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Stayed up until 2:45 in the morning Friday night talking Illini football. Craig, Steve, and I joined my friends Brian and Carmen at something called WingBucket in downtown Dallas where they serve wings and drinks until 3:00 am. That was us in the booth over in the corner, solving every single issue that faces Illini football. Here's what we collectively decided. Meeting minutes, if you will.
+ Steve's preseason "let's hold off on the Lunt praise until he actually does something" proved to be depressingly accurate. It's not that we've all given up on Lunt by any means (Steve included). It's just that this season, especially Lunt post-injury, showed us that he has a long way to go.
As does our running game with a quarterback who can't/won't run. That's the #1 concern on this team going into next year. The receivers are great, maybe even fantastic, possibly even 2001-fantastic with Dudek, Allison, and Turner forming the best core group we've had since Lloyd/Young/Lewis/Moorehead. If Justin Hardee can take a step forward as a senior next year, WR is the strength of the entire team.
But - and I can't believe I'm asking this - will Lunt be able to deliver the ball like O'Toole did in the last three games? He has twice the arm, but he doesn't have legs and his head is a work in progress. There's your entire 2015 storyline.
+ One thing we discussed at length: so much of this decade of Illini football hinged on Ron Guenther's decision in the fall of 2009. A team that Vegas thought would win 8 games finishes 3-9. Does Ron Guenther get rid of the coach? Or does he spend money on a new offense and a new defense and keep the coach for his recruiting?
He chose B. And at the time, several of us agreed with it because we were drunk on Zook recruiting. Problem was, from that moment on, Zook's recruiting was over. The three players in that class with NFL abilities (CJ Fiedorowicz, Corey Cooper, and Andy Gallik) all decommitted that next month. And from that point forward, for the next 24 months, Ron Zook didn't bring in another NFL player (after bringing in 19 in the previous four years).
+ Speaking of, we sat around tossing out names of players we were all ridiculously excited about when they verballed to Zook... but then never panned out. D'Angelo McCray! Leon Hill! Lendell Buckner! Hubie Graham! Reggie Ellis! Cordale Scott! So many names - so many four stars who were going to turn this program around, and then most of them didn't even make it to their sophomore year.
+ I think most of us felt better about the defense next year than the offense. Brian said the words "BUT WHAT DO YOU DO ABOUT THE OFFENSIVE LINE??" about 15 times. Great arms at quarterback, really solid senior tailback, three great receivers, and huge question marks all across the line (including the tight ends). From the center to right tackle looks great. Carmen loves Joe Spencer at center. Craig calmed everyone's nerves about Teddy Karras' knee. I bet Carmen $20 that Christian DiLauro would play in the NFL some day.
But the right side? It couldn't be more wide open. Craig likes Austin Schmidt's feet, but can he gain the upper body strength needed to play left tackle in the Big Ten? What about Pat Flavin? He was a part-time starter at right tackle this year - might he be able to hold down left tackle for a year until some of the younger guys are ready? And at left guard, who? Chris O'Connor for a year? I want it to be Nick Allegretti starting for four years. Craig says don't sleep on juco Zach Heath. Whoever it is, we're green green green on the left side.
+ Lots of discussion about assistant coaches. Beckman mentioned in a postseason press conference that there are some things they "might need to address" or something like that - I believe he was being intentionally vague. I also believe he was hinting that at least a few staff changes will happen.
Most likely, we all agreed, was that Tom Brattan would leave/retire. These are all just guesses, but he was mostly retired when we called him in July to step in after Ricker bailed. So if he was just a one year plug and is headed back to play shuffleboard soon, perhaps we'll have a new OL coach in the next few months. Some thought he'd certainly be back, some thought he'd certainly be gone, and one person (can't remember who) brought up the possibility that Eric Wolford, recently fired as head coach at Youngstown State, might be persuaded to come back.
Brian pretty much wanted every non-coordinator (except for Bellamy and Golesh) to be let go and replaced with "young recruiters" (Brian tends in the Zookian "fix it with recruiting" direction), but that opinion gets shot down quickly with "um, Beatty and Gonzales". Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales pretty much ruined any "who cares if they can coach - just get me some recruiters" for Illini fans for the next 20 years.
The young recruiters we talked about making room for on the staff? Pretty much just the walkon wide receivers from the Sugar Bowl team: Aaron Moorehead (outstanding recruiter at Virginia Tech) and Greg Lewis (same thing at Pitt). The problem: we already have a pretty good WR coach.
Everyone agreed that at least one change would happen. Some of us thought it might be two or three. But likely after Signing Day.
+ We talked about the Big Ten West. Steve is a bit of a college football historian, so we spoke in terms of "has a door ever been this open for Illinois in the Big Ten?" Nobody really liked the Paul Chryst hire at Wisconsin (The Most Boring Man In The World). Barry wanted to hire an actual puppet. Several people hated the Mike Riley hire at Nebraska (I disagreed and I think Craig did too - I think he's perfect there). Ferentz is Ferentz and doesn't seem like he has another nine win season in him (I think it was Steve who pointed out the flaws of the Greg Davis offense). Purdue is a mystery, Northwestern can't win six games anymore, it's wide open.
The coach who brought the biggest debate was Jerry Kill. Carmen and (I think) Craig love him and wish he was here. Steve and I still can't believe that zero NFL players and mesolithic quarterbacking can consistently win in the Big Ten - we know we're wrong, but it still feels like luck. Brian - I think Brian had had too many at that point.
+ We talked about the incoming recruits. Craig and I both love Justice Williams as a Will linebacker. We're both big on Julian Jones, too. Carmen loves AD Miller but is afraid we'll lose him - Craig claims we're good. I professed my love for Sam Mays and might have even claimed he was our best wide receiver recruit in five years. The night is hazy at that point.
The jucos are jucos - of the six, two will be really good, one decemt, three probably won't be able to cut it. Carmen thinks Henry Enyenihi will be the big back to replace Donovonn Young next year - I still think it's going to be Dre Brown + 15 lbs. Craig threw out a bold prediction: the first freshman OL to see the field will be Adam Solomon.
+ Overall, even with the loss, almost all of us saw the season as a step forward. Not a big step, but a consistent, keep-everyone-in-school, build experience step. The three conference wins were a big part of that satisfaction. In the last 20 years, we ALWAYS lose that Northwestern game (any game with a chance to move from five to six wins, really). And not only did we win, we dominated them.
So onward and upward, Illini football. So many questions will be answered in the next 12 months. Here's hoping we reconvene next January at some wing place in a warmer city.