Mailbageddon

Sometimes I type things and immediately have an internal conversation with myself. “Mailbageddon? Really? Does this end with William Fitchner talking to my son and saying ‘Requesting permission to shake the hand of the son of the greatest blogger I know’?”

See, and there it is again.  I constantly have these “WHY ARE YOU TYPING THIS?” conversations with myself.  But I always leave it.  I have this belief that the moment I start deleting things, I’ll lose the ability to ever be funny again.  So there it is.  Please know that when you read something tremendously unfunny here, I’m doing it to clear room for the one joke that lands.  You’re welcome.

To the mailbag.  First, my apologies.  I asked for questions 13 days ago, and I’m just now getting to the rest of them.  I’ve decided that instead of doing Mailbag 5 and 6 and 7 and such, I’ll just get to the rest of the questions in one giant post. I’m not really sure why. I had part of this post completed several days ago, and could have posted #5 and #6, but the idea of a 4,000 word Mailbageddon was too enticing. Since this is the final Camp Rantoul post, I wanted it to be EPIC. And now I’m posting it 10 days after Camp Rantoul ended. I’ll never learn.

Isn’t Pocic our best offensive lineman going into this season? If so, why move him to guard, the least important place on the line?
~H

I’ll challenge you on two points there; both that Pocic is our best offensive lineman and the guard is the least important.  Feisty mailbag Robert is feisty.

I’d say it’s between Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton for “best offensive lineman going into the season”.  In Rantoul, my vote would have gone to Hugh Thornton. But that’s probably a bit unfair because they were never in a full-out, full-pads scrimmage.  I was mostly watching blocking during 11 on 11 drills.  And in all drills, Hugh Thornton was a monster.

As for the position changes, I’m all for it.  What we were trying at the end of last season wasn’t working.  The lines this spring were kind of a mess.  So our staff got creative, said that they needed to find a way to get guys like Feldmeyer and Hill in there, and came up with this solution.  With a new staff, and with a new offensive scheme, and especially with an offensive line that really needs an identity, I’m all for moving guys around.  This isn’t the NFL where you have to have a certain size/frame to play left tackle.  In the spread offense, you can spread your O-linemen around.

What were your impressions of the coaching staff collectively during Rantoul? Do they seem to gel? Anything amusing that stands out to you?
~Jordan

The biggest difference to me – the assistants joking with and busting on each other.  It carries over to Twitter, too…

That’s the biggest difference I see between this staff and Zook’s assistant coaches. Maybe it’s just that they’re all new, and it’s like Forbes Hall 2-South in late August of 1991 compared to Forbes Hall 2-South in March of 1992 when we were all cliqued-up. But these guys seem to be having a blast coaching together.

And it’s possible that’s intentional. Beckman will often have his coaches or grad assistants go through a drill (like maybe Coach Clink covering Coach Gonzales in a route-running drill). If Clink breaks up the pass, the defense will go INSANE. The practices are structured and disciplined, but they’re having fun out there.

Who is coaching the receivers and is there hope the offense will be improved over 2011?
~Rick

Billy Gonzales is the receivers coach.  He coached receivers for Urban Meyer at Bowling Green (when Beckman was on the staff), at Utah, and at Florida, and then he left Florida for LSU where he was the passing game coordinator.  So the passing game is his thing.  Specifically, passing within a spread offense.

If you could get him to honestly answer the question, I think he’d say that he doesn’t have the receivers he needs to run the offense the way he wants it run.  At least not yet.  Darius Millines looks the part (if he can stay healthy), and Ryan Lankford is much improved as a route runner (over what I saw last year in Rantoul), but I still think he needs a new crop of 5 or 6 receivers that he can mold into the passing game he wants to run.

Will the offense be improved?  Yes.  It has to be.  We averaged 259 yards and 11 points over our final seven games last year, which I believe was second worst in the nation over that time period.  So unless we’re shooting for worst in the nation, yes, this offense will improve over what we saw at the end of the year.  Can we put up 30 points per game?  Doubtful.  Too many question marks.  And the roster lends itself to “don’t make too many mistakes on offense and let the defense win you games”.

How does the punting game (both kicking and returning) look this year? Have you seen any drills? How do the punters and the return teams look?
~John

My guess on the kicking game:

+ Nick Immekus will be the placekicker.  The last two days I was there they put him through seven pressure kicks.  He made all seven.  I was a Zalewski guy before camp and an Immekus guy after camp.

+ Taylor Zalweski will kick off.  He still has a great leg (which is why he was My Guy in the kicker battle), but I noticed that the trajectory on most of his kicks was pretty low.  This is great for kicking off, especially if you can boom it like Bubba Watson hitting a driver.  But if your placekicking has the same trajectory, you’re gonna get some blocked.

+ Oh, why not: Ryan Frain wins the punting job.  I have very little to go on besides a few boomers I saw him send skyward.  But I did see DuVernois struggle several times with flat-out shanks during punt return drills.  Frain has a huge leg, and I think he can win the job as a true freshman (and maybe contend for the kickoff job, too).

For the return teams, I didn’t see one return drill.  Which was AWESOME.  All Zook did was line up 11 guys here and 11 guys there and “practice” kickoffs.  Tim Salem, at least for the week in Rantoul, only worked on the specifics of each special team.  How to shed a block.  How to protect the punter.  How to beat a jammer if you’re a gunner.  How to avoid a block on kick coverage.  This, of course, had me dancing.  Actual, legitimate, special teams skill work.

Regarding the O line, I find your comments about these guys bulking up to 300 over a couple years very interesting. On the FightingIllini.com website, I went back and looked at the rosters from when I was in school (fall 1971 to 1975) to check out the sizes of the guys then. Larry McCarren, all Big 10 center and starter for the Packers, lived across the hall from me in Newman Hall my freshman year. He was listed as 6-3, 237. Gerry Sullivan (played for Cleveland a long time), John Gann, Mason Minnes also lived in my dorm and were under 240. John Levanti, starting guard for 3 years was 6-2, 225. Stu Levenick was in my class (and in one of my classes) and was 6-3, 247 or so. He was good enough to be drafted by the Colts but never made the team. Bob Standring was another guy in my dorm. He was starting Rover (weak side linebacker) at 6-1, 190. All those guys were bigger than most people but didn’t seem all that big and certainly not obese. It’s amazing (and kind of scary) to see how much bigger the players have become, especially the linemen.
~Michael

I love questions like this. I love Illini football names I’ve never heard before. Stu Levenick is a fantastic 1970′s offensive lineman name. I want to hang out with his mustache. I just know he had a mustache.

Yes, O-linemen have certainly grown over the years.  I was listening to The Solid Verbal podcast with Luke Zimmerman talking about Ohio State’s offensive line, and he was discussing a true freshman tackle (Taylor Decker) who might be able to play right away.  And he kind of just casually mentioned that Decker was 6′-8″ and 325 pounds.  College freshman.  Presumably 18 years old.  6′-8″, 325.  What’s next?  Take Mike Tisdale, put him on an 8,000 calorie diet, and plug him in at right tackle as a 7′-0″, 410 pound superbeast? (Wait, can we do that?)

But I don’t think you’ll see us reaching Wisconsin levels with our line.  They seem to get all of their starters up to 315 lbs or so – I think we’ll average considerably less than that.  Mostly because in this spread (or at least what I think this spread will be), mobility for the linemen will be more important than running someone over.  So hey, maybe Stu Levenick would have had a shot.

