A Lion Eye Conversations: Jeff Allen

If I’m doing my math right, the season opener against Arkansas State will be Jeff Allen’s 35th consecutive start at offensive tackle.  From wide eyed true freshman starting on the road at Penn State to 2nd Team All Big Ten left tackle as a junior, it’s been fun to watch him develop and grow.  I sat down with Jeff to discuss his final go-around in an Illini uniform. I think he can be the best offensive tackle in the Big Ten. So does he.

Take me back to September 27th, 2008. True freshman, 100,000 fans, at Penn State, national TV… tell me what that was like.

That was a long time ago, first off. It was the experience of a lifetime for me. True freshman, my first start, no knowing what to expect – I think that was a good thing. Because I went in there with no fear at all. I went in there and I just played.

Was that the first road game of the year? What was it like getting your first start on the road?

We were in St. Louis in the dome, and that was a nice experience, but it’s a totally different thing at Penn State. White out, a night game, a lot of fans screaming and a lot of crazy stuff. You have a lot of nervousness, but after the first series – just the first few plays – I was fine. I settled in and realized I could play.

So then what was it like last year going back to Happy Valley?

It’s the same thing. The fans are crazy – maybe it’s a different atmosphere because that was a morning game, and it wasn’t a White Out – but they still have great fans there. It was an experience. You like to go there. And we beat them, so it was nice to keep them quiet.

What would you say is your best memory in your three years here?

My freshman year we beat Iowa. We just grinded it out. That was the most physical game I’ve been in since I’ve been here. I literally couldn’t walk after that game. But it was the best pain I ever felt because we pulled out the victory.

What would you say is your worst memory?

I’ve got a couple of them. From the same season, losing to Western Michigan my freshman year. And then at the end of the season, to go to a bowl game, we lost to Northwestern. That was pretty tough. Especially being my home town and me having to go home afterward. I didn’t want to leave the house. It was pretty tough.

So what was last year like, finishing the season by going to a bowl game?

It was great. I think we have something going around here. We had the bowl game, and with the bowl game comes extra practices. So we came into the spring knowing what to expect, having the same offense. We’re just so much further ahead than last year. It’s like day and night. We’re just looking forward to this summer and getting better.

This is the first season you’ve gone into with the same offense, isn’t it?

It is. It’s my first time. That’s a big advantage for me and the rest of the team. Us knowing the offense and having the same calls and terminology – you’re just able to play faster. You can process things much quicker.

And you and Hugh Thornton and Graham Pocic are used to playing next to each other.

Yes. That’s a plus. We have a lot of experience. It’s actually four of us – Jack (Cornell) played a lot last year. He rotated in a lot. He actually started a few games. And he’s a senior with me, so the two of us have to step up and be great leaders. The line goes as we go.

Talk a little bit if you will about your friendship with Graham Pocic.

The first time I met Graham was back in high school – our senior years. We used to go to Maine South High School every Sunday just to work on our technique. We did one-on-ones with different high school kids in the area. That’s the first time we met, and when I committed here – I committed before Graham – I used to talk to him, like “come on man, we can do this thing together”. Because initially I was a guard, so I told him “I can be right next to you for all the years we’ll be there”. He ended up coming here, and we came in early together and roomed together, and we’ve been together since.

You’re still roommates?

Yeah, we’re still roommates. That’s my roommate until I leave here.

Switching subjects, in Rantoul when you’re out there sweating in the heat every day, is it difficult to keep your weight up?

Yeah, it’s hard. You lose a few pounds every practice. So hydration is a must, and you have to eat a lot.

So you go on the Mike Tisdale 5,000 calorie diet?

(laughing) I don’t count the calories, I just know I eat a lot of food.

So what’s a typical meal in Rantoul when you’re trying to keep the weight on?

Start with a big salad, whatever lean meat we have that day – whether it’s steak or chicken, I try to get a few pieces of meat – and then try to get a lot of carbohydrates with pasta. You just eat a lot, that’s the key.

So of all the offensive linemen, who eats the most?

That’s tough. I would have given it to Graham a few years ago, but he’s not the old Graham. So I’m going have to go with Jack Cornell. He eats a ton.

OK, give me your opinion. You have the chance to stonewall a defensive end on a pass play – just completely take him out of the play – or chip your guy and get to a linebacker on a running play and just completely take the linebacker out. Which do you like more?

