KFHB 30 – Mailbag Part III

I should save copies of things I’ve written that I never post on the blog.  It would be quite the blooper reel.  The post I wrote last night was so bad you might have stopped reading for a month.  Just awful.  I read it again before I deleted it and physically cringed.  Twice.  I can’t believe I almost posted that.

On to the final post-KFHB mailbag.  If I didn’t get to your question, put “hey moron – you never answered my question last time” in your email the next time I do this, and I promise to feel guilty and pick your question.  And thanks to all that sent questions.

With Butkus in as O-line coach and the talk of zone blocking, we will have the personnel to match that? Which current linemen are best suited for that system?
~Neil

The first name that comes to mind is Alex Hill. In Rantoul this summer, he looked like Jon Asamoah II to me – big, mobile, blocks well in space. You have to be mobile if you’re going to block in a scheme like that, and I think that Hill can be that guy.

Another guy might be Jake Feldmeyer.  He was Graham Pocic’s backup all season and didn’t play very much, but he’s a smaller, more mobile guy.  Maybe a switch to a more spread-like zone blocking scheme would move him up into the rotation in one of the guard spots.  Feldmeyer will be a junior next fall.

But again, we’re making some assumptions here that the new offense will be a true spread utilizing zone blocking principles. That will probably be the case – Tim Beckman ran that kind of scheme at Toledo – but there’s always a chance the new offensive coordinator has different ideas. We shall see.

So bowl games are supposed to have an electric atmosphere. And really big bowl games have a really electric atmosphere. Obviously, this was not a ‘big’ bowl, but how would you rate the atmosphere of the game – as it might compare to a game you’ve been to recently? Does the name of the bowl fade away after the kickoff or does it always feel like the ‘Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl’ with two .500 or sub .500 teams playing or does everyone get swept up in the local pageantry and what-not?
~Daniel

It was a bit harder to get a read on the atmosphere at this game, given that I sat in the press box.  And this one was a bit different given that it was held in a baseball stadium.  Students were sent to the temporary bleachers in the outfield, Illini fans were sectioned in different decks – it was a lot different from, say, the Liberty Bowl in 1994.

But the feeling after the victory – especially from the field with the fans trying to get close to the players – was as fun as it gets.  It was great to see.  If I’m honest, I wasn’t sure if we’d even bring 1,000 fans to the game.  West coast, interim coach, team on a 6 game losing streak, etc.  I figured most everyone would stay home.  But there were definitely many more Illini fans than the supposed 1,800 that bought tickets through the school.  I’m guessing thousands more purchased tickets at the box office (or on the street), so the groupings of orange as seen from the field after the game were a bit surprising.  Still the smallest Illini bowl crowd of any game I’ve been to, but loud and boisterous nonetheless.

And as I said during the week, bowl trips are incredibly fun. A pep rally in Union Square with the 3-in-1 echoing off the downtown buildings.  A luncheon in a hotel ballroom with players and cheerleaders and bands.  Even the knowing nods you give on Powell Street to another fan walking past you wearing orange are fun.  If we go to a bowl again next year, everyone must go.  Trust me, you’ll have a great time.

With the coaching staff nearly finished, what are your thoughts?  I think we’ll really miss Vic Koenning next year, and I don’t think Coach Tenuta will be able to copy what he accomplished with our defense.  What about the rest of the staff?  Who do you think will be the offensive coordinator?
~Justin

Justin sent this email in that tiny window where John Tenuta was going to be our defensive coordinator. So if you know Justin, please don’t give him a hard time.

Here are my coaching staff thoughts. Well, first, here’s a compilation of rumors and tweets as to the last 4 coaches will be. That twitter suggests that Willie Martinez (former Georgia DC) will be the defensive coordinator, and that Billy Gonzales (LSU passing game coordinator) will be our OC, and that the final two coaches will be Richard McNutt and Eddie Faulkner from Northern Illinois. If true, I really, really like how this staff is setting up recruiting-wise. If not true, I’ll delete this post later and deny I ever wrote it.

Here’s the recruiting acumen from the 4 coaches rumored to be filling the final 4 spots on the staff:

Billy Gonzales (from LSU)
If the rumors are true and Gonzales is our offensive coordinator, I think it’s a home run. I think he’s one of the top 20 recruiters in college football. He built monster classes as Urban Meyer’s recruiting coordinator at Florida before moving on to LSU. He would single-handedly keep us connected throughout the state of Florida in recruiting. It would be such a great hire, I refuse to believe it’s true because I don’t think I’d be able to stand the disappointment.

Willie Martinez (from Oklahoma)
If he’s the DC, I like him much better than Tenuta, at least recruiting-wise. Georgia fans will laugh (he and his defensive staff were the fall guys after Georgia’s disappointing 7-5 season in 2009 even though their worst season was 38th in Total Defense), but I’d be very happy to get him. In his last two years as Oklahoma’s secondary coach, he’s been recruiting Texas and Georgia. Yes, please.