Strength coach – forgot the new guys name, but man, I would have loved for the Beck-man to keep sweet Lou. Any insights on that guy? Different, similar, are the guys taking to him? I thought Mendenhall and Leshore should have built him a shrine, he did a great job with both of them (not to take away from their personal efforts, of course).
~David

Big fan of how Aaron Hillman runs stretching.  Lots of interaction with the players.  For the morning practice, a “good morning, men” followed by a “good morning, coach” response.  Structured.  Intentional.  Interpretive.

He does have two negatives, though.  He came here from Michigan, where he was an assistant strength coach.  Strike one.  And he graduated from Missouri. Oof.  Strike two.  But if he can add weight to Pat Flavin and add speed to Jeremy Whitlow, I don’t care where he went to school.  Heck, he could have gone to Mizzou and come here from Michigan and I wouldn’t care.

What is your overall feeling for the offense? With reports from the Spring game and your reports of dropped passes, I have the feeling that the non-conference portion could be pretty rough. I’m bracing for the worst.
~Steve

I’d say bracing for the worst is accurate.  I watched the KFHB again the other day, and was reminded that our offense was a bit of a complete mess at the end of the season.  No rhythm, no flow, seemingly nobody on the same page.  Our third down conversion percentage, which I want to say was over 50% after our 6-0 start, fell to 42.3% by the end of the year (which would mean we were, what, 35% or so during our swoon?)

So with that, I’d say a scheme change would be great.  Mix things up, fit your personnel better, right? But a scheme change might also be awful.  We might look like Michigan in 2008, trying to figure out how a spread offense really works.

What gives me confidence?  Nathan Scheelhaase having started 26 games.  Sometimes, with that much experience, a quarterback can get into a groove that just builds week to week.  What was a tuck-and-run as a freshman is a stay in the pocket and hit the receiver in stride.  What was a poor decision in the read option last year becomes the right decision this fall.  As we switch schemes, we have to find a leader, and with no upperclassmen at tailback, it has to be Nathan.  He MUST take a big step forward.

Is Miles Osei our next “Eddie McGee”? He appears to be good athlete and have a great attitude like Eddie, but can’t seem to find a role.
~Brett

I’m not sure if “can’t seem to find a role” is fair just yet.  This is just his third year, and as you may know, I’m a “first two years are useless for 95% of all college football players” guy.  Give me true juniors and redshirt sophomores or give me death.  At some point, when I’m a trillionaire, I’m going to commission a study of all Division I college football programs and the on-field impact of sophomores, redshirt freshmen, and freshmen.  And I think the numbers will come out that 94.7% make no real impact until their third year in school.  OK, maybe that’s a bit high.  Let’s say 91.6%.

So for Osei, this is the year to start to make his mark.  He’s a great athlete (I originally thought we might move him to safety if QB didn’t work out), and I think he looks really solid in the run game.  But it will probably take a bit of time until he’s really comfortable out there.  This will be his first significant playing time, so it will take a bit before the game slows down.  My expectation: around the time of the Purdue game, he has a “6 catches for 77 yards, plus 3 rushes for 31 yards and a touchdown” performance that has everyone taking notice.

If Zook’s practices were ADHD, how would you characterize the vibe of a Beckman practice?
~Mike

OCD.

Tell me all about how good Terry Hawthorne will be this year after seeing him at Rantoul. Also, tell me all about how he is going to have a Woodson-like season in all three phases of the game: Offense, Defense, & Special Teams.
~Jordan

I wish I could, but 1) he didn’t practice with the offense one single time in Rantoul, 2) there have been no reports of him practicing with the offense since Rantoul, and 3) I’m guessing Tommy Davis was brought in as a one-year transfer from NIU specifically to return punts and kickoffs.  Definitely the biggest downer of fall camp so far (for me).

I still think we involve him in the offense – I don’t see how we couldn’t with the only non-freshmen being the three junior wide receivers.  We need someone with some on-field experience to grab that big third quarter touchdown.  Why Not Black Cat?

I smell a hashtag.

What’s your take away from seeing Beckman in action these last few days? How’s his energy during the practices? Has his “impressiveness” level been raised in your view, perhaps approaching that of Coach Groce? When the BTN cameras cut to him on the sideline this Fall, will he exude the confident demeanor of an in-control field general?
~Ryan

Man, any time one of these questions says “these last few days” I cringe and internally berate myself for not answering these questions sooner. But then I remember I left Rantoul, took my family to Colorado, caught up on a backlog at work, and tried to return to an actual sleeping regimen. And then I don’t feeeel so baaaad.

To your question, my main takeaway with Beckman is his Plan.  He has a very specific plan for building a successful Big Ten football program.  He says he’s been putting together this plan since he was a grad assistant at Auburn in the late 80′s.  He’s taken things he’s learned when he worked under Pat Dye and Urban Meyer and Jim Tressel and Mike Gundy, he beta-tested the Plan at Toledo the last three years, and now he’s ready for full product rollout.

What are some of the elements of this Plan?  For the players, it’s about discipline off the field and on.  If you go to class, you arrive 10 minutes early for everything you do, if you are accountable to your position coach, if you are invested in teaching the underclassmen what you’ve learned, (and probably a dozen other things), this will be a successful football team.

For the program, I think a lot of that is found in recruiting.  He’s added a Director of Player Personnel (Paul Nichols), an Assistant Director of Player Personnel (former Illini Mike Bellamy), and a grad assistant working under them (Chad Creamer).  That’s a three man team doing a job that really didn’t exist under Zook (at least not in that capacity).  Their job is to promote this program to every high school football coach within a 6 hour radius (and beyond), to get former Illini players (especially those in the NFL) involved in this program again, and to develop relationships all across the recruiting landscape that will build Illini Football.

And that’s just two pieces of his Plan.  It’s a binder full of stuff.

As for his demeanor on the sideline, well, TBD.  But I’d guess he’ll be organized about it in some way.

How do this year’s crop of freshman stack up to previous classes at the same point in time? Obviously it is extremely early and not necessarily an accurate portrayal of their long term prospects at Illinois. I believe that, according to Rivals, this is our lowest ranked class in years. I was curious of your initial impressions after a week of practice.
~Gregg

I’ve been to the last five Camp Rantouls, and this was easily the smallest number of early impact players I’ve seen.  That’s not to say it won’t be a good class after the players go through the skill development and strength training that this new staff will put them through.  But when you ask me to compare this to, say, Corey Liuget/Mikel Leshoure/Tavon Wilson, that class was three times further ahead.

There will be some early impact players – Dami Ayoola and V’Angelo Bentley come to mind, and the coaching staff seems to really like Justin Hardee at receiver – but for the most part, I think this class won’t make much of an impact until 2014.

With all the emphasis on WRs, I am more interested in whether we have a RB who looks as though he hasn’t been raiding the donut store and can actually run north and south. I know Ferguson has looked good so far but I doubt he has the physical tools to be a full time BT RB. What about Young? I have been skeptical about his ability to be The Guy. Does he look like he has progressed from last year and give Alyooa a redshirt year?
~Scott

What are your thoughts on this group of RB’s? Can we get production out of this spot?
~Tyler

What are chances we have a radically better running game with Ferguson back in the mix?
~Chris

Several questions about the tailbacks, so I’ll try to answer them all here.

First, remember the Missouri game in 2010 when they ran the fly sweep over and over and over?  De’Vion Moore or Kendial Lawrence or Henry Josey, Missouri’s stable of midget tailbacks, would line up in the slot, start in motion back towards the QB, and get the handoff after a timed shotgun snap gave Blaine Gabbert the ball just before the tailback crossed in front of him?  Remember that?  When you think of our future running game, I think you need to think of that.  It won’t be Mikel following Jay Prosch through a hole as a guard pulls for a kickout block – it will be Josh Ferguson motioning from the slot into the backfield and then taking a pitch on the fake TE shovel pass option play.

