Around the Big Ten (The Schools Within Driving Distance)

Before we continue with more of my thoughts on the remaining Big Ten schools, I want to extend an apology to you all because it’s been quite some time since I last had anything published.  My excuses are good though, I promise.

First, I was fortunate enough to play host to my dad and sister for a week when they came to visit.  I couldn’t be happier that I got to show them around my new stomping grounds all while being there to experience their first time across the pond.  We couldn’t have asked for a better week, I got to show them some amazing places around Austria and the weather cooperated by being superb the whole time.  My dad also got to see me play a game live – his first since the Miami game of last year – and it happened to work out that I shot 5/6 from three on my way to 26 points in a much needed win for my team.  My performance also awarded me with my 2nd player of the week award from my league.

Secondly, I’ve had a hellacious basketball schedule the past ten days, in which three games in that span all resulted in losses.  It’s been a tough week but I think my team can pull through and get it together in time for the playoffs, which start the second week of April.  Even still, the fact that my team has secured at least 4th place in the regular season is an accomplishment considering we were picked to finish 7th in the preseason!

My last excuse can  be blamed on the TV drama Scandal, where I managed to watch the entire series in a matter of four days.  After my rough calculation, I figure I spent a total of 27 hours in that four day span in front of my computer watching Olivia Pope do work.  And the President.

But okay, enough with my excuses.  Here are some stories from schools in the Big Ten that we had to bus to for games.

Northwestern – Welsh-Ryan Arena – Capacity 8,117

Northwestern and Welsh-Ryan Arena felt more like a really big high school gym rather than a really small college arena.  In fact, a capacity of 8,000+ surprises me a little.  I thought it would be smaller than that.

In my four years as an Illini, we went 2-2 in Evanston, with some really tough losses coming in my first two years.  However, one memory stands out above the rest and I think I will share it here.  I couldn’t laugh about it then, but enough time has passed that I’ve gotten over it.

It was my freshman year, and we had just lost a game that would end up costing us the NCAA tournament that year.  After the game and I’m sure as you can imagine, coach Weber was furiously upset.  I can vividly recall him storming into the locker room, his face already a new shade of bright red, and just unleashing a tirade of insults and expletives directed at us but to no one in particular.  That was one of the angriest times I had ever seen coach, but it’s not like we didn’t deserve it.  We had just lost our chance at the NCAA tournament.  He always used to say, “Don’t pay attention to the volume or the adjectives, just listen to the message behind them.”

The message that day was that we screwed up.  Big time.  And like I said, this loss meant no NCAA tournament for us this year.

Positioned next to coach while he was losing his voice for the remainder of his career, was a Gatorade cooler that was filled to the brim with freshly made red liquid.  It all happened so suddenly so I’m not quite sure what exactly went down, but in the blink of an eye, that blood red Gatorade had made its way out of the container and onto a very surprised and now soaking wet Mike Tisdale.

It was in his hair, on his jersey, and puddled underneath him but still, nobody dared to move a muscle.

I think that was the fastest and most silent we had ever left a locker room.  It wasn’t until years later when the incident was brought up again by D.J, Brandon, Joe and I sometime in our senior year.  It wasn’t funny then, but enough time has passed that I feel comfortable sharing now.

Purdue – Mackey Arena – Capacity 14,846

Every year, Purdue had the potential to be the best road trip of the season.  First, it’s only an hour and a half drive from Champaign making it the shortest road trip of the Big Ten season.  Second, we get to stop at the Beef House on the way there, which is probably the best restaurant East of the Mississippi.  Third, since for the first three years of my career our head coach and an assistant coach had previously coached at Purdue, I could imagine it would have been be pretty sweet to get a win there.  Oops.

The Beef House though.

I’ve written about how well the Illinois basketball team eats and The Beef House restaurant is a big part of that.  We had our choice between bacon wrapped filets, New York Strips, rib eye steaks, and an unlimited amount of chicken fingers.

(It’s weird that they serve chicken at a place called The Beef House, right?)

Even the salad bar was unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  And do I even have to describe the famous yeast rolls and strawberry jam?

It was actually a disappointment when they moved the Big Ten tournament to Chicago because that meant one less trip to the Beef House.  Playing in the United Center and in Illini country is nice, but the Beef House though…

Indiana – Assembly Hall – Capacity 17,472

Out of all the places to play at in the Big Ten, Indiana is one of my least favorites.  I mean come on its Indiana.  There’s nothing spectacular about the school, it’s just…blah.

But realistically, and logistically, traveling to Bloomington from Champaign is a nightmare, at least in my experience.  First, It’s located at the absolute perfect distance of just being right within reach of where it makes more sense to take a bus rather an airplane to the game.  Second, it snowed during each of my three trips to Indiana and turned a three-hour bus ride into a 5-hour one.  And lastly, because there is just no good way to drive into the town of Bloomington.

When you walk into the “other” Assembly Hall, I will admit it is quite breath taking to be walking in such a historic building where a lot of great players have played.  However, you get over that pretty quickly after staring for 5 seconds at those much too big and annoying championship banners off to the side.  It’s a bit pretentious in my mind, but maybe I’m just speaking from jealously.