Richard McNutt (from NIU)
McNutt was a cornerback at Ohio State who hails from the Chicago area (he went to Rich East HS). I’d love to have a young assistant coach with Chicago connections on the staff (he’s a man – he’s 30). Tour Chicagoland high schools with a former Ohio State player and a coach named Butkus? Yes, please.

Eddie Faulkner (from NIU)
Faulkner is another young guy (34 years old) who was a tailback at Wisconsin. He was offensive coordinator at Ball State for a few years (lost his job when the head coach was fired), and last year he was running backs coach at NIU. Looks like he recruits Chicago and Indiana for NIU, and I’m assuming he would do the same in Champaign.

Please note that other than Twitter rumors, I have no inside information that these four gentlemen will round out the coaching staff. But if the Twitter rumors are true, that’s quite the recruit-y staff that Tim Beckman is putting together. Lots of proven recruiting track records, and lots of young coaches. I like that a lot. But all of that leads to one buzzkill question:

Can they coach?

KFHB 29 – Mailbag Part II

Before we get to the mailbaggery, some thoughts on the basketball game tonight.

1) Good win.  Possibly a tourney/no tourney win.  We’ll likely lose at home to Ohio State, and probably Michigan State, so we need to balance that out with road wins.  (Am I wrong that this is where I’m at with this season right now?  Doing weekly bubble math?  Maybe I should have more confidence in us to find more road wins in the Big Ten.)

2) We’re a few free throws away from starting 0-3 in the Big Ten.  Had Julian Welch iced the Minnesota game when he had a chance, and had Northwestern done better than 60% at the line tonight, we’d be staring at 0-3.  Instead, we’re 2-1.  There’s your tourney/no tourney line.

3) Is there any way to measure the height of a ball from a video replay?  Because I swear the shot that Leonard blocked was at least 13 feet off the ground when he swatted it.  How high can Meyers Leonard get on that “jump and hit the highest tab” thingy that they use at the NFL combine?  He has to be able to hit 13′, right?  14′?

4) I like Myke Henry’s approach to his (game winning) free throw.  I’ll call it the “the more I think about it, the better chance I have at missing it, so as soon as this ref hands me the ball, this free throw is going up” approach.  Worked like a charm.  Good work, Myke.

5) It’s amazing how much the season tilted on this game for me.  At halftime, I was “lose this one and we’re definitely going to lose to Ohio State at home.  And then with road trips to Minnesota and Penn State coming up, plus Michigan State at home, there’s a chance we start the Big Ten 4-8.  After the win, I’m all “beat Wisconsin and Michigan State at home and win at Minnesota, and we could start the Big Ten 8-4.”

Good win.  Always great to beat the nerds.  But could we maybe not stand around in the second half and pass the ball around the perimeter with no offensive flow next time?  Thanks bye.

It sounds like you made a great connection with Coach Vic. Count me as one of his biggest fans. Can you give us some insight into the man, the myth, the legend that is Coach Koenning? Any interesting tidbits about him, his coaching style, thoughts he shared on players returning, etc?
~Chris

He’s a humble, confident guy. And extremely generous.  He sought me out to make sure I was getting all the coverage I needed every time I saw him, including in the hallway after the postgame press conference.  Every time he sought me out, I went through this “here he comes – VIC KOENNING is looking to talk to ME” rock star thing.  He was incredibly nice to me the whole week – it was very humbling.

It’s strange – I felt like he was more my friend than the coach I was interviewing this week.  And I already hate myself for typing that because it sounds so arrogant and brag-y.  But I had several long conversations with him, from after practice to St. Anthony’s to the hallway after the game.  Each time he made sure I was having fun and getting all the access I needed.

We talked life.  We talked football.  We talked the coaching carousel.  We talked through the entire 2012 defense.  Most of what we talked about I can’t share – I was asked to keep it confident and I will – but I will share a few tidbits on our young players that he shared.

  • He was lamenting not getting an opportunity to coach Darrius Caldwell in the next few years.  Says he would have been one of the better bandits he’s ever coached (a list that includes Demarcus Ware and Gaines Adams).
  • He pointed to Henry Dickinson as a player who will do very well in the future on this defense in whatever scheme the new coordinator runs.
  • He said that if Jonathan Brown does exactly what Whitney Mercilus did – get better every single practice for the last 2 years, working harder than any other player on the team – then he can follow in Whitney’s footsteps with all of the postseason accolades he received.

I’m twice as sad now than I was 2 weeks ago that Vic is leaving.  I could say it 5 more times but I wouldn’t be able to emphasize enough just how gracious he was to some blogger his wife liked.  Thanks, Vic.  In 10 years we’ll still be pointing back to 2011 and saying “why can’t this defense be like that one?”