Both Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales tossed around the word “multiple” the past few weeks, which means we’ll do all kinds of things with our running game.  But as for “north and south” running like Mikel?  I think you’ll see very little of that.  Sure, we’ll run some power stuff with Donovonn.  But this won’t be the Petrino Pistol.  Nor will it be the Locksley spread.  Speed and shiftiness will be the key.

As far as the carries are concerned, I think Ferguson gets the bulk (just like Josey got the bulk of the carries for Missouri).  Smallest and fastest tailback gets the ball.

Question: Is Illinois going to an Oregon/Tiller type spread a bad move? Are they making things too hard on themselves? I mean this in two ways

1. What will the impact be on recruiting offense? Specifically, the Illinois recruiting pitch to me seemed to be gaining steam. Come to Illinois, develop, get drafted. RBs (Leshore, Rashard, Thomas), WR (Jenkins, Benn, Cumberland), OL (Allen, Asomah). It would seem this takes a step back. There will be players that will not consider the spread because they want to be groomed for the pros. tOSU, Oklahoma, etc can get away with this…but I am not sure Illinois can long term. Illinois needs to be Iowa, MSU, and Wisconsin for the preferred 3-star players, does the spread hurt in those recruitments?

2. Is this offense the way to gain sustained success in the big10? Again, tOSU and the like can do what they want. But the three schools who have level jumped recently are Iowa, Wisconsin, and MSU. All built with pro-style offenses and recruiting to match. Purdue (under Tiller) had success but could not sustain without long careered NFL QBs (Orton, Brees). NU cannot make the jump despite more than its fair share of good pub and improved recruiting.
~AJ

First off, let’s not call this a Tiller spread.  I don’t think we’ll use any “basketball on grass” concepts in this offense.  I think Chris Beatty said it best when he said it’s a “hybrid between recent West Virginia and Florida offenses”.  A spread’s spread.  To your two questions:

1. I don’t think the spread hurts recruiting.  At least not like it scared people 10 years ago.  Yes, there will be big tailbacks like Ty Issac at Joliet Catholic who won’t go to any school that doesn’t have a pro-set tailback spot for him.  But Ohio State is recruiting to a spread now.  And Missouri built their entire program once they switched to a spread and started recruiting speed from Texas.

Personally, I like the idea of a Wisconsin or MSU – build a solid defense and a run-heavy, ball-control offense and win Big Ten football games.  But that’s not where we’re headed.  We’re headed for a spread and we’re looking for specific athletes to fill those spots.  And that’s the key, at least to me.  We can recruit specific talent to our system.  Hey Aaron Bailey, want to come run our spread for four years? BOOM.  Hey Josh Augusta – want to play for an aggressive defense that features the DL? (Boom? Please?)

2. A fair point (and I agree with you).  But when I’ve made this argument with friends before (the “we should build a pro offense and play power, Big Ten football” argument), their response has always been “worked SO WELL for Tepper and Turner”.  I think their “been there, done that” point has merit.  We tried building that, and it didn’t work.  Zook was able to recruit spread athletes immediately, but he couldn’t maintain it.  I’m willing to put that on Zook the coach and say that Beckman can recruit speed to Champaign and build the program like is program building idol: Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State.

(Please to note that Robert is not saying we’ll build another Oklahoma State in Champaign.  I’m saying that if you want to know what program Beckman is using as a model for how to go from the bottom to the top by recruiting speed, it’s Oklahoma State.)

After seeing what you saw at the spring practices and at Camp Rantoul, and given the current talent on the team and commitments, how have your views towards what we need or don’t need out of the 2013 class changed? Are there positions that you think are stronger now than they were before Camp? Weaker? Do the additions of players like Nowicki and Klachko change things?
~Chintan

Yes, I think Nowicki and Klachko change a lot (and not just because they reduced our potential class from 23-25 players to 21-23 players.  I think offensive line is much less of a concern.  Klachko joins a deep group for the three inside spots (Hill, Karras, Spencer, Durkin, Boles, Bain), and Nowicki joins the three tackles in the 2013 class (Chadwell, Schmidt, and DiLauro) to shore up that position.  So I’d guess we’re done with offensive line (although we probably wouldn’t tell Dennis Finley no).

From what I saw at camp, I’d say wide receiver is now the biggest concern, with defensive end being the sleeper concern.  WR you probably already know about, but DE/Leo is a bigger issue than I realized.  At Leo, there’s Michael Buchanan backed up by Darrius Caldwell and a walkon.  So after this year, it’s Caldwell and???  And then at defensive end, it’s Justin Staples (senior), Tim Kynard (junior) and then, well, no idea.  Maybe redshirt freshman Kenny Nelson (who still needs to fill out his lanky frame)?  Or DeJazz Woods (who looks more like a DT to me).  I really think we need to pull in two defensive ends in this class, with at least one of them versitile enough to play the hybrid Leo spot.

I want to know your read on Beckman so far. He’s got a lot going on…music, stripes, t-shirts, dinner tables, awards, northwestern signs, purple jerseys, slogans, Beckman time, apparently lasagna dishes frozen in his basement ready for the season. But how is it coming together?? Is it needed?? I’m guessing an all out culture change is what he’s shooting for…but the x’s and o’s and focus on winning football games…is there the right balance?
~Chris

That’s the question, isn’t it?  I describe above how he has a Plan, and how everything you mentioned (stripes, awards, slogans, “Illini Time”) fits into this grand Plan.  I agree with most everything he’s done.  This idea he has for “Becks Balcony” – setting up a BBQ and tents during the game for students to use the patio outside his office (northeast corner of the stadium)? BRILLIANT.  I love it so very much.  We’ve done so very little to promote student involvement over the years besides WE MUST SELL MORE STUDENT TICKETS campaigns.  Football Saturdays should be a campus-wide event, and we’ve always treated it like a football game.  I love everything that Beckman is doing to try to involve the student body.

And recruiting – he’s really impressed me with his recruiting so far.  One of the best spread quarterbacks in the country plays his football in this state? Beckman landed him.  Ron Zook left the secondary cupboard completely bare?  Mosely Day Dawson Jones Kelly Cazley.  He’s added a Director of Player Personnel (with two assistants) to cultivate relationships with coaches and players within driving distance of Champaign, setting us up for future recruiting wins.  I really think he gets it, and he’s assembled a staff to help him get there.

But… can he coach?  Can he settle the team in a timeout with 1:44 to go and come up with the correct play call?  Will he make the right call on fourth down?  Will our players be disciplined and avoid penalties and turnovers?  Those are the questions, aren’t they?

Rantoul2012 XXXIV: Camp Superlatives

Somebody told me they don’t do Senior Superlatives in yearbooks anymore. Something about the kid getting voted Ugliest having his feelings hurt or something. This is a shame, because I’ve gotten more mileage out of being voted Most Talented then maybe any senior ever.

See, at most high schools, “Most Talented” went to an athlete. Somebody who went to state in Wrestling and then pitched the district baseball game. At my high school, for some reason, when the seniors voted, it usually went to the most musically talented. Who’s the big winner? Robert’s the big winner! Voice of the plant in Little Shop of Horrors, pep band drummer, high school basketball game PA guy and BAM – Most Talented in the yearbook.

So then, when seated around the Forbes-Hopkins-Garner cafeteria discussing Senior Superlatives, you could toss out “yeah, I was Most Talented” and suddenly everyone thinks you’re 34% more athletic. (Until, of course, they ask what sport you played, and you tell them “I qualified for the State tennis tournament as a junior but choked as a senior”, and they realize that your “talented” might mean something else.)