Other than that, I really don’t have much to say about playing at IU.  Like I said, nothing spectacular ever happened when we played there; it was always just another game against a team we didn’t get along with in front of fans that hated our guts.  Although we went 1-2 in Bloomington during my career, there is one positive that I can see.  I managed to put up an unprecedented 1 point-per-minute scoring average in those three games combined.  Does it matter that I only logged a meager 3 total minutes of game time and scored those points on just one shot?  Nah.

Servus!

(Servus is an informal way of greeting people in Austria)

 

When I first entered middle school, it was expected of me to take up a foreign language.  I don’t know if most kids were like me, but I struggled to comprehend why.  “What good will this do?” I said.  “Doesn’t everyone in the world know English?”  My immaturity led me to believe the world is smaller that it actually is.

Ah, to be that young and naïve.

I remember the night I was signing up for classes.  I was at the kitchen table with my mother and we were pouring over the countless sheets of paper spread out in front of us.  I had the option to choose between Spanish, French, or German and my mom was quick to point out that Spanish would be the most practical.  My 13-year old brain could grasp that Mexico wasn’t all that far away, so I was quick to agree, but it wasn’t because of its practicality.  My reasoning was right up there with what you’d expect from an immature adolescent.

The French teacher smelled funny and got too close to you when she talked – that’s not a good combination.

The German teacher was a large, intimidating man who yelled at innocent students that were just walking down the hallway – in terrifying and deafening German.

So Spanish it was.

I’m not writing this to tell you I regret choosing Spanish.  From that point on I studied the language for four years.  What I regret is not giving it my all.  I had an opportunity to become totally fluent in another language; instead I did just enough to get by.  I had all resources I needed.  I had excellent teachers. But I squandered them away, all because I couldn’t see the point.

Learning German is hard.  Damnit, it’s really hard.  It’s such an unattractive language; some of the sounds and pronunciations hurt my throat.  But I’m trying.  And I’m not going to take it lightly this time.

I’m in a situation where I get to learn a language that is all around me.  I never run out of people to practice with!  Yes, you can get by with just English, it’s required curriculum for kids at the age of six, but I told myself before I arrived that one of the main reasons I’m over here is to experience a different culture to the fullest.

The surprise on people’s faces when I say something unexpectedly in German makes it all worthwhile.  Through the handful of people I encounter on a given day that have figured out I only speak English, a simple thank you in their native tongue (Danke Schön) puts a smile on their faces.

This is why I try to study the language daily.  I want to broaden the range of people I can communicate with. I’m only beginning to grasp how big the world actually is.

Just the other day, a teammate of mine invited me out for a drink with a couple of friends.  There were four of us together and as we sat down and ordered our drinks, I couldn’t help but notice the varying demographics of the people at our table.  All four of us were of a different nationality.  Germany, Serbia, Turkey, and America were all represented in this dingy, hole-in-the-wall bar in the middle of Austria.  Can you imagine the linguistics lesson I got that night?  My head is still spinning.

Maybe more so from the beer…but still.

 

**If you guys want to just take a gander at how hard it is to learn German, click this link

Ohio State @ Illinois Game Day Chat

This week, we are trying a little different of a format for the game day chat.  You can still join it in all of the same ways, including by tweeting with the hashtag #illiniboard while you watch the game.  Those tweets will be added to the live feed.

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

There was a period of my life, let’s say around grades 4th – 7th, that I am not ashamed to admit I was hooked on the teenage sitcom “Boy Meets World.”  Everyday in a routine I’m all-too-familiar with, I would come home from school, turn on the Disney channel, and watch reruns of that show until my mom said it was time for dinner.  Putting the horrendous acting aside, this show made me feel like I wasn’t alone in life, and I took pride in relating to the shows main protagonist, Cory Matthews.  I wanted to be just like him and you can’t tell me there was another boy my age that didn’t want a friend as loyal as Shawn, a brother as lovable as Eric, and a girlfriend as sophisticated and endearing as Topanga.

Boy Meets World

Similar to Cory, I also didn’t have the answers to all the confusing topics you encounter while growing up such as puberty, friendships, and sex.  We both muddled our way through middle and high school in much of the same way, and I took comfort in knowing that I must not be the only one dealing with these complex issues on the journey to manhood.

Out of the many life lessons that “Boy Meets World” taught me, none has stayed with me more than that of Cory Matthews’ famed “Haircut Cycle of Shame.”  As described by the official Boy Meets World Wiki, “The haircut cycle of shame is Cory’s routine haircut process.  After getting a haircut, his hair looks terrible for six weeks, then it looks terrific for one day; however the day after, he needs to get another haircut.”

I can’t stress enough how true this cycle is.  I can think of no situation that is a greater source of anxiety than when your body tells you it’s time for a trim.  As you reluctantly agree with yourself that you do indeed need a haircut, you make a mental note that scheduling an appointment is in your near future.  But it’s never that easy, is it?  When the time finally comes and you do make that decision to go, that one last pass by the dreaded mirror on your way out the door confirms the very last thing you wanted to see: you’re having the best damn hair day of your life.

What is a man to do?  Despite having the best hair you’ve seen on yourself in quite some time, you’re forced to attend the appointed trim.  You drive to the place, get out of your car and suddenly it dawns on you that you don’t remember how you got there.  The only memory you recall is of your reflection in the rearview mirror and how good you looked in it.