Why the thought that Terry Hawthorne could declare early for the draft? What am I missing because I don’t see him as a successful early entrant (he can have success in the NFL, but leave early)? Is he a CB or a Safety in the NFL? Seems fast but a little stiff. Why leave early to be a 3rd/4th rounder if you’re not a running back?
~Brian

I’ve heard rumblings as far back as last April at spring ball that Hawthorne was considering one more year and then take a chance on the NFL. (Look and me, ma! I’m insider-y enough to use the word “rumblings”!)

And after a great second half to the season (15 tackles in the Wisconsin game, pick six in the KFHB), I think he’s probably pushed closer to that goal.  Personally, I think he needs one more year.  Too many injuries in his past to climb the rounds in the draft.  One more (healthy) year, and I think he could push up to the high second round in the 2013 draft.

But we might not see that extra year.  He’ll kill it at the combine in the speed and agility drills – he’s one of the 10 fastest-in-pads players in Illini history – and he’ll get drafted if he goes.  It’s just a matter of whether he wants to return and climb the draft boards next year.  Hope he does.

Did you see anything during the KFHB festivities, on the field or off, that might indicate D. Young’s intentions regarding his future with the program? There were some dreaded twitternet rumors that he might be “homesick,” but I found the clip from St. Anthony’s heartening. Is everything fine?
~Brent

I’ve heard those rumors and discussed them here.  I wish they’d die because I wouldn’t be able to stand the thought of this team without Young next year.  He’s primed to be The Guy.

But the rumors are there – saying that he’s homesick and whatnot.  I’ll say two things:

1) When playing with Jeff Brohm’s kid on the field, I heard him tell the kid “I know you’re dad won’t be here next year, but will you come back and watch me?”  (Can I say that?  Can I “report” something I overheard on the field?  I’m so frightened of breaking the rules that I think I invent rules that don’t exist just to steer clear of them.)  Anyway, I found that encouraging, in a could-be-nothing, could-be-everything kind of way.

2) He MUST come back.  It would be ridiculous for him to sit out a season when he could be getting 200+ carries starting in September.  If he wants to make it to the next level, his best chance is to start showcasing his ability in Memorial Stadium next fall.

And please remember, these are just internet rumors.  I’ve heard them, I’ve seen them on Twitter, but they’ve not been reported by anyone credible.  Well, I guess I just “reported” them, but believe me, I’m not credible.  I’m the guy who hears a rumor like that and texts 10 friends, spreading the rumor like wildfire.  The lesson: never trust a blogger.  Unless he’s friends with Vic Koenning.

KFHB 28 – Mailbag, Part I

OK, so it’s really not the KFHB any more – lots of these mailbag questions are asking about next year.  But I said something about 30 KFHB posts, so 30 KFHB posts I shall write.

Actually, I think that would only be 28 because I skipped a few numbers along the way.  Why am I telling you this?  Why can’t I just jump right in to the mailbag?  And while I’m asking questions, why can’t I root for Michigan in a BCS bowl?  I’ve found that I cheer for 9 of the 12 B1G teams in bowls, but I cannot cheer for Michigan, Iowa, or Northwestern.  Tried again this year, couldn’t make myself do it.

ANYWAY, to the mailbag.  This first question is so awesome I might just spend the entire first mailbag post on that question and get to the rest of the questions tomorrow and Thursday.

Who wins a matchup between the ’89 offense/’94 defense vs. ’01 offense/’11 defense? I’d watch that game.
~ Ryan

Man do I love this question.  I’ve spent a half hour thinking about it.

First off, that 89/94 team is a monster.  Jeff George throwing to Williams, Bellamy, and Wax (with Howard Griffith in the backfield) while Howard, Holocek, Hardy, and Rice terrorize their opponents?  At first glance, I’m not sure how that team gets beat.

But 01/11 is no slouch.  Kittner to Lloyd, Lewis, Moorehead, and Young (with Harvey and Davis and Harris in the backfield) while Big Whit and company play defense?  Both of these teams could’ve contended for national titles.

So we have to get specific with the matchups.  How would the 1994 defense match up with the 2001 offense?  Well, for starters, they wouldn’t be able to run the ball against Howard and Hardy and Holocek, so it would be up to Kittner moving the offense through the air.  Which puts pressure on two things: Can Simeon get around Tony Pashos and get to Kittner, and can the secondary of Ty Washington and Antoine Patton and Scott Turner and (other cornerback on the 1994 team escapes me) stop the 4-headed monster at receiver?

In this matchup, I’m giving the edge to the 1994 defense.  The Grenade, Turner, Patton, and ROBERT CRUMPTON (knew I’d remember) were an underrated secondary in Illini history.  And guys like Mikki Johnson (defensive tackle) were underrated, too.  I think that defense would give Lloyd and Young fits, and if they couldn’t run the ball with Harvey and they couldn’t hit the swing pass to Davis because Hardy was all over it, the offense would have a tough time getting the passing game on track against that secondary.  Advantage 1994.

