Continuing through the last 9 points…
Point #11 – Catch The Ball When The Opposing Quarterback Throws It
The Minnesota game proved what interceptions can do. Black Cat’s pick-6 completely changed that game. Heck, look back to 2007 and the back to back wins over Penn State and Wisconsin. The Penn State game, where we shot out to a lead and held on for dear life? 3 interceptions and a fumble recovery in the last 16 minutes of the game to preserve the win. Wisconsin driving for the tying score? Vontae Davis, INT. Since then? Very, very little in the way of game-changing interceptions.
Enter Vic Koenning. I covered this in my Koenning evaluation, but it’s worth posting again:
All four of his Clemson defenses were top-25 in interceptions, and his K-State defense improved from 75th to 34th in INT’s. His last defense at Troy? #1 in the country with 25 interceptions in 2004. Illinois last year? Tied for dead last with 5. Illinois the year before? Tied for 113th with 6.
More than anything, THIS is why Vic Koenning was hired. Not only will he be defensive coordinator, he’ll be the secondary coach as well. And his one forte throughout his career as an assistant coach has been teaching his players to make their own luck when it comes to interceptions. When I get to Camp Rantoul this summer (only 163 days away!), the first thing I want to do is watch Koenning take the defensive backs through drills. No more Curt Mallory backpedal drills, please. I’d like to see our defensive backs moving forward. Preferably with the ball in their hands.
If you want to point your finger at the one glaring fault of our defense the past two seasons, it’s interceptions. Add a second half interception in the Fresno State game, we win. Jump two routes on October 17 when Indiana was sitting back and running the same pass play over and over, we win. Interceptions can turn a 24-14 loss into a 21-17 win with one simple deflection.
How’d we do? 11 Interceptions, tied for 60th in the nation. 59 teams better than us, 59 teams worse than us. Given where we came from, I’ll take it. 11 interceptions in 2008 and 2009 combined, and then 11 interceptions in 2010.
But I want more. I’m greedy. I want 15 next year.
Point #12: Change The Way We Practice
Discipline, discipline, structure, and discipline
As I said earlier, I understand that they want the theme of practice to be urgency, but urgency is nothing without discipline. And every Zook practice I’ve ever observed has felt frantic. The coaches are all “we don’t have all day”, while the players slog along attempting to appear busy. Nothing feels crisp. Nothing feels structured.
Speaking of unstructured and un-crisp – 2009 Fighting Illini Football! I want to change that. And it starts with crisp practices. You catch Randall Hunt daydreaming during run blocking drills? Sit him down. Walt Aikens misreads the seam route? Run it over and over until he gets it right. Someone offensive lineman jumps before the snap? Lord have mercy.
Much improved. As I said back in August in Rantoul, practice was LOUD. Run a play, and then 9 assistants screaming something or tearing someone down or building someone up or throwing their visor or chest bumping the great play. I said before that practices felt frantic – the practices I saw this summer felt urgent.
I have no idea if that faded as the season went on. The defense seemed to lose their intensity near the end of the year – I’m wondering if they lost their intensity at practice as well. But comparing 2009 Camp Rantoul to 2010 Camp Rantoul, 2010 was much more crisp. And loud.
Point #13 – No More Celebrations
So I started this post on Sunday, and then modified it a little more on Thursday night. And just when I’m to the point where I’m ready to post it, this happens:
“They’re not in the NFL. In college football, when you celebrate individually, you tend to get a flag. That’s part of it. And part of it, those guys on the other side are our teammates. We don’t need to get up and do all that stuff. One time, it was a two-minute drill. Well, you’ve over there celebrating and they’re lined up, ready to go. That’s not real smart. That’s part of the learning curve. College football is supposed to be wholesome and not have all of that celebration stuff. We’re not going to do that. That shows no class. I know Coach Zook doesn’t want it and I know the people of Illinois don’t want it and I guarantee you that I know I don’t want it. We’re not going to do it.” — Illinois defensive coordinator Vic Koenning on chastising his players who were celebrating on the field.
I coulda looked prophetic. I coulda continued my “the coaches are reading and implementing The Plan” schtick. But no, I wasn’t “happy” with the way the post “read”, so I “waited” until I felt it to be “worthy” of an ALE post. And I missed my chance.
My favorite improvement from 2009 to 2010. The celebration after the downfield tackle disappeared. Yes, there were player celebrations, some of which I rather enjoyed, like Nate Bussey’s strut after TJ Moe’s helmet popped off. But for the most part, the defense celebrated as a team. Probably not but possibly related: the defense improved from 91st to 38th.
Point #14 – Build On Our History
This is my speech that every incoming freshman football player would hear:
I would start with a clip of David Williams breaking free down the sideline on Halloween in 1983, sending us to the Rose Bowl and locking down my Illinois loyalty for life. I would talk about the feeling I had walking home from my grandmother’s house (where I watched the game that day), knowing that I wanted to re-create that whole jumping up and down while watching the television thing as soon as possible.
