Blind Faith

Nov 12, 2017

It's not faith in a system. It's not really faith in a coach. It's faith in a concept. The concept: tear everything down, rebuild from the ground up. While every home in the neighborhood redoes the kitchen, we'll demolish the whole house and start over. They'll have a party when the kitchen is done and everyone in the neighborhood will be jealous (including us) while our house is behind schedule and hasn't even begun framing yet but still we hold out hope that our finished product will be better.

When I look at the big picture, that's what's happening right now. Lovie's first year was a trial (and error) on every player on the roster. He started that season with nine senior starters on defense and ended with three. He picked through the Bill Cubit recruiting class and found players that fit the system (your Dele Hardings and your Kenyon Jacksons), and he picked through the Tim Beckman players to find more scheme fits.

Year two has been about his own guys. He's had a full year to find the Beckman/Cubit players he feels he can run with, and this fall he has added 21 of his 24 freshmen to the mix. This is the core going forward. It's probably a bit unfair to some of those Beckman/Cubit recruits who have already been passed over, but this is the direction Lovie has gone.

The plan seems clear: a complete and total overhaul. The most true freshman starts in University of Illinois history before this season: 33 in 1977. Right now we're at 76 with two games to go. I don't think there's any question that Lovie Smith has more or less said "I'm only using the other guy's guys where necessary - if it's possible to play my guys, I'm going with the recruits immediately."

Which is very rare. As we discussed last week, Baylor is more or less doing the same thing (scandal gets the former coach fired, interim coach takes over for a year, then the new coach takes over and plays most of his true freshmen immediately), but it's a rare thing in college football.

Will it work? At Baylor or Illinois (or even Ball State which is trying a similar approach)? I don't think anyone knows. It's faith in a concept. "Overhaul everything and in a few years, hopefully, there's a really solid foundation". It's more Astros/Cubs than anything. Play the kids, lose a hundred games, eventually you'll keep adding more pieces and get to where you want to go. Again, not saying it will BE Astros/Cubs - just that this is the concept. These are the players we've identified as our future, and we're going to run with them before they're "ready".

I trust that concept. I think it's the way to rebuild a program like ours. I've asked for something like this for a long time. Find the right players for YOUR scheme, play them as soon as you can, and their upperclassman years become your launching pad. I like that we're going with the concept.

But good gosh almighty is it hard to see it going anywhere sometimes. This was the game I had circled for months, and then Indiana more or less played the way I thought they'd play (3.3 yards per carry, so they'd have to throw to win), and we just couldn't make the plays when we needed to make the plays. Yes, youth. Yes, 20 injured players. But it felt like it was right there and we couldn't grab it.

That blindside forced fumble by James Crawford and then we try to pick it up and run with it only to leave it on the turf for Indiana to recover? That connection with Trenard Davis at the Indiana 20 only to be brought back past midfield with a 15 yard personal foul because of a facemask on one of our offensive linemen? Wasting a timeout late because we had 12 men on the field for the punt return AGAIN? Not taking a timeout on those two big fourth-down attempts by Indiana in the second quarter? A quarterback who probably isn't ever going to not turn it over three times per game? Hitting the Indiana tight end five yards short of the first down, only to have him squirm away and get to within a yard of the first down, leading to IU going for it on fourth down (and getting it) to continue the drive that put the game away?

How do you explain these things away? You can't. Which means that the faith in the concept must be blind. One must say "76 scholarship players, 20 are injured, 21 true freshmen have played, youngest team in the country, all part of a complete overhaul" over and over and over to yourself until you trust it enough. Because if you watch the football, you won't see it.

I have a good friend who, I think, has it easier than me. He's a huge Cam Thomas guy - thinks he's the future - so all he does is talk about the failures of Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr. He puts everything this season on them. "Beckman never recruited a quarterback, and right now we're seeing what college football looks like without a quarterback - none of that is Lovie's fault". He thinks that as Cam Thomas matures, this team will mature.

