Training Camp 2017 V: Thursday Practice Thoughts
I often think about future camps when I'm at camp. It's this constant "will the camp next year be better or worse?", measuring the current against the future. At this camp, though two practices, this is a future-looking as I've ever been.
I'm thinking back on three camps while I'm here: 2010, when the offense and defense completely changed from what they were doing the year before; 2012, when Beckman arrived and changed things; and last year, when Lovie changed things again. At all three camps (and especially all three spring balls prior), there was a lot of technique coaching. Maybe before the old coaches told you to do this when you're approaching a blocker on kickoff coverage, but we're telling you to do it this way. Lots of "stop the drill and start it over" because players didn't know what they were doing.
This camp is similar to that, but it's different. In 2010, 2012, and 2016, they were coaching veteran players. Those were, I don't know, habit-breaking practices. "You might have done it that way before, but now do it this way." The players were mostly mature, ready-to-go athletes who were being taught a new way to do things.
The way this camp is different is that it feels completely overhauled. This will be hard to explain, but you could still feel a lot of Vic Koenning at the 2012 training camp. You could feel the Tim Banks at Lovie's first camp last year. You could definitely sense the Mike Locksley at the 2009 training camp. Players who grew up and learned football in a certain system and the current system was fairly foriegn. Even two years after Koenning left, there were still defenders who knew that system and wanted to do those kinds of things. Does that make sense? That doesn't make much sense.
This camp, so far, has been two things: ragged, given how many freshmen and walkons are out there, and BRAND NEW. There's barely a remnant of Beckman or Cubit here. The Tim Banks defense, so present with all of those players last year, is completely, 100% evaporated. Yes, he had already moved on to Penn State by then, but there's always remnants of the former staff - players, for years, doing the things they were taught (for years).
Remember the offense against Missouri in 2009? How it felt like the offense was out-and-out refusing to follow what Mike Schultz was teaching them, instead wanting to run the Locksley plays? Or the defense at Arizona State in 2012, more or less a complete refusal to change from the way they learned defense under Vic Koenning? Those things lingered for years. It probably took 30 games (halfway through 2014) before Tim Banks could run the defense the way he wanted to run it with players prepared for every role. For some players that took changing their muscle memory; for some it took starting the sophomore over the senior.
There doesn't appear to be any lingering here. Maybe it's because Wes Lunt is gone, leaving no memory of the Cubit offense, and guys like Smoot, Clements, Mosely, and Barton are gone, leaving no remnant of the Banks defense, but this camp feels brand new. This continues with my "expansion team" thing from yesterday - the whole vibe at camp is like some software development team meeting in the conference room for the first time, being told "get to know each other well - these are the only faces you'll see the next 3-4 years". Maybe at the first practice they went around the room and shared three things about themselves.
There's never been this much overhaul this quickly, at least not in the years I've been doing this. There's really nothing on offense resembling Cubit and there's absolutely nothing on defense resembling Banks. That's a first for me in attending camps. This is my ninth camp attending as a blogger and I've seen four defensive schemes and five offensive schemes. So I've seen a lot of changeover, but I've never seen it change this quickly.
Is this good? Bad? Good in the long run, probably bad in the short term. The good: scheme buy-in is immediate. There are no "lingering effects" as I've seen at other camps. The bad: the overhaul is drastic. Things are really, really choppy. There's a lot of coaching that needs to take place between here and wins.
I'll stop rambling and get to some practice thoughts:
+ One thing I hadn't thought about vis a vis Lovie not getting to recruit his first class until his second season (because he got the job in March and Signing Day was in February): Mike Phair recruiting for his 2016 defense. Phair was a long-time Lovie assistant who came to Illinois to be the co-defensive coordinator in 2015. After that season, when Bill Cubit was extended for two years, Tim Banks was let go and Phair was given the job outright. And he started to implement a new defense, one he had learned from Lovie Smith.
That December and January, Phair went out looking for players who fit that new scheme. And they found guys like linebacker Jake Hansen, defensive tackle Tymir Oliver, and linebacker Dele Harding (plus several others) who would fit that new defensive scheme. Low and behold a month after signing day Bill Cubit is dismissed and... Lovie Smith is hired, bringing the exact same defense as what Phair had begun implementing.
So when I see Jake Hansen consistently running with the first string at Will Linebacker, or I see Tymir Oliver running with the ones at defensive tackle, or I see Dele Harding pushing for playing time at linebacker, I realize that part of the reason they're pushing for early playing time is because they were matched with this defensive scheme before Lovie even got here. The coaches talk about Hansen a lot (it seems like he leads for the WLB spot over guys like Del'Shawn Phillips and Justice Williams), and it hit me that of course these "Cubit guys" are making a push for early playing time - the were recruited specifically for this defense.
+ There's a real lack of eye-popping plays at this camp. That's another difference between this camp and former camps. Malik Turner has made some great catches on poorly thrown balls (which is a warning sign in and of itself), and Nick Allegretti consistently dominates, but that's about it.
At camps past, Corey Liuget would blow someone up in a one-on-one drill and you'd wonder why he wasn't in the league already. There was the 2013 camp where Nathan Scheelhaase and all of his good friends (Hull, Osei, Lankford) were making first down after first down through the air. Carroll Phillips looked like a monster in pass-rush drills last year, the 2010 offensive line, Mikel LeShoure in 2009 - there have been many examples of WOW plays during camp.
This year I can't think of much besides Turner and Allegretti. Now, they're taking it easy with Dudek, and Jaylen Dunlap is being held out for precautionary reasons, as is Christian DiLauro, so lots of the experienced, chance-to-get-drafted-with-a-huge-season guys are on the sidelines. Maybe that's why there hasn't been much WOW. But... there's not much WOW. Not even wow.
+ I saw freshman offensive lineman Alex Palczewski come off the field last night looking absolutely exhausted. And why would he not? On his 18th birthday (think about that), he's coming off the field from his fourth-ever college practice, having run with the first string and given every rep imaginable as they try to get him and his classmate (Larry Boyd) ready to play right away. I don't know how that wouldn't be completely overwhelming.
You know what I did on my 18th birthday? I can't specifically remember but I had already gotten my acceptance to Illinois so I put senior year high school classes on autopilot and hung out with my friends watching Coming To America on VHS every single day.
+ I think that's about it. I don't really have another bullet point - I just didn't want to end with the Coming To America thing. Off to the next practice...