I would reach back into history and read quotes from Grantland Rice on Grange and Roger Ebert on Caroline and Jim Turpin on Nitschke and Will Leitch on Rice. I would talk about Al Brosky’s interception record and Chuck Boerio’s “send Ameche at me!” and the demolition of UCLA in the 1946 Rose Bowl.
*cue Battle Hymn of the Republic*
I would bring it back to my personal Illini journey and talk about the low points of the past 25 years. I would talk about Amani Toomer down the east sideline (it was a clip!) and Lee Gissendaner ruining Homecoming and Penn State’s 96 yard drive. I would bring up Terrance Smalls getting decked and Elmer Hickman getting Lavar Leaped and Ade Adeyemo versus concrete endcap. I would not mock these players – I would simply mention that this is a difficult hill to charge, and the soldiers who have gone before have met stiff resistance. I would talk about our touchdown on the last play to bust up a 43 point spread at Ohio State and 45-0 at Minnesota and 56-3 at halftime vs. PSU. Depths to which we shall never return.
But I would also talk about the highs. I would talk about Thomas Rooks’ 21-yard scamper and Ty Douthard dodging snowflakes and Rocky Harvey’s dive into the endzone. Johnson-to-Klein to beat Michigan, Kittner-to-Lloyd to beat Wisconsin, and Juice on third down in the Horseshoe again and again and again. George-to-Bellamy to clinch the Citrus, Johnson-to-Strong to clinch the Liberty, and Lloyd-to-Kittner to clinch the MicronPC. Simeon around the corner and Rashard off tackle and Griffith up the middle.
Yeah, there’s not really much to say here. I just wanted to print my awesometastic speech again.
And really, this is a point that can’t be evaluated. It will take a 10 year PR effort to build on Illini Football history. But I’ll tell you what. The best Illini Football history moment this year (best in 10 years?) came from this pre-Northwestern game quote from new University President Michael Hogan:
“Red Grange played at Wrigley. Dick Butkus played at Wrigley. The sign outside may have been painted purple, but the echoes inside are orange and blue.”
Point #15: Quality Control
I want a spotter.
The Spotter sees that we have two timeouts but a crucial third down in the middle of a long drive? Get on the horn and tell the coaches that the team looks tired and this might be a well-placed TO. The Spotter sees a flag on the field after Iowa throws an incomplete third down pass? He’s in everyone’s headset immediately repeating “decline decline decline” a dozen times. The Spotter sees Jason Ford trotting out on the field for the final offensive series against Fresno State? Get on the horn and tell anyone who will listen that LeShoure is averaging 16.7 yards per carry.
I don’t want a backseat driver. I don’t want someone who would drop a “Running on second and long? Not something I would do, but whatever, Paul”. Let the coaches coach. Let the coaches scheme. Let them make every decision as it pertains to the product on the field.
I simply want to add an advisor. Someone who isn’t concerned with nickel versus base defense or three-wide versus twin tight ends. Someone with headset access to all the coaches who, over the course of the game, might toss out a “the nickel back that just trotted on the field got lit up by Wisconsin last week” here or a “four passes and thirteen runs from Minnesota since halftime – I think Weber’s rib injury has flared up” there. The coaches can completely ignore the advice (except for timeouts – The Spotter is 100% in charge of timeouts). They can choose to over-rule. The Spotter is nothing more than a Quality Control consultant whose opinions are non-binding. Except for timeouts, of course.
Pretty good at the beginning of the season. I actually had a friend text me during the Penn State game and say “hey, I think they implemented that spotter thing you were talking about”. The coaching decisions seemed exponentially better.
And then… well, then the last 4 games happened, and as the defense struggled, and the special teams struggled, the coaching decisions struggled. Time to re-evaluate Point #15 this offseason and see if we can’t correct the clock management issues.
Point #16: Know Your Role
There are 85 guys on the roster. Let’s say that 30 of them are redshirting and/or too young to really contribute anything yet. With 25 starters (including punter, kicker, and long snapper), that leaves 30 players that fall into the backup/specialists roles. Yes, they’ll need tons of practice time at their position so that if /when their number is called, they’re ready. But beyond that, I want to see us design specific tasks for each of these guys.
An example of this? Troy Pollard – Kickoff Return Specialist. When Justin Green comes back, Pollard is likely our 4th or 5th tailback. What about devoting 40% of his practice time to kickoff return? What if when he studies film, he’s studying kick return blocking angles? What if you sat him down right now and told him that kickoffs were going to be his specialty, and he needed to study as much kick return film between now and August as he could possibly watch?
I think we actually did do more of this in 2010, especially with special teams returns. Jack Ramsey only had one catch – it appears his main duty was punt return. Darius Millines only had one catch and Troy Pollard only had 2 carries per game – it appears their main roles were kickoff return (and we didn’t rotate 4 or 5 guys on kickoffs like we did in the past).
