The 19 Point Plan In Review (Part II)

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

Well, crap.

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.”

*chills*

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.

(not really)

The 19 Point Plan In Review (Part I)

Last winter – from December 8th to April 22nd, to be exact – I laid out my 19 Point Plan for fixing Illini football.  I started the day after it was certain that Zook would be returning and finished around the time of the Spring Game.  The Plan was somewhat organic over those months – it started before the coordinators were hired and included a plea for Arrelious to return for his senior season – but the focus was clear: how does the football program at The University of Illinois attain the yearly 7-5/8-4 expectations that we all know it’s capable of?

When laying out The Plan, I figured the only way to approach it would be to write something that the DIA would print out and pin to the bulletin board in the break room.  If this was going to be a plan, it was going to be The Plan.  I would change the conversation around Illini Football.  Dream big and tilt at windmills.

So I will approach this review in the same manner.  10 points today, 9 points tomorrow.

Point #1 – Gut The Assistant Coaches

Who I want gone: Jim Pry, Mike Woodford, Curt Mallory, Mike Woodford, Keith Gilmore, Reggie Mitchell, Mike Shultz
Safe: Dan Disch, Joe Gilbert

What do I want from the new coordinators? Playcalling. Especially on defense. The Disch/Mallory combo had the defensive playcalling instincts of a frightened box turtle. They never called first down blitzes. Zone blitzes were called at the exact wrong time. And worst of all, they could be read like a book. Offensive coordinators had a field day. “Hmmm… Disch and Mallory will likely call a weakside blitz here – hello wide receiver screen!” So I want the new coordinators to be known for their playcalling instincts.

I also want them to have carte blanche. No more “here’s Zook’s scheme – please come in and run it for us.” I want new schemes that are implemented in the spring, drilled in Rantoul, look awful against Mizzou, gain traction after the MSU game, and are humming right along in Fresno in December.

Pretty awesome start (except for the “humming along in Fresno” part).  The only coach I asked to be gone that was retained was Keith Gilmore.  And I’ll admit to being wrong.  The D-line did improve in his second year. But other than that, I got exactly what I wanted.  Disch retained for his recruiting but no longer a coordinator, and two play calling assistant coaches.  More on that in a bit.

Point #2: Zook As A Figurehead

Ron Zook needs to give up control, hire the two best coordinators he can find, let them choose their assistants, let them practice they way they want to practice, let them set the depth chart, and let them run the gameplanning. No more of this joint CEO/CFO/COO crap. He can be Chairman of the Board, and he can speak at all the shareholder meetings, but no more running the product line. He can hire people to do that.

And you know what? A high energy guy like Zook? I think he’s built for a role like that. Play to his strengths: sell the program, cast vision, speak to the press, recruit – he’s made for that. And heck, he can even still play good cop with the players. They can still love him and come to him with their concerns. He just needs to hire two bad cops as his coordinators.

OK, I was going to wait until later to say this, but they totally printed out The Plan in the break room, didn’t they? Let’s move on before my head gets too big. I’m sure there’s a few blunders in here.

Point #3: Bad Cops

Jack Ramsey is trotting over to the sideline. On third and 2 from the Northern Illinois 46, Ramsey covered up the tight end, resulting in an illegal procedure penalty. Third and 2 became third and 7, and after an incomplete pass, the punt team was headed out on to the field.

As he passes head coach Ron Zook, he gets a “that’s alright Jackie – we’ll get ‘em next time. You’re still my boy. You know that, right?” just like always. Loves his coach, Ramsey does. But then, as he takes a seat on the bench, he sees new Wide Receiver coach Arthur McBadass headed his way. *gulp*

“Ramsey, you’re done until halftime. If you can’t show me the decency of lining up correctly, you don’t belong on my field. And get ready for a fun practice on Monday.”

Good cop/bad cop. That’s what I want. We already have a good cop – one that seemingly hasn’t ever written a ticket in his life. We need a bad cop. Or two.

Point #3 is to hire bad cops for our two coordinator positions (and, if the rumblings I’m hearing this afternoon are true, the offensive bad cop will be Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino). They don’t necessarily need to be Tom Coughlin, but I want some disciplinarians. Buck stops here. My way or the highway. I don’t care if your head coach lets you jump offsides as much as you want – you do it for me and there will be consequences.

This one wrote itself. After the most undisciplined year of Illini Football in a long history of undisciplined football, we needed some disciplinarians. Enter Petrino. Enter Koenning. Enter an improved product in 2010.

Point #4: Find A Way To Keep Arrelious Benn Here One More Year

Uhhh, yeah. Moving on…

Point #5: Terry Hawthorne = Chris Gamble

It happens every season for nearly every BCS team – fans think back on how Billy Studpants played both ways in HS (and kicked), pick out the best athlete on their college team, and say “hey, can Watkins play both ways for us?” And 99% of the time, no, Watkins can’t play both ways. Besides physical exhaustion, learning two roles within intricate collegiate offensive and defensive schemes is above the pay grade of nearly every Division I athlete (pun intended). It is very, very rare for a team to have an instinctive, born-to-play-football athlete like Deion Sanders or Charles Woodson or Chris Gamble on their team.

I think we have one. He would clearly rank fourth when listed with the above players, but I think we have one. He is the Black Cat. And he was born to play football.

You know how they say some players are “fast in pads”? That’s Terry Hawthorne. His 40 time is solid, but when he’s cranking up the gears in his uniform, he’s the fastest guy on the field. This was true when I saw him in high school, and was certainly true when he ran down Roy Roundtree. I can only remember two other Illini players with this kind of speed in the last 20 years – Christian Morton and Scott Turner. Maybe Vontae, now that I think about it, but I really do think Black Cat is faster.

So what do you do with all that speed? You do what Ohio State did with Chris Gamble’s speed – spread it all over the field.

Stupid “stress reaction”. Stupid “Hawthorne re-aggravated his earlier foot injury and will sit out…”. In retrospect, we probably should have redshirted him this fall. He was only a healthy contributor in 3 or 4 games.

Oh well. Let’s make this one Point #1 for next year’s plan. May he return every punt.