They’re both a great feeling. But nailing a linebacker on the second level – usually when you get that done, it creates a big running lane. And those turn out to be big plays. So I would rather do that.

Who is the toughest guy you’ve had to pass protect against?

That’s a tough one, man. There have been a lot of great defensive ends. The most recent was Ryan Kerrigan. He was a tough guy. He has a lot of critics now saying he’s not as good as advertised, which I don’t understand. He’s really good. And Brandon Graham was pretty legit. So I’m looking forward to seeing those guys again on Sundays.

Why did you pick Illinois? Take me back to that decision.

It was close to home, and I had seen a lot of friends from back home come here, like Juice Williams. I was younger than him, so I kind of looked up to him. I wanted to come here because of him. So when I got the opportunity, I knew this was where I wanted to be. It’s not far, so my mom can come down and see me. Also, Coach Zook and the family atmosphere here. He’s a man of his word. He sticks to what he says. He doesn’t lie in recruiting.

Is it hard to believe you’re facing your final season here? That this fall will be your final year on the field?

Yeah. It’s gone really fast. Coach Zook says every year, “you look up and you’re going to be done here”. You don’t believe it when you’re younger, but each year goes so fast. You just have to appreciate the opportunity you have here and take full advantage of it. I think I’ve done that so far. I’m looking forward to this season and having a big year.

Do you have any personal goals for the year?

Be the best player I can be. Be the best offensive lineman in the country. Be the best group in the country.

So tell me about this line. Strongside tackle is still up in the air, but the rest of the line seems pretty set. How do you think you’ll do this fall?

We can be as good as we want, we just have to put in the work. We have all the tools, we have all the experience we need, we just have to be tough. We have to go out and be physical and play hard. We have a young guy at strong tackle, but with the four of us being experienced, we can kind of balance it out. We can give him encouragement and teach him and bring him along faster.

I talked with Jay Prosch last week and he told me he was an offensive lineman his junior year of high school. Do you guys consider him your 6th offensive lineman?

He is. He’s very physical back there. Every week you look forward to watching film because you know he’s going to punish someone. He comes down and absolutely destroys linebackers. I love watching film just to see him come down hill. We don’t get a running start to just hammer someone like that, but it’s a beautiful thing.

Do you have any goals for the team? I’m not trying to get you to do a prediction or anything, but would you say getting back to a bowl game is important?

It’s very important. That’s always a goal for us here. This year, I think we have a much different attitude. Last year, Coach Zook told us we have the talent to win every game, and I don’t think we really believed him, because we didn’t come out and play like it every week. But I think we believe that this year. Last year we lost a few close games that we should have won, and that just comes with believing. Just willing out the victories. I think this year, we have the right attitude. There’s a lot of enthusiasm at practice. There’s a lot of guys working extra in the weight room and watching extra film on their own.

You mentioned close games – how difficult was the Michigan game last year?

You don’t realize it during the game, you realize it more after, but watching them rush the field, that was hard. I’ll never forget that last play in overtime. I can tell you the play, I can tell you what blitz they ran, everything. It’s a sick feeling, and I still have it. I’m looking forward to facing them again.

Last question: 8 home games this year, are you excited about that?

I’m very excited about that. Playing at home and having our fans behind us gives us an extra edge. We have 8 home games, and our goal is to win all of our home games, so that’s 8 victories. That would set us up in a nice situation, bowl-wise.

A Lion Eye Conversations: Keith Gilmore

Two assistant coaches survived the sweeping coaching changes after the 2009 season – offensive line coach Joe Gilbert, and defensive line coach Keith Gilmore. And if last season was any indication, keeping both coaches around was a very smart decision. I had a chance to sit down with Coach Gilmore last week and discuss the defensive line, his time in Champaign, and his favorite coaching tool, Ball-on-a-Stick.

How do you replace the best defensive tackle to come through the University of Illinois in the last 20 years?

First of all, you don’t replace him.  We have a little motto in the defensive line room of “next man in”.  I try to use that to our advantage and use a lot of the things that Corey did to help teach the younger players how it’s done and what we expect. You don’t replace a Corey Liuget. You hope the next guy can come in and do an adequate job so we can keep improving as a unit. What I’ve done is I’ve moved our most experienced and productive defensive tackle to Corey’s spot and moved another guy up to try to get it going that way.