The flipside is an interesting matchup as well.  Watching film of Jeff George’s arm 20 years later is still just as ridiculous.  I don’t care what foot he’s standing on or if he’s turned 90 degrees from his target – the throw came out with some zip.  Give him time, and George could pick apart any defense (including top-5 USC in the final few minutes).  And that line could give him time.  Tim Simpson, Brad Hopkins, Curtis Lovelace – they were difficult to stop when George was on.

But I feel like Vic would have been able to dial something up to stop them.  Get Whit and BadNewsBrown making a mess of the offensive backfield, and get Hawthorne/Wilson/Green to pester Williams and Bellamy, and I think this defense could slow them down.  You had to be able to get to George to stop the 1989 offense, and this defense got to the quarterback possibly better than any Illini team since 1994.  So they would have made it very difficult on George.  All in all, I think this one is much closer than the other one.  2011 D could make some stops and maybe shut down Griffith, but 1989 O would still be able to move the ball.

Given that, 89/94 wins.  Mostly because 89 could move the ball on 11 a little bit better than 01 could move the ball on 94. So I’ll go with this for the final score:

89O/94D: 27
01O/11D: 17

Which player did you enjoy being around the most at the bowl and why?
~Illinigrad

Jack Cornell is so much the obvious answer here that I’m going to have to give you two answers. In St. Louis, a local magazine used to have a category in their “Best Of” issue entitled “Best Local Newscaster Not Named Karen Foss” because everyone would always vote for Karen Foss. Well, I’ll have to have a “player you most enjoyed being around not named Jack Cornell” category.

Winner in that category: Donovonn Young. I didn’t get to interview him. In fact, I didn’t even think to ask. Coach Zook wouldn’t let you interview freshmen players, but it’s possible the Vic Koenning would have let me talk to Young had I asked.

But I’ll answer Young because he’s hilarious. From my view, Young is outgoing, engaging, smiling, and always up to something. His performance at St. Anthony’s was impressively awesome, and you can always find him laughing with his teammates. After the game, on the field, I saw him joking around with Jeff Brohm’s son and talking to anyone and everyone.

I think he can be a great ambassador to the program the next three years.  And a pretty great running back.

Who is the kicker next year? Immekus?
~Winston

I got to meet the Immekus family in San Francisco, and they were great, so I’m automatically 19% more partial to Nick winning the job. (As an aside, after I talked to them, I realized that I used to make “Fat Kicker II” jokes about Immekus – he was an offensive lineman in high school, and I thought he might be Chris Richardson 2.0. But he’s lost some weight since then, and while he’s not as tiny as a Derek Dimke, he’s certainly not as big as Richardson. So please, Immekus family, when you see “fat kicker” jokes, it’s a term of endearment.)

The kicker race is probably a 5 horse race. Immekus (will be a redshirt sophomore), Taylor Zalewski (will be a redshirt freshman), Baron Van Miegham (redshirt freshman, and his name is Brennan and not Baron, but Baron sounds cooler), Patrick Dunn (who will be a… junior, I think?), and true freshman scholarship kicker Ryan Frain.

Who do I think wins the job? Well, in Rantoul, they could only bring 105 players (only 20 walkons allowed), so they only brought 2 punters and 2 placekickers to camp. And the placekickers they brought were Dimke and Taylor Zalewski. So I’d say that has to give Zalewski a leg up here (horrible pun actually intended).

But this is a brand new coaching staff, so who knows what happens. I’ll guess one kicker is used for kickoffs and another used for placekicking. Kickoffs: Immekus. Placekicker: Zalewski.

(More mailbaggery tomorrow)

KFHB 27 – Sunday, 6:36 pm

Ah yes.  Back in a familiar place.  Sitting at a table in O’Hare Airport, typing out a blog post. Just one more connection (in 2 hours) and I’m home.  And this flight looks wide open.  Did I say I hate flying standby?  Because I love flying standby.

This is the retrospective post.

The last 5 days have been just about as much fun as one person can have.  I always feel guilty saying something like that, mostly because my wife and kids were not with me.  All “as much fun as I could have” things should include your wife and kids, right?  Well, yes and no.  I’m certainly not going to put the Kraft Fight Hunger With Sour Patch Kids Bowl in front of, say, my wedding.  I’m speaking on a different plane here.

You know how you have those awful days where nothing seems to go right and you’re left to wonder what a good day feels like?  And then you have what you consider to be a good day, but you’re really kind of faking it because it’s not really a good day?  And then a REAL good day comes along and smacks you in the face and you wonder how life can be so amazing?  That was yesterday for me. Yes, because of the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.

Because I have a real job and I don’t have any advertisements on this site, I get a strange reaction from a lot of people.  Especially the press (or at least that’s how I observe it).  Most people don’t really understand why I do this.  45 people in a press box, 44 of them writing because it’s their job (or because they work for their college newspaper and they hope it’s their job some day), and one dude, sitting off to the side, quietly pumping his fist.