And I have to say, I did think a lot about Cam Thomas today. How nice would it have been to mix in some QB runs? I know a lot of people hate the QB rotation, but I was itching for it today. If I'm thinking with that mindset, yes, none of these offensive struggles are really Lovie's "fault" - this was his first chance to recruit a quarterback, he's getting him ready to start next year, and today we were without him due to the horsecollar tackle last week (what is it with Purdue injuring our quarterbacks?).

But it's really hard to stay in that mindset. Maryland was down to their third string QB and found a way to go to Minnesota and win. Other coaches are finding ways to win with the guys they inherited. At some point, "coaching" must come in to play when trying to get JGjr. to stop fumbling and throwing interceptions. What we're seeing isn't showing much progress.

YET, 76 scholarship players, 20 are injured, 21 true freshmen have played, youngest team in the country, all part of a complete overhaul. 76 scholarship players, 20 are injured, 21 true freshmen have played, youngest team in the country, all part of a complete overhaul. All I can do is blindly hold to that.

Because it does have merit. Young teams rarely ever win - ever. Young teams make tons of mistakes. Add in Epstein and Echard, Turner and Dudek, Thomas and Green, and I think the offense would look much better. The defense has shown progress this year and returns 95% of the depth chart next season. Young players gain experience now and then they will make the plays we failed to make this year. There's a rebuild concept here that makes sense and has merit. If I'm Lovie, this is nearly exactly how I'd go about it.

But after a game like today, I have to acknowledge that my faith in this concept is completely blind. There's just not much I can point to. We had opportunities to win this game and we didn't take them. Same as the Minnesota game and even the Wisconsin game. It's just so hard to watch sometimes.

Yet, 76 scholarship players, 20 are injured, 21 true freshmen have played, youngest team in the country, all part of a complete overhaul....


ktcesw on November 12 @ 05:51 AM CST

We can't really compare our situation to that of other schools. They have quite a bit of talent that they inherited and we inherited very little. Even though they may be playing some freshmen, they have some good guys that are juniors and seniors as a foundation. Our freshmen have to make plays based upon pure athleticism. Not strength and experience. The only concept of Lovie's that I disagree with is his insistence of very little hitting during the preseason. I have seen way too many guys that look like All Americans when they don't have to hit or be hit. Including qb's. I am with Harbaugh on that. Let the qb's get hit during preseason scrimmages and see who steps up. The young guys legs are dying right now and it is like running through water. They will be fine as they gain strength and muscle endurance. Looking forward to the coming years!

illiniranger on November 12 @ 07:02 AM CST

Good points, few things I think:

I don’t care that we lost, I care that we aren’t getting any better. I think that can mostly be blamed on injuries.

I am concerned with the O. When looking at the team you expect some up and down. The D has had some really good moments but the youth or the injuries add up and they end up breaking down. But you can clearly see the future. The offense has shown very little as the year has gone on. Basically one good first half at Iowa and then nothing. Is it injuries, youth, QB play, or the coaching? It’s all of them. They need to fix all of it next year, including injuries which are somewhat a function of weight room.

Bear8287 on November 14 @ 12:25 AM CST

The number of injuries is at the top of my list of concerns. In B1G play, the freshmen as a whole are clearly over matched and it seems to be showing up in the injury reports. Hopefully as they get a chance to physically mature and have more time in the weight room this situation will dramatically improve.

illiniranger on November 12 @ 07:10 AM CST

Two other things. We will be much better next year. Probably not a bowl team, but much better.

That said are we building a program or two decent teams in 2019 and 2020? I’m pretty bullish on the latter but not the former based on how we’ve chosen to RS very few players and that the 2018 recruiting class is 14/14 in the B1G overall and 13/14 in average player ranking.