***

With all this in mind, you can imagine how I felt about getting a hair cut in a foreign land where very few people speak my language.  You can forget about it.  I’d rather grow my hair out and embrace the comparisons of Shaggy Rogers that have followed me throughout my life.

Shaggy

The other option was keeping my hair short, like buzz cut short, but in order for that to happen I would need to entrust a teammate with my hair and that didn’t work for me either.  I guess I’d rather trust that complete stranger who is supposedly a professional than a friend/teammate who definitely isn’t.

Days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months while I brooded over what to do.  It had now been a full two months and five thousand miles since my last hair cut, and my body’s internal “Trim Time” alarm was registering off the charts.

I eventually decided to go because at the very least, it could potentially make for a very funny story and I don’t pass those up.  I chose to go to a place I’ve seen before called Klipp, which is located in Gmunden’s one and only shopping mall.

As I walk into the place, I say a silent prayer, hoping that someone here will be able to understand me.  The first lady that approaches does not, but I am able to communicate what I want via the international gesture for scissors using my fingers.  She nods in understanding and I sit down in the waiting area.

After a couple of minutes, I observe the lady I just hand-signed with consulting another woman who works there.  After they are finished talking, this new woman walks over to me and gestures me to follow.  I nod and follow obediently, but I’m also seriously contemplating walking right out the door.  Thank goodness the place wasn’t crowded, because everyone’s eyes were now on the intruding American.  I nervously sit down and can feel the perspiration under my shirt as she wraps that uncomfortable plastic sheet tightly around my neck.

Next comes the part where you normally tell the haircutter what type of haircut you would like.  I achieved this in two words, well, more like one and a half to be exact.  I pointed to the top of my head and said, “short,” and then I pointed to the sides and said, “short-er.”  The rest, I left up to her interpretation.

There were a few cringing moments, like when she started shaving the back of my neck with a straight razor or the issue of where to leave my sideburns, but under the circumstances I came away very happy with the result.  Costing about 22e or $27, this was the most expensive haircut of my life, but it was worth it to me because I wasn’t forced to make the awkward small talk that usually comes with getting your hair cut.  To me, that is priceless.

Quick Update On Subscriptions

Well, that wasn’t exactly relaxing. With another bye weekend, I told my wife wherever/whatever this weekend. My fake career takes up way too many of our weekends as it is, so when there’s a bye, we try to get away together. I seriously told her wherever, whatever, I’m in.

So in the last 48 hours I set up a campsite, went for a long walk, went for a long bike ride, went for a long walk, failed miserably at making a fire with wet wood, paddled down a river in a kayak, took a long hike through the woods, then came back to civilization and played softball. I’m not sure my legs work today. Actually, I’m sure – they do not work.

As I begin to get back into the groove here – seven consecutive weeks of football games coming up, and then it’s straight into basketball season – I figure now is a good time to update everyone on the subscription thing. Many of you have asked how it’s going, so I thought I’d post a quick update.

First, a quick refresher. For the first year of this subscription model, we set out to make things as leaky as possible. You get 10 free clicks per month. Many posts are free and don’t use up a “click”. Our plan was to have our regular readers – those who would likely read more than 10 articles per month – subscribe to the site to get unlimited access. The goal? Pay the bills around here and eventually move towards a little less real career and a little more fake career.

How is it going? I won’t get into specifics of how many subscribers, but for the first month, we far exceeded our goal. We had a little number that Brumby and I had tossed back and forth – a total number of subscribers we’d hoped to maybe see in the first month – and we surpassed that goal by 419 subscribers. So for all of you who signed up, a huge thank you.

And to those of you who gave more than the $12 to help us get this thing off the ground, a double thank you. Many of you sent such fantastic notes talking about how you’ve read A Lion Eye for years or how much you used IlliniBoard back in the day – it seriously means a lot that so many of you would jump on board.

But we’re far from done. Like I said, we want to make everything as “leaky” as possible for the first year. I’ve told you what the site will provide (more writing from Robert on both football and basketball, basketball analysis from Brumby, podcasts, etc.), but until we roll everything out, you’re just subscribing to something we’ve told you about. So for the first year, we want as many people as possible to view the site.

And so far, the numbers prove that out. The percentage of “meters” that expired in the first month (percentage of people who reached their 11th post vs. total number of people who read at least one): 1.2%. Which tells us that for a subscription model like this, ten free reads is probably way too many. And we made way too many posts “non-click” posts. We’ll likely have to adjust that in the future, but for today, I’m still comfortable with that number. If you read this site more than 10 times per month, we consider you a “regular” and we’d ask that you subscribe. If you read less than 10 times, carry on. As you were. And we hope that you find yourself wanting more and more.

Because we want to provide more. We have big goals for this thing. More writers, recruiting coverage, podcasts (that’s next, finally), an app, etc. etc. We have so many things we want to implement. And those of you that have subscribed have allowed us to greenlight many of those things in the first year. So thanks again.

And the real test will come next August. We hope to set a sustainable yearly cost/# of free clicks per month at that time which will allow us to carry the site forward for years. And we have several other monetization concepts we’re going to implement so we can keep that yearly cost as low as possible.