There was a friend of mine in college who got his Aeronautical Engineering degree but went into stand-up comedy (no, not THAT guy).  When you asked him why he paid all of that money for an education just to go into standup comedy, he would say “so that when people use the whole ‘what are you, a rocket scientist?’ thing on me, I could say ‘yes’”.  That’s kind of how I view this. When people ask the standard “yeah, but would you do it even if you didn’t make a dime at it?” question, I can say yes.

So when a beat writer sees me interviewing a player and has this “wait, you’re taking vacation days from your job just to do this for fun?” reaction, I enjoy saying yes.  I simply do this because it’s incredibly fun.  If given the option of rock climbing or playing craps or fly fishing or golfing or traveling across the country to sit in the press box and “report” on a bowl game, I’m taking the last one 10 times out of 10.  If we go to 100, I might golf the 99th time, but KFHBing gets the rest.

This is what I love to do.  So when you combine doing something you love + the interim coach insisting you get as much access as possible because his wife loves your blog + the powerful display of affection from these players at St. Anthony’s + a second consecutive bowl win, well, not many days will top it.

I wish everyone could have hung around those players on the field afterwards.  The weight of a 6 game losing streak lifting from 105 players simultaneously is a great thing to watch.  Players lifting coaches kids in the air.  A near brawl just to touch the trophy.  Mocking (in a fun way) Nate and Terry when they were on stage getting their awards.  I say it all the time, but these guys work so incredibly hard (year round) just to entertain us with a bowl win.  They deserve every ounce of celebration they experienced.

After the game, basking in the glow of all of that, I sent a text to my wife as I was leaving the stadium.  Something like “not sure what I’m gonna do now”.  Her response: “Walk the streets of San Francisco”.  Great idea.  So for an hour, that’s what I did.  I made my way to Market Street and just walked around.  The drummer in front of The Gap was amazing.  I almost bought a necklace for my wife, but I didn’t have enough cash on me.  The crowds were great – guy in a tux, then 2 college kids with dreads carrying sleeping bags, then a group of Illini tourists, then 3 women dressed to the nines for their NYE party. If you picture this as the final scene of a movie, I was the guy with the smile, walking slowly, as life bustled around me.

And as a nod to Coach Beckman and the future of Illinois football, I specifically found a place for dinner where I could get Steaks And Cakes.  Best dinner I ever had.

KFHB 26 – Sunday, 3:24 pm

Four hour fight.  I can crank out 2,000 words on the game while on this flight, yes?  Let’s try.  I’ll make a numbered list, and I’ll see if I can get to 10.

1) I want to expound on what I (quickly) wrote in the last post re: our offense next year.  We don’t know the coordinator, but I feel like we do know the offense.

I think it’s mostly a Scheelhaase – Young – Millines offense.  Young steps forward and becomes the clear #1 tailback.  Millines steps foward and becomes the clear #1 receiver.  And Nathan is the clear #1 quarterback.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t have backups.  I think Nate will share time with Reilly O’Toole again.  Beckman used 2 quarterbacks at Toledo, and I think he’ll do the same in Champaign.  Maybe something like a 10-12 play package put in the game plan for O’Toole each week.  And there’s a safe bet that one of those plays will be that seam route to Matt LaCosse.  The UCLA safety got his hand on it yesterday, but I’ve seen them complete that specific pass several times in practice.  I’m looking for 5 of those (completed) next year.

And Young will share time with Josh Ferguson (who never really got a shot this year after his injury in Week 2).  Ferguson should receive a medical redshirt, so it will be nice to have 4 years of his services.  He’ll be the lightning to Young’s thunder.  OK, maybe that’s a bit much for two underclassmen tailbacks still learning on the job.  He’ll be the bottle rocket to Young’s M80.  Or something.

At receiver, I think it’s still a short passing game, and I think it’s mostly Millines, Lankford, and Harris.  Although I’m looking for a “who is #18?” burst on the scene from Jeremy Whitlow.  I think Millines will be our slant guy, Harris our seam guy, and Lankford our settle-into-soft-spots-in-the-zone guy.  Wilson and Davis get the majority of the tight end catches, with a few plays here and there for LaCosse.

So, basically, yesterday’s offense minus AJ.  And Jeff Allen and Jack Cornell, too.  Short passes.  Probably a lot of zone read with Nate and Donovonn.  And the occasional O’Toole series, heavy on the passing.  

Maybe I should be offensive coordinator.

2) Even though it pushes him more toward the NFL, I’m thrilled – ecstatic, really – that Terry Hawthorne got the defensive MVP of the game (and the game-changing play).  And a 10+ yard punt return.  

I’ve been waiting for a game like this for a long time.  I hate that injuries took half of his freshman year and most of his sophomore year (he played at 80%), but he had a fantastic junior year that went mostly unnoticed.  I my mind, he’s 60/40 gone to the NFL (he has the numbers for the combine), but I’d love one more year.  Especially if he’s returning punts.

And I’m still waiting for a few pass plays for him.  He can be your superstar next year, Coach Beckman, if you can convince him to stay.  Tell him you can earn him a lot more money in the draft if he comes back for one more (featured) year.