Illiniiniowa on November 12 @ 05:03 PM CST

I'm less concerned about recruiting. Last year, we were low ranked at this point in the year, but closed very strong. Also, last year, we brought in some lower ranked players that appear to be real B1G players, like Hobbs and Williams, and I believe that isn't just luck. My real fear is that we will develop a good team at every position except QB and never make the jump to contender.

illiniranger on November 13 @ 10:02 AM CST

we need to be in the top half of the B1G recruiting wise to surpass the teams in our league. we may find some diamonds in the rough, but recruiting rankings matter.

TIFWIW; Urban Meyer is on the record saying that recruiting rankings matter.

Bear8287 on November 14 @ 12:28 AM CST

If a kid gets an offer from tOSU, it's likely that his rankings will go up a star and if a kid's best offer is from Illinois it's hard to see him getting anything more than 3 stars.

mrmill on November 12 @ 11:12 AM CST

I’m having major bears flashbacks with Lovie. I’m afraid he’ll never figure out the QB position. I can’t understand how he entered this year with these three QBs. Maybe someone makes a leap next year but I don’t have faith in it.

Illinimac68 on November 13 @ 10:25 AM CST

How hard is it to understand that George Jr. and Crouch were already on the roster and Thomas was a recruit who was originally going to redshirt? Or to understand that the staff recognized the problem and tried to bring in a JUCO QB who didn't make grades?

Bear8287 on November 14 @ 12:34 AM CST

tried to bring in a JUCO QB who didn't make grades...

This. The Illini probably look a whole lot different at O if Dwayne Lawson is lined up behind the center.

Jimmy Fitzgerald bailed and went to Dartmouth.

Where's the depth? There is none.

ATOillini on November 12 @ 01:29 PM CST

Well, I'm near the end and I just ain't got the time

And I'm wasted and I can't find my way home

Blind Faith - "Can't Find My Way Home" (1969)

thumpasaurus on November 12 @ 05:35 PM CST

Given the guy we brought in to coach them, special teams have been very disappointing. I was a lot higher on McGee than Nickerson when this staff was assembled...I'm a lot happier with Nickerson than with McGee.

Bear8287 on November 14 @ 12:41 AM CST

Might say what kind of a bird brain do we have for a special teams coach that seemingly can't count to 11, but apparently that would be an insult to some birds...

Duce20 on November 13 @ 12:26 AM CST

But you don't get the perks the Cubs and Astros got by being bad! You get awful classes. Sure play your guys but sitting Chunky and Rob B is dumb. Sitting DiLauro is dumb. It's this 90% youth movement that is driving me nuts.

Illiniiniowa on November 13 @ 05:48 AM CST

I've seen people say it was a mistake not to fall on the fumble instead of trying to scoop it up here and other places, but given the situation, he did the right thing in my opinion. At that point, our O had done absolutely nothing and I felt we weren't winning that game without a defensive/special teams score and that's what he was going for. It didn't happen so we can second guess after the fact, but maybe he had as much faith in his offense as I did.

illiniranger on November 13 @ 10:00 AM CST

he absolutely should have tried to scoop. got out in front of his skis and muffed it, that sort of thing happens. aggressive mistakes are fine.

ill87ini on November 14 @ 12:49 AM CST

So Ill try to be brief and to the point as much as possible. 40 + year Illini fan and 87 graduate - for perspective.

Thesis statement: This staff will not produce a team with over .500 record against Power5 conference teams, possibly not overall during the contract period. They simply don't have the aptitude or energy to get it done.

Starting from the beginning it was evident this staff did not know (and may not know by the time they leave) how to manage a college football roster. When the current regime came in they immediately (without even evaluating) eliminated 15-20 serviceable walkons from the squad. This led to coaches holding dummies in practice to run against vs. have a 'look' by a real human. Then to add question as to integrity coach Smith in the News Gazette just prior to the North Carolina game, said he wished he had about 10 more walkons to help with scout team! What! He just got rid of a bunch of good kids who were dedicated to the program and could help the younger ones along not only in football but school and just adjusting to campus life.