You know what? I’m getting lost in the minutiae. Here’s all this post needed to say: We exceeded our goal by 419 subscribers. But since introductory price expired, subscriptions have flatlined (we kind of thought they would), so at this pace one year goal might not be reached. We’ll be exploring other ways to address that in the next year. And yes, that might mean changing the number of free clicks because 98.8% of readers finished the first month somewhere between 1 and 10 clicks (which might be more like 7 and 17 clicks because several posts were click-free and don’t show up on the meter). Our goal is to have everything figured out – and every feature on the site up and running – on or around the one year anniversary.

So there you go. This could have been a one paragraph post that I stretched into 850 words. If you’d like to subscribe, the link is over there in the sidebar. And I’ll finish by Bartles&James-ing you one more time: Thank you for your support.

Bandwagon Sports

Ask me one month ago today who Charlie Danielson is, and I’m not sure I could have told you. I’d like to think I would have said “freshman on the golf team”, but probably not. If it was a social situation, I probably would have made some lame joke like “don’t you mean Charlie DanielsBAND?” and played my way out of it. Yeah, if I’m honest I probably wouldn’t have gotten “freshman on the golf team”.

But here I am, checking golf scores on the internet. First two weekends ago when we were in (and won) the regional, and now this entire last week. Despite not being ranked in the top-25, we finish fifth in the stroke play rounds. Then we knock off defending national champion Texas in the quarterfinals. THEN we knock off #1 Cal – they of “best college golf team in 10 years” – in the semifinals.

And today… we lost to #2 Alabama in the finals. And I’m left with this somewhat familiar feeling of disappointment and a little shame. Why shame? Because I only knew of Thomas Pieters one month ago today. And I’m disappointed that I only jumped on the bandwagon three weeks ago. Sorry, Charlie Danielsband. You deserved more of my fandom.

I guess that’s the way it goes at Illinois. Especially in odd numbered years. Here’s our track record on the biggest stages:

2003 – Tennis wins a national title
2005 – Basketball loses in the national championship game
2007 – Tennis loses in the national championship match
2009 – Well, nothing happened, but…
2011 – Volleyball loses in the national championship match
2013 – Golf loses in the national championship match

(Gymnastics won a national title in 2012. But since that’s an even-numbered year, I didn’t include it on my list. Still, gymnastics won a national title in 2012.)

These are, of course, incredible feats. Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not in any way disappointed in this streak of losing in title games. 2005 was more fun than I can ever remember. Checking scores on my phone at some dinner party to see how the third set of a volleyball match was going two years ago… that was crazy fun, too. Same with this golf run. Refreshing the twitter of some random reporter during Thomas Pieters 20th-hole win to beat #1 Cal was insanely awesome. My heart was POUNDING as if Tracy Abrams was shooting a 1-and-1 with 12 seconds left.

I say “disappointment and a little shame” because I’m SUCH a bandwagon fan if it’s not Illini Football and Illini Basketball. My heart-pounding fist-pump when Thomas Pieters’ opponent missed his putt felt a bit cheap. In the sense that I only casually followed Illini Golf this season, and didn’t jump on board until their great start in the Arkansas regional. Should I really be heart-poundingly refreshing Twitter?

Well, yes. Pieters is wearing orange and blue (well, orange and sky-blue, which was weird, but whatever). When you’re wearing that Fat I on your shirt, I’m totally in your corner. And, as an alum, I feel a connection. My go-to for all bandwagon sports is this: I wonder if he/she lived in Forbes Hall as a freshman?

Seriously – there’s where I go to assuage my “disappointment and a little shame”. I always picture that person living in Forbes 268, hiding a microwave in the same cabinet that I did. (True story: We had this microwave that we weren’t supposed to have, and one day our RA came into the room while we were heating up some Chef Boy-ar-dee ravioli, and my roommate and I, knowing that there was about to be a loud “ding” when the microwave finished, loud-talked in response to our RA’s question to drown out the ding. And it worked. Wait – could I get in trouble for this now? What’s the statute of limitations on dorm room microwaves? Did I say Forbes 268? I meant Forbes 258.)

Where was I? Yes – disappointment and a little shame. I get over it by picturing that person living in Forbes 2-South. Eating meals in the Forbes-Hopkins-Garner dining room. Getting their mail at The Orange (I know they tore down The Orange like 10 years ago – stay with me). That’s the great thing, to me, about cheering for Illinois athletes. At some point, they probably had Rhet 105 in the upper floors of the English Building (where the ceiling is surprisingly low) and they probably bought something at that little convenience store on the corner of 6th and Green. I did the same, so we’re connected like we both have Allstate or something. (Wait – crap – am I about to get a cease-and-desist from State Farm?)

Now, with Forbes Hall being torn down and replaced with a much-nicer, less-odorous dorm, I’m losing that connection. So I’ll have to come up with something else. Probably the low ceiling on the top floor of the English Building. Or the echo spot in front of Foellinger. Or C.O. Daniel’s. Wait, WHAT??

Whatever it is, that’s how I get by with jumping on the volleyball bandwagon in 2011, or the tennis bandwagon in 2007, or golf this year. They’re wearing orange and blue, and I’ll always have a connection. Even if I don’t learn their names until the playoffs.

So fantastic work, Illini golf team. Coach Small, you’re truly amazing. We have to play simulated golf when their snow on the ground, and yet we fought with 27 southern schools to finish second. A disappointing end, but a fantastic run. Congrats. You have no idea how many Illini fans were checking their phones and watching internet feeds this weekend. Thanks for capturing us all.