I know you’ve coached a lot of good players at other coaching stops, specifically at Cincinnati, but is Corey Liuget the best defensive tackle you’ve ever coached?

No question about it.  He’s an explosive kid.  Corey learned how to practice, and how that translates into playing well.  Once that light came on for him, he became a very, very good player.  He’s definitely the best player that I’ve coached. I’ve had some good ones, but he’s the best.

In that same line, how good do you think Akeem Spence can be? Can he climb to that level?

I think so.  Spence still has three years of eligibility.  He played as a redshirt freshman and made Freshman All-American and all of that, so I think he has some incentive to keep improving.  He’s dropped his weight a little bit and he’s playing with more quickness and a little more quick twitch than he had last year, so I’m thinking he can get to that level.  He’s a little bit different player and he has to play within that framework, but I think he can be a real good one as well.

So last year he was the nose or shade defensive tackle, and this year he’ll be playing the 3-technique?

Correct.  He’s our three.  They all have to know both positions, but we have some certain things that we do each guy, and the three technique is a guy who will get more one-on-ones.  He has to be able to play in a little bit more space.  When we go to a three down look he’ll have to play on the edge or slant towards a contain player, so he’s going to be that guy.  He’s ready for the challenge.  He understands what Corey did and some of the plays that Corey had an opportunity to make, and he can do the same thing.

Tell me about Craig Wilson coming over to the defensive line.

It’s been a work in progress, but Craig has come in with his lunch pail every day and is working hard.  It’s great – I’ve seen the progress from day one to the end of spring practice, and he’s getting better every day.  Each day is an adventure for him where he’s learning something new, but the thing for Craig is that he doesn’t continue to make the same mistakes.  If there’s one technique that he didn’t get right today, he’ll get it fixed tomorrow.  If he keeps doing those things, by the time we get to Rantoul and the preseason practices, I think he’ll be fine.  I think he’ll be able to contribute.

When a guy switches from offense to defense are there some bad habits you have to break?  Especially for an offensive tackle who is used to sliding away from the ball on the snap – do you have to break him of the habit of backing away?

Sometimes he does have a little bit of an offensive mentality – instead of going after you he sits back a little bit.  I think it’s a work in progress, but he’s got it in him.  He’s such a great athlete for a kid that size that he gives you some things, so even when he doesn’t come off the ball he’s still hard to move.  So I think as things progress he’ll continue to get better at that.  I think he’s going to be fine, I really do.

How about Glenn Foster at defensive end now.  He was at end, and then moved to defensive tackle and now back to end.  Tell me about that.

It’s time for Glenn to play.  He’s been around here a while – he’s going into his fourth year, and he’s now playing with a lot of energy.  We still have to clean up some technique things because he can be out of control a little bit at times, but he’s playing real hard and rushing the passer hard.  He brings an element to our defensive line that other people haven’t brought, so he’ll have his role and I think he’ll have his day in the sun.

The first practice I watched this spring, I was surprised how much Jake Howe and Austin Teitsma had changed.  Howe looks like he gained 50 pounds since last fall.  Do you think they’re now in a position where they can contribute this year?

I think they’re gonna have to.  I’ve got to get them to a point where they can play, there’s no question about it.  Those guys are going to have to contribute.  Whether it starts out at 5, 10, 15 plays per game, they’re going to get to that point.  I think Jake may have gotten a little big a little quick, so I think he’s adjusting to the different weight right now.  He was not a true defensive lineman coming in here.  He’s a guy who played some fullback and some other stuff, so he’s still learning how to become a true defensive lineman.  I think we’ll get his weight in order and find what’s a good point for him to be at he’ll continue to get better.  But those guys are going to have to play.

Ideally, how many players do you want to rotate at each position?

My theory has always been to have a pair and a spare.  At each position, I want to have a two-deep and I want to have a swing guy that can play either of those positions.  So I think we’ll go into it with four tackles and a fifth tackle that can play the one or the three.  And then with the five technique (defensive end) I have the first two guys with Glenn (Foster) and Whit (Mercilus), and then hopefully Tim Kynard or one of those guys can be the third guy.  That’s about all that you can truly get prepared during the course of a season.  During the spring you can play guys, but when the reps are limited during the season and you’re getting ready for an opponent, it’s hard to get more guys than that ready to play.