Point #6: Move Players Around

Many have wanted to see what Martez could do coming off the corner as a Simeon Rice-ish LB/DE hybrid. Yet the scheme is just as entrenched as Tez is at middle linebacker. We have 7 outside linebackers on the roster and 2 tight ends. Can Justin Staples catch? How about Supo Sanni at outside linebacker? Justin Green cornerback? Greg Fuller middle linebacker? Leon Hill defensive tackle?

I’m not saying make all of these moves. Or even half of them. I’m saying I want our staff to be more creative than “4th-string linebacker Anterio Jackson has been moved to offensive guard”. Most all of our position moves over the past few years have been line-related (Xavier Fulton from DL to OT, Rahkeem Smith to DL, etc.) We have the “he’s too bulky now – let’s move him to the line” thing down. Now I want creativity.

I want a scheme that is set in stone, and then a roster shaped around that scheme. I want roster audits at the end of every season, trying to find areas of depth and areas of weakness, and then moving a few pieces here and there to bring more balance. This is all to be done with purpose – “you are being asked to move because it will benefit our team, and team is our #1 goal”. No more promises. No more attempts to keep everyone happy.

Hey look! Martez’s hand in the dirt on third-down situations! Justin Green at Cornerback! Justin Staples and Nate Palmer to the D-line! Glenn Foster moved inside to D-tackle! Jack Ramsey at corner! Steve Hull at safety!

Of all of the points in The Plan, this one was probably the most “implemented”. We were more creative with the roster – sometimes by necessity – than any year I can remember. Some of the moves, like Green at cornerback, might really pay off down the road.

Point #7: Utilize The Depth Chart

That’s what I want: urgency. When there are 4 starters at running back, there’s no urgency. When the defensive line depth chart doesn’t change once the entire season on a defense ranked last in Total D, there’s no urgency. No, I’m not saying start the third-stringer every time the first stringer needs motivation. I’m asking that we do what Iowa and Ohio State and Purdue and Wisconsin and nearly every other Big Ten team does: go public with the depth chart, and let it serve as a motivating tool for the players. Keep the “-OR-” out and simply list one starter and one (or two, if the position requires) backups. No more “everybody gets their name on the list”.

Utilize The Depth Chart. Update it weekly. No starting spot is safe. Every player must stay motivated at every practice.

Urgency.

For the most part, no change. As far as I could see. This might have been implemented at practice without any of us knowing, but as far as the official depth chart, there were only reactionary changes during the season.

I still would like to see depth chart changes go public like they are at other Big Ten schools. But in retrospect, a lot of that is for selfish reasons. I’m Robert, and I have a depth chart problem. I’m a junkie.

Point #8: Schedule Like We’re Illinois

I have to admit, my view on this issue has changed dramatically in the last 15 years. Had you been standing around my office’s proverbial water cooler in 1998, I would have given you an earful on Bill Snyder and his scheduling practices at Kansas State. Vitriol would have been spewed. The word “namby-pamby” would have been used. I might have even made a “Sisters of the Poor” crack. I know, yikes.

But in the 12 years since then, I’ve changed. And not just because we’ve only been to three bowls in those 12 years. The change is this: I now understand that no one is asking us to schedule Sisters of the Poor indefinitely. It’s that we must schedule them until we’ve taken the program up a rung, and then we add in a Southern Miss or a New Mexico State. And after we move up another rung, we add a Fresno State or a Duke. The next rung adds Arizona. The next a home and home with Boston College. And then (and only then) do we agree to a neutral series with Missouri. (You have no idea how much pain I endure when typing the name of that last team.)

Compare that to this. Tossing out the FCS games (when they added the 12th game, everybody got a freebie), here are the regular season records of our last 6 non-con opponents: 8-4, 12-0, 8-4, 9-3, 6-6, 9-3. Nope, not a misprint. 52-20. We get to choose our opponents, and we choose opponents who went 52-20.

The next 8 non-conference games: Arkansas State, South Dakota State, Arizona State, Western Michigan, Western Michigan, at Arizona State, Charleston Southern, and Louisiana Tech.

They totally listened. To this point and a thousand other message board posts and radio call-ins. Our non-conference scheduling in the first 6 years of the Zook era was absolute insanity. And it has finally changed. Hallelujah.

Point #9: Build The Offense Around My Man Mikel

I really hope we gameplan for LeShoure. It’s not so much his burst or his drive that has me so impressed; it’s his vision. He’s an instinctual runner who knows when to wait for his blockers and knows when to hit the hole. Watching the 1990 Colorado game recently (I do this occasionally to boost my spirits), I noticed a similarity between Mikel and Howard Griffith. HG was thick, but with a surprising burst and great vision. I think that describes My Man Mikel. And I want to see more of him.

Most of all, though, I want our offense to be intentional. I want it to have purpose. I want it to have an identity. And with a green quarterback (whoever it is), that identity next fall will need to be a running back who can get you 4 yards on 3rd and 3. And 31 yards on 2nd and 9.

So I want to see the same counter play practiced 135 times in Rantoul until the offensive linemen know it by heart. I want the threat of LeShoure to open up the passing game (and play action), not the other way around. I think he’ll be our best offensive player by quite a large margin – let’s make Big Ten opponents gameplan around him the way they gameplan around John Clay at Wisconsin. When we have a 28-17 fourth quarter lead next fall , it should be treated the same as 2007 – if you want the ball back, you’re gonna have to stop #5 before he gets to the sticks.

There you have it – feed My Man Mikel. Spell with Ford, scat with Green, and pound with Fuller every now and then to keep ‘em honest. But Feed#5.

That sounds better. Point #9: Feed Five.

The birth of #Feed5! February 1st of last year.

And Feed Five we did. To the tune of second team AP All American. Hallelujah.

Point #10: Build A Program

I am OK with Ron Zook being given 2 more years. (I just lost 75% of you, didn’t I? Stay with me.) My preference would be that Temple’s Al Golden would be settling into his office at Memorial Stadium, putting the finishing touches on his first recruiting class and getting to know Illinois high school coaches. But I have that feeling every year. Last year, it was Turner Gill. The year before that (well, the year before that, we were in Pasadena). But after the Ohio loss in 2006, I pondered how great Steve Kragthorpe would look on the Illini sideline. Each and every year there’s a coach out there who seems perfect, and will surely arrive and take us to the promised land.