Now, about that baseball game today… who’s pitching? Ryan Castellanos? Who?

Moose Out Front Should’ve Told Ya

See this? This is what I’m going to be looking at for the next eight days. From now until Mothers Day, just this:

So sorry folks – blog’s closed. No posts for the next nine days. I’ve been gone for five days before, but this is the first time in the 4+ year history of ALE that I’ll be gone a full week.

Yes, I’m aware that I could have typed up several posts in advance and had them auto-posted while I’m gone. I could have done that. But I’m lazy.

OK, that’s not true. But I am tired. I haven’t really put the keyboard down since Camp Rantoul began last August, and I’m feeling a bit spent. This vacation couldn’t come at a better time.

So if Ahmad Starks or Brandon Paul’s brother decides to join the Illini, I won’t be writing about it. Heck, I won’t even know about it. I’ll be somewhere in the Virgin Islands snorkeling with my wife. It’s kind of exciting to take a break from having to know every possible little thing about Illini athletics. When I return next Sunday it will be fun – “wait, BOTH Cliff Alexander and JaQuan Lyle verballed to Illinois? YOU’RE KIDDING.”

TTFN. See you on Mothers Day. Let’s land a basketball recruit while I’m gone. And a 4-star wide receiver.

Special note to all would-be robbers: Yes, my house will be occupied while I’m gone. By my brother-in-law, who is having some work done at his place and living at ours for the week. So don’t even try. He was, like, in the military and stuff.

Spring Mailbag Part III

How deep do we go along the D-line? Nelson looked good – any other surprises?
~ Neil

Not very?

I’m not sure which direction to go with the defensive line. We return nearly everyone at linebacker, but on the d-line and in the secondary everything is new. With the secondary, I think it’s clear we’ll struggle simply because of no experienced. Two sophomores at corner backed up by two freshmen, and a junior and a freshman at safety backed up by a walkon senior and a freshman. That’s so young.

On the defensive line, it’s a bit different. As most of you know, I’m a 4th year and 5th year guy on the lines. Skill position players can play early, but for linemen, everyone gets a redshirt and disappears for three years, re-appearing as redshirt juniors. You pretty much need to be a Corey Liuget or an Akeem Spence to play earlier than that. Almost everyone needs three years off the radar (including Whitney Mercilus).

Well, with the defensive line, we kind of… have that? Houston Bates starts at Leo. This is his fourth year – he’s a redshirt junior. Austin Teitsma at the 3-technique defensive tackle. This is his fourth year – he’s a redshirt junior. Jake Howe at nose guard. This is his fourth year – he’s a redshirt junior. And Tim Kynard at defensive end. This is his fifth year – he’s a redshirt senior.

After that, no real depth. At least no experienced depth. The backups are rs-soph Darrius Caldwell at Leo (if he clears his academic issues), rs-FR Vontrell Williams at DT, true-soph Teko Powell at DT, and rs-soph Kenny Nelson at DE.

So let’s see… the majority of the talent is in the younger guys (and especially the really young guys like Jarrod Clements and Paul James who arrive this summer). And we have mature 4th and 5th year players, but none of them have very much experience besides Tim Kynard. Oh, and we play in the Big Ten against mauling lines like Wisconsin and Ohio State and Nebraska.

All signs point to… a mauling. Sorry.

It seems we have question marks everywhere, but wide receiver was considered a spot where we didn’t have much depth or playmakers. Do you think Martize Barr fills the gap, or are there others that will step up? Also, what did you think of Justin Hardee during the spring? He made some plays last year and showed some potential.
~ WDallen

I think there are a lot of options, but there were a lot of options last year, too. I started to feel pretty good about the offseason strides the receivers made, and then I put myself through The Test.

Whenever I’m feeling really good about the team, whether in Rantoul or in Spring Ball, I always apply The Test. I picture a second quarter drive against Michigan State (not sure why, but it’s always Michigan State). We get a six yard gain on first down, but on second and four, despite a 12 yard completion, a holding call brings us back to 2nd and 14. And then the right guard jumps on the snap, and suddenly it’s 2nd and 19.

Can we recover from that? Can these receivers and this quarterback get us 20 yards on the next two plays? Or will we fold in every scenario like that? Will we all look at 2nd and 19 and think “punting is a 98% possibility”?

Because those are the situations this team will face. Football looks great without injuries and penalties and turnovers. Watch any team in the spring or the summer, and you’re bound to enter the “wow, we can really move/stop the ball” zone. But introduce injuries and penalties and turnovers, and most teams crumble.

These receivers, at this point, don’t pass The Test. I don’t see that AJ Jenkins or Rejus Benn or Brandon Lloyd or Walter Young that makes me say “no problems here – drag route to Jenkins and we’re in third and short”. We need a playmaker, and I still haven’t found him. Ryan Lankford is probably the go-to, but he’s not physical enough to be The Guy. Justin Hardee looked great this spring, but he’s still a sophomore learning footwork. STEVEHULL could be a big surprise (makes me think of that one year where we were suddenly all “hey, throw it to Kornfeld”), but who knows how long the shoulder holds up. Millines could be the guy, but it sounds like he’s gone. We keep waiting for Spencer Harris to do more. Miles Osei is quick, but he’s a quarterback playing receiver. Of anyone, Barr looks the part, both in how he attacks the ball with his hands and how he digs into his cuts. But how will Juco translate to Big Ten?

