Looks Like University Of Illinois - Dwayne Lawson

Dec 06, 2016
illini, illini-football, lloui
illini, illini-football, lloui

I have a habit of taking these LLOUI posts and going off on some tangent before I talk about the player. Today's tangent: player development.

While at the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco in 2011 (nearly five years ago now), I had a long conversation with Vic Koenning about the players on the roster. Vic was leaving - he had already accepted the defensive coordinator job at North Carolina - so I wanted to pick his brain on some of the younger players on the roster at the time.

The main name he focused on: defensive end Darrius Caldwell. This was right at the completion of Whitney Mercilus' incredible junior year (he would declare for the draft not long after the bowl game), and Vic made a bold statement: "that kid (Caldwell) has the potential to be better than Mercilus".

But he stressed "potential". He pointed out how Whitney Mercilus got better each week in the two years he coached him. In the first spring, he was better at the end of spring ball than at the beginning. Then he got better that summer. Then he got better throughout the fall. Better in the practices leading up to the Texas Bowl. Even better the next spring. Better in the fall (to the point where that "better" mean "unanimous first team All American").

Vic emphasized how key this was in college football. Some kids come in as a 5 and go out as an 8.5. Some kids come in as a 7.5 and go out as an 8. Yes, talent sets the range, but some kids max out their talent and some kids only get to 40% of it.

His point: if Caldwell were to hop on the same development train as Mercilus, his potential was maybe even higher. He went as far as comparing him to other players he had coached at other stops, like Gaines Adams at Clemson and DeMarcus Ware at Troy. But he included the caveat: he has to want it, and right now he doesn't have that drive.

Caldwell's career never materialized. He left Illinois and landed at Pearl River Community College in Mississippi. After a year there, he signed with Arizona State, flamed out there, and landed at Division II West Georgia, where he played one year (leading the conference in sacks and TFL's), tried to enter the NFL supplemental draft, wasn't drafted, and after that his Google trail runs cold.

Why talk about Caldwell now? Because he's the first player I think about when hearing that we received a verbal commitment from Dwayne Lawson (but not the only player I think about - stay with me here). A player like this is usually a good news/bad news scenario, so we'll start with the bad news:

Lawson was facing a drug suspension at Virginia Tech so he transferred to Garden City Community College in Kansas. He had another suspension at Garden City this past fall ("violation of team rules") and lost his starting spot after that game, apparently not regaining it the rest of the season. So the bad news: this QB had dropped to third or fourth on the depth chart at Virginia Tech, transfered to juco where he fell to second on the depth chart, and now transfers to Illinois after suspensions at both stops.

The good news: he incredibly talented (was a four-star in high school) and has the physical tools to be great. Which means he now faces what I'll call the Darrius Caldwell/Carroll Phillips crossroads.

Phillips went to Cincinnati then to Co-Lin Community College in Mississippi and finally to Illinois where he fought and fought and ended up a first team All Big Ten defensive end. Caldwell came in as a four-star defensive end but he flamed out here, bounced from juco to Arizona State to West Georgia, and ended up undrafted. Phillips maxed out his talent (and now might get drafted); Caldwell wasn't ever able to put it together.

There are many examples of this in our recent history (on both sides). Jake Kumerow had great potential here but flamed out academically and ended up at D-III Wisconsin-Whitewater (he somewhat resurrected his career and made it onto the Bengals practice squad). Zane Petty rode a crazy path through juco but figured it out here and had a solid senior season at safety in 2014. Some players reach their potential, some can't ever seen to find it.

Which is why "player development" is a big part of college coaching. Not just developing a player's football skills, but helping a kid figure things out between age 18 and 22. I mean, my academic career followed that path. First semester freshman year - solid grades. Second semester - absolute disaster leading to academic probation because I was a ridiculous knucklehead who thought he didn't have to go to class after surviving one semester at Illinois. With some guidance from several smart people, I got it turned around, got off probation, and somehow graduated. Every 18-22 year-old needs some of that guidance coming from somewhere.

And what better person to provide that than Lovie Smith? In conversations with friends the last nine months, I've mentioned that as the thing I think Lovie will be better at than maybe every other Big Ten coach: player development. Help a young man grow and mature and put "suspended at Virginia Tech and Garden City" behind him. Maybe Meyer wins recruiting and Paul Chryst can scheme a college offense, but when it comes to one-on-one meetings with the coach in his office (and getting that kid to listen), I think Lovie might win the national championship.

And yes, it's very important. If he can help the Darrius Caldwells and the Jake Kumerows reach their potential, he can advance this program further than it's been. If he can take a guy like Lawson who had a really rough start to his college career (suspensions, transfers) and provide stability, then maybe he can tap into his tremendous football potential.

Because if you watch his film, you see it. Natural throwing motion, tall, athletic frame, quick feet - it's all there. You can see why he was a four-star recruit in high school. This kid has the athletic potential to be great. He's just made some mistakes and bounced around.

Which is why I land there when evaluating this recruit. I usually try to avoid the personal stuff and just focus on the football when doing these recruit evaluations, but here, I think it's everything. Will this kid light-bulb (now a verb) when he gets a second chance at Power Five college football? Or will he fade? It's certainly worth the scholarship - potential 4-star QB, other schools might back off because scholarships are valuable but we have scholarships to burn right now - so I'm in full support of this whole thing. I'm just pointing out that this kid stands at the Darrius Caldwell/Carroll Phillips crossroads. Take his second chance and run with it like Phillips? Or never reach his true potential like Caldwell?

Which means this one is hard to put Tom Cruises to. Skill level, four Cruises. Chances we ever see him fulfill that potential in his final two years of eligibility given his rough start? That probably limits things to two Cruises. Which means I'll go the safe route and land on three.

Dwayne Lawson - three Tom Cruises.



DB50 on December 06 @ 03:19 PM CST

When I read a story about second chances I think about Luther Head. Different sport but same idea, kid makes a knuckleheaded decision and Weber gives him the benefit of the doubt. Head was lights out his senior season. One of the main reason the Illini made the championship game. I agree with Robert, Lovie comes off as a father-figure who can positively shape a lot of these young men and challenge them to reach their potential not only as a player, but more importantly, a human being.

Bear8287 on December 07 @ 12:53 AM CST

Which is why “player development” is a big part of college coaching. Not just developing a player’s football skills, but helping a kid figure things out between age 18 and 22. And yes, it’s very important. If he can help the Darrius Caldwells and the Jake Kumerows reach their potential, he can advance this program further than it’s been.

Hey, glad to see that you're finally coming around on your way of thinking here Robert.
Coaching >>> Talent.

All of the talent in the world without the proper motivation, whether that comes from the player, coach or both, ain't worth a bucket of spit.

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