5-0 Mailbag (Part IV)

A few more mailbag questions.  Sorry if I didn’t get to yours.  Readers whose questions were not used will receive a lovely bag of parting gifts including a VHS copy of Jerry Hester’s overtime explosion against Missouri in 1995 and a small chard of glass from the Jack Daniels bottle that the Black Crowes guitarist threw into the Assembly Hall crowd in 1993 (caught by yours truly).  But the pencil that Kiwane Garris borrowed in class (and chewed on) stays with me.

Why do we suck on kickoff defense and kickoff returns?

I don’t really have an answer other than “we’re poorly coached”.  Watching South Dakota State own us on special teams was the final straw for me.  If a bunch of walk-ons from the Plains can crush us on kickoffs, there’s not much more that can be said.

The only theory I’ve come up with lately is that we typically try to ease people onto the field through Special Teams.  After the Zach Becker injury, we pulled the redshirt off of Matt LaCosse.  And we’ve eased him onto the field by using him on kickoffs.  Maybe there’s just so much inexperience out there that we struggle to run the schemes?

Or maybe we just have bad schemes.

What does winning a Big Ten game strictly on the arm of Nathan Scheelhaase mean for the O’Toole experiment? In theory we’ve been subbing in O’Toole as our “passing QB.” Now that Nathan has proved that he can throw the ball plenty good, is there really any reason to ever put in O’Toole the rest of the season, outside of injury or mop-up duty?

I never saw any of the O’Toole packages as “passing QB” packages.  I just think it’s a Feed-The-Studs thing.

Paul Petrino has explained Feed The Studs as finding certain players that do certain things well and then giving them the ball in those situations in the game.  If Josh Ferguson runs one play out of the pistol pretty well, then when we send him out there, many times it’s to run that particular play.

I think we’ve just developed an O’Toole package (similar to the DC Package we had for Eddie last year).  Certain plays that he runs well are practiced over and over during the week and then tried during games.  I don’t think it’s a situation where Paul Petrino is putting O’Toole in and then calling plays.  I think he waits for specific situations to use those specific plays and then calls an O’Toole play.

But as to the first part of your question, I think 391 passing yards sent a cold shiver throughout Big Ten defensive coordinators.  Before that game, it was “make Scheelhaase beat you with his arm, not his feet”.  Now?  They have to think about it.

How concerned are you that we only beat Northwestern 38-35?  I don’t think they’re very good.  What happens when we play a good team?

Funny thing about football.  Turnovers can change an entire game.  Here’s an example:

Last year against Indiana, IU outgained us 388-289.  They had 21 first downs to our 14 and controlled the ball for 35 minutes.  They converted nine first downs to our three and only had four penalties to our seven.  Yet we won the game 43-13.  Why?  They turned the ball over 5 times, including two pick-sixes.

This year against Northwestern we were just the opposite.  We outgained them 473-329.  We had more first downs, a better third down conversion percentage, and Nathan passed for 258 more yards than Dan Persa.  Yet we only won 38-35.  Why?  3 very costly turnovers (including an interception in the endzone).

To me, that leaves me more encouraged than anything.  Nearly everything that could go wrong, did go wrong, including the interception in the endzone, a questionable call taking a touchdown off the board, and a fumble at our own 35 with three minutes to go giving up the go-ahead score.  Yet we WON.

What happens in 2012 when we no longer have Derek Dimke to win close games for us? To me this is almost as scary as our lack of depth on the defensive line.

Dimke is truly one of the top kickers in the country.  36 for 41 in his career is absolutely ridiculous.  We’ll miss him.

But I still think we’ll be OK.  Mostly because we have three, maybe four options.

The first option is probably Taylor Zalewski.  He was headed to NIU with a scholarship offer last spring, but changed his mind and decided to walk-on at Illinois.  Yay us.  ESPN ranked him as the #15 kicking prospect in the country, and Kohl’s Kicking had him #5.  Here’s what they had to say (and why Northern offered him a full ride):

ESPN: Taylor has a BCS leg on Field Goals and Kick offs. He is one of the best Kickers in the country. He can easily go 70 yards on KO’s which have over four seconds of hang-time. He has shown tremendous improvement in his consistency off of the ground.

Kohls: Taylor has become a complete kicker. Has improved greatly off the ground, steps are repeatable, big-time leg, averaged 4 seconds on his KO hang times, truly one of the best kickers in the nation, punting is improving but not at same level as his FG and KO, BCS level kicker.

Feel better yet? But wait. There’s more.

We also have freshman Brennan Van Mieghem (who also turned down scholarship offers to walk-on at Illinois) and state-championship-team-offensive-lineman-turned-kicker Nick Immekus from Wheaton-Warrenville South who is a redshirt freshman this year.  And I’m not sure if he’s punting or kicking, but Patrick Dunn is in the mix there somewhere as well.

Bottom line: no team is in “great” shape after losing one of the top kickers in the nation.  But I’d be willing to bet that one of those guys will do a solid job for us next fall.

In your “Big Three didn’t leave” hypothetical, how does Bad News Brown fit, with Martez still in his spot? Move one of them to Sam? Let Martez move to Bandit sometimes?

A good question to end with.

My hypothetical was this: how good would this team be if the Big Three was still here?

My answer: I think Bad News Brown would be starting over Ian Thomas.  I don’t say that to disparage Ian – I just think Brown is that good.  We’d rotate three guys on the inside – Martez, Brown, and Thomas – and we’d bring Houston Bates along a bit slower.  Sam Linebacker would still be Trulon and Ashante, and Bandit would still be Buchanan and Staples.

You know what?  This hypothetical helped me understand something.  We’re better off than I thought we’d be without the Big Three.

5-0 Mailbag (Part III)

5 questions tonight, 5 more tomorrow, then a SOC, then barely sleep, then a win over Indiana to become bowl eligible before Columbus Day. October is the greatest month in the history of ever.

With Bad News Brown suspended for the Indiana game (and deservedly so), what can we expect from Houston Bates in his spot? Do you think Indiana makes any attempt at all to run on us with a reduced LB corps?

Well, North Texas held Indiana to 50 yards rushing, so I hope they attempt to run on us, because they’re not very good at it.  I think they continue to try to implement Kevin Wilson’s up-tempo passing attack.  And hopefully they continue to struggle in doing so.

As for how our defense looks without Brown, I don’t think much will change.  Ian Thomas stays at the Mike and probably plays more snaps in Brown’s absence.  Houston Bates slides in at the Will and plays more snaps then maybe the last 3 games combined.  And I think we see our first real minutes from Ralph Cooper, who was probably the best freshman linebacker in camp.  And maybe even some Henry Dickinson replacing Bates.

Will we get Brown’s production?  No – there’s a reason he’s a starter and, in my opinion, our best linebacker.  But Bates does several things well, especially get after the quarterback.  I don’t think he gives us Brown’s hole-plugging, but I do think he might surprise us with a sack or a tackle for loss.

Is Ryan Lankford really our best punt returner?

No.  Terry Hawthorne is.  But as of Rantoul, Terry Hawthorne still struggled catching the ball.