Save us, Marchie Murdock. (No, really, I love Murdock on tape. Love love love his senior film from last year – 33 times better than his junior film. Please oh please.)

For me, one of the most infuriating things of the past few years has been the absolute ########### on punt returns. The defense will hold, the other team will be forced to punt, and then, like clockwork, we have a muffed punt, or the returner will let it bounce and we are backed up on our own 13 instead of on the 32, or the returner will actually field the ball cleanly, try to make a move, and be buried under 27 players in Ohio State uniforms.

Anyone who has spent anytime on your website knows that this (along with a certain football coach in Evanston) is one of your obsessions. Have you seen ANYTHING this year that leads you to believe that the return game will improve from the disaster it has been recently?

I’ll hang up and listen.

~ John

Not really. But we could run back four punts in the first five weeks and I you wouldn’t be able to convince me they were fixed. We could lead the Big Ten in punt returns for three seasons and I’d still have a “not convinced” stance (and a facial tic). Once more, just so we can marvel:

2012: 118th (25 punt return yards)
2011: 118th (24 punt return yards)
2010: 117th (60 punt return yards, 37 by Terry Hawthorne in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl)
2009: 114th (50 punt return yards)
2008: 94th (117 punt return yards – WOOT)
2007: 88th (177 punt return yards – PINCH ME)
2006: 111th (116 punt return yards)
2005: 112th (72 punt return yards)

Just unbelievable. Just impossible to comprehend. I… I just……

So, I’ve put all of my hopes in Darius Mosely. I’m blindly dubbing him Eugene Wilson 2.0 and will refuse to believe anything else until it isn’t true. Mosely for president of Stunningly Good Freshman Punt Returners Of The World.

I can’t type anymore. I hate everything about looking up those statistics again. I’m a mess. So I’ll just say this:

I think Martize Barr wins the punt return job. I think we might have kind of finally learned maybe a little bit about blocking on a punt return. So he might clear 100 yards this year. 100!

Cosby To Illinois

Sam McLaurin called Scott Drew.  Maverick Morgan called Bo Ryan.  Kendrick Nunn called Buzz Williams.  And now Aaron Cosby called Frank Haith.

All of them delivered the same message: “I know I SAID I was coming to visit, but I’ve found a home at Illinois.”  Visit cancelled.  Sorry coaches – you don’t even get a shot.  Home is where the Groce is.

We’ll get to Cosby in a bit.  I’m excited about the pudding pops jokes as well.  But first, I want to look at John Groce’s first year.  His first recruiting year.

Seven times in 12 months, John Groce had a kid on campus with more visits scheduled.  Four of those seven times, the kid verballed to Illinois and cancelled his other visits. One time that kid took another visit and then verballed to Illinois.  And twice the kids went elsewhere.  That’s… that’s amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Hold on. I’m watching this.

In May, Sam McLaurin was headed to Baylor after his Illinois visit.  He called Scott Drew and told him he wasn’t coming – he’d committed to John Groce and Illinois.  In June, Maverick Morgan was headed to Wisconsin the day after his Illinois visit.  He called Bo Ryan and told him he wasn’t coming – he’d committed to John Groce and Illinois.  In September, Kendrick Nunn was headed to Marquette the weekend after his Illinois visit.  He called Buzz Williams and told him he wasn’t coming – he’d committed to John Groce and Illinois.

And then there’s Aaron Cosby.  The Seton Hall guard, he of 40% shooting from three as a sophomore, announced he was transferring.  Coaches across the country contacted him about the opportunity at their school, and he decided to have in-home visits with five of them: Scott Drew from Baylor, Frank Haith from Missouri, Mark Gottfried from NC State, some guy named Bruce Weber from Kansas State, and John Groce from Illinois.  After those visits, he decided two visit two campuses:  Illinois and Missouri.  Illinois would be first, from April 11-13, and then Missouri from the 13th to the 15th.  He’d then make his decision next week.

And of course he never made it across the Mississippi River.  After two days on campus, on Friday night, he announced he was canceling his Missouri visit and choosing Illinois.

This is huge for us.  A friend of mine made a good point (this is the friend who has the @UIHoopsRecruits twitter account – you should follow him if you’re not already).  He said that he views Cosby like a top-25 2014 recruit who will leave for the NBA after two years.  It’s always a risk taking two-and-done kids – with Meyers Leonard we got his starting-to-break-out sophomore campaign and then he was gone.

His point: with Cosby, we get a kid who just averaged 13.4 points in Big East play last year.  And can stroke it from deep.  And after a year sitting out, we’ll get two years from him.  The 13 points per game he puts up as a junior and the 15 ppg as a senior will equal that of, say, a top-25 shooting guard in the 2014 class who heads to the NBA after two seasons.

In college basketball terms, a transfer like this is pure gold.  A kid who proved he can score against Louisville and Georgetown and Syracuse – there are no “will he adjust to the college game?” concerns, nor are there any of the “can he handle Big Ten competition?” concerns that come with a kid who transfers from a mid-major.  This is a kid who has proven he can efficiently score against top competition and now wants to climb to a better team and make the tournament.

And he picked Illinois.  Over Missouri.  (And Bruce Weber).