But that’s no more than me in my college years, thinking about that girl in my Econ 105 class, just knowing that life would improve with her by my side. It didn’t. It rarely does. You see, there’s a rose in the fisted glove. And the eagle flies with the dove. And if you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love Ron Zook.

So I’m willing to give him 2 more years as long as Point #2 and Point #3 are met. I know this is severely disappointing to those of you who want him gone and want the next girl brought in. But I want a program.

I want recruiting relationships that stretch 10 years. When Mackovic left and Tepper started, he had to re-establish connections with high school coaches all over the country. And when Tepper left and Turner started, he had to re-establish connections with high school coaches all over the country. And when Turner left and Zook started, he had to establish connections with high school coaches all over the country. That whole time, Barry Alvarez was sitting on his throne in Madison, calling the same coaches and recruiting the same farm boys to block for the same running game. I want that.

I want schemes that evolve and grow as coordinators come and go, but I want consistency. I want this Petrino offense, whatever it is, to last 15 years. I want (ugh) what Missouri has right now (puke). Brad Smith leaves, Chase Daniel steps in and runs the same offense. Daniel leaves, Gabbo steps in and runs the same plays. Dave Christensen left for Wyoming? No matter, take an assistant (a floppy-haired freakshow at that) and promote him to OC and keep the train moving. Practice is run the same. Terminology is the same. Play calling feels like Christensen never left.

The jury is certainly out on this one, and will be for some time. But I’ll say this. 6-6 with a freshman QB and two new coordinators is a good start. Return 16 starters next year with an easier schedule, win 7 or 8 to take us to back-to-back bowls, start attracting 4-star kids again, and we might get this thing movin’. Set up a succession plan with Jeff Brohm so that the very moment that Paul Petrino gets hired at Wake Forest, Brohm steps up to offensive coordinator and continues to develop and grow the same schemes. Do the same with Vic Koenning and Ron West. Continue to schedule like we’re Illinois. Sell ourselves as a running team and get the next FeedFive in here. Get to a Florida bowl, let our orange fill half the stands, and then use that to recruit recruit recruit.

Build a program.

19 Point Plan – #19: Fans Must Stick Around

Check your email.  There’s one last season ticket renewal reminder in your inbox, isn’t there?  You’ve been putting it off, haven’t you.  You’re not sure what to do.

Renew.

I know the last two years have been frustrating.  I know the decision to play Western Michigan in Detroit cost us more than just a bowl game – it cost us momentum.  Momentum that led to a 3-9 season and the lowest-ranked recruiting class of the Zook era.  The projection charts trend down.  It feels like 2003 again.  I get that.

Please renew.

You know the scene in ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ where there’s a run on the Bailey Building and Loan and the one dude is all “I’m going to Potter – he’ll pay me” and George Bailey runs to the door and begs them all not to leave? That he’ll pay them with his own money to keep them from bailing and going to Potter?  Well, consider me George Bailey.  (Except for the handing-out-money part.)

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. I fully realize the one scenario here. The new schemes and the difficult schedule of 2010 are too hard to overcome, and we sink to another 3-9 season. If you thought the 2010 recruiting class was ranked low, you should see where the 2011 class ends up. Despite our 8 home games in 2011, the talent of the 2008 and 2009 classes isn’t enough to push our record any higher than 5-7. Our coaching staff is fired, you can hear a pin drop in the north endzone by the 8th home game, and we’re back to 2004.

Or…

Our home games of NIU, SIU, Minnesota, Indiana, and Purdue (and the raucous crowd in the stands) propel us to 6 or 7 wins and a minor bowl. Ron Zook has something to sell again, and the 2011 recruiting class is back ranked in the 30′s (with a few impact freshmen for 2011). 18 returning starters + 8 home games + no Ohio State or Missouri on the schedule leads us to the Outback Bowl, and with that kind of cred, Zook and crew pull in another top-25 class, including (insert stud wide receiver from Chicago) who committed after his visit to a sold-out Memorial Stadium during a 37-19 demolition of Michigan State in November. Koenning and Petrino get extensions, signing day is fun again, and I get to write a long “you mean we still have TWO more years of Nathan Scheelhaase?” article that gets re-tweeted by the President.

One of those two. And if there’s any chance it’s the second one, you need to renew.

If it’s the first, after 2011 – fine. Go to old man Potter and get your money. I won’t stop you. You can stay away from Memorial Stadium for 10 years. I won’t blame you.

But I really, really want to hang on to a full stadium. We’re not the best crown, but dammit, we’re there and we’re orange. We’re just now re-learning how to cheer on their third and long and shut up on our first and goal. I don’t want to lose that.

I know the odds here. And I know the cost is steep. But I’m asking (begging?) you to give it two more years. Do it for George Bailey.

Thus endeth the 19 Point Plan. I’ll try to do a recap post soon covering all 19 points. There might even be a print version that I tack to the door of the Irwin Indoor Facility over the weekend. If circumstances work out, I’ll be at practice tomorrow, and I’ll definitely be at the Spring Game on Saturday, so follow that Twitter. I’m bound to get excited about the Black Cat and start saying things I don’t mean.

19 Point Plan – #18: Sensational Seniors

Why don’t we have Zeke Markshausens?

Who’s Zeke Markshausen?  Northwestern’s senior wide receiver last year.  1 catch for 6 yards in his first 3 years.  And then 91 catches for 858 yards as a senior.

91 catches for Zeke Markshausen, and 38 catches for Arrelious Benn.  I want to cry.

Joey Elliot – over 3,000 passing yards in his only season as Purdue’s starter.  O’Brien Schofield – 5 sacks over his first three years at Wisconsin… and then 12 as a senior.  Dan Kafka, Northwestern’s “running quarterback” – 7th in the country in passing in his only year as a starter.  Josh Hull – 116 tackles for Penn State as a senior (to lead the team – more than Lee or Bowman).

Where’s our senior breakout stars?  Why don’t I get one?  I deserve one, right?