I’ve been waiting to see Hawthorne return kicks for 3 years now, but I’m not sure it’s ever going to happen.  I watched him field punts in practice twice in Rantoul, and each time he dropped 2 or 3. Especially coming in on the ball.  He’s electric with the ball in his hands – anyone who was at the 2010 Spring Game knows this – but he just can’t seem to hang on to the ball.

So, it’s Lankford.  And I don’t really think he does a bad job in the open field.  Problem is, with our punt return unit, there’s never any open field.  I gave up blaming our punt returners years ago and instead just focus on the blockers.  Just once I want to see an Illini returner catch the ball with a little room to work with.  Just once.

Will we ever get a ‘Feed Donny’ game this season? (i.e. 15-20 carries) I suspect not, but kind of wish we could at least find out if we’ve got a guy ready to carry the load. Maybe a game against an awful IU team would be a good chance? I can hope at least.

I think it’s coming soon.  The biggest reason a 20-carry game hasn’t happened yet is fairly obvious: fumbles.  Young had a costly fumble in the Arizona State game, and then followed that up with a fumble on the end of his long run against Western Michigan.  Had that ball bounced a few feet to the left, it would have gone through the endzone for a touchback, and we would have probably lost the game.  I don’t think we’ll see 20 carries from Young until our coaching staff is certain that he’ll still have the ball after all 20 carries.

Of course, with Jason Ford putting the ball on the turf as well (still blows my mind that Mikel Leshoure did not fumble once the entire 2010 season), fumbling is a problem across the board.  Nathan made a bad pitch to Troy Pollard and Northwestern jumped on it.  Fred Sykes makes a catch and the ball flies out of bounds.  When we start playing defenses like Ohio State and Penn State, we have to take care of the ball.

So for right now, despite his last carry, I still think Jason Ford gets the majority of the carries.  But a THANK YOU, DONNY game is coming soon.  My guess: at Purdue.

I wanted to get your take on Brandon Clear. I’ve been watching the kid since HS, and I really thought he would be on the field more. Seems like a perfect complement to AJ with his size.

First off, Brandon Clear was my favorite interview in Rantoul.  Yes, even more than Beardtalk.  He’s a great interview – engaging, funny, confident.  He’s an impressive young man.

Can he find more minutes on the field?  I hope so, especially with Darius Millines out.  Our wide receiver rotation has basically been 6 players deep thus far.  AJ Jenkins is the top guy (duh), followed by Darius Millines, Spencer Harris, Ryan Lankford, Fred Sykes, and Jake Kumerow (in that order).  With Millines out (my guess is that “week to week” means he’s out until after the bye week in November), one spot is open, and I think it will be Clear.

He had several drops when I watched him in Rantoul, so there’s a chance that hands are the reason why he’s on the bench (Paul Petrino will pretty much play the guys with the best hands).  But if he has that corrected in practice, he has the size and speed to burn someone deep or go up and get a jump-ball.  I’d love to see him do it.

I have a question for your mailbag. Somewhat in jest, but not really.

How possible would it be for the fans to ‘revolt’ and force new AD Mike Thomas to ‘pull an RG’ and force the Zooker to hire a special teams coach, in order to end this year after year miserable special teams performance?

Given that I’ve spent possibly 23 hours in the last month staring at walls and trying to figure out why our special teams are so awful, I’m probably the perfect person to ask this question.  Even if it’s in jest.

First off, if the Zooker had to hire a special teams coach, he’d also have to get rid of one of his other assistant coaches.  When Coach Woodford was let go and we restructured the staff, we decided to go with an extra defensive coach (Ron West, who coaches the “hybrid” players – the bandits and the Sam Linebackers).  I, for one, wouldn’t want to lose Ron West just to hire a special teams coach.  Same goes for the offensive coaches – who do you get rid of?

So the system as it stands today is that each assistant coach has a different special teams specialty – Paul Petrino works with the returners, for example – and Ron Zook coordinates everything.  How do I feel about that?  I feel like special teams aren’t emphasized enough.  I feel like Chip Long might care more about how Evan Wilson runs his routes than if his part of the special teams is performing up to snuff.  Because there are so many coaches, I think there’s a lack of continuity, and our special teams, especially the mental aspect of our special teams, suffers.

But to fix it, we’d have to lose an assistant.  And I’m not ready to lose any of them.  So I guess we’re stuck with 20th percentile special teams.

Maybe we could get Mike Thomas to force Zook to hire a special teams coach…

5-0 Mailbag (Part II)

More mailbag.  And good questions, people.  I think about Illini football all the time, and I always forget to think about some of these things.  Thanks for the reminder to remember to think about these things.

In this surprising 5-0 start, what do you think has been the biggest surprise? AJ Jenkins?

This one’s easy: pass rush.

If you had told me back in August that Whitney the Mercilus and Michael Buchanan would both be in the top 10 in the country in sacks after 5 weeks (#1 and #2 in the Big Ten), I would have probably hugged you.  Because that would mean we’d probably start the season 5-0.  My biggest defensive concern going into the season was a Liuget-less defensive line giving quarterbacks all day to throw the ball, negating our improved secondary.

We’ve seen nearly the exact opposite.  Our secondary is playing well, which is causing opposing quarterbacks to hold the ball and scan the field.  And Mr. Mercilus and Mr. Buchanan are right there when they do.  Big Whit is tied for 5th nationally in sacks, and had he not whiffed on Dan Persa by flying over the top on Saturday, he’d be 2nd.

One more sack stat: In 2009, as a team, we had 19 sacks in 12 games.  This year we have 17 sacks in 5 games.

What is the impact of a potential Corey Lewis return to the O Line?

I’m of the firm belief that not one human on earth knows the answer to this.

There’s a chance he’s 95% healthy and will be able to play in a few games.  There’s a chance he’s 2% healthy and will never play a down of football again.  We just don’t know.  In the latest installment of As The Lewis Catches And Turns, we were told that he was cleared for contact and would return to practice… and then he wasn’t in uniform on the sidelines Saturday.  Is he two weeks away?  Nine weeks away?  We have no idea.

But just because everything’s coming up Illinois this fall, let’s assume he’s healthy enough to return to action for the Ohio State game.  Then the answer is yes – he could be a huge addition to our tackle rotation.  He won the job in the spring of 2010 and would have started last fall at strongside tackle had he not torn his ACL in the Spring Game.  And then he was slated for the starting job this year before re-injuring his knee in February and missing all of spring ball and Rantoul.  He has the size and technique to make an impact on our offensive line and help Michael Heitz come along slowly.

But is he even close to healthy?  And if he is, can he pick up the schemes that the other players have been running for a year and a half while he hasn’t even practiced?  My guess – he does return this year, but not until after the bye week in November and only in a reserve role.  But in the spring, he makes a run at starting weakside tackle with Jeff Allen graduating.

Justin DuVernois seems to be punting well for a freshman, why do we keep using that stupid rugby punt?

Wind.  That’s the only reasoning I can come up with.  DuVernois has struggled kicking into the wind (he tries to keep it low, but he’s hit a few flubs when he does that), so we use the rugby punt when the wind is a factor.

As you saw from Northwestern, the rugby punt can be effective.  Hit it right, and your probably going to get a 45 yard punt into the wind with no return.  That’s the reason so many college teams have gone to it lately – it eliminates returns (and opens up the slim chance of a bounce off a return-team leg).  Get a solid roll, and you can still win the field position battle without the threat of a long return.