Will John Groce land every recruit that arrives on campus?  No.  There are no coaches that do.  Even Coach K only lands maybe half the kids he gets on campus.  A .400 average would be fantastic. So yes, we’re going to miss on kids.  And Groce has already missed on three huge ones.  Demetrius Jackson left his Illinois visit without verballing, visited Notre Dame, and picked them.  Xavier Rathan-Mayes left his Illinois visit without verballing and then picked Florida State.  And Keita Bates-Diop, from just down the road in Bloomington-Normal, picked Ohio State before the campus visit game even got underway.  Those are three big losses.

But given our history when the visit game starts – Sherron Collins with the rumored silent verbal until he visited Kansas and fell in love, Derrick Rose’s visit that felt more token than anything, Evan Turner naming us his leader but not verballing while on campus and then committing to Ohio State – what Groce has done so far is amazing.

And if the next step is landing top-25 kids this way – you’re not taking any officials anywhere else, Cliff, you belong here – well, yesterday’s small raise and one year extension for Groce won’t be enough.  Mike Thomas will have to open up the secret vault under the Morrow Plots.

Chicago Scrimmage Thoughts

“Scrimmage” might be overestimating it. It was a practice followed by some situational drills where they let them tackle. There really wasn’t a “scrimmage” with punts and kickoffs and teams going up and down the field. But I still loved every minute of it.

When I say something on Twitter like “come say hi if you see a bearded dude obsessing over linemen”, I totally mean it. One of my favorite things at practice is chatting about Illini football with other Illini football junkies. Filling that role tonight: my new pal Craig.

Craig introduced himself before the game and we chatted for a bit, and then, later, when the scrimmaging started (I always head to the top of the stands once the scrimmage starts and walk to watch the line of scrimmage), Craig joined me. We talked freshmen tackles and Josh Ferguson, practice all-star and why isn’t the first string defense stopping the third string offense.

Not kidding, I could hang out in the stands at Illini football practice for 77 consecutive hours and not tire. It’s my juice. And like a good kindergartener, I always enjoy sharing my juice with others. So thanks, Craig.

Right to it. My practice thoughts:

+ I really think Martize Barr can play. Like, the player that has stuck out at both practices I’ve watched this spring is Barr. I got a chance to chat with him after practice – Craig’s suggestion – and I’ll post that interview later. He pronounces his first name just like Martez, by the way.

Sorry – I always forget that not everyone obsesses over Illini football like I do, so some of you don’t know who I’m talking about. Martize Barr is a Juco wide receiver from Iowa Western Community College. He’s originally from Washington DC and was recruited to New Mexico by Mike Locksley. He played in one game as a freshman before breaking a hand an missing the rest of the season. After getting switched to defense as a sophomore, he transferred to Iowa Western (playing receiver) where last year they won the Juco national title.

Now, well, now he looks like one of our best receiving threats. Lankford and Scheelhaase still have the best rapport out there, but I think Barr could emerge as a legitimate go-to guy. Watching some WR drills, he digs in and out of his cuts – nothing is rounded off. It’s early, and I’ve only seen him twice, but he’s the player that jumps off the page.

Tim Beckman thinks so, too. He was asked a question after the game about Barr, and his eyes lit up. “He gets better every practice.” I think it’s a solid bet that Barr is a big part of the offense next fall.

+ Go ahead, name our starting secondary. You have ten seconds. Go… now.

*waits ten seconds*

Did you say Spence-Barton-Mathis-Bentley? No? Did you just say “who?” when I said Spence-Barton-Mathis-Bentley? Yes? I told Craig that maybe 7% of Illini football fans could name our first string secondary tonight.

Earnest Thomas was practicing but was held out of contact, so yes, there’s one starter missing. But after that, especially once the second string comes in, our secondary is unrecognizable. Quick, guess the second string. I’ll give you ten more seconds.

Did you say Darius Mosely, LaKeith Walls, Davonte Kwaaning, and Javaris Little? No? You didn’t even name one of them? Don’t feel bad – I pride myself on remember all of the walkons numbers, and I couldn’t remember who #37 was (Kwaaning).

The takeaway here: gone are Justin Green, Terry Hawthorne, Jack Ramsey, Supo Sanni, and Patrick Nixon-Youman. And STEVEHULL is now on offense so his shoulder might stay in joint game to game. Which means pretty much the entire secondary is new – even the second string. Worth noting: I can’t really ever recall a team with a brand new secondary that was successful against the pass from the get-go.

Now, there are pieces there that I like. In one of the scrimmage situations, on third down, my boy walkon Ben Mathis made an ankle tackle on Donovonn Young in the backfield that drew some big applause (especially from the defensive sideline). And Taylor Barton – he’s all-in on the Clay Matthews look now, so if you want to identify Barton in the spring game, look for the flowing locks – he made an interception and a few nice tackles. Plus, I love everything that Darius Mosely does – he’ll play early and often.

But still – so incredibly inexperienced. Maybe the least experienced secondary in Illini football history? I think so. Well, except for the very first year.