(Quick aside:  That’s how I feel much of the time as an Illini football fan.  My fandom is defined by petulance. “Why don’t I get a Champs Sports Bowl?  Where’s my Davey O’Brien Award finalist?”  All the other kids get to go down to the park and play, and I have to practice the piano.  Someday, kids.  Someday.)

(And if by chance one of you has Biff Tannen’s sports almanac and you know that Illinois football never gets over the hump, please don’t e-mail me and tell me.  I don’t think I could handle it.  Never. Give up. Hope.)

Anyway, 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.

So how do we get there?  What do we need to do so we’ll have a steady rotation of senior leaders like Wisconsin (gulp) and Iowa (gag)?  How do we build that culture?

Honest?  I don’t really know.  I guess it starts by example – some redshirt freshman sees Kevin Mitchell and J Leman willing the defense to a complete shut-down of Penn State in the 4th quarter and decides that’s going to be him some day.  And you can put the seniors in charge of many things at Camp Rantoul, from the workout room to the practice field, and hope that their leadership carries over to the field.

But I think it all starts with recruiting.  It’s finding and identifying a few natural-born leaders with every class and getting them to sign.  And then you have to identify the quiet leaders on the scout team and begin to develop them towards upper-classmen leadership.  But most of all, you have to keep your classes together.

Our 2007 recruiting class: Darrell Ballew, Arrelious Benn, Josh Brent, Nate Bussey, Jack Cornell, Daniel Dufrene, Brian Gamble, Phil Haig, Darius Hodge, Mark Jackson, Steve Matas, D’Angelo McCray, Anthony Morris, Troy Pollard, Darius Purcell, Erique Robertson, Ian Thomas, Miami Thomas, Craig Wilson, Martez Wilson.

(The lesson here: Only those players with last names at the beginning and the end of the alphabet stand a chance at succeeding at college football.  Sorry, Darius Millines – I had such hope for you.)

The real lesson here, of course, is that those teams that keep their classes together consistently possess senior leadership in spades.  Easier said than done, I know – many of the grades/off-the-field issues that lead to player dismissal are completely beyond the control of the coach.  So yeah, it’s a little luck.

But here’s the key:  by my observation, those teams with great senior leadership year-to-year have less grade/off-the-field issues.  It’s a culture.  It’s contagious.  It’s what produces the Zeke Markshausens and the O’Brien Schofields.  It’s my turn.  It’s my time to shine.  I’ll run with it as far as I can and then I’ll pass it on to you.

And since this is The 19 Point Plan For Fixing Illini Football, that culture is hereby demanded.  The current seniors are now on the clock.  If you hear your name, please stand up (and remain standing):  Jarred Fayson, Eddie McGee, Chris James, Randall Hunt, Ryan Palmer, Anterio Jackson, Josh Brent, Clay Nurse, Nate Bussey, Aaron Gress, Antonio Gully, Travon Bellamy, Anthony Santella.  Those that are standing are your leaders.  Those that are standing will find a way to get us to a .500 record.  You can be the first in a long line of senior leaders who demand more from this program.

OK, everyone can sit down, except for Mr. James and Mr. Bellamy.

Chris, Travon: You’re my candidates for the Markshausen-Schofield award.  The name of this award will be changed to the James-Bellamy Award after your put-it-all-together senior seasons.  Set an example for the generations behind you, gentlemen.  This is your time.

Senior leadership.  Hereby demanded.

19 Point Plan – #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.

If I was in some DIA meeting back in 2002 where the topic of how to grow the program was being discussed, right after the video staff guys mentioned 4th-quarter in-game highlights and the stadium staff discussed the concessions needs and the idea for the recruiting center and weight room was being tossed around, I would have raised my hand and said “you know, we could do all that, or we could, um, maybe… win?”

If you asked any member of the football staff, from the coaches to the administrators to the SID office, they would all tell you the same thing. “OF COURSE that’s what we’re trying to do.”  It’s most certainly the whole point of having a football program and a Division I University.  Everybody wants to win.

Then why have we suffered through 6 home games when 90% of the BCS schools at least 7?  Why did we wait until late 2009 to attempt to fix some glaring “they can recruit but can they coach” assistants?  Why do we take our three FBS non-conference games and schedule Missouri-Cincy-Fresno?

Want the best example of how we have it backwards?  BTN’s “The Journey” in 2008.  I’m sure the meeting when that was finalized went over great.  I’m sure everyone left the room thinking “wow, what fantastic exposure for Illinois Football”.  I’m sure we thought every recruit from Jacksonville, IL to Jacksonville, FL would watch and run to the fax machine. Did anyone think about how adding the cameras and the notoriety might, you know, affect our win total?  Was a discussion had about how the constant presence of cameras might give the players a sense that they’d arrived when, in fact, there was much more work to do?

Just. Win. Baby.

Wins are the cure-all.  Wins will send fans down from Chicago in droves.  Wins will sell more tickets than any Family Fun Fest or Pork Day would ever dream of selling.  Look no further than the mid-80′s to see that there are tens of thousands of Illini Football fans DYING to flock to Memorial Stadium to watch a winning program.

We have something that Northwestern and Purdue and Indiana and Minnesota don’t:  The potential for top-end fan support.  Fan support at Ohio State and Michigan and Penn State has sustained their programs for years.  The money is there for the top coaches and the top assistants and the top facilities to maintain a top program.  And as Wisconsin proved under Alvarez and Iowa is proving under Ferentz, winning can start a ball rolling down a hill that the whole state will get behind.

So if the potential is there and the money is there and (now) the facilities are there, why aren’t we there?  I really think it’s this simple: He haven’t focused on winning.  We schedule like we assume we’re already there.  Our players celebrate on the field like we’re there. We print fantastic promotional posters to make it look like we’re there.  That’s all good and fine except, you know, we’re still nowhere near there.

So let’s start here.  Let’s schedule like 2011 for 4 consecutive years. Let’s eliminate Chicago scrimmages for those same 4 years and focus on maxing out every single on-campus spring practice. Let’s recruit some glue guys who might not have the bench press but definitely have the heart.  Let’s remind everyone in the program that we’re nowhere near there. Yet.

Let’s put the cart back behind the horse.  Let’s win, baby.

19 Point Plan – #16: Know Your Role

Want to know why I think our special teams have been among the worst units in the Big Ten over the last 5 years?  You do?  Sweet.  I’ma tell you.