But we don’t seem to do it well.  I’ve seen Ryan Lankford kick it well in practice, but he’s only done it once in a game.  He’s not getting the expected 10-15 yard roll at the end of the kick (in fact, many have checked up and bounced backwards), so it hasn’t served us well.

If I was the coach, I would probably still used it when there’s a really stiff wind (maybe 10% of our kicks over the length of the season).  But that’s the only time.

my question: where art thou trulon henry?

in the first few games it looked like henry was headed for a big season, but his productivity has been steadily decreasing.

ak st: 8 tackles, 1 int
sd st: 5 tackles, 1 int, 1 pbu
az st: 5 tackles
wmu: 1 tackle
nw: 2 tackles

is he not on the field as much or is something else at play here?

Oh, he’s on the field.  Possibly more than any other player on our defense.  I’ve seen us sub for all of our defensive linemen, I’ve seen 5 inside linebackers get snaps, and we rotate three cornerbacks.  Only our safeties (Sanni and Hull) have probably played as many snaps as Trulon.  Besides a few series for Earnest Thomas in the SDSU game and one series (that I remember) for Ashante Williams in the Western Michigan game, Trulon has played nearly every snap.

Looking back at Nate Bussey’s tackle number from last year, I’m not sure if Trulon’s drop-off of late is all that alarming.  Bussey had 1 tackle in the Purdue game, followed by 8 at Michigan, then 3 at home against Minnesota, and then 5 against Northwestern.  Depending on the scheme employed by the opponent, our Sam Linebacker has different duties.  So if his numbers drop, I’m not too concerned.

In fact, given his low numbers the last few weeks, I’ll make him my Pick To Click for the Indiana game.  Time for interception #3.

Please! I need to know how the meeting of the representatives of the top 25 football teams went this week! What was the commentary between you and the others around the conference room table? Are they still snickering at the illini? Or are they starting to think that they’ll be seeing you for the rest of the year?!

I still walked into the room with a bit of apprehension in my gut, kinda like the first day of your second year of junior high.  I mean, you know everyone in the room now, but will they accept you?  Especially if you’re sitting in Chair 16?

I have to say, the Virginia Tech guy was really gracious.  I felt kind of sheepish – here I am in Chair 16 in front of Virginia Tech in Chair 17 – but he offered me a bottled water and congratulated me on our comeback.  I tried to make some lame “I knew we had it the whole time” joke as the meeting got underway.

LSU, Oklahoma, and Alabama ran the meeting (of course), and since there was a girl from Kansas State who appeared overwhelmed (kinda like I did 2 weeks ago), they had us go around the room and say one thing everyone might not know about our team.  I wanted to say “we’re Illinois, and we’re going to win every close game we play in because this team has moxie”, but I chickened out and said something totally lame: “I’m from Illinois, and the thing you might not know about our team is that Big Ten sacks leader Whitney Mercilus is missing the tip of his right index finger from a weight room accident”.  I know, right? SO LAME.

The meeting was shorter this time – Bowl reps will start showing up in your press box, media requests will be on the increase, don’t be surprised if 4-star recruiting start calling you to set up visits – and after a quick presentation from Oklahoma State called “Conference Expansion And You – How To Cling To Your In State Brethren And Ride Their Coattails”, we were adjourned.

On the way out, the Michigan guy – who nobody really likes, by the way – made some crack like “hey Illinois, don’t knee me in the marbles”.

I probably deserved it.

5-0 Mailbag (Part I)

5-0.  5 wins.  Five.  I want to keep saying it over and over.  The only seasons in the last 20 years that exceed our current win total: 2010, 2007, 2001, 1999, 1994, and 1992.

Whoa.  I hadn’t thought of it like that.  From September 2003 to December 2006, we won 8 games.  In the last 31 days, we’ve won 5.  I could probably keep doing this for 4 consecutive hours.  It could be an entire post: “different ways to look at our 5-0 record”.

But this is a mailbag post, so let’s get to the mailbag questions:

So we’re five games into the season. looking ahead at the next five games, which offense do you think will give us the most trouble? which defense?

“Next 5 games” eliminates Wisconsin, right?  Because they would be a candidate for both.

To me, the defense that gives us the most trouble is easy: Ohio State. For all of their offensive struggles, I still think that’s one of the top-5 defenses in the country.  They’ll shut down our run game, which means our passing game will have to carry us, and Ohio State’s defensive coaches are really good at scheming for turnovers.  They’ll know which zones to sit in and which direction to blitz from before we even step on the field.  I could see that game being a 13-10 result that comes down to field position and special teams. (*winces*)

Offense, I think it has to be Michigan.  After what Denard Robinson did to us last year (and, *gulp*, Tate Forcier), you have to know that Michigan will come to Champaign supremely confident that they can move the ball at will against Koenning’s defense.  And with an improved running game and a better Robinson, they might be right.

Imagine that – an Illini fan frightened for when Ohio State and Michigan come to town.

Northwestern is trying to market themselves as “Chicago’s Big Ten Team”. How much emphasis does the Illini coaching staff place on recruiting in the Chicago area? How important is the Chicago area to our long term success?

I go back and forth on this subject.  Yes, recruiting Chicagoland is important – every school should lock down their home state.  But the 2010 recruiting class changed me a little bit.  I see the second-hand guys we picked up from the south (Jay Prosch, Evan Wilson, Darius Millines, Spencer Harris, Jonathan Brown) out-performing the in-state kids we “whiffed” on, and it gives me pause.  Darius Millines and Spencer Harris look like the real deal, while Kyle Prater has zero catches (currently listed as a 3rd string WR) and Matt Milton has one.  Halfway through his sophomore year, CJ Fiedorowicz has 2 catches in his career.  Evan Wilson has 15 catches (and 4 touchdowns).  Jonathan Brown might be better than any defensive player that’s come out of Chicago in the last few years.

So should we just give up on in-state players and concentrate on the south?  No.  First off, players like Fiedorowicz might take off as upperclassmen and show why they were so highly regarded – we can’t really make that determination until their careers are over.  And second, there will be plenty of top-end players in future classes that we will need to keep home.  This state might not have the best track record of late, but there are plenty of Martez Wilsons and Darius Flemings and Terry Hawthornes and Zach Fultons – locking down the in-state guys will need to be a priority.

As for Chicago’s (fourth favorite) Big Ten Team and their desire to own Chicago, the importance there, in my view, is money.  We need a presence in Chicago because we need the fan support, both in donations and ticket sales.  Engage the thousands of alumni and casual fans in the same way that Michigan captures Detroit and Ohio State looks to Cleveland and Cincy, and you can use that money to continue to, say it with me, build a program.

On the rivals forum, a former player posted something along the line of that the O-Line technique is horrendous and it’s due to the technique being taught by Gilbert and that other former players agree with the assessment. And that is one of the major reasons why the O-Line has been bad this year. Do you have any comment on that? It was rather disturbing watching Nate getting sacked over and over again in the first half of the NW game and our run game being non-existent.

I haven’t read the criticisms you mention, and I was never an offensive lineman, so please take everything I say with a grain of couch potato salt, but there are three fan evaluations of college football that drive me nuts.