Secondly the fundamentals displayed are not acceptable for a Power5 team. Our tackling is pathetic, whether you have the athleticism to compete you can at least display the fundamentals, I am not sure that our coaches even realize that those skills must be taught and reinforced, maybe they took it granted in the NFL, but no longer at this level, or especially our team. The Nebraska game and Purdue games were particularly brutal in the tackling department, it was embarrassing and something that should be taught over and over again.

Special teams is another particular embarrassment. In particular the Iowa game was quite evident of this. Iowa does an onsides kick and a fake punt in situations where they really didn't need to. Both worked to perfection. So that says that the Iowa coaches saw on film we had a particular vulnerability in both instances, but our own coaches don't. That is lack of attention to detail. Or the next week, Rutgers when our punt returner doesn't get away from a punt rolling around deep in our territory. That is something taught and reinforced in jr. high football, the excuse was that it was our 5th returner option, well it could have been the 5th string tackle he could have known to get away from the ball. So we are told we have a recruiting disadvantage because our entrant requirements are higher, so theoretically the football iq should be higher, so what gives?

Back to the Iowa game when we punt to them and their guy drops it and we recover it, basically in field goal range. We have a true freshman in what his first or second game, the kid is trying to process so many things at a time and we get a delay of game penalty and now out of field goal range. No i am not blaming our player but our coaches, call a damn time out! You know you have a freshman in there help him out for gods sake! Save the points! Lazy in game management and comprehension of circumstances.

Our best player this year, our punter. No we did not recruit him eastern did, we stole him when when of our outgoing players notified the coaches about him ---- part of the lazy statement.

The general lack of organization, having to call time outs when there is too many or not enough personnel on the field. Really? Inexcusable.

I don't think the concept is there, its stubbornness and rigidity. Basically he is going to play his guys regardless if they are better or not. This coaching staff should have gone out and scoured all the JCs and 5th year graduate student market for serviceable players, but that would have required time and effort which is not in their repertoire. They are methodically going to plod ahead and play guys who are way to young, and underdeveloped, destroy their confidence as well as the fan base. There are guys now who could be contributing and are not even being given the chance.

What does this coaching staff have to do short of some scandal to even be objectively criticized? They all seem like nice guys but there are too many early warning signs this is not going to turn out well. Barring a miracle we will have gone backwards in the W-L department this year. What exactly has improved? We are just playing a bunch of kids who might be competitive the year after next which would be year 4? I can't accept we were coming from a position of a startup D1 program.

The week before we played Rutgers there were signs at Gameday on ESPN - 'Boot Rutgers from the B1G' , well they should have had boot Illinois from the B1G, this level of futility should not be acceptable, really no excuses can justify. If you say its the youth movement then the coaches are the ones putting them on the field, so put them in a position to be successful, to that I say they are not. Dumb down the playbook, find things that work and go with that, short quick passes, misdirection running plays, the option with Crouch idk!

Sorry wasn't as brief as intended. I am curious if anyone has tangible reasons to be optimistic with this coaching staff. I just dont see them lighting the recruiting trail on fire, and their fundamental instruction seems to be inferior and their pre-game strategy and in game decision making is not solid. What else is there?

Peace out Illini fans (whats left of them)

Gary48 on November 15 @ 12:34 PM CST

I'm with Robert in this. Lovie needs to make this 2018 recruiting class a very good one to be sure, but I do think he and his staff are on the right path.

ill87ini on November 15 @ 03:09 PM CST

I would love to share in the optimism, I am truly looking for any flaws in my logic, and I mean any. It would be wonderful if somehow this staff could take us to the promised land. I just dont see them taking us to .500 land even, which initially caused anger and frustration but quickly leads to disinterest.

Our fan base is constantly betting on the come, in this case the 2018 recruiting class, as the savior. Even if that class is good it wont shown on the field until 2019, and that is IF the talent can overcome the mediocre coaching.

At this point its just keep lowering expectations until the results exceed that. I would love to get to the angry point again, that means there are at least some expectations!

Jacob on November 15 @ 04:11 PM CST

Everyone knew this year would be bad. Your logic is completely flawed and you made very cogent points

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