And if I can be completely honest here, I kind of bought some votes. I’d sit down at the piano in the commons area at high school and bang out Bryan Adams’ “Everything I Do I Do It For You” and just flat-out purchase the female vote. Thanks for the piano lessons I didn’t want, mom!

ANYWAY, I’ve decided this year to give out my Camp Rantoul Awards senior superlative style. And I supposed I could have just said that as my opening. But then you wouldn’t know that I was TOTALLY VOTED MOST TALNTED.

Most Likely To Succeed – Jonathan Brown

I love watching Jonathan Brown in 11 on 11 drills. A tailback will cut into the hole and there’s BadNewsBrown, just dying to blow him up. But there’s no hitting yet, so JB would just give him a hug and whisper something in his ear. Something like “I could have sent you backwards three full yards.”

Class Clown – Coach Salem

It will be impossible to explain. He’s just a little… crazy. I observed him taking the running backs through drills, and he’s just one big stream of consciousness. Sometimes, the players weren’t sure whether to laugh or snap to attention. I get the feeling that at the 10 year reunion for the 2012 Big Ten Leaders Division Champions Team (not really, but maybe), players will take turns doing Tim Salem impressions.

Best Eyes – Dami Ayoola

Vision. We’re talking vision, people. That’s the main reason Ayoola stuck out over Devin Church and LaKeith Walls in 11 on 11 drills at camp. He’d see the hole, but he’d also see the hole that was about to form and sharply cut to that spot. My Man Mikel had this same ability and it took him 18 full games before he realized how to use this gift, so I’m not expecting too much from Ayoola just yet. But you watch this kid see a hole and cut on a dime and you can’t help but get excited.

Biggest Tease – Nathan Scheelhaase

After the 2009 camp experience where Juice was hitting everyone in stride in every 7 on 7 and 11 on 11 drill and I left there proclaiming a NYD bowl and BTOPOTY for Juice, only to see him struggle against a heavy pass rush, I’ve revised my quarterback excitement when there’s no live rush. But there were times in Rantoul where Nate would hit receiver after receiver and I’d find myself wanting to take video of it so all Illini fans would see what he’s capable of. And then, right about at that point, he’d attempt a sideline throw off his back foot and you’d realize that the last half of 2011 might return again. But when he’s on and feeling it, he’s ON.

Most Talented – Terry Hawthorne

I saw Terry play Piano Man on the piano in the lobby of the Quarters Inn and I was just FLOORED at how talented his talent level was.

That was a joke. The non-funny kind.

Why I really picked Hawthorne: his overall athletic ability. He’s a crazy talented football player. One that I’m hoping goes out with a bang, because I really do think he can put together a crazy year like “scored a touchdown on an interception return, a punt return, a pass reception, and a handoff”. Release the Black Cat.

Best Dressed – Coach Beatty

What do you call those floppy hats that fishermen sometimes wear, where the brim goes all the way around? (I just Googled “floppy fishing hat”, and apparently some people call them “floppy fishing hats”.) That’s what Beatty wears at practice. And he makes it look GOOD. I wanted to go buy one and wear it to the last practice, but I would not make it look GOOD.

Best Looking – V’Angelo Bentley

I chatted with a friend about my camp thoughts, and he asked “so you really like Bentley, huh?” My response: “If he was 3″ taller, he would have been a high 4-star if not 5-star”. He still had solid offers – Iowa, Kansas, Pitt, etc. – but if he was taller, I think he would have been chased by everyone. He just looks the part of a Big Ten cornerback. A 5′-9″ Big Ten cornerback.

Next American Idol – Alex HIll

I’m still an Alex Hill guy. You might be a Teddy Karras guy, or a “Heitz and Pocic should be the guards” guy, but give me Hill. Especially because he can sing. He was a featured singer at JockJams two years ago, and then he was part of my favorite Illini Football moment in history. So I want three years as a starter out of Hill and then a recording contract.

Best Couple – Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young

It’s strange that both of them are underclassmen (with Ferguson still being a freshman after his medical redshirt). Two years from today I’ll be reviewing my Camp Rantoul awards and I’ll be talking about our tailback tandem of Ferguson and Young (and, if everything goes as planned, Ayoola too). But this offense will revolve around Ferguson and Young for the next three years. If they combine for big yardage in the opener, expect a “that was just the first of 40-some games” post on ALE.

Best Athlete – Jon Davis

He’s probably still one year away from fully understanding college football and this offense and the strength/conditioning required. And it will probably still be one more year before he’s fully prepared for the speed of the game (before he has his “everything slowed down” moment). But when that clicks, there’s no question he can be the focus of this offense. From any offensive position – tailback, h-back, tight end, wide receiver. It’s completely unfair to compare him to an NFL player, but here goes: he can be the Aaron Hernandez as Billy Gonzales tries to recreate Florida’s offense here.

Rantoul2012 XXXIII: Mailbag 4

As I’m going through these mailbag questions, I’m noticing that many of you asked similar questions. So if you don’t see yours answered, please know that I’ve set the following guidelines as I’m responding to the questions:

1. If you sent me multiple questions, I’ll try to answer at least one of them.
2. If you asked a similar question to someone else but they worded it in a way that made my answer easier, I probably chose theirs.
3. But seriously, thanks for all the questions. I’m kind of overwhelmed by so many people sending so many questions. Thanks, seriously.
4. When you ask five really good questions like this next guy, I might just answer them all.

1. Is Church working at RB at all, or is he just a slot receiver? Is he returning kicks at all? I really liked his film and was thrilled when he came on board. However, I have a hard time seeing him as receiver given how small he is. I can’t see him doing anything but catching swing passes and bubble screens, which of course would be obvious to the defense.

I read this email right before I got to practice on Thursday, so I was able to watch for a lot of these things. As for Church, I saw him going through drills with both the tailbacks and the receivers. Which makes for an even more overwhelming camp experience for a true freshman. Learn two playbooks, adjust to the speed of the college game, adjust to being away from home for the first time – there’s a reason 90% of college football freshmen make zero impact their first year.

As for him being a “receiver”, without seeing the offense, I’m not exactly sure how that works, but I think our slot receiver position will be way more tailback-y than receiver-y. My guess for the players who get the most reps there: Miles Osei, Devin Church, and Justin Green. Maybe even some Josh Ferguson moving out and getting creative from that spot.

2. How’s Karras doing? I was under the impression that he would be the favorite to be a starter this fall and haven’t heard anything. 2a. Is Boles in shape? I had high hopes for him too but haven’t heard anything.

Dinged up and dinged up. Boles wasn’t even in Rantoul. They can only bring 105 players, and because Boles was injured, he didn’t make the trip. Karras was there, but they limited his role a bit as he nursed an injury (or maybe it was an illness, but pretty sure it was an injury).

3. Is Hill working at center at all? He was listed as a center coming out of high school, he’s clearly got talent (I like him as much as you), and our current starting center is undersized and is apparently the weakest link among the starters. You would think Hill could push him aside.

In my view, Hill is way too mobile to be a center. I want him pulling all day every day. Get him out around the corner and let him blow somebody up. I generally want my tackles to destroy people with powerful arms, I want my guards to be mobile like Jon Asamoah, and I want my centers to be drain plugs.

I think Feldmeyer can be a solid drain plug. And I think Hill can eventually be a great guard once he gets in tip top shape. Both might take some time.

4. I saw that Feldmayer is currently listed at 295, which is plenty big of course. However, its a huge step up from the weights he’d been listed at previously. Is that a legit number? Is he really 20 or 30 pounds bigger than he was when you saw him last year in Rantoul?

It’s deceiving. You see him standing between Graham Pocic and Michael Heitz and you think he’s tiny. But when I stood next to him while interviewing him, he’s plenty big to play center in the Big Ten. Especially in a spread.