I don’t think anybody owns their role.  OK, besides Aaron Gress.  And maybe Erique Robertson a few years ago before he went all wild west.  I watch other Big Ten teams, and it seems that their special teams units are units – guys who relish the fact that their role on the team is to blow up the long snapper after he lets go of the ball. The third string safety on Ohio State lives for the fact that he can take down a gunner.  The backup linebacker at Wisconsin dreams of wedge-busting in his sleep.

At Illinois?  I don’t see very much of that at all.  Our special teams are a hodge podge of starters and backups.  Jeff Cumberland’s job title last year was Outside WR/Inside WR/TE/Gunner (and he probably played his best at TE).  I know why we had him gunning on the punt team (freakish athlete).  But when he caught that ball and brought on the illegal touching penalty (against Northwestern, was it?), I couldn’t help but wonder if a non-starter who spent 40% of his time at practice downing punts would have been better in that role.  If we had trained Antonio Gully for three years as our primary punt team gunner, would he have made the same mistakes?  Did it really benefit us to stretch our best athletes so thin that they didn’t really know what their doing on special teams? (You know, besides Aaron Gress.)

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?

A non-special teams example?  Justin Lattimore – Tight End In Space.  (In space, as in, like, out in the flat and seam routes – not in space). Teach him four routes, practice them over and over and over until the muscle memory clicks, and tell him that while he’s probably doesn’t have the strength yet to block a full-head-of-steam outside linebacker, he can play a role this year by running these four routes to perfection when called on.  Over and over and over.

I’m very encouraged by the steps we’ve made in this direction this spring.  I put “role players” on the original list, and then when spring ball started, we began to move in that direction. (Obviously a sign that someone from the staff Mission-Impossibled their way into my house and took pictures of the original chicken-scratch Plan).  We needed a big, mobile, blocking tight end, so we moved Andrew Carter there and told him that his specific role this year is a blocker on the corner.  We moved Justin Staples and Nate Palmer to “Bandit”, we appear to have more scat-back-y roles for our scat backs, and, at least when I’ve watched, we had less starters and more backups running with the special teams. Specialists.  I like it.

But of course I want more.  I want vision-casting meetings with each player after the spring game.  Whitney Mercilus, you’re Clay Nurse II.  Follow him, learn from him, emulate him, and take over for him next fall.  Antonio Gully, learn everything you can about being a gunner on the punt team.  Your specialty will be downing the ball inside the five.  Stay after practice with Anthony Santella and work on beating a blocker, flying to the punt returner, and reacting to short hops and odd bounces.  You’re not going to break the cornerback rotation, but you can be remembered in Illini lore by downing a punt at the two at Penn State.

Aaron Gress, do that thing you do.  Make Adam Rittenberg write an article entitled “Aaron Gress – The Big Ten’s Best Special Teamer”.  Lendell Buckner?  Your job is to use that giant frame to block one field goal this fall.  Trulon Henry?  You’re my corner guy on the punt block.  Practice it all summer, and go get your hand on one this fall.  Dustin Jefferson? Go bust up that wedge.  Wisdom Onyegbule?  Your name will be called on fourth and inches.  Stuff somebody.

I want each and every member of The 85 to be told A) What their specific role will be this fall, and B) What goal they should set before they leave Champaign.  As I’ve said in several of the other points (and as I wrote out in December when the disorganized mess of a season was fresh in my mind), I want more organization and purpose.  I want less penalties because there’s more focus.  I want less hectic and more paced; less frenzied and more calm.  And I think that one major step in that direction is to make sure every single player knows their role.

OK, 84 players.  Special Teams Imperial Centurion Aaron Gress already knows his role: seek and destroy.

19 Point Plan – #15: Quality Control

We need a spotter.

I’m not a NASCAR guy, but I know enough to know that NASCAR drivers have spotters.  Since I couldn’t tell you much more than that, I’ll use my friend Google to find a good quote about NASCAR spotters.  Here’s one:

A NASCAR spotter watches his assigned car and protects it as his own. He lives in his driver’s earbuds from Friday’s first practice through Sunday’s checkered flag, helping him tiptoe through traffic and stay focused on the task at hand. While a crew chief chimes in over the radio about fuel strategies and tire changes, the spotter’s words are a driver’s best friend. Consequently, a spotter is equal parts shrink, motivational speaker, messenger, seer, treaty negotiator, driver’s ed instructor and life preserver.

Yep. One of those.

Accepting penalties that give our opponent another chance on third down? Timeouts with 35 seconds left instead of 5 seconds left that allow the opponent to get the ball back? Squibbing when we should kick away, and kicking away when we should squib? All of these frustrations are a thing of the past once we add a spotter.

Let’s face it – our head coach is not the cool, calm, and collected type on the sideline. He paces and races and yells and paces, and his timeouts are a spur of the moment decision. He’s not the calculating type (which is why he’s solid in the recruiting living room). He has his positives, but calm, precise game management definitely isn’t one of them.

I want to change that. I want an eye in the sky (and a voice on the headset) that is doing nothing more than managing the game for 3 hours. Not a decision maker – a guide. Not a coach – a counselor. Equal parts shrink, motivational speaker, messenger, seer, treaty negotiator, driver’s ed instructor and life preserver.

(OK, maybe not driver’s ed instructor.)

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.

Truth be told, I don’t want it to be an insider. I don’t want it to be a grizzled old coach or a hotshot grad assistant. I want an outsider who isn’t involved in the coaches meetings. Just like DeWalt hires an outside consultant to review their 18-volt cordless drill line and recommend a better trigger solenoid, I want someone who scans the field and sees something the coaches can’t. Someone who isn’t thinking about the player rotations on the final drive – only clock management. Someone well versed in penalty-declining statistics. (What is better? Second-and-14 or Third-and-9? The Spotter’s application should include a 6-page essay on that very topic.)

What’s that? The NCAA has rules that prohibit additional staff being involved in game-day activities? Hush. I’m doing good work here. Besides, as the wise philosopher Ronald Zook once said, “there are many ways to skin a cat”. Gross, but effective.  I vote Greg Nord, then.  TE coach, recruiting coordinator, and gameday spotter.  Done and done and done.