1) “He doesn’t play with good knee bend.”
2) “That safety took a bad angle.”
3) “He tried to arm-tackle.”

I’m not saying that offensive linemen don’t need knee-bend or that safeties don’t ever take bad angles or that defenders try to bring players down with their arms instead of their shoulder pads. These things happen all the time. But there are also times that offensive linemen get beat because they stayed too low and safeties are playing their assignment and linebackers are diving for a foot. Calling out a player’s technique (or a technique taught by coaches) is difficult because you have to fully know the scheme before you know what the mistakes are. Look no further than safety. Many times, when you hear “that safety got beat and made the tackle 28 yards down field”, it was the cornerback’s mistake that led to that 28 yard gain.

All of that to say this: I don’t know if the specific criticisms you mention discuss knee bend or not, but questioning Gilbert’s teaching technique is a very difficult endeavour. You have to understand the specific schemes (is this a “catch and turn” set of running plays or a “chip and go”). With an offense as multiple as ours, with multiple blocking schemes to go with each different set (sometimes we’re zone blocking like we’re in a spread – other times it appears that we’re in a full NFL pro-set scheme), it’s really, really hard to evaluate.

If former players see something with the technique that’s consistent across all schemes, well, more power to them. I’m sure they understand it better than I do. But given the results of our run game since Gilbert has been here, I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt that it’s an execution problem, not a technique problem.

Are you concerned about the future of the program because we aren’t pulling in anymore 4/5 star players? Will we see a Ron Turner-esque situation in the near future?

I somewhat mentioned this yesterday, but I see it this way.  2008 class – good enough to build the program, but attrition hit it hard.  2009 class – good enough to build the program.  2010 class – not good enough on paper, but has outperformed its ranking by a factor of 10.  Thus, we got lucky, and the class is good enough to build the program.  2011 class – after the player losses, jury is out, but it doesn’t look good.  I think it will leave a bit of a talent gap.  2012 class – as of now, the lowest ranked class in the Big Ten.  Will need lots of help before signing day, but we’re now ranked #16, so that opens some doors.

To look at it another way, the defense after 2012 will lose a ton of starters.  Mercilus, Buchanan, Hawthorne, Green, Sanni, etc.  Who replaces them?  You’re replacing Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green (both top-100, high 4-star recruits) with who?  Valdon Cooper and maybe someone from this 2012 class?  You lose your top 3 pass rushers in Mercilus, Buchanan, and Staples – who is next?  I guess there’s Darius Caldwell, and Tim Kynard will have one year, but what blue chip kids like Mercilus, Buchanan, and Staples replace them?

There’s definitely a talent gap on the horizon, especially on defense, mostly from the lack of blue chip defenders in the 2010 and 2011 classes.  Which means these last 7-10 scholarships in the 2012 class are very, very important.

2012 depth chart. You know you have one worked up already.

I do! But it’s in my head.  Let’s put it to paper. Returning starters next year in bold.

QB: Nathan Scheelhaase (JR) / Reilly O’Toole (SO)
RB: Donovonn Young (SO) / Josh Ferguson (SO)
FB: Jay Prosch (JR) / Chris Willett (SR)
TE: Evan Wilson (JR) / Jon Davis (SO)
Weak OT: Simon Cvijanovic (SO) / Patrick Flavin (rs-FR)
Weak OG: Hugh Thornton (SR) / Shawn Afryl (rs-SO)
Center: Graham Pocic (SR) / Jake Feldmeyer (JR)
Strong OG: Tyler Sands (SR) / Alex Hill (rs-SO)
Strong OT: Michael Heitz (SO) / Corey Lewis (SR)
WR1: Darius Millines (JR) / Jake Kumerow (rs-SO)
WR2: Spencer Harris (JR) / Jordan Frysinger (rs-FR)
WR3: Ryan Lankford (JR) / Anthony Williams (rs-SO)

Bandit: Michael Buchanan (SR) / Justin Staples (SR)
DT: Glenn Foster (SR) / Austin Teitsma (rs-SO)
DT: Akeem Spence (JR) / Jake Howe (rs-SO)
DE: Whitney the Mercilus (SR) / Tim Kynard (JR)
WLB: Houston Bates (SO) / Henry Dickinson (FR)
MLB: Jonathan Brown (JR) / Ralph Cooper (SO)
SLB: Ashante Williams (SR) / Earnest Thomas (rs-SO)
CB: Terry Hawthorne (SR) / Valdon Cooper (SO)
FS: STEVEHULL (JR) / Ben Mathis (JR-walkon)
SS: Supo Sanni (SR) / Patrick Nixon-Youman (SR)
CB: Justin Green (SR) / Jack Ramsey (SR)

K: Taylor Zalewski (rs-FR) / Nick Immekus (rs-SO) / Brennen Van Mieghem (rs- FR)
P: Justin DuVernois (SO) / Brad Janitz (rs-SO)

Yeah, I see a lot of bold, too.

Wednesday Mailbag (Part V)

Looks like this will be the last one for the afternoon.  I have to get ready to head over for the evening practice (now, with pads and hitting!).  But I’ll still try to get to all of the questions in the next couple days.  Thanks again for sending them.

What is going on with Brandon Denmark? Is he just not playing as well as Ralph Cooper currently? He looked good in the bowl game, but he also came in very raw and needing to put on some weight. It did look like he had a ton of athletic potential.

There’s a lot of good things going on with Brandon Denmark.  Blitzes.  Pass coverage.  Run stuffing.  Just because Ralph Cooper is getting reps doesn’t mean Denmark is pushed to the back.  Denmark is out there flying around, trying to learn how to be Martez II.

And because of that Martez comparison, I sometimes see him on a blitz and think “man, add 15 pounds and a little more muscle, and this kid could be a defensive end, couldn’t he?

My burning question will be about O’Toole. It seems like it may be compelling to keep the guy active this year, given the lack of depth at QB. Makes me wish our coaches had convinced Whitmer or the kid from NC to stay on. Given the talent O’Toole seems to be, I’d hate to only have him start for a year. A good problem to have, but it seems like we keep having such urgent needs that we blow red shirts that a school like Wisconsin or Ohio State would more readily apply.

Well, Wisconsin got lucky that Russell Wilson wanted to go to grad school instead of A-ball, because they were about to go into the season with very little depth and no experience at QB.  And ask any Ohio State fan how they feel about their quarterback depth and watch them sweat.  Every program goes through roster changes.  Last summer, Penn State fans were swimming in QB depth.  Now, the PSU guy I know is scared to death that McGloin gets the job, because he thinks Bolden will transfer if that happens.  And with Paul Jones academically ineligible and Kevin Newsome transferring to find playing time, that would leave them with Matt McGloin and… Matt McGloin.

Whitmer wants to play, so he transferred.  Charest didn’t win the job, so he transferred.  That’s just the way it goes sometimes.

That said, WE REALLY NEED TO REDSHIRT REILLY O’TOOLE BECAUSE I WANT A GREAT 2014 AND 2015, NOT JUST 2014.

What are your thoughts on Michael Heitz? Long-term answer at OT or stop-gap measure?