3)  Speaking of Coach Beckman, it really is completely unfair to him what this defense accomplished this season.  He could have a surprisingly good top-30 defense next year if he can get the new pieces to fit, and we’ll STILL compare them to this defense and wonder why they didn’t hold their opponent to 25 yards rushing.  

What Vic Koenning did with this defense in 2011 is possibly the best coaching job in Illini history.  Had the offense not fallen apart after 6 games, this could have been a Rose Bowl team.  Much like 1994, this team only won 7 games, but could have won 10 or 11 with a good offense.  

That’s how I’ll remember 2011.  Zook lost the team (and then lost his job), the offense got in a funk and couldn’t get out of it, and the defense never played a bad game.  We could have won every single game we played because the defense kept us in every single one.  You’re getting a ridiculously good defensive coordinator, North Carolina.  You have no idea how good you have it.

4) Which makes us turn to our own 2012 defense.  And what Coach Beckman faces.  Tavon Wilson, Trulon Henry, and Ian Thomas graduate.  Whitney the Mercilus is certainly gone, Terry Hawthorne is probably gone, and there’s a chance Akeem Spence and Michael Buchanan go.  If all 7 of those guys are gone, well, good luck Coach Beckman.

As it stands, I think 5 players are gone – Wilson, Henry, Thomas, Mercilus, and Hawthorne.  Which leaves us in pretty good shape in the front 7.  Buchanan, Spence, Foster, and Kynard make up a solid defensive line.  Buchanan becomes the pass rushing specialist, and Justin Staples gets decent minutes as our third pass rusher.  I think we’ll be fine there.

At linebacker, we’ll really miss Trulon Henry and Ian Thomas.  Depending on the new scheme that the new defensive coordinator runs, Ashante Williams can be a solid option at Sam Linebacker, and of course we’ll have Butkus candidate Jonathan Brown in the middle.  But Will linebacker is a mystery.  I’d first say Houston Bates, but I don’t remember Houston Bates playing at all yesterday.  In fact, I don’t remember seeing Houston Bates in San Francisco.  Maybe he just missed the St. Anthony’s thing or the luncheon thing and I didn’t see him.  Maybe he even played.  Anyway, my guess for the linebackers in the first game against Western Michigan: Henry Dickinson – Jonathan Brown – Ashante Williams.  But watch out for redshirt freshman Zeph Grimes.  (And maybe even true freshman Keith Brown, if he ends up staying committed).

At corner, if Hawthorne is gone, we’re in trouble with Tavon gone too.  Justin Green will be a solid option one one side.  Maybe even a second-team-All-Big-Ten option.  But on the other side, I have no idea.  Jack Ramsey?  Valdon Cooper?  Eaton Spence?  Come back, Terry.  We need you.

Safety is fine for next year (Sanni and Hull return, with PNY backing them up), but after that, I have no idea who is behind them.  Maybe it’s time for my favorite never-misses-a-tackle walk-on Ben Mathis to start getting some minutes.

So even with Vic, I think this defense would have taken a step back next year.  And without him, well, good luck, soon-to-be-named Defensive Coordinator.

5) I said this during the game, but I really loved all of the FUN plays yesterday.  Especially the throwback to Nathan.  Had Graham Pocic gotten more to his block, that play might have gone for a touchdown.  Loved the reverse to AJ, too.  

After 6 games of the offensive stalling out and punting nearly every drive, I was happy to see us loosen up the playbook.  I’m not sure if that was a Petrino thing or a Zook “don’t take any risks and we’ll win this game with our defense” thing, but it was nice to see us having some fun.

And even though it didn’t work, I liked the fake field goal with Dimke.  And the 4th down call at midfield.  We had to change our attitude after the last 6 games, and I think the go-for-broke mindset yesterday helped snap us out of it.  The team attitude on the sideline appeared to be 180 degrees from where it was in the sideline shots during the Minnesota game.  And I think our go-for-it attitude had a lot to do with that.  Fun.

6) There was a stringer sitting next to me in the press box (“stringer” is a term that we press box insiders use for a guy who is working for some news service typing up a game story.  I’m totally in the know, now.)  He was in awe of Mercilus and Jenkins.  

For some reason, when I watch our team a lot (and re-watch games on tape, etc.), I lose my sense of awe.  I expect the good players to do good things.  So when Mercilus gets a sack, I’m all “yeah, that’s just what he does”.  That guy helped me realize that Mercilus and Jenkins are really, really good at what they do.  

When AJ caught what turned out to be the winning touchdown, as soon as he caught it, I’m thinking “hang on to it, just get into field goal range” and the guy next to me said “gone – no way they catch him.”  

Sometimes, I wish I could watch our team through someone else’s eyes.  Because I should totally be in awe of what Whitney the Mercilus can do, not just watching a game expecting a few sacks and TFL’s.