Was it a little different going into last year with Ron West coaching the bandits?  Was it strange to just coach the one end while another coach takes the bandit?

It was different, but I embraced it.  Actually, it gave me an opportunity to put more focus and more attention and more coaching.  I think I was able to do a better job coaching the three guys as opposed to coaching all four.  I lost my grad assistant – he went on to help Ron (West) coach the bandit, and he was familiar with those guys because he was with me prior to that.  But I don’t think it was a big deal.  Actually, I think it made me a better coach.  I could focus in on guys and be a little more detailed on the things you have to do.

Looking at your bio on the website, I saw that you’ve traveled around – Wayne State and Grand Valley State and Cincinnati and other places – how do you like Champaign?

It’s a great college town.  I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere where the whole town is “Illinois!” In some other places I’ve been, there’s been some following, but not like this.  Every grocery store you go in or the drug store or wherever, somebody has on Illinois gear.  It’s all about Illinois here.  My family loves it here.  It’s a great town – not too big, not too small – it’s a good in between, and we really enjoy it.  The other thing is that it’s close to our relatives.  We’re from Michigan originally, and my mom lives in St. Louis, so it’s a good in-between point so we can get where we need to be.

OK, last question, and I have to ask: I need to know about ball-on-a-stick.  You use it to train your guys to jump on the ball movement and not on the count, correct? Have you always coached with one?

I’ve used them ever since they came into existence.  At one time, they had a ball on a string before they invented the ones with a stick.  You want to create that stimulus.  I talk about getting off on a hair trigger, meaning that when that ball moves, it has to be second nature that you come off the football and have mean intentions.  It just has to be something that you’re focused in and locked in on, and when the ball budges, you have to get off.  We try to do as many things as possible with that ball involved so that when they get out there and they start playing, it’s second nature to them.

I always imagined that you carry it with you wherever you go, and you have a special hook by the door when you walk into the house where you hang up your ball-on-a-stick when you get home.

(laughing) It’s not quite to that degree, but it’s very important to me.  The guys know it, my managers know it – I’m like “hey, where my ball-on-a-stick?” You gotta have it, man.

I saw there’s one with a wooden handle and one with a metal handle.

They have the new ones now with a metal handle that are like painting rods that extend, so you can really stand a good distance away and watch their technique while getting the snap off.

So maybe they’re like your golf clubs, where you turn to your caddy and ask him for the metal extension ball-on-a-stick.

They know what you need.  It’s definitely something that you’ve gotta have.

A Lion Eye Conversations: Will Leitch

I kept my Daily Illini subscription in 1995 because some guy on the sports page made me laugh.  I was a jaded upperclassman by then, and I hated the “President Stukel is trying to ruin the world” tone of the paper, but I loved reading Will Leitch, so I kept my subscription.zookskiing

I didn’t hear his name again until the fall of 2005 when someone pointed me to Deadspin.  Its editor?  The same Will Leitch.  I became a loyal Deadspin reader, mostly because Leitch worked-in the Illini and Zook-on-skis wherever possible. That, and he made me laugh.

He left Deadspin in 2008, writes for New York Magazine here,  wrote a couple books there, and generally continues to make people smile.  Like me, when he agreed to this “interview”:

I’ll start with the lamest Q&A question of all time: First Illini memory?

Losing to Kentucky in the regional final in 1984. I was eight years old, and that loss just DEVASTATED me. I think I cried for about two hours. (It kind of freaked my father out.) It just seemed so profoundly unfair. Illinois played their ass off in that game, and did everything right, but they still lost, because of some wretched calls and because they (insanely) were playing at Rupp Arena. (I believe that’s the last time they did that.) It was my first real introduction to injustice.

I cried after that game as well. I was 10 years old. I seem to recall Doug Altenberger hitting a shot after the final buzzer – a shot that wouldn’t have mattered as it would have made the score 54-53 – but I screamed at my dad “that should have counted! It’s a one point game, right? Can they go to overtime in a one point game?” I simply couldn’t accept that we lost. My dad couldn’t accept that Dicky Beal didn’t travel.