On my way up here I was thinking stop-gap until Corey Lewis gets healthy.  But with every “good job, 74!” from the coaching staff and pass rush shutdown I see, I’m starting to think he’s a long-term answer.  Ideally, you’re not starting him as a redshirt freshman.  Ideally, Corey Lewis is the right tackle this fall and Heitz has one more year to learn before three years as a starting OT.

But Lewis’ knee isn’t there yet, so Heitz it is.  I think he can do an adequate job this fall (and possibly a really good job in the future).

Based on what you see now, who steps in if Allen, thornton, pocic, and/or Cornell is hurt, and how does the alignment change (if at all)? Based on very early observations, who do you think plays weakside tackle and strongside guard in 2012 after Allen and Cornell graduate?

Right now, the backups at guard are Tyler Sands followed by Alex Hill.  But there’s a chance Jake Feldmeyer, currently the backup center, could fill in at a guard spot.

At tackle, Simon Cvijanovic is the backup at both positions.  Depending on his health, Corey Lewis is probably the backup once he returns (and he might even be a starter).

As far as weakside tackle and strongside guard next year, I’ll go with this line-up for the first game of the 2012 season (just a wild guess):

WT: Corey Lewis
WG: Hugh Thornton
C: Graham Pocic
SG: Alex Hill
ST: Michael Heitz

I saw a link to Sports Illustrated where they have us 4-8 and 1-7 (last in our division). Does the national media hate us or just not have a clue? Any predictions from you at this early, mid-August, “gosh, so and so looks great” stage?

That certainly was a buzz-kill for me.  Here I am at practice, swimming in August Syndrome, wondering if our safety depth could actually be better than last year, when wham: Twitter tells me SI thinks Indiana will win 2 Big Ten games and Illinois will win 1.

(As an aside – really, Stewart Mandel? REALLY? We beat Indiana by 347 points last year, we win 4 conference games and then win 1, they lose their QB, their best receiver, their coach, they’re installing a new system with two unexperience QB’s and a bad defense, and they’ll win more Big Ten games than us? Really?)

So I’ve decided I need to leave the rarefied air of Rantoul, Illinois before I can accurately let that sink in.  Because we did lose a lot when Corey and Martez and Mikel went off to the NFL.  Maybe I need to start paying more attention to that.

After I go watch JONATHAN BROWN DOMINATE THE WORLD AT TONIGHT’S SCRIMMAGE.

(Off to practice – no time to even go back and edit this one.  I’ll try to get to more questions tomorrow and Friday.  Thanks again – this was fun.)

Wednesday Mailbag (Part IV)

I think I’ll choose questions with short answers for this one.  Then I’ll crank it up in Part V and give you nine paragraphs on the Sports Illustrated “1-7 in the Big Ten” prediction.

Any indication of who will be getting most of the work in the return game based on what you’ve seen?

If I had to guess, for the opening kickoff against Arkansas State, I think it will be Terry Hawthorne and Troy Pollard back there.

And when our defense holds Arkansas State to a 3-and-out, I think you’ll see Hawthorne back up to return the first punt.

Other options include Jack Ramsey and Ryan Lankford returning punts and Darius Millines and Josh Ferguson returning kickoffs.

How is Scheelhaase progressing through his pass play reads (e.g., does he look for his 2nd or even 3rd option)?

Not as well as I was hoping to see.  But that’s mostly the interception in the scrimmage talking.  Jack Ramsey said he watched his eyes and jumped the route.

I have to keep reminding myself he’s a sophomore.  There will still be growing pains, and I don’t think his comfort level with staying in the pocket vs. taking off running, or looking off safeties vs. making sure his timing is right with this primary receiver, will be fully developed until his upperclassman years.  This year, he’ll probably struggle with those things.

But one thing is markedly different: his accuracy.  He’s been very, very accurate with his throws.  Noticeably different from Camp Rantoul last year.  It really does appear that something clicked during the bowl practices and what we saw in the Texas Bowl is an indication of what we’ll see this fall.  I’m not expecting many 13 for 13 starts, but I think he’ll clear 60% completion percentage this fall and start pushing for 65%.

How does Spencer Harris look in camp?

Right now, he’s the leading candidate for the ALECREOP award (eye opening player).  His candidacy is only hurt by the fact that Darius Millines is nearly a lock for the Camp Crush award, and I kinda don’t want to give out both awards to wide receivers.

But Harris has been awesome this camp.  Seriously – awesome.  Great hands, great routes, great fluidity in the air.  How will he perform when he’s facing Ohio State’s secondary?  He probably has a lot more to learn before he can look like this against them.  It’s easy to look good as a slot receiver when nobody will tackle you after you catch the ball (11 on 11 drills).

I think they’ll be in full pads and hitting tonight at camp.  If he looks this good when the defense is hitting, he’ll lock up the award.  One of my favorite players this week.

Can Jay Prosch play defensive tackle?

At first I figured this question was tongue-in-cheek.  And then I was all “wait – can he?”

He’s 6′-0″, 250.  That’s way short for a defensive tackle.  But Rahkeem Smith was around 6′-0″, wasn’t he?

You know what – I’m going to stop right there.  Foolish to entertain it.  Jay Prosch is going to keep us at the top of the Big Ten in rushing yards the next three seasons.  It would be silly to even consider moving him.  We have 6 offensive linemen on the field, and that’s that.

Can the O-Line pick up blitzes in pass protection?

That’s one of the bright spots this camp.  The first string offensive line looks fantastic.  (Camp paradox alert! Is it because the offensive line is awesome, or because the defensive line is struggling??)

If Heitz can come through at strongside tackle, I think this can be one of our better offensive lines in the last 10 years.  Run blocking, pass protection, everything is there.  You have two guys that should seriously compete for All Big Ten honors (Allen and Pocic), two guys that have an outside shot at one of those teams due to the fact that the Big Ten is a bit down at offensive guard (Thornton and Cornell), and a redshirt freshman tackle who, to me, looks much better than the guy he’s competing against (Simon Cvijanovic).  They all communicate very well and appear to know their assignments in blitz pick-up.

The spot where I’m worried there – can the freshmen tailbacks pick up a blitz?  Ford can, but can the kids?  Because at some point in the Arizona State game, Vontaze Burfict is going to come off the edge with bad thoughts in his head.

At what position is Zeph Grimes lining up?

He’s at Sam Linebacker (stinger safety!).  First string is Trulon, backed up by Earnest Thomas, with Zeph at third string.  I would assume he bumps back to fourth string when Ashante returns. And I’m guessing he redshirts.

Might be hard to answer now if he sits out, but how good is Akeem Spence? How much of his success last year do you think was driven by Corey Liuget, and how much is that he is actually really good?

I think he’s pretty good.  My main concern is not that it was Liuget that made him look good, but that he’ll  be out of position this year.  He was great as a lane-clogging shade defensive tackle last year, clogging up the middle and allowing Martez to make plays.  How will he perform in Corey’s role – shooting gaps and making life difficult on Big Ten backfields?  We shall see.

How do the freshmen linemen look?