Anyway, where was I? Yes – The Spotter. Correct the clock management problems. Fix the penalty-decline issues. Work on in-game field position decisions. Watch for hot hands. Improve our chances of winning football games.

Quality control.

19 Point Plan – #14: Build On Our History

Red’s statue was a start.  Why it took 85 years to erect a statue to The Greatest College Football Player In The History Of The Game we may never know, but at least it’s there now.  And it’s glorious.

That’s a start.  But we need to do so, so much more.  We need to implant in the psyche of every coach, player, and fan in the entire country that Illinois Football should, can, and will be one of the top-30 programs in the entire country.  It must happen.  If no one else will take the mantle, I will.  I’ll make it my life’s work.

RedWe’re Illinois.  Home of The Greatest College Football Player In The History Of The Game. In this day and age, there’s absolutely no reason we’re not a perennial bowl team. History demands it.

The public needs to know. Recruits need to know. Most importantly, our players need to know. If I were in charge, the very moment the freshmen arrive on campus, the very first day, I would put them through the following 4-step program:

Step 1: Listen to the Ray Eliot “Proper State Of Mind” speech

Wait, what? You’ve never heard the Proper State Of Mind speech? Seriously? It’s my ringtone (not really). I can’t tell you how many calls I’ve missed because I waited to answer until after I heard “you’ve got a winner – YOU’VE GOT A WINNER” (seriously, this isn’t true – but it should be).

If you haven’t heard the speech, carve out 27 minutes tonight and listen to the speech. By the time he says the word “courage” in the very first minute, I already have goosebumps. By the time he gets to the Alan Ameche story, I’m ready to throw on some shoulder pads.

I would teach the freshman that this, first and foremost, is what Illinois Football is about. That this is the mindset that is expected from them if they want to play for this historic – yes, historic – program.

Step 2: Review the Big Ten Stadiums

I would hand out a list of the current stadium capacities:

Penn State: 107,282
Michigan: 106,201
Ohio State: 102,329
Wisconsin: 80,321
Michigan State: 75,025
Iowa: 70,585
Illinois: 62,872
Purdue: 62,500
Minnesota: 50,805
Indiana: 50,180
Northwestern: 49,256

I would tell them that Illinois was once the fourth largest stadium in the Big Ten (before Camp Randall added the upper deck), with as many as 78,000 fans attending games in Champaign. I would emphasize that hard times led to building campaigns that actually reduced seats, and that the current arrangement makes it the seventh largest stadium in the conference. I would show them expansion plans for a larger north endzone and a two-deck expanded permanent horseshoe, and let them know that their hard work and dedication would make it happen.  If you build (the program), they will come.

I would also discuss my Stadium Capacities Theory, which states that the preseason goal for each team in the conference is to finish close to their stadium capacity ranking. The seats were added because their predecessors were successful, and it is up to them to build on that. I would passionately emphasize that the current stadium capacity is 7th largest in the Big Ten, and that the 7th place team in the Big Ten nearly always makes a minor bowl, and the fancy PowerPoint slide I made would warp to reveal the words “Always Make A Bowl”. We’re Illinois Football. The Greatest College Football Player In The History Of The Game played here. There’s no excuse – none – not to be a perennial bowl team.  We have the facilities, recruiting base, and fan support that many others don’t.  It’s time to act like it.

Step 3: Review the recently released ESPN Top-25 College Football Players Of All Time list.

The programs on that list with more than one representative? USC, Texas, Stanford, Michigan, Pitt, Georgia, and ILLINOIS.  Dick Butkus at #19 and Red Grange at #1.  Yes, #1. The Greatest College Football Player In The History Of The Game. Illini. Red Grange. Illinois.

I would take them through Red’s entire career. I would have a large block of ice delivered to the room, and I’d call up the big defensive lineman from Joliet Catholic (we’ve locked up the State of Illinois by this point, you see) and have him hoist the block of ice on his shoulder. I’d tell the story of Red strengthening his legs by delivering ice for iceboxes. I would show them film of the famous Michigan game. I would show them trophies and newspaper articles from the 1923 National Championship. I would remind them that The Greatest College Football Player In The History Of The Game played in the exact same stadium and on the exact same field.

At this point, I flip on the lights, and there stands Dick Butkus. He looks angry. The freshman wideout from Ohio dozed off during the Ray Eliot speech, and Mr. Butkus doesn’t like people who doze off during Proper State of Mind. He’s fiery, he’s passionate, and he reminds every player what it means to put on the Orange and Blue. By the time he’s finished, the middle linebacker from Texas (yeah, we recruit EVERYWHERE) is ready to put a helmet on and hit somebody.

Step 4: My Speech

Perfect natural progression, no?  Red Grange… Dick Butkus… Me.  Hey – my 4-step program, my rules.

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.

I would tell them that Illinois fans don’t have outrageous expectations – but that they can help us get there.  Right now, we just want a solid team that plays hard, competes week-to-week, and sends us somewhere warm for the holidays.  I’d talk about the atmosphere in Memphis in December of 1994 and in Miami in December of 1999 – not so different from the atmosphere in Pasadena in January 2008.  We travel well because there are tens of thousands of Illini football fans just waiting for the program to make the climb.  Just get us to the Insight Bowl on New Years Eve and we’ll show up to Tempe in droves.

I would close with a simple picture of myself sitting alone in the east balcony, freezing, shirtless with a giant orange “N” on my chest, staring at nothing in particular, 25 minutes after Brian Milne went in from 4 yards out and #1 Penn State completed their comeback on November 12, 1994.  I resolved that day that this team would one day reach the mountaintop, and if there was any way I could help get us there, I would; the result of that moment was this speech.  I would tell them that there were tens of thousands just like me, waiting for that day.  That the University of Red and Ray and Dick and Simeon needs to take its rightful place.

The Greatest College Football Player In The History Of The Game played here. We owe it to him.

19 Point Plan #13: No More Celebrations

Well, crap.

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.