5. You’ve highlighted Teitsma as a good player. Who are your other two guesses for the “two pair and a spare” at DT along with Foster and Spence?

Spence and Foster are the obvious starters. Teitsma backs up Foster, and Jake Howe backs up Spence. Both are ready to fully get their feet wet before starting next year. As for the spare, I think one of Teko Powell and Vontrell Willams redshirts and the other is our spare. Twist my arm and I’ll say… Powell is the spare.

OK, a few more for today…

Haven’t heard much on Hayden Daniels since he got on campus – there was talk of a greyshirt and he ended up redshirting last year. He’s a big body at receiver, was an athletic spread option QB in high school and comes from a family where all four siblings have played college athletics. Any chance he gets minutes later in his career? Could he bulk up and play TE like his QB-turned-NFL TE brother Owen?
~Fitz

Pat, is that you? Wait – the question didn’t revolve around all the things he’s done right. Wrong Fitz.

Hayden Daniels was in a green no-contact jersey all week, so he didn’t play much. Not sure what the injury was that kept him out, but he was no-contact the whole time I was there.

It’s interesting that you asked the TE question, because I was thinking the same thing. He’s pretty tall with broad shoulders, and his brother plays tight end in the NFL, so it’s only natural to think he could bulk up and move there (worked for Eddie Viliunas). But I just haven’t seen enough from him to get a read on whether he could do it.

Once healthy, he should have the opportunity, though. We’re down to seven scholarship receivers, and he’s one of them.

I know it is very early in camp, but what role do you see Tommy Davis in? Do you think he could be our primary punt and kick-off return man?
~Ron

I didn’t see one punt return in Rantoul. They hadn’t gotten to that yet. They worked on the fundamentals of catching the ball, and playing the wind, but they didn’t run any full-on punt return drills. So all I know about Davis is what you know – he was the two-time first-team KR in the MAC. Which means he’ll more than likely be our returner.

As for playing much safety, I’m just not sure. I think the top-4 are clearly Supo Sanni, STEVEHULL, Earnest Thomas, and Patrick Nixon-Youman. The fifth safety is probably a tossup between my guy walkon Ben Mathis, Tommy Davis, and maybe freshman safety Taylor Barton who stuck out to me in Rantoul. So to answer your question, I think Tommy Davis was brought in to return punts first, return kickoffs second, and play safety fourth.

Rantoul2012 XXXII: Post-Camp Three Deep

Now that Camp Rantoul has come to a close and Camp Hawthorn has begun (no, not Black Cat – the team is staying at the Hawthorn Suites for a week as camp moves back to campus), I’d say it’s time to look at an updated three-deep. These aren’t official depth charts released by the coaching staff or anything – just my feelings on how the depth chart will shake out come September 1st.

Offensive line is probably the hardest here. They’ve tried Michael Heitz and guard and tackle, tried Alex Hill and Teddy Karras with the first string, etc etc. I’m also splitting my tailbacks and my tight ends like I did last time – each will have a slightly different role, so I’m going with a power category and a speed category:

QB: Nathan Scheelhaase (JR) / Reilly O’Toole (SO) / Miles Osei (JR)
Scat-RB: Josh Ferguson (rs-FR) / Miles Osei (JR) / Devin Church (FR)
Power-RB: Donovonn Young (SO) / Dami Ayoola (FR) / LaKeith Walls (FR)
Split-TE: Jon Davis (SO) / Matt LaCosse (SO) / Tim Russell (JR walkon)
Power-TE: Evan Wilson (JR) / Eddie Viliunas (SR) / Justin Lattimore (JR)
LT: Hugh Thornton (SR) / Scott McDowell (rs-FR) /  Ryan Nowicki (rs-FR)
LG: Graham Pocic (SR) / Alex Hill (rs-SO) / Robbie Bain (FR)
C: Jake Feldmeyer (JR) / Tony Durkin (rs-FR) / Joseph Spencer (FR)
RG: Michael Heitz (rs-SO) / Teddy Karras (rs-FR) / Chris Boles (rs-FR)
RT: Simon Cvijanovic (rs-SO) / Pat Flavin (rs-FR) / Shawn Afryl (rs-SO)
WR1: Darius Millines (JR) / Jeremy Whitlow (rs-FR) / Peter Bonahoom (rs-FR walkon)
WR2: Spencer Harris (JR) / Fritz Rock (rs-SO) / Tim Lukas (JR walkon)
WR3: Ryan Lankford (JR) / Kenny Knight (rs-FR) / Justin Hardee (FR)

Leo: Michael Buchanan (SR) / Darrius Caldwell (rs-FR) / John Valentine (rs-FR walkon)
DT: Glenn Foster (SR) / Austin Teitsma (rs-SO) / Teko Powell (FR)
NG: Akeem Spence (JR) / Jake Howe (rs-SO) / Vontrell Williams (FR)
DE: Justin Staples (SR) / Tim Kynard (JR) / Kenny Nelson (rs-FR)
WLB: Houston Bates (rs-SO) / Ralph Cooper (SO) / Zeph Grimes (rs-FR)
MLB: Jonathan Brown (JR) / Henry Dickinson (SO) / Mason Monheim (FR)
Star: Ashante Williams (SR) / TaJarvis Fuller (FR) / BJ Bello (FR)
CB: Terry Hawthorne (SR) / Eaton Spence (rs-FR) / Jevaris Little (FR)
SS: Steve Hull (JR) / Earnest Thomas (rs-SO) / Ben Mathis (JR walkon)
FS: Supo Sanni (SR) / Patrick Nixon-Youman (SR) / Tommy Davis (SR)
CB: Justin Green (SR) / Jack Ramsey (SR) / V’Angelo Bentley (FR)

K: Nick Immekus (rs-SO) / Taylor Zalewski (rs-FR) / Brennen Van Mieghem (rs-FR)
P: Justin DuVernois (SO) / Ryan Frain (FR) / Garrett Stroup (rs-FR)

A few notes:

+ I think STEVEHULL will start if healthy, but he’s been out since the spring with this shoulder injury, and played only sparingly when I saw him in Rantoul.  There’s a good chance Earnest Thomas is our starting strong safety against Western Michigan.

+ Same goes for Justin Staples and Tim Kynard.  I think that position deserves the dreaded “OR”.  Kynard in obvious run situations, Staples as a pass-rush specialist.

+ I went with a Thornton-Pocic-Feldmeyer-Heitz-Cvijanovic line, but I still like Alex Hill to make some noise (Teddy Karras, too).

+ Freshmen that I have on the third string that might make a move to the second string before too long: V’Angelo Bentley, Zeph Grimes, Joseph Spencer, and Justin Hardee.

+ I’m switching to Nick Immekus as the starting kicker after what I saw in Champaign.  I’ll go with Zalewski as the kickoff guy and Immekus as the placekicker.  I’ll also say that Ryan Frain pushes Justin DuVernois for the punting job.

+ If Akeem Spence and Jonathan Brown entertain the NFL after the season, this defense loses nine starters.  Nine.  Only Houston Bates and STEVEHULL would return.  Ouch, 2013.

Rantoul2012 XXXI: Mailbag 3

Who has been used at KOR and PR? Who is the holder for kicks?
~Doug

Watched for this on Thursday. In fact, I shamed myself for not watching to see who the holders were the first three days.  How could I forget to watch for holders?

KOR and PR – every non-lineman.  Seriously.  Every single one.  All I saw them work on in Rantoul was proper form for catching a punt or kickoff, and they worked on this with every tailback, linebacker, safety, wide receiver – everyone.  Maybe they’re saving specific punt return drills for closed practices.  Maybe they simply have an open competition and everyone has a shot at the job.  All I know is, there was never a “Terry and Tommy – you go over there and work on punt returns”.