7) I thought Ian Thomas played his best game of the season yesterday.  Love that.  Love seeing seniors go out on top.  I wish I would have had a chance to speak with him this week.  I tried to set down with as many seniors as I could, but I missed Ian.  Thanks for four great years, sir.  Enjoy your legacy as the starting middle linebacker on the best Illinois defense in a generation.

8) OK, I’m not going to get to 10 points.  Only 8.  I could stretch it out into two more points, but they would just be filler.  And you don’t really want to read “I thought the elevators in AT&T Park were quite lovely” just so I can fill out two more numbered points.  Or maybe you do.  Maybe elevators are your thing.  Maybe I’ve run out of things to type.  OK – two more sentences:

Our second consecutive bowl win on the same day that Northwestern ties the record for consecutive bowl losses with Notre Dame, all while exacting some bowl revenge on UCLA.  Best New Years Eve ever.  

KFHB 25 – Sunday, 8:34 am

Gonna be close.  I’m sitting here at San Francisco airport on yet another standby list.  As of right now, I need one person to miss their flight and I’m on my way to O’Hare.  C’mon, New Years Eve hangover.

I wouldn’t be in this predicament had I listened to my friend’s dad growing up.  Any time we stayed over at his house, his dad would give us the 7 P’s Speech: Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.  Had I paid attention, I would be on my way to Dallas Fort Worth right now to catch an easy connection.  But no, I didn’t look at the BART schedule last night.  So when I walked to the BART station this morning, it was gated off.  First train doesn’t run until 8:00 on Sunday mornings.  Oops.

I eventually caught a cab to the airport (hard to find a cab that early in the morning on a Sunday), but by the time I got here, I had missed my flight.  So now, it’s bite-my-nails-and-hope-I-get-on time.  I’ll find out in the next 5 minutes.

Quick thoughts on the game in case I get on and need to post this before the flight leaves:  I think we saw nearly the exact offense we’ll see next year.  In order:

1) Nathan Scheelhaase running
2) Nathan Scheelhaase short passes to Darius Millines and Ryan Lankford.
3) Donovonn Young running.
4) Repeat 1, 2 or 3.

We’ll likely run this from more of a spread (just a guess, given Beckman’s background), so the look will be different, but the base will be the same.  Nate running.  Nate passing.  Donovonn running people over.

Holy crap I got on. Gotta go. Homeward bound.

KFHB 24 – BeardTalk 3

My New Years gift to you: BeardTalk 3.

And if you’re wondering if I was a little excited running around on the field after the game, well, turn your speakers down…

[podcast]http://audioboo.fm/boos/607904-kfhb-20-beardtalk-3.mp3[/podcast]

Listen or Download

KFHB 23 – Saturday, 5:42 pm

I’m reeling.

I really don’t know where to start.  I’m back up in the press box, and it’s quiet as a library.  All you hear are fingers hitting keyboards.  It’s kind of intimidating.  Will their words be better than my words? WORD FIGHT.

Focus, Robert.  One thing at a time.  Here’s my last hour.

+ WE WON OUR SECOND BOWL GAME IN A ROW.

+ I got to vote on game MVP.  WHO LET’S SOMEONE LIKE ME VOTE FOR MVP? I just put “ALL THE PLAYERS IN ORANGE” and passed it along (not really).

+ I got to go down to the field for the end.  And stand near the trophy presentation.  And record BeardTalk 3 with Jack Cornell on the field (to be posted later).

+ I got to interview Coach Beckman.  The man who will make my life glorious or miserable for the next few years, standing there talking to me.  Still weird.

+ Then some “fans” called me over, having recognized me from the Beardtalk picture, I guess.  That was certainly intimidating.  Fans?  What?  How do I even have fans?  That’s weird to me.  But fun.  They were so nice.  Totally humbled by that whole deal.

+ I paused in the endzone as the field was clearing and the players were heading to the locker room.  Stopped right on the N in Illinois, looked back, and just took it all in.  DOES ANYONE UNDERSTAND HOW GREAT IT IS TO STAND ON THE N IN ILLINOIS AND LOOK OVER THE BOWL GAME FIELD WHERE YOUR TEAM JUST WON?

+ I have to stop with the CAPS.  I’m doing that thing again where I put on the caps-lock and type harder for some reason.

+ Then I got to wander the bowels of AT&T Park looking for the media interview room.  I was all Wayne and Garth with my press pass, holding it up for people who didn’t even need to see it.

+ I recorded the entire interview process.  What am I supposed to do with that? Some girl just walked by and handed me a bunch of quotes from players.  What am I supposed to do with that?  Should I care about quotes?  I don’t care about quotes.  I care about the game.  WHICH WE WON.

+ Then I walked out into the hallway and grabbed a quick interview with Trulon Henry, which I’ve been trying to do all week.  Wait – have I uploaded that to the blog yet? (checks) No, I hadn’t.  But I just did.

+ Then I got to chat with BadNewsBrown (he likes the nickname), and interview I’ll add to a long form podcast later this weekend.