+ Nothing really all that surprising on the depth chart. Here’s how I remember it:

QB: Scheelhaase / O’Toole
RB: Young / Ferguson / Ayoola
TE: Davis (held out from contact) / LaCosse
WR: Osei / Barr
WR: Lankford / Hull
WR: Harris / Hardee
OT: Cvijanovic / Hinkhouse
OG: Heitz / Spencer
C: Hill / sometimes Durkin, sometimes Feldmeyer
OG: Karras / O’Connor
OT: Lewis / Flavin

Leo: Bates / Woods (no Caldwell again – more on that in a bit)
DT: Teitsma / Powell
DT: Howe / V. Williams
DE: Kynard / Nelson
LB: Monheim / Neal
LB: Svetina / Grimes (Jonathan Brown still held out of contact)
Star: Finney / Bello
CB: Bentley / Mosely
S: Mathis / Walls (Earnest Thomas held out of contact)
S: Barton / Kwaaning
CB: Spence / Little

You know how I mentioned in a basketball post past week how John Groce will be facing the class balance struggles that Bruce Weber left him? Well, this fall, Tim Beckman faces the class balance struggles that Ron Zook left him. There’s just very little upperclassmen leadership on that depth chart.

+ I asked Coach Beckman about Darrius Caldwell after practice. I figured he’d be the starting Leo on this defense, and he hasn’t been out there the two practices I’ve watched.

Beckman’s response: “Darrius is focusing on academics right now. That’s why Darrius isn’t here.”

Let’s hope it’s a really good focus. Caldwell is maybe the most talented athlete on the defensive line. And this line needs athletic guys.

+ Some players who stuck out (besides Martize Barr):

Josh Ferguson – I really want people to see practice Josh Ferguson. Healthy, no nagging injuries Josh Ferguson. He made a couple plays tonight that turned 1 yard gains into 9 yard gains, just with a few hesitations and spins. On one play, Bill Cubit ran all the way out on the field (ran maybe 30 yards from where he was) to pat him on the back. Please stay healthy, Josh.

Donovonn Young – First time they went to a full-contact (tackle) scrimmage situation, it was the #1 offense against the #2 defense. Started at the 25, needed to score. Donovonn Young left, Donovonn Young right, Donovonn Young up the middle, touchdown. If we can get some run blocking, he can do work.

Houston Bates – I also talked to Houston Bates after. He seemed to be loving his new position (moved from outside linebacker to Leo defensive end). His answer: he loves his new position. His biggest strength is probably pass-rush moves off the edge, and that’s his full-time job now. I won’t go into scheme things, but I think you’ll like the way they use him.

Joseph Spencer – Loved him in Rantoul, loved him tonight. And he got some time with the first string OL – Corey Lewis came out, Michael Heitz moved over to right tackle, Spencer replaced Heitz at left guard. He’s just a redshirt freshman, but I feel like I’ve seen enough to say that Spencer and Teddy Karras will be the anchors of this line in a few years.

V’Angelo Bentley – If he was 3″ taller, he’d be a future draft pick (of course, if he was 3″ taller, Ohio State would have offered and he’d be a Buckeye right now). Height is really the only thing that sticks out as a negative (and let’s not kid ourselves – that’s a big thing to overcome). I like how he flips his hips and I like how he tracks receivers. He broke up a few long passes to his high school teammate Justin Hardee tonight. And then let him know about it.

+ Beckman always closes practice with some kind of competition. Maybe it’s a kicker needing to hit a 45 yard field goal with the entire team surrounding him and screaming. Maybe it’s the alley drill. Maybe it’s coach vs. coach in some competition.

Tonight it was punt, pass, and kick. More specifically, pass, punt, and kick. Teams of three, started at the goal line, first guy throws it as far as he can, second guy punts it from the spot it lands, third guy tries to kick a field goal from that spot. 3 plays to advance the ball 110 yards.

Nobody pulled it off. Keep in mind these aren’t kickers. Davonte Kwaaning punted the ball approximately six yards (that’s not six yards from the line of scrimmage – six yards from his foot). Some lineman threw the ball 50 yards (I didn’t see who), and then his teammate punted the ball to the ten, setting up the only scoring opportunity of the night. The kicker (I think it was a walkon receiver) missed the 20 yard field goal. Badly.

Just some post-practice fun, but the players seem to enjoy it. When some punts only went 10 yards, a few players fell to the ground laughing. I kept waiting for Beckman to send a quarterback, a punter, and a kicker out there. They might be able to advance the ball 180 yards.

+ All in all, the practice was pretty much what I expected. We’re really young on defense, and the injuries make it a “who ARE these guys?” scenario. We’re a little more experienced on offense, but it’s still a struggle as Bill Cubit implements his system (again, I won’t say any specific scheme things, but they did some stuff tonight that I really liked – stuff you haven’t seen us do in a long time).

Can we put together a year like Jerry Kill’s second year in Minnesota, where they went 2-6 in the Big Ten but made a bowl thanks to four non-conference wins? I really doubt it. Too much youth, too many scheme and coaching changes, too much building to do.

But several people I talked to commented on the precision of the practices this spring, and the “intentional” coaching, especially from Cubit and OL coach AJ Ricker. Will we look better than last year? I think so. Can we win five games? I don’t think so.

I still had a blast, though. Several prominent Chicago recruits on the sideline, Our State Our Team banner across the field, chatting with Juice Williams on the sideline, seeing Illini players like John Holocek and Chris James and Kelvin Hayden and Graham Pocic taking in the practice – all of that is home to me. I like people who like Illinois football.

I also like winning. Can we get around to that at some point, please? I hear it’s fun.