Again, like most of these changes, I think the nearly brand new staff sat down in the offseason and saw the same things we did – a disorganized team that needed some structure. I was happy to see that role players played a part.
Point #17: Just Win, Baby
Fan fests and season ticket promotions. Chicago scrimmages and St. Louis dome games. Quality opponents and flashy video intros. All in the name of “promoting excitement and enthusiasm around Illini Football”.
Just win, baby.
Flashy recruiters and a solid recruiting budget. Mining the greater DC and Jacksonville areas for talent. A two-story weight room and a fancy recruiting hallway complete with video walls and life-size posters.
Just win, baby.
The idea for this Point came to me when watching a video of the recently completed weight room and Recruiting Center under the north endzone stands. The camera showed the nice digs that are certain to impress every Jimmy and Joe that walks the hallway. The pictures of the Illini in the NFL made me strain towards the screen trying to read all of the names.
And then they came to the bowl game wall. Oof.
What struck me is this: We’re doing nearly everything right. We’ve doubled season ticket sales. We’ve recruited better than we ever have. We have a flashy new tower rising out of the west balcony, a real student section combined with the band, and the latest and greatest Nike uniforms. Only one problem: we don’t, um, really win very much.
It’s crazy, isn’t it? We’ve improved nearly every aspect of the program, from the practice facilities to the coaches salaries, and yet we’ve been to two bowl games in the last 10 years. The feeling I can’t shake is that we’ve had it backwards. We think that we need to build it so the wins will come, when the reality is that all we need to do is win so we can build it.
Make that three bowl games in 11 years. I’m the happiest fan of a 6-6 team in the country.
Point #18: Sensational Seniors
There was a common theme to our two BCS-bowl teams in 2001 and 2007: Senior leaders. Kurt Kittner and J Leman. Luke Butkus and Kevin Mitchell. Brandon Moore and Martin O’Donnell. Sure, there were talented underclassmen on both squads that pushed us over the top, but if you look back at the last decade and look for the two teams led by the most seniors, it’s definitely 2001 and 2007. (2009 would probably rank third, but we must never discuss 2009 again.)
Most of the top programs have this common thread. Senior leaders. Much like yours and my high school, there’s a hierarchy, and the underclassmen can’t wait until it’s their turn at the top. The lackadaisical kids snap it together because there’s only one year left, and the true leaders emerge. Any college coach will tell you that he’ll only go as far as his seniors lead him.
Thank you Ryan Palmer. Thank you Nate Bussey. Thank you Travon Bellamy and Jarred Fayson. Thank you for saving your best for last.
And here’s hoping that AJ Jenkins and Ian Thomas and Jason Ford and Jack Cornell were watching. It’s time for them to have their best season in their last season. And then pass it on to Michael Buchanan and Corey Lewis and Justin Green and Whitney Mercilus. Seniors lead the way, and then pass it on.
Point #19 – Fans Must Stick Around
Please don’t go. This program needs your support. Fan support is vital to a football program (both in money and game-day environment). I know the product on the field has been frustrating, but you can’t give up now. We can’t return to 2003 (or 1997). We can’t let season tickets dwindle to the low 20′s again, with late-season crowds of 34K sending recruits home with a sour feeling. We’re so close.
OK, maybe we’re not close at all. Maybe our coach doesn’t have a clue how to turn it around. I understand your anger. We have the 4th or 5th best talent in the conference and we’ve won 8 games in two years. I get that. I really do.
But we have the 4th or 5th best talent in the conference. We have new coaches who, at least preliminarily, seem to understand the fundamental faults of this team the last few years. We have improved facilities that provide a pretty fantastic game-day experience. The student section, the way the noise bounces around with the new tower – all of it is improved.
Which is why I don’t want to go back to 1997. I don’t want to go back to football being a Champaign afterthought. I don’t want to go back to the no-hope days. The life was sucked out of Memorial Stadium for a long time, and the renovations (and the Rose Bowl) pumped everything back up. I don’t want to lose that.
So here’s my proposal: Stick around for 2 more years. Even if you’re not a season ticket holder, keep bringing your gang to the games for two more years. Keep this sold-out to nearly-sold-out environment going for two more years. Fill the stadium, buy some warm orange, and support this team for two more years.
Because after that, we’ll know where we’re headed.
So do we know where we’re headed? No. But we’re off to a good start. 6 wins gets us to Texas. Next year, hopefully, 7 or 8 wins will get us to Florida. After that, maybe a step back to 6-6 and then a jump forward to 8-4.
Point being: the future looks a little bit brighter than it did when I sat down to write out this plan last winter. I remember enough of 1995-1998 and 2003-2006 to be thankful for 6-6. And with the nonconference schedule looking brighter and quarterback depth that 1997 would kill for, maybe we can start to build this thing.
2 consecutive bowls for the first time since Mackovic is the first step. Knock that out next year, and I’ll sit down and write out the 31 Point Plan for winning four consecutive Big Ten Titles.