I think I like Teddy Karras the best.  Maybe it’s just the name – not sure.  I haven’t gotten to watch much of them – first and second string guys get the majority of the reps.  But here’s a quick thought on all of them:

Ted Karras – I think he can be a good guard for us down the road. Kind of reminds me of Pocic as a freshman.
Tony Durkin – Seems a tiny but undersized. Needs weights and food. Admittedly, I’ve seen less of him than the others.
Pat Flavin – Certainly has the height and the shoulders. Doesn’t have the muscle and size yet. Future left tackle, needs 2 years of weights and food.
Scott McDowell – Bruising tackle type. I think he’s a bit ahead of Flavin at this point because he looks more physically mature.

How bad does the D-Line look? I fear we have 1 B10 player in Spence and 3 solid MAC players in Mercilus, Wilson, and Buchanan.

I wouldn’t say “bad”, but they’re losing the battle when they go up against the offensive line.

And I wouldn’t say “one Big Ten player” either.  Mercilus and Buchanan would start for many teams.  I think both can be quite good, actually.  But they need more experience, and they need depth behind them.  Right now, we don’t have that.

Work your magic, Vic.

Is Bud Golden alive?

I just tweeted something about this – while researching Jay Prosch’s current height and weight for the answer above, I noticed that Bud Golden is no longer listed on the official roster on the website.  I’ll ask around tonight and find out what the deal is.

Wednesday Mailbag (Part III)

I am really enjoying your tweets/updates on the Illini and would like to know as much as possible on Jason Ford. How does he look so far, will he get the bulk of the carries? Predictions? Thoughts?

Will he get the bulk of the carries? Absolutely.  He knows the offense the best, he has the most experience, and he’s in much better shape than he was at the end of the season last year.  For better or worse, he’s The Guy.

It’s fun to watch the freshmen – Donovonn Young has great balance (have I mentioned that before?) and Josh Ferguson has great burst.  But when I picture third and 2 from the Penn State 44, Jason Ford gets the ball every single time.

I think we’ll use him like we used Leshoure last year – a lot in the first quarter, sub in for him a lot as the game goes on, and then pound pound pound with Ford in the fourth quarter.  He’s our go-to guy, and I think we’ll try to keep him fresh for that end of the game 13 play, 67 yard drive to run out the clock.

Predictions on yards for the season? I’ll say 1,089.

Any chance Brandon Clear gets in the mix? Especially in goal line situations?

I think so.  The Clemson fan I talked to said his hands were always the issue.  And the first time I saw a pass go his way in Rantoul, he dropped it.

But then yesterday, during a blitz drill where they put a blue jersey on freshman QB Chase Haslett and told the defense they could hit him, Haslett threw a 30 yard jump ball to Clear as the blitz closed in.  Clear went up over the cornerback and caught it, drawing a huge ovation from the entire offense.  It was a great catch.

So he has the size – could he be that guy we throw bombs and corner fades to?  Maybe. But Jenkins and the three sophomores will be a tough rotation to crack.

My biggest concern is at DT, but the biggest question mark in my mind is at safety. Can Ramsey actually play the position? Green? PNY? We keep moving corners to safety and I wonder about their ability to (a) hit the way a good safety has to hit; and (b) make the difficult reads in the split second allowed. Hull had one (?) start at FS last year and a lot of snaps at the position. PNY subbed in at nickle. After that…? In 2008 and 2009 safety was a major problem for Illinois. Harrison, Mitchell and Sanders all used up their eligibility and we spent two years trying to replace them. None of those guys were particularly athletic, but they were all physical and knew how to play the position. Are we going to struggle again this year?

First off, I think Green is only lined up in warm-ups with the safeties because he’s essentially the third starter at cornerback.  Much like I list 3 starting wide receivers on my depth chart (as well as listing starters at tight end and fullback), I should probably list 3 starters at corner.  Because that’s essentially what Green provides – another starter.  I think we’ll see a fair amount of “dime” defense this fall – 3 down linemen, 2 linebackers, a Sam linebacker (stinger safety!), 3 corners, and 2 safeties.

But to your overall point, yes, it’s a concern.  Your question has made me think about it quite a bit, to be honest.  With Trulon moving over to Sam and Wilson going back to corner, we essentially have zero safeties with starting experience.  Sanni played a fair bit in 2009, and both Hull and PNY saw a lot of action last fall.  But as you mentioned, they only have 1 game started between them. And that was kind of a fluke – Hull technically started the Texas Bowl, but that was because Trulon broke a team rule.

OK, as I think about this some more, I’m starting to get more and more concerned.  If Michigan State is going into the season with two brand new players at safety, I see it as a weakness.  If I see that Arizona State has a redshirt sophomore with 1 game starting experience and a medical-redshirt junior with zero games started, I’m licking my chops.

The corners will be solid, and I think Trulon will excel at Sam.  But if I’m honest, safety is a scary unknown.

Haven’t heard much on Anthony Williams. I was excited about his size and he was getting some hype in the spring IIRC, but haven’t heard anything in camp. How does he look?

I mentioned it earlier and I’ll say it again – after watching practice last night and this morning, I’m thinking there’s a gap developing between our 4th and 5th receivers.  The top four are clearly Jenkins, Millines, Lankford, and Harris.  And then there are literally 8 guys in contention for that 5th spot.  Seriously – eight guys with a punchers chance at being our 5th receiver: Clear, Willliams, Sykes, Kumerow, Frysinger, Rock, Knight, and Whitlow once he comes back.  Maybe 9 – walk-on Peter Bonahoom seems to get in the rotation a lot.

As for Williams, I’ve seen him do some nice things.  And he has the look of a Walter Young-ish receiver – tall, big hands, long arms.  But beyond those top 4, nobody is sticking out just yet.  At least not to me.

DT is the biggest position concern by a long shot. What will the rotation look like? What does each player do well? What is the strategy to have depth next year?

I think the rotation is pretty simple.  Lots and lots and lots of Akeem Spence.  And then a little more Akeem Spence.  Craig Wilson starts at the nose, but I think he rotates out in nickel and dime packages.  Third guy right now is probably Wisdom Onyegbule, who, according to Bob Asmussen, received a scholarship for this his final season.  Wisdom played a decent amount last year – he recovered a fumble in the SIU game and made a few plays in the Texas Bowl.  So I think he can be serviceable as a backup.

After that, it’s the redshirt freshmen, Teitsma and Howe.  And with that I go back to the “other Big Ten teams” test.  If Iowa’s primary backups at defensive tackle were two redshirt freshmen, I’d feel really good about wearing them down with the run game.  So if our guys are still learning on the job, you have to say that we might wear down against a run-heavy team.

The other guy working at DT (besides a few freshman walk-ons) is freshman Chris O’Connor.  He was listed as a DE on recruiting sites, but he’s been working with the DT’s all week.  I’m pretty sure he redshirts and bulks up, but there’s a chance we would play him this year for experience because he’ll have to be in the rotation next fall after Wilson and Onyegbule leave.

Wow, this one is ending on a downer.  I need to post this and start another one so I can talk about some good things.

Wednesday Mailbag (Part II)

Considering our Zook era punt return woes, is there any reason to see improvement this season?

I figured I’d look up the statistics first.  Here’s where Illinois has ranked nationally in punt return yardage in Ron Zook’s 6 seasons (national ranking out of 120 teams):

2005: 112th
2006: 111th
2007: 88th
2008: 94th
2009: 114th
2010: 117th

Yikes.