Who do I think will handle it?  Total guess, but I’d say it’s between Ryan Lankford, Terry Hawthrone, and NIU transfer Tommy Davis for punt return.  Wildcard: Miles Osei.  For kickoff return, I’d guess some of the freshmen tailbacks get a look (Devin Church, LaKeith Walls), as well as some receivers (Lankford, Darius Millines).  Josh Ferguson, too, plus some secondary guys like Hawthorne, Davis, and Justin Green.  Wildcard: Miles Osei.

Holder? Looks like two guys.  Tim Russell and, you guessed it, Miles Osei.  My guess is Osei wins the job.  Maybe all of them.

I am intrigued by T J Neal. Will he play a role at all this year. I understand his back up role at linebacker, but is special teams in the mix, or is this a wait and see year?
~Jeremy

I have to be honest – I didn’t see much from Neal in Rantoul.  The majority of time I noticed him, Mike Ward was teaching him something in breakout drills (positioning stuff).  I can’t remember him in any 7 on 7 or 11 on 11 drills.  Maybe he was nicked up and they held him out of contact?  Not sure.

I DID notice both Mike Svetina and Mason Monheim.  Monheim was running with the twos one day (Bates-Brown-Williams first string, Monheim-Dickinson-Fuller second string).  Does any of this mean much?  No.  It’s the first week of fall camp.  I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Neal is ahead of both Svetina and Monheim next week.

But from what I saw from the freshmen linebackers, I’d say Monheim was in front with Svetina being kind of eye opening for a lower ranked kid.

If you were the OC, what WR/TEs would be in rotation?
~Phill

*sits forward in chair*  Me?  You mean, I’M the offensive coordinator?? I’m glad you asked.  Here we go.

I’d make the following “touches” list, and then I’d gameplan around these 10 guys getting touches in this order:

1. Darrius Millines
2. Jon Davis
3. Justin Green
4. Terry Hawthorne
5. Matt LaCosse
6. Ryan Lankford
7. Spencer Harris
8. Evan Wilson
9. Peter Bonahoom
10. Devin Church

Why? So glad you asked.

Millines because he can be junior year AJ (if he stays healthy). Davis because he’s the best overall athlete on the offense (size and strength without losing speed or agility). Green because I wanted everyone to react with YOU PUT GREEN IN FRONT OF HAWTHORNE? Hawthorne because he was born to play football. LaCosse because he can be the Iowa tight end we’ve all hated over the years. Lankford because he and Nathan have that McCoy/Shipley friendship that sometimes translates to a full understanding of each other on the football field. Harris because I still want you all to see him go up and highpoint a pass in the endzone. Wilson because we need a tall target. Bonahoom because we need a possession receiver who won’t drop the ball. And Church because he’s shifty.

What two players (one on each side of the ball) will be standouts on our 2015 Rose Bowl team?
~Trevor

I love this question.  Question of the day award for Trevor.  That was magical, Trevor.

Since I obviously can’t pick Aaron Bailey, because Aaron Bailey isn’t in Champaign yet which means he wasn’t in Rantoul which means I can’t pick him for a “what two players that you saw in Rantoul will be standouts on our 2015 Rose Bowl team” question, I’ll go with our two most fortunate redshirts, Darrius Caldwell and Josh Ferguson.

If Caldwell stays on the same path as Michael Buchanan (get stronger every year, get better every practice), then he can be just as good if not better.  Give him four years in the same defense and I think he emerges in 2015 as one of the top pass rushers in the nation.  He’d definitely win the award for “most salivating player” in Rantoul.

Honorable mention: TaJarvis Fuller.  That 2015 defense is the Caldwell/Fuller defense that we’ll talk about for years.

For Josh Ferguson, well, I haven’t said anything crazy in a while, have I?  Nothing on the level of “Juice will be Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year”, right?  I’ve felt this one building for a while, so I might as well toss it out there.  Ready?  Here goes:

In career all-purpose yardage, Robert Holcombe is tops in Illini history with 4,737 yards.  Ferguson should shatter that.

Rantoul2012 XXX: Mailbag 2

More mailbag…

Would we have the best DL in the country if Whitney stayed?
~Tom

Yes. Well, the best starters at least.

Three NFL players (plus Glenn Foster with a shot to hang on somewhere). Two of the top three defensive ends in the Big Ten. We were 6th out of 120 teams in sacks last season – you’d have to think we could be #1 had everyone returned.

It would be one of those topics where we’d throw out the stat in front of an Alabama fan and they’d LOLOLOLOL for a while and then we’d show them some draft guru’s rankings of Mercilus and Buchanan and Spence and they’d start to quiet down and then we’d show them last year’s sack and TFL totals and they’d stammer and grumble and him without hawing, finally mumbling “roll damn tide” and sulking away. Woulda been epic.

Alas, Whit is gone, so we’re, like, 9th best.

What do you think the biggest difference is between the Zook regime and the Beckman era? My impression was that the talented guys never fully blossomed because they always knew Zook had their back. Does Beckman et. al. seem to be the type to light someone up if needed?
~J.P.

Similar to the question from the last mailbag, but I like that this dicussed Zook as a “had their back” coach. TOTALLY true. He fancied himself as a father figure to his guys – the kind of father figure that cancels your grounding and hands you the car keys when mom goes to bed. He loved coaching young men and being there with an open office door. This was both a positive (look at his relationship with Eddie McGee) and a negative (as you mentioned, many players somewhat coasted with a coach who they knew would give them a hug when they came off the field).

I think it’s too early to say yet, but if I had to guess, Tim Beckman won’t be the “light them up” type. I could see him more as the organized father type. “Your father wants to see you in his office”. And then you walk in and he pulls out the code of conduct and lets you know exactly how you’re letting yourself down and your family down.

To your concern, I don’t think that will be an issue. Meaning, coasting players and undisciplined play because of a “we’re just one big happy family” head coach. I think Tim Beckman wants to build the depth to where you play because of your effort, not because you’ve earned it by being a junior or senior. Make a mistake, and it won’t be “we’ll get that fixed”; I think it will be “he’s not holding up his end of the bargain so he’ll sit at the start of the next game”.

What drills are being used to ingrain proper footwork with the quarterbacks? While this scheme would seem to prioritize quick decision-making and accuracy, could you comment on the drills being used to improve accuracy and velocity? (Hey, it’s memorial stadium; at some point, the QB’s gonna hafta drive the ball on a quick slant.)

If (or more accurately, “when”) Nate wins the starting job, are the coaches concerned about O’Toole transferring to a program that can offer him PT? If so, how do they intend to keep him “involved” in the offense in 2012-13?
~F.P.

Second part first. I really have no concerns about an O’Toole transfer. First, because I think we’ll use both quarterbacks and try to do different packages. Heck, we might see three quarterbacks used in one game, with a package for Miles Osei as well.

Second, if you follow our players on Twitter, you’ll see that Scheelhaase, Osei, and O’Toole are ridiculously tight. Best friends tight. Travel to Cedar Point to ride roller coasters tight. Tweet about a 2:00 am meal tight. Those three plus Ryan Lankford are apparently very close friends. I asked both Nathan and Reilly about it those four in Rantoul, and both of their answers were pretty much “cause we’re the four best friends that anyone could have”. When Nate comes out and Reilly comes in, I think he’ll legitimately be pulling for Reilly to go 7 for 7 and lead a touchdown drive.