OK, so while on the subject of memories, first football memory? For me it’s the 1983 season, specifically the Michigan game. I watched it in my grandmother’s basement. I can remember playing catch at recess with a friend the following week, and giving the play by play (out loud) with each pass he threw to me: “Throws it to David Williams, he’s in the clear down the sideline…”

My first football memory is the goal line stand against Iowa that kept that shutout, that very season. I know I watched every game that season — it was the first football team I was old enough to watch — but that was the first game I remember watching all the way through. The end of that game was the best part. It was an exhibition of dominance.

That said: Unlike you, I’ve always been more of a basketball guy than a football guy. I think it’s because Mike White got us on probation around the time I started REALLY getting into sports, and there were no games on television. Television, at the age of 10 or 11, is the only thing on earth that matters. The Illini basketball team was always on WCIA, right before Jerry Slabe and Judy Fraser and Mr. Roberts on the news. So I never missed any of those games and became psychologically fused to the team. I wonder if the Big Ten Network allows such loyalty these days.

Let me tell you – this season has made me question my football-guy-ed-ness more than any season in my sport-watching history. 1997? 2003? I’d rather go 0-11 with George McDonald-Ashford than go 3-9 with Arrelious Benn. The wasted talent this year keeps me up at night.

But in the end, I’ll always be more drawn to Illini football, mostly because I think college football rules all. My personal sport chart goes CFB……CBB…MLB.NFL………..NBA…NHL. Oregon/Oregon State for the roses? Texas/Nebraska and a kickoff out of bounds? Alabama’s drive to beat Auburn? Can’t be beat by a walkoff or an overtime goal in my book. As I’ve said before in the blog, I had this realization not too long after I graduated in 1996 that A) College Football rules all, and B) I have a team – in a major conference, no less – that I get to follow for the rest of my life. I was a huge fan before that realization. Since then, I’ve been in love.

Speaking of love, and I’m veering off topic here, my favorite football player on the planet right now is LaRod Stephens-Howling of your Arizona Cardinals. I’ve casually watched two Cardinals games in the last month – the Titans game and the Vikings game – and he’s made no less than 5 fantastic special teams plays. His short-hop catch to down a punt at the one against the Titans was the greatest football play I’ve seen in years. I love this sport – the nuances are what makes it great – and watching a guy like that makes me want to be a better football man. I want to recruit for the Illini and find 80 of him.

Wait. This is supposed to be an “interview” or something. So lets go to an old standard: You can have a meal with 5 former Illini players. Basketball or football. Who and why?

Not that you asked, but here’s my chart there:

MLB … CBB … NFL … CFB NBA …. …. …. …. NHL.

We love LaRod. The key to that guy is that he was a backup in college. (To McCoy from Philly.) That made him learn how to make special teams an actual specialty: He’s been playing on special teams for years. He was such a nice steal.

Meal with five players. One football, four basketball:

Jarrod Gee – I never got a straight answer why he switched by Jerry.

Andy Kaufmann – When he hit that shot to beat Iowa, I was watching it in a tiny office at the movie theater I worked at. (I was 17.) It was so exciting that I jumped up and bashed my head on the low ceiling and knocked myself out. I’d want to ask him, you know, what happened after the shot went in. Because I was unconscious.

Richard Keene – I’ve never seen an Illinois player more universally loathed by Illini fans, even while they were still rooting for him (and even though he wasn’t all that bad). It’s still crazy to me that he chose Illinois over Duke. Few guys seemed more ideally suited to Duke.

Deon Thomas – I want to hear what he’d do to Bruce Pearl, if he saw him today. And what he thinks of his clown act today, in general. I’ll never, ever forgive Pearl for that. (Or Digger Phelps, for that matter.)

Jason Verduzco – My freshman year at the newspaper, I learned that he’d actually slept with four different DI staffers. I’ve always been curious to hear those stories. Plus, he was underrated. And short.

Good stuff. Current students and newer fans have no idea how much that Kaufmann shot meant. Bruce Pearl… probation… death of the Flyin’ Illini… and then to be losing that game to Iowa because a rebound went off Deon Thomas’ shoulder and into the Iowa hoop with 2 seconds left… such a gut-punching set-up to an exhilarating finish.

Staying along those lines – biggest gut-punch loss in your years watching the Illini (basketball or football), and most exhilarating win (non-Arizona 2005 category – everyone says Arizona 2005).