Is there reason to see improvement this season? Well, there’s only 3 spots below 117th, so….

In all seriousness, all hope lies with the Black Cat. If there’s a player that can make something of our punt return unit, it’s Hawthorne. He’s such an electric athlete that if we can give him some room, he can make something happen.

Question is… can we give him any room?  When was the last time anyone remembers an Illini player catching a punt with room to make something happen?  I seriously can’t even picture a non fair-catch punt return last year.  I mostly remember repeating “just catch it” under my breath.

So I guess my answer is no.  Unless a healthy Hawthorne is a game changer.

I’d love your take on the TE situation. Are Wilson, Lattimore and Viliunas as the top 3 on the depth chart? How do Lacosse and Davis fit in? Will Becker get on the field in that spot like the plan was a couple years ago? Will they get the ball? Redshirts?

It’s hard to tell right now with Wilson and Davis nicked up.  Both players had minor injuries in Sunday’s scrimmage, so neither player has participated in anything this week.

This has led to a lot – A LOT – of Matt LaCosse running with the first string.  It reminds me of Camp Rantoul last year where Evan Wilson was always getting the ball.  They’ll rotate 15 receivers, including most of the walk-ons, when they’re going through 11 on 11 drills.  But I swear for the last two days, Matt LaCosse is getting 75% of the tight end snaps.

LaCosse is a very athletic kid, but he learned how to block 9 days ago.  How much he plays depends on how quickly he learns to block (same goes for the freshmen tailbacks too).  Because of that, here’s how I see it.

When we go with our standard offense, it’s Evan Wilson at tight end and either Viliunas or Becker at the second, blocking, h-back position. When we want to throw in a few different looks, we’ll put LaCosse at TE or Davis at h-back and get a little crazy.

How does Hull look? It sounds like he is always hurt and playing on a bum ankle. Will we have any real FS?

I’m a big fan.  I feel better about the safety position simply from watching Steve Hull read formations in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills the last two days.  He seems to always be in position.

I think that when all the dust settles and the Arkansas State game arrives, we’ll start Steve Hull and Supo Sanni at safety, with PNY being the third guy off the bench and Jack Ramsey the fourth.  Those backups aren’t nickel safeties, mind you – when we go to the nickel, Tavon Wilson slides over and takes that spot.  But I really think it’s Hull and Sanni with PNY third.

Seems like people feel pretty good about our LB depth. It is probably too late now, but given the confidence in that position, and the issues at safety, did moving Trulon really make sense? Or are none of those backup LB’s viable options for the Bussey spot?

Correct – none of the backup linebackers are viable options.  I know it gets confusing because it carries the word “linebacker” in the title – that’s the reason I’m in full support of calling the position “stinger” – but the Sam Linebacker in this defense doesn’t even practice with the linebackers.  Vic Koenning coaches the linebackers – Ron West coaches the “hybrid” players: Bandit and SLB.

We couldn’t take Houston Bates and just move him over to Sam.  It’s a different set of responsibilities with a different skill set required.  It would be similar to moving AJ Jenkins to tight end because all guys who catch passes should be able to play all pass-catching positions – the two positions aren’t really similar.

So yes – in my opinion, moving Trulon made perfect sense to me.  And I’m not saying that just because I was begging for it to happen last January.  Ashante is out, Earnest Thomas probably isn’t ready, and Trulon has a skill set very similar to Nate Bussey.  I like the move, and I think Trulon can thrive there once he starts to feel comfortable.

What was your reaction when you saw Akeem Spence limping off the field on Tuesday?

Wednesday Mailbag (Part I)

*flexes fingers outward like a classical pianist*

First off, thanks for all the questions.  Keep ‘em coming – there’s more stuff I can look for at tonight’s practice.  I have 6 hours and 33 minutes before I have to leave for tonight’s practice.  I figure I can answer at least 40 questions by then.  Let’s do this.

Who is #1 on your list of freshman we probably won’t see on the field this year, but you think will be really good eventually? O’Toole doesn’t count.

Great question.  I was fully prepared to come to camp and answer this and every other “future freshman stars” question with “Jeremy Whitlow”.  But then I got to the scrimmage at the high school and one of the very first things I see is Whitlow on crutches.  He’s back in uniform now, with his ankle taped, but he’s not participating in scrimmages and full-offense drills yet.

I’ll also eliminate the freshmen that I expect to play this year.  At this point, I think Donovonn Young, Josh Ferguson, Jon Davis, Matt LaCosse, Ralph Cooper, Henry Dickinson, Jordan Frysinger, and Justin DuVernois will all play as true freshmen.

So that leaves me with two clear candidates, I think.  And they’re both cornerbacks: Eaton Spence and Valdon Cooper.  Both look pretty athletic to me.  Spence is probably the better tackler, while Cooper is the most athletic.  Twist my arm and I’ll pick…

Valdon Cooper.

Have any of the RS-FR or RS-SO been making an impression? Guys that are maybe not in the two deep right now, that look like maybe they could challenge for a spot in the 2 deep this year or next season?

The first guy that pops into my head when I read this is rs-FR offensive guard Alex Hill.  Tyler Sands is probably the guard back-up at this point – if Cornell or Thornton needs a breather, Sands is probably the guy.  But Alex Hill is right on his heels.  The biggest edge that Sands has is that this is his 4th year in the program while this is Hill’s second.  I think Sands/Hill will be quite the battle next summer to replace Jack Cornell.  In 2013 and 2014, Hill is definitely one of our starters.

Redshirt sophomores, I’ll say Tim Kynard.  He’s the third string defensive end at this point, but he’s made some plays rushing the QB that lead me to believe he might find the rotation this year.  We’ll need a starting DE in 2013 after Mercilus and Foster graduate – maybe TK is the guy.

Who is the number two kicker?

45 minutes ago I would have said Matt Eller.  But according to some post-practice tweets I saw, it looks like Matt Eller is leaving the program.  I’m guessing he wants to do what Mike Cklamovski did – transfer somewhere and be the kicker for his final season.

So now it’s completely up in the air.  They can only bring 105 players to camp, so they left several kickers off the Camp Rantoul roster (guys like Nick Immekus).  Doesn’t mean they’re far down the depth chart – it probably just means they wanted to get a look at other kids in camp.

So it looks like DuVernois will be the punter (with backup options like redshirt freshman Brad Janitz and true freshman Garrett Stroup).  And for backup kicker, there’s several names I can think of off the top of my head.  Freshman Taylor Zalewski is here in camp switching off between kicker and punter.  All I can tell you about him is that his performance in one of the kicking drills yesterday was very shank-y.  Other guys would include redshirt freshmen like Immekus and Patrick Dunn, and true freshman Brendan VanMiegham.

In other words, the kicker battle is WIDE open next summer.

Pound for pound, who’s the toughest dude?

Jay Prosch. Followed closely by no-one.

Now, if we’re talking insanely maniacal linebacker who wants to destroy you, Jonathan Brown enters the picture. But in the “pound for pound toughness” category, it’s Jay Prosch.

Who is working out best as DT backups? Will Illini be able to make through the year without major problems due to depth issues at DT?