As to the first part of your question, which I’m answering second, even though I opened the last two paragraphs with the word “second”, the first week of camp seemed to be specifically catered towards installing the offense. So the majority of the offensive drills seemed to be focused on “trips right, tight end in motion, you read the mike and the weakside DE to determine if…”

I did see several “here’s the footwork for this turn and fire” drills, though. Take the snap in the shotgun, footwork to load the arm, quick release. The quarterback who performed best in those drills? Miles Osei.

I would like to know if guys like Terry Hawthorne, Miles Osei, and Justin Green are taking snaps at the WR position. As you have well articulated many times, the Illini are thin at WR and I would like to know what the coaching staff are really doing beyond speculation.
~Andy

Osei? Absolutely. I saw him run through position drills with the quarterbacks, the running backs, and the wide receivers. I think we’ll see him all over the field.

Hawthorne and Green? Didn’t see a single drill or a single 7-on-7/11-on-11 formation where they lined up with the offense. Does this mean they won’t really be used there? Does it mean that the defensive coaches want to install the entire defense before they lose their fastest two guys to an offensive drill? Not sure. But if you went looking for guys at multiple positions this camp, you’d have seen Jon Davis and Miles Osei, not Terry Hawthorne and Justin Green.

Rantoul2012 XXIX: Mailbag 1

Finally sitting down to go through some mailbag questions. And by “sitting down”, I mean “sitting in the passenger seat typing on my laptop while my wife drives”.

The urgency I feel to answer every mailbag question before I forget everything is astounding. I woke up thinking about it. I keep refreshing my memory (“Nowicki at right tackle, McDowell mostly at left tackle”) just to make sure nothing is forgotten. With seven observed practices comes great responsibility. Or something like that.

To the mailbag:

Which backup/starter battle is the most interesting to you?
~Sean

This is hard to answer, mostly because injuries play a role in most all of them. There’s a battle between Earnest Thomas and STEVEHULL at strong safety, but that’s mostly because Hull’s shoulder injury still lingers and he’s limited in practice (and wearing a green no-contact jersey). I’d guess there’s a battle for right guard between newly-moved Michael Heitz and redshirt freshman Teddy Karras, but Karras has been injured and Heitz gets all the reps.

So I’ll go with Tim Kynard and Justin Staples at strongside defensive end. I came to camp thinking Staples would be the guy, but I think it’s still a question whether Staples is strong enough – “holds the edge”, if you will – against the run. Staples is easily our second best pass rusher behind Mike Buke. But can he be an every down strongside? Or will he be a situational pass rusher? Whichever it is, Kynard will have something to say about it.

Who is coaching the receivers and is there hope the offense will be improved over 2011?
~Rick

One easy question, one that might take 600 words.

Co-offensive coordinator Billy Gonzales is the wide receivers coach. That’s his specialty – he coached the receivers under Urban Meyer at Bowling Green, Utah, and Florida, and then was the passing game coordinator (and receivers coach) at LSU.

Will the offense improve? That’s the season, right there. If we see the same offense we saw in the final seven games last season, we’re 4-8 or worse. If we can improve, maybe 6-6. Recapture the first six games of 2011? 8-4 or better.

Good as our defense is, I think Louisiana Tech will put up 31 points on us. Will we get enough offense to win 41-31? Wisconsin probably runs all over us, solid run defense or no solid run defense. Can we outgain them with a crisp, up-tempo spread? There’s the season.

The reason the question is so hard to answer is because we really don’t know what kind of offense we’ll run. Up-tempo like Oregon? A stand-deep-with-short-passes spread like Missouri? Tebow jump passes? Holgersonmania? We just don’t know.

So I’ll just say this. We’re going back to the spread, which is what Nathan Scheelhaase was recruited to run. He then spent his freshman and sophomore years running a multiple pro-set with some pistol. Will he flourish in our new scheme (whatever it is)? That’s the key.

Oh, and we have to find a few more receivers. And we have to hope that Hugh Thornton works at left tackle.

One more thing – we don’t have any upperclassman tailbacks.

OK, just one more. Only two seniors on the entire offense.

But if all of that falls into place, we will OWN.

My question is about Coach Beckman. You have stated that this camp is run a lot differently than Coach Zook’s camps. My question is, how differently are Coach Zook and Coach Beckman involved in the actual practices? Do they actually coach or are they more CEO types?
~Josh

There’s several layers to this question. First off, 2009 Zook and 2010 Zook were two different coaches. 2009 Zook was much more involved; 2010 Zook was relegated to Special Teams Coach while Petrino ran the offense and Koenning ran the defense.

But if I’m comparing 2011 Camp Rantoul to 2012 Camp Rantoul, I’d say the biggest difference is intentionality. As I said yesterday, the practices are actually quite similar. Walkthrough, stretching, position drills, 11 on 11, etc. I’d imagine many practices across the country are similar. The difference, to me, is that everything Tim Beckman does appears to be intentional. Zook was more, I don’t know, random intensity.

Tim Beckman has a plan. He has an “Illini Football Manual” that includes everything from player expectations to Illini history. He has a meticulous schedule for every practice and meeting. He wants his players to say “yes ma’am” to a professor. He has dozens of meetings with his coaching staff to make sure everyone is on the same page.

As such, his practices grow from that. He wants to have a solid punt coverage team, so I’m guessing he lays out the 12 specific skills each of those players will need, implementing one per practice. The gunners learn swim moves one day and downing a punt the next. The three punt protectors learn how to spot an overloaded punt blitz. The main coverage guys learn how to shed a block. Each day, something else is added. (Please note that I’m only guessing here – I’ve observed some of these things and projecting that out over an entire August camp given the way Beckman operates).

So there you go. Beckman is intentional while Zook was intense.

As for the “CEO vs. coach” thing, I’d say the last two years have been similar. Beckman is involved in breakout sessions (linebackers over here, tight ends over there), but no specific position. During 11 on 11 drills, he’s in the catbird seat, looking on from behind the QB, similar to how Zook operated. The main difference I see is that Zook oversaw special teams the last two years, and this year it’s Tim Salem.

All of that to say this. Tim Beckman has a very specific plan. Down to the minute. Ron Zook, while organized in practice structure, didn’t appear to have an overarching plan. Shocker, I know.

You have commented on the changes that you see with coaching on special teams. But how about the other coaches and their approach to coaching compared to coaches you have seen in the past at Camp Rantoul? Is there more emphasis on fundamentals? Are they “yellers”?
~Jim

I want to be careful how I answer this. The coaching staff is very accommodating to mediatypes in Rantoul, agreeing to interviews and opening up the practices to the public. So I don’t want to sit here and say “I SAW COACH BUTKUS CALL SHAWN AFRYL A COTTON-HEADED NINNYMUGGINS.”

So I’ll answer the “yellers” question this way. No coach in this camp came anywhere close to Paul Petrino, who probably needed to wear a “Max, can you earmuff for me?” tshirt.

Emphasis on fundamentals? Absolutely. I’d say nearly every assistant, from Jim Pry five years ago to Mike Ward this year, is obsessed with teaching fundamentals. The difference I saw this year was the general “football” things. How to grip a ball when you’ve scooped and are running to score. How to field a pooch kickoff if you’re an up-man (and every player learns this). How to cover up a fumble (and every player learns this).

I think those examples reveal the biggest difference. Coach Zook would have his 4 returners learn how to properly catch a kickoff. Coach Beckman has every non-lineman learn. So when that kickoff into the wind falls short and some linebacker is gonna have to catch it, they’ll be ready.

I know, crazy, right?

I have a 45 second wifi window here. Posting without editing. SOC mailbag!