Considering I was too young to fully comprehend the Kentucky loss, gut punch wise, the one that killed me was the 1995 basketball team. I covered that one — Kiwane Garris, Richard Keene, Shelly Clark — for the Daily Illini, and they barely sneaked in the tournament. Another reporter, a photographer and I drove all the way to Albany, and in the first game, Old Dominion pulled off an upset, which meant the winner of Illinois and Tulsa (coached by a toupeed young coach named Bill Self) had a clear path to the Sweet 16. The Illini were a 12 seed yet led most of the game before losing energy late and losing. Afterwards, I talked to Clark — who had been arrested for an incident with his girlfriend earlier in the season — and he said, “We took these guys too lightly.” And Illinois was a 12 seed! That was Henson’s last tournament team. That seemed like a terrible way to end it. The drive back to Champaign, after that, was an endless one.

Most exhilarating, outside Arizona of course? It’s an easy one, but I have to pick it: Nick Anderson’s shot to beat Bobby Knight (the Leitch family antichrist at the time) at the buzzer in 1989. My dad and I leapt up and hugged each other, totally by accident. We were all embarrassed for a half second, like we’d accidentally seen each other naked or something, and then we just started jumping around and screaming again. Just an amazing moment.

Ah yes, the Shea Seals game. I watched that one in a hotel bar in Park City, Utah. The Friday night of spring break, if I remember correctly. There was a Purdue game on or around the same time, and some Purdue fans at the bar were sweating out a one point win over UWGB. I laughed when the Purdue fan next to me pumped his fist after their one point win over a 14 seed and screamed “One down, five to go!” Silly Purdue fans.

OK – hated rival. Iowa for me. I arrived on campus in the early 90′s expecting Flyin’ Illini II, and as I said before, I got Bruce Pearled. I’ll never get over it. I’m cheering for all of the Big Ten teams in bowls. Except Iowa.

Yeah, I have a different hated rival for hoops than I do football. It’s Indiana in basketball, and Michigan in football, which makes sense: They’re both schools that are traditionally much better than us … and both schools who certainly don’t think of us as their primary rivals at all. I know that Iowa is the ideal rival, but I just consider us so much bigger and better than Iowa, in every possible way, that including them as our primary rival is just depressing.

Alex Legion, we hardly knew ye. I mean, seriously: Who are you?

Who is he? The Theoretical Alex Legion is exactly what this team needs: a shooter with a quick release. He was supposed to come off the screen like Luther Head, spin as he rose to take the shot like Corey Bradford, and nail the three like Kevin Turner. Unfortunately, Theoretical Alex Legion doesn’t exist. Unless Isiah Thomas can find him.

OK, one more and we’ll wrap this up. A two-parter:

1) Will we ever win a national championship in one of the Big Two sports?

2) If we do, and you’re there for it, describe your emotions as compared to the 2006 World Series.

1. I think we have a chance in basketball, we really do. I would say that we have no chance of winning a national championship in football, but there is no national championship in college football, so it’s unnecessary. Illinois is one of the top 15 programs in the sport, and they back that up with resources. I have absolutely faith that will happen in my lifetime, actually.

2. I won’t be as euphoric as I was in 2006, but hang on, hang on, I mean that in a good way. It’s just a basic difference between professional and college sports. Titles just don’t mean as much: They’re not the WHOLE GOAL, not really. I cannot look at highlights of the 2004 World Series, but I could watch highlights of the ’05 NCAA Tournament all day, and not just the Arizona game either. The smaller victories, the comeback wins over Clemson and Northwestern and Seton Hall … I enjoy those more as individual moments, regardless what ended up happening that season. (This is why I still love that 87 team despite what happened with Austin Peay.) I loved Pujols’ homer off Lidge in ’05, but it ultimately didn’t mean as much, because they didn’t win the World Series. We expect more from our pro teams. In college, I can enjoy the experience of knowing that of all the 300-some odd teams in college basketball, this is the one that I cheer for, the one that I know backwards and forwards. The Illini feel like mine: They feel like family. (I told Kiwane Garris this theory once in college, and I’m pretty certain I freaked him out.) I don’t want my family to make a ton of money or become President of the United States: I just want my family to be happy and have fun. That’s how I feel about Illinois basketball.

That said: God, a title would freaking rock.

Yes. Yes it would.