The third guy is clearly newly-scholarship’d senior Wisdom Onyegbule.  In fact, with Akeem Spence sitting out contact this morning (he was there in pads, ankle taped – just not participating in contact as a precaution), Big Wiz was running with the first string.

Does it reveal depth issues when you’re third guy is a former walkon who has only appeared in 6 games?  Yes.  But that’s what happens when your 3 defensive tackle recruits don’t make it to Camp Rantoul.  And you’re all-world defensive tackle declares for the NFL draft as a junior.  And guys like Reggie Ellis and Ugo Uzodinma transfer to New Mexico.  And the other options are redshirt freshmen still trying to put on weight and muscle.

Is DT depth a concern?  You bet your Melvin Alaeze it is.

At the end of last season, I would have told you that our weak links this year would have been our linebackers (defense) and running backs (offense). From what I have read about Jonathon Brown, Ford, and some of the freshman running backs this might not be the case. What’s your take?

My take is I agree with your take.  Coming into camp, I thought the same thing – depth will be a concern at the three positions where we lost guys to the NFL – linebacker, running back, and defensive tackle.  I just covered defensive tackle, but after watching 5 or so practices, I think the other two positions might be the deepest on their respective side of the ball (please note I said “deepest” and not “most experienced”).

Mike and Will linebacker might just go 6 deep – Brown, Bates, and Dickinson at Will and Thomas, Denmark, and Cooper at the Mike.  I really do think we’ll try different packages with different guys and all 6 will play.

At tailback, you can’t help but feel good about the freshmen.  In fact, as much as I raved about Donovonn Young and his balance on Sunday, for the last three days, I haven’t been able to get my eyes off Josh Ferguson.  This kid is quick, people.  Just so very dart-y.

But I want to emphasize again – depth, not experience.  Josh Ferguson can be the quickest man on the planet, but if he runs poor routes, doesn’t protect the ball, and can’t pick up a blitz, he’ll struggle to find the field.  Which is why the starters at these positions (Brown and Thomas at linebacker, Ford at tailback), will get the majority of the minutes.

That was a good first round.  I think I’ll answer five or six questions, hit post, and then answer more.  Maybe I can get to 8 posts before I have to leave for the evening practice…

Offseason Mailbag

Ah, the offseason. A time to recharge the blog batteries. Two months from today, I’ll be knee-deep in trying to figure out if Tavon Wilson is the 8th or 7th most important Illini player for 2011. But for now, I can sit back and enjoy the lazy days of summer.  And see how many days I can go without posting and still not feel guilty.

While there will be big news this summer when a new Athletic Director is named, the Big Two sports will be fairly quiet. With Clint Tucker not qualifying, we know one of the two players in our class of 27 that won’t make it to campus. So the next month will give us the other name (you can’t bring in more than 25 freshmen), but that’s about it.

Illini basketball only has 1 scholarship available for 2012, so recruiting will be a bit boring this summer as well. We’ll begin to get more and more serious about the 2013 kids, but as far as recruiting summers go, this one will be fairly quiet.

So what should we talk about? That’s why I asked you. Here’s three of your questions:

Look into your crystal ball and tell me where Paul Petrino is coaching in the fall of 2012. If the offense goes on to break more records this year, isn’t he going to be a head coach candidate somewhere else? What about making him a coach-in-waiting and have Zook gracefully phase himself out? Wouldn’t Illinois be an attractive head coaching job for Petrino if Tressel is gone, and Michigan continues to rebuild, and Paterno finally retires, etc.? ~Daniel

I fear he’s gone after this season, especially if this offense is successful.  But there are two things that give me hope.

1) He’s the third highest paid assistant in the Big Ten.  He was first last year, until Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst got a raise and Michigan paid their new defensive coordinator $18 million per year (approximation).  But I believe Petrino still makes more money than every Sun Belt head coach and nearly every MAC head coach.  So would he leave for a mid-major head coaching job that paid less than Illinois?  Maybe.  Maybe he wants a shot at being a head coach. Or maybe…

2) He might not want to be a head coach just yet.  My Arkansas coworker tells me that Paul and Bobby Petrino worked well together because Bobby was the face and Paul was the brains.  Bobby glad-handed the boosters and spoke at the alumni events and held the press conferences – Paul stayed in his office and designed plays.  Zook is certainly a face guy, and I think it’s a good mix with Koenning and Petrino. I think  it’s possible that Petrino isn’t interested in that sometimes annoying side of being a head coach.  Yes, he might have come to Illinois to get out from under his brother’s shadow and build a reputation to the point where he could get a head coaching job.  Or he might have come to Illinois because we paid so well.

Not sure if you’re still taking mailbag questions, but what do you think of Brandon Clear transferring from Clemson to Illinois for one year? ~Mark

To get this answer, I enlisted the help of Clemson fans.  I went to a Clemson football message board and asked – what should we expect to get from Brandon Clear?  Here’s some responses:

He’s going to be your guy if you love high character guys who are slow and can’t catch even the most well thrown ball. Great kid, terrible football player. He’s going to be really good at something, but this isn’t it.

Come on, Clemson fans. Tell me how you really feel about him.

I’m sorry and I hate to say this about a Clemson alum, but he is one of the worst football players I have ever seen. He is slow, not strong, god awful hands, not a great football IQ. His career Net yards may be close to zero if you count all of his holding penalties.

Our receiving corp was Extremely weak last year and he couldn’t even crack the lineup.

On the plus side, I had a few classes with him and he is a nice guy, he will be a good role model for younger receivers.

Don’t hold back now. Let it all out.

He only had 7 more catches than I did the last 4 years, and I was drunk every game.

Clemson football fans, everyone!

My thoughts. Can’t hurt. Clear is in the same situation as Sam Maniscalco. One year of eligibility left, finished with school, transfer for one year and play immediately because of the grad school waiver. We’ll still use his scholarship for the 2012 class – he just takes up a receiver spot for one year. So if we have a scholarship available (we do), this is a can’t-lose situation. If he’s as bad as the Clemson fans suggest, it was just a one-year gamble that didn’t work out. If he blossoms under a new coach and scheme and passing game, we win. Can’t hurt.

Which 2011 easily winnable game that we have absolutely no chance of losing will the Zooker find a way to mismanage the clock into losing? Which 2011 game that we think we have no chance of winning will we actually win? ~Dave

I had to think for a second. What was the bad loss in 2010? Took me a second to remember the Minnesota game (no idea why – it was so painful). The unexpected win was easy (at Penn State), but the bad loss was more difficult, for some reason.

Looking over next year’s schedule, two games jump out.

Infuriating loss: Western Michigan.

If we beat Arizona State and start 3-0, I’ll be absolutely, 100% convinced that we’re losing the Western Michigan the next week. First, it’s Western Michigan. Second, that week will be filled with “will Illinois start 6-0?” articles, so we all know what’s coming. Third, go back and read the first.

Shocking win: Wisconsin

Can’t you just see it?  We have 5 wins and are ready to go bowling, but then we lose at Penn State and at home against Michigan in a heartbreaker.  Suddenly, 5-3 is 5-5 and we start wondering if the Western Michigan loss will be the game that prevents us from making a bowl for the second time in 4 years.

And then we’ll beat Wisconsin by 17.