+ Now I’m back up in the press box, trying to stay quiet and eating entirely too many fudge covered Oreos.

My goodness is this moment surreal.  I know I tend to get a bit melodramatic, but this whole week is hitting me like a big wave right now.

I love Illini Football.  Always have.  For some reason, in around 2008 or so, I kind of had the feeling that I needed to be around Illinois Football more.  I always had fun writing, so I had the idea for the blog (something I didn’t really start for another 6 months after the idea).  Again, this doesn’t mean I dislike Illini hoops – I’ll be dying with the rest of you over 37-8 Purdue runs in the weeks to come.  I just have always been football >> basketball.

For some reason, I see this week as a culmination.  Everything started falling into place.  I got to record a podcast with The Solid Verbal.  Vic Koenning called me over at practice.  This has been the biggest run of unique visitors to the site in the last 2.5 years.  I got to see an amazing display of affection at St. Anthony’s yesterday.  And I got to sit in the press box, go on the field, and stand next to the trophy after we won a bowl game.  Fans called me over to shake my hand.  Vic Koenning hunted me down in the hallway to make sure I had a great time this week.  Jonathan Brown gave me a hug.  Jack Cornell made a note to shake my hand before leaving for the bus.

All of this is incredibly humbling.  I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had doing anything ever.  And people enjoy hearing about it from me.

You know what?  I’ll type out my thoughts on the game later.  This is the basking-in-the-glow post.  We won a bowl game, and I got to walk (OK, run) out on the field after the game and celebrate like a fool.

Thanks for sharing it with me.

KFHB 18 – Halftime

OK, so I just ditched everything I wrote in the second quarter.  Because I want to say this:

Why are so many people so angry?  I don’t get it.  I just took some time to peruse our message boards.  Anger, anger, and more anger.  What?

This is the Fight Hunger Bowl.  I has been mercilessly mocked by every single college football writer nationwide.  UCLA and Illinois are kind of the laughingstock of the college football world.  If you’re a twitterer, just look at the tweets about this game.  ”Different sport than the Alamo Bowl”… “Fight Offense Bowl”… “First one to 10 wins”

It’s like that dream where you’re back in high school and you’re naked in the lunch room and everyone’s laughing at you (just me?).  You kind of have two options at that point.  Cover yourself and run screaming out of the room, or have fun with it.  Get up on a lunch table and dance.

We’re naked in front of the entire college football world right now.  Our defense is solid, but our offense is broken.  We knew this.  It’s why we fired our coach.  And the same goes for UCLA.  Their team is broken, so they fired their coach.

So why the anger?  If we’ve ever had a freebie game in the history of Illini football, it’s this one.  The problems that led to this offense being so bad have been corrected – the coaches are gone.  We just have one more game to play, that’s all.

I’m thrilled that we’re playing seniors (yay Wisdom Onyegbule) and faking field goals.  I’m excited to watch our defense in the second half.  I’d love to see more Donovonn Young – he’s the future, so let’s let him know that before the offseason – but as for the rest of the game, I want more FUN.  More fakes.   More tricks.   Triple reverse, please.

Because why not? We’re standing naked at the 50.  Let’s dance.

KFHB 17 – End Of The 1st Quarter

I had no idea that press boxes were narrated.  Actually, I have no idea if any other press boxes are narrated like this one.  Maybe it’s just baseball stadiums.  But after every play, there’s this voice above me telling me who made the tackle, how many yards, etc. etc.  I have no idea if that’s embarrassing to admit or if it’s insightful commentary. 

(ENOUGH with the press box stuff, Robert)

I think I’ll do a post each quarter.  So until the clock hits 0:00 for each quarter, I’ll just type a bunch of random stuff and then post it as the game moves to the next quarter.

I just put my coat on.  It might be warm out there in the sun, but up here I’m freezing.  And I never get cold.  San Francisco is the strangest weather city in America.

OK, after 3 punts, we now have the ball at midfield, 2nd and 5.  Hmmm… typing game details here would be a strange way to go about live blogging a game.  These plays will have already happened, and they’re not going to matter to you.  But Eddie Viliunas just caught a first down pass from Nate.  Remember that?

Man, does the turnover fairy hate us in bowls.  Well, I guess she was nice last year, what with RG3′s backwards pass dropping to the turf but not going out of bounds.  But in the last 10 plays, UCLA had a pass bounce off a receiver straight up in the air… and fall harmlessly to the turf in an area with no defenders.  Illinois had a pass bounce off a receiver straight up in the air… and fell harmfully in the arms of a UCLA safety.  

OK, so that punt that UCLA downed at the one just landed right in front of me.  And I swear I saw the UCLA dude’s foot hit the goalline when he dove on it.  And I was halfway out of my chair ready to scream at the ref when I became self aware and realized where I was.  That would have been fun.

OK, it’s the end of the first quarter, and I’m kind of hating this format.  I might change it up for the second quarter.  Or I might not.  Or I might go eat some more fudge covered Oreo’s.