At least I wrote this in Point #12 a few weeks ago so you’ll believe me:

You know how they say you play like you practice? Well, when the defense makes a tackle 15 yards down the field in practice, they celebrate with chest bumps and helmet slaps. So in the game, when Ohio State runs 13 yards off left tackle for a first down and Travon Bellamy celebrates his hit, well, he learned it at practice. I know why the coaches encourage it – get your players to believe in and encourage each other. But the result is a defense that is way too excited to tackle a guy 21 yards down field. (I’ll stop there, because No More Celebrations is Point #13). My point here is this: don’t let the players get so excited about stopping each other. Tell them to save their excitement for when they stop Ohio State.

So the rest of what I wrote on Sunday and Thursday? Forget it. Deleted. Vic said it better. Heck, let’s read my favorite part again:

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.

Amen, Mr. My New Favorite Illini Assistant Coach, Like, Ever. Amen.

19 Point Plan Refresher Course

For those of you unfamiliar, during my deep depression the week after the Fresno State game, I devised a plan.  A plan to fix Illini Football.  On a little slip of paper on my desk, I wrote out 19 necessary changes to improve our football program.  In between Gonzaga overtimes and bubbles bursting, I had planned to sprinkle in all 19 points before spring ball.  I was able to get to 12, but for the last month, I’ve been solely focused on hoops.  Wednesday night, Dayton dunked us out of the NIT, so it’s back to the plan.

But before I get to lucky #13, a refresher.  If this blog were an 80′s sitcom, this post would be the recap episode where they film 5 minutes of everyone scratching their chin and then fill the rest with reruns.  I’ll be Alex, you be Mr. Keaton, and let’s think back to that time when Mallory lost her car keys at the mall……

Point #1: Gut The Assistant Coaches

What do I want from the new coordinators?  Playcalling.  Especially on defense.  The Disch/Mallory combo had the defensive playcalling instincts of a frightened box turtle.  They never called first down blitzes.  Zone blitzes were called at the exact wrong time.  And worst of all, they could be read like a book.  Offensive coordinators had a field day. “Hmmm… Disch and Mallory will likely call a weakside blitz here – hello wide receiver screen!” So I want the new coordinators to be known for their playcalling instincts.

I also want them to have carte blanche.  No more “here’s Zook’s scheme – please come in and run it for us.”  I want new schemes that are implemented in the spring, drilled in Rantoul, look awful against Mizzou, gain traction after the MSU game, and are humming right along in Fresno in December.

Point #2: Zook As A Figurehead

Ron Zook needs to give up control, hire the two best coordinators he can find, let them choose their assistants, let them practice they way they want to practice, let them set the depth chart, and let them run the gameplanning.  No more of this joint CEO/CFO/COO crap.  He can be Chairman of the Board, and he can speak at all the shareholder meetings, but no more running the product line.  He can hire people to do that.

And you know what?  A high energy guy like Zook?  I think he’s built for a role like that.  Play to his strengths: sell the program, cast vision, speak to the press, recruit – he’s made for that.  And heck, he can even still play good cop with the players.  They can still love him and come to him with their concerns.  He just needs to hire two bad cops as his coordinators.

Point #3: Bad Cops

Jack Ramsey is trotting over to the sideline.  On third and 2 from the Northern Illinois 46, Ramsey covered up the tight end, resulting in an illegal procedure penalty.  Third and 2 became third and 7, and after an incomplete pass, the punt team was headed out on to the field.

As he passes head coach Ron Zook, he gets a “that’s alright Jackie – we’ll get ‘em next time.  You’re still my boy.  You know that, right?” just like always.  Loves his coach, Ramsey does.  But then, as he takes a seat on the bench, he sees new Wide Receiver coach Arthur McBadass headed his way. *gulp*

“Ramsey, you’re done until halftime.  If you can’t show me the decency of lining up correctly, you don’t belong on my field. And get ready for a fun practice on Monday.”

Good cop/bad cop.  That’s what I want.  We already have a good cop – one that seemingly hasn’t ever written a ticket in his life.  We need a bad cop.  Or two.

Going pretty good so far, right? Within days of these posts, assistants were fired, assistants with new schemes were hired, and Zook publicly spoke of the “new ideas and new direction” of the assistant coaches. I know what you’re thinking, and I agree. They read the blog, and they decided to implement everything. Everything was going great until…

Point #4: Find A Way To Keep Benn Here One More Year

FAIL

Point #5:  Terry Hawthorne = Chris Gamble

It happens every season for nearly every BCS team – fans think back on how Billy Studpants played both ways in HS (and kicked), pick out the best athlete on their college team, and say “hey, can Watkins play both ways for us?”  And 99% of the time, no, Watkins can’t play both ways.  Besides physical exhaustion, learning two roles within intricate collegiate offensive and defensive schemes is above the pay grade of nearly every Division I athlete (pun intended).  It is very, very rare for a team to have an instinctive, born-to-play-football athlete like Deion Sanders or Charles Woodson or Chris Gamble on their team.

I think we have one.  He would clearly rank fourth when listed with the above players, but I think we have one.  He is the Black Cat.  And he was born to play football.

Point #6: Move Players Around

Many have wanted to see what Martez could do coming off the corner as a Simeon Rice-ish LB/DE hybrid.  Yet the scheme is just as entrenched as Tez is at middle linebacker.  We have 7 outside linebackers on the roster and 2 tight ends.  Can Justin Staples catch?  How about Supo Sanni at outside linebacker?  Justin Green cornerback?  Greg Fuller middle linebacker?  Leon Hill defensive tackle?

I’m not saying make all of these moves.  Or even half of them.  I’m saying I want our staff to be more creative than “4th-string linebacker Anterio Jackson has been moved to offensive guard”.  Most all of our position moves over the past few years have been line-related (Xavier Fulton from DL to OT, Rahkeem Smith to DL, etc.)  We have the “he’s too bulky now – let’s move him to the line” thing down.  Now I want creativity.

I want a scheme that is set in stone, and then a roster shaped around that scheme.  I want roster audits at the end of every season, trying to find areas of depth and areas of weakness, and then moving a few pieces here and there to bring more balance. This is all to be done with purpose – “you are being asked to move because it will benefit our team, and team is our #1 goal”.  No more promises.  No more attempts to keep everyone happy.