Rantoul2012 XXVIII: First Full Squad Practice

Yeah, I’m pretty tired.  Mentally drained, really.  I had a blast in Rantoul over four days, and I’m home now.  I’m feeling all of this tremendous pressure to get the practice report up from this morning’s practice (“if I was still in Rantoul it would have been up HOURS ago!”), but I just haven’t had the time.  Got home.  Hugged my wife (she’s just the best for believing in this).  Hung out with my kids.  Saw some family friends.  Ran to Dairy Queen.  Fixed the washing machine. *Hochuli flex*

And now I’m sitting down at 11:51 to type up practice notes.  With heavy eyes.  And a heavy, Rantoul-less heart.  Maybe I should do something that I’m really passionate about to get my blood pumping.  Hey!  I should type up practice notes from the greatest football camp in the world.

One quick thing before I do that: thanks for all of the mailbag questions.  I say this every time, but it’s really humbling that so many people would reach out.  I probably received over 50 questions, and I’m really going to try to get to most of them.  Just not tonight.  Look for “Rantoul XVII: Mailbag Part 22″ coming soon to an internets near you.

+ This was the first full-squad practice.  Which means it was the first chance to see if some of the second string guys were sticking out because they were the best players on their “squad” or because they were really having a great camp.  Since I love doing this in lists, five guys who stuck out:

Dami Ayoola

Yeah, he’s gonna win whatever award I give to the top newcomer.  We need a third tailback, and I believe he’s so very obviously it.  They haven’t gone live yet, so I reserve the right to alter my opinion once they’re tackling for real (instead of just wrapping up and letting go), but he’s clearly the #3 tailback right now.  And probably the top newcomer (I’m not counting TaJarvis Fuller as a “newcomer” because he practiced in the spring).

Nick Immekus

He has to be the favorite to win the placekicker job now.  They ran through three field goals at the beginning of practice.  A 25 yarder, a 30-something yarder, and a 43 yarder.  He nailed them all (just like he did yesterday).  He was also the only kicker to nail them all (just like yesterday).  Combine all of that with his 47 yard field goal to win the spring game, and I’m guessing he’ll be our placekicker on September 1st.  Zalewski probably still has a bigger leg (but a much lower, blockable trajectory), so I could see some combination of maybe Zalewski kicking off and Immekus kicking extra points/field goals.  I’ll put it this way: kickoff is probably yet to be determined.  But placekicking gets more clear by the day.

Devin Church

A fan asked me early in the practice if I thought Devin Church had the ability to contribute right away at receiver.  Thinking back on the drops of the past few days, I said no.  Too big of a learning curve.

So wouldn’t you know that less than 15 minutes later Church made two great catches in an 11 on 11 drill.  That learning curve is still there – he was a high school running back and is just now learning how to run routes – but he used his quickness to gain separation and haul in a few passes today.  Maybe he will be ready this year.

Hugh Thornton

Saw him get the better of Michael Buchanan in a one-on-one drill.  Saw him pull around to the right side and destroy a freshman.  Saw him make a blitzing linebacker look silly.  Sometimes, a position change can spark a player.  Sometimes, a senior steps it up because it’s his final season.  With Hugh, I think we might see both.

Granted, it’s early.  And Hugh, along with the rest of the line, faded quickly as the losses mounted last fall, causing Zook and Petrino to try all kinds of different player rotations and offensive formations, none of which worked.  So if things start going south quickly for this line, dominating freshmen in early August will mean nothing.  But if this line can gel around a leader at left tackle, I’ll remember that it started with him going harder than any lineman in Rantoul.

Houston Bates

A big key for our defense: can Houston Bates seamlessly replace Ian Thomas.  If I had to answer today, I’d say yes.

Side thought: I found myself wondering today if Bates or Henry Dickinson might be able to handle the Leo DE position.  Both probably have enough height – they’d just need to bulk up a bit.  After Michael Buchanan graduates, we’ll only have Darrius Caldwell at Leo (plus a few walkons).  Maybe Bates or Dickinson can rotate with him?  Just a thought.  A wishful one.

Anyway, good ol’ RBOBK was in fine form this camp.  Goes hard all the time (thus the “Rolling Ball Of Butcher Knives” nickname from Vic Koenning).  LSU attempting to grayshirt him was a pretty great thing for us.

+ Chris Beatty told me they have about 80% of the offense in at this point.  It’s always fascinating to me how that works.  They’ll break into drills, and the quarterbacks and receivers will work together, and they’ll go through, say, 20 formations and run a play.  And the instructions the coaches give during these offense-learning sessions are a bit mind blowing.  Here’s a sample, with some made-up words in place of what I heard (which I can’t even remember):

“No, Eddie, when the strong is in hot with a single Hawk heavy, you’re first responsibility is to rip and then settle in the backside gap. You know, like we’re twin eagle and the main cut is a weakside boundary.”

College football is hard.

+ The most asked question in the mailbag emails was to compare a Zook camp to a Beckman camp.  I’ll answer more in depth in a mailbag post, but here I’ll say this.  They’re actually similar in how they’re set up, with walk-throughs and stretching and position drills and such.  But Beckman’s practices seem more, I don’t know, precise.  Like everyone is on the same page.

Yeah, that’s it.  Like everyone is on the same page.  Organized, down to the minute, all of the coaches and grad assistants and volunteers know exactly what’s happening like they all had a run-through before the practice.  And everything seems intentional.  Here’s the drill, here’s why you’re learning this, now execute.  And don’t get me started on actual special teams skill drills instead of Zook’s “go run five kickoffs”.

So yeah, they’re not really similar at all.

+ And now for my favorite moment of the entire week.  I had finished BeardTalk with Hugh Thornton and was fiddling with my phone when I heard Tim Beckman say the words “Ray Eliot speech” as he was being interviewed by John Supinie.  Wait… did he really say “Ray Eliot speech”.  As in, The Proper State of Mind?  Yes, he did.

See, that speech is a big deal to me.  In fact, in early 2010, I dedicated an entire point from The 19 Point Plan For Fixing Illini Football to “build on our history”.  It included a four-step program for our players at the beginning of their season that, well, here, I’ll just cut and paste that part:

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

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

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

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

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

So to hear that he sat the team down last night and had them listen to the “Proper State of Mind” part of the speech, well, I’m now the world’s biggest Tim Beckman fan.  He believes history is important – so do I – and that Illinois needs to tap into the history of Red and Dick and Simeon. So do I.  I can’t tell you how excited that makes me.

OK, I’m not tired anymore.  Bring on Western Michigan.

Ed. note: Just because I’m home doesn’t mean my Rantoul coverage stops.  I have hours of internal footage in my brain to review, plus probably eight mailbag posts, plus my camp awards.  You can probably expect Rantoul stuff to drag on for the next two weeks here.  Just probably not eight posts per day.  Stupid job.

 

Rantoul2012 XXVII: Coach Beatty After Practice This Morning

I’m home now. With tons of mailbag questions to answer. And practice notes from this morning to post. And a wife to reintroduce myself to.

One more interview to post before I dig into those. This was my chat with co-offensive coordinator Chris Beatty from this morning. You’ll want to hear him light up when talking about Dami Ayoola.

Edit: Had the wrong audio linked. It’s fixed now.

[podcast]http://audioboo.fm/boos/914984-coach-beatty-after-practice.mp3[/podcast]

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Rantoul2012 XXVI: BeardTalk

With Jack Cornell graduating, I set out this week to find a new Beard. I asked several players who I should talk beards with. Nathan Scheelhaase insisted it be Hugh Thornton. I tend to listen when Nathan speaks.

So today, after practice, I conducted the first ever BeardTalk with someone other than Big Jack. Here’s Hugh on beards, Jack Cornell, and Graham Pocic’s new nickname.

[podcast]http://audioboo.fm/boos/914989-beardtalk-iv.mp3[/podcast]

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