, friend, and O-line brother go.”
Did you catch that? “Never a day where he pouted or walked around feeling sorry for himself”. “Always willing to put in the work and never complained”. “Never showed signs of being down and always had a happy spirit.” “Brought energy to the facility every day.” We the fans sit around complaining that a certain player can’t crack the two-deep, or that they “disappoint” us when they finally start. And here’s a kid dealing with coaching changes, scheme changes, and an eventual transfer with a “happy spirit”. All of that hard work, very little payoff from the world’s perspective, but his teammates still speak of the inspiration they drew from his love of the game.
Sure, not everybody plays. But everyone contributes. And Shawn Afryl, it appears, gave more than most.
I was only gone six days, and it’s the middle of the summer, but a lot happened while I was gone. I tried to keep up with all of the necessary LLUOI posts, but there’s more stuff to cover. That’s what this post will be. Quick thoughts on everything that’s going on. Starting with Coach Ricker leaving for Miznoz. [Read more...]
I did a Google search for “freshman jersey numbers” just to see if other teams/bloggers care about this like I care about this. The results, in order: Alabama 24/7 site, LSU 24/7 site, Ohio State blog, Michigan blog, Alabama newspaper, Notre Dame blog, Michigan blog, my #FJND post from last year! Until the entire world follows Illini Football. [Read more...]
Happy Festivus, everyone. Festivus is a December holiday, of course, but to me, Festivus lives in our hearts throughout the year. So if someone wants to hold the Feats Of Strength in September, I say more power to them. As such, this is me celebrating the annual rite of The Airing Of Grievances on a Monday in June.