Most of all, I don’t want to see another athlete like Cordale Scott sit on the bench for 2 years and then transfer.  We’re building a team here, and everyone needs to fulfill whatever role is chosen for them.

Point #7: Utilize The Depth Chart

And that’s what I want: urgency.  When there are 4 starters at running back, there’s no urgency.  When the defensive line depth chart doesn’t change once the entire season on a defense ranked last in Total D, there’s no urgency.  No, I’m not saying start the third-stringer every time the first stringer needs motivation.  I’m asking that we do what Iowa and Ohio State and Purdue and Wisconsin and nearly every other Big Ten team does: go public with the depth chart, and let it serve as a motivating tool for the players.  Keep the “-OR-” out and simply list one starter and one (or two, if the position requires) backups.  No more “everybody gets their name on the list”.

Point #8: Schedule Like We’re Illinois

Here are the regular season records of our last 6 non-con opponents: 8-4, 12-0, 8-4, 9-3, 6-6, 9-3. Nope, not a misprint. 52-20. We get to choose our opponents, and we choose opponents who went 52-20. Let’s compare that to a few of our Big Ten brethren:

2008 & 2009 FBS non-conference opponent records
Wisconsin: 36-36
Indiana: 32-40
Penn State: 32-40
Iowa: 34-38

And are you ready for this one? Seated?

Northwestern: 16-56

I want to put those two opponents records next to each other, just so no one is confused:

Illinois’ non-conference FBS opponents the last two seasons: 52-20
Northwestern’s non-conference FBS opponents the last two seasons: 16-56

For a little more perspective, let’s stay with those two teams for a bit.  Overall regular season record of all opponents for the last two seasons?

Illinois: 82-50 (2009), 82-50 (2008)
Northwestern: 58-74 (2009), 60-72 (2008)

Um, why, again?

Point #9: Feed Five

I really hope we gameplan for LeShoure.  It’s not so much his burst or his drive that has me so impressed; it’s his vision.  He’s an instinctual runner who knows when to wait for his blockers and knows when to hit the hole.  Watching the 1990 Colorado game recently (I do this occasionally to boost my spirits), I noticed a similarity between Mikel and Howard Griffith.  HG was thick, but with a surprising burst and great vision.  I think that describes My Man Mikel.  And I want to see more of him.

Most of all, though, I want our offense to be intentional.  I want it to have purpose.  I want it to have an identity.  And with a green quarterback (whoever it is), that identity next fall will need to be a running back who can get you 4 yards on 3rd and 3.  And 31 yards on 2nd and 9.

So I want to see the same counter play practiced 135 times in Rantoul until the offensive linemen know it by heart.  I want the threat of LeShoure to open up the passing game (and play action), not the other way around.  I think he’ll be our best offensive player by quite a large margin – let’s make Big Ten opponents gameplan around him the way they gameplan around John Clay at Wisconsin.  When we have a 28-17 fourth quarter lead next fall , it should be treated the same as 2007 – if you want the ball back, you’re gonna have to stop #5 before he gets to the sticks.

Point #10: Build A Program

I want recruiting relationships that stretch 10 years.  When Mackovic left and Tepper started, he had to re-establish connections with high school coaches all over the country.  And when Tepper left and Turner started, he had to re-establish connections with high school coaches all over the country.  And when Turner left and Zook started, he had to establish connections with high school coaches all over the country.  That whole time, Barry Alvarez was sitting on his throne in Madison, calling the same coaches and recruiting the same farm boys to block for the same running game.  I want that.

I want schemes that evolve and grow as coordinators come and go, but I want consistency.  I want this Petrino offense, whatever it is, to last 15 years.  I want (ugh) what Missouri has right now (puke).  Brad Smith leaves, Chase Daniel steps in and runs the same offense.  Daniel leaves, Gabbo steps in and runs the same plays.  Dave Christensen left for Wyoming?  No matter, take an assistant (a floppy-haired freakshow at that) and promote him to OC and keep the train moving.  Practice is run the same.  Terminology is the same.  Play calling feels like Christensen never left.

How many times over the last 25 years did Michigan run the same 18 yard out, with the same tall QB throwing to the same equally-tall WR running the same pattern, crushing Illinois when we finally had them in 3rd and 11?  100 times?  Players come and go, but they all look the same.  They all know exactly what is expected of them, because they’ve watched their predecessors do the same thing, and now they simply need to emulate it.  Sure, when Michigan had a big back they ran it one way, and when they had a scatback they ran it a little different.  But their offense (and defense) didn’t change much at all from year to year.  Plug in new pieces, and keep the train moving.

Point #11: Interceptions

Four hundred nine minutes and nineteen seconds.  I know that stat off the top of my head. In the middle of the 2008 season, we went 409:19 spanning 7 games without an interception.  A bend-but-don’t-break defense that supposedly feeds off creating turnovers… and 6 interceptions that entire season.  Good for 113th place out of 119 teams.  So surely we’d get that turned around in 2009, right?  Change the scheme a bit, hope for a little luck, grab some INT’s, get back on track?  Nope.  5 interceptions.  Dropped to 117th (tied for dead last).

Imagine the 2nd quarter of the Indiana game last year.  We’re clinging to a 7-3 lead, and we have Indiana in 3rd and 3 from their own 40.  Except instead of the 12 yard completion for a first down, imagine Tavon Wilson jumps the route and returns it 10 yards to their 35 or so.  LeShoure left, LeShoure right, 14-3 Illini.  But you know what really happened.  12 yard completion for a first down, Chappell to Doss, Chappell to Doss, 10-7 Indiana.

Or think of the Purdue game the next week.  We’re down 21-14, and we pin Purdue at their 12.  Say on first down, instead of a 28 yard completion to Bolden, Joey Elliot’s pass is tipped by Josh Brent and caught by Ian Thomas, who rambles in for the touchdown.  Tied up, 21-21, and momentum has completely shifted to our sideline.  But you know that didn’t happen.  Purdue drove down the field, kicked a field goal, and hello 1-6.

Point #12: Change The Way We Practice

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.

So there we are. 12 points, with 4 of them already implemented. You’re welcome, DIA.

Tomorrow I’ll start hammering out lucky #13. By #16, you’ll be ready for football season to start. By #19, they’ll be ready to hire me.