This is "green day" for me in St. Louis. You've noticed trees beginning to leaf out, but then you drive to work and it feels like everything greened-up overnight. I usually associate this time of the year with the Spring Game. We didn't have one, but I think I'm going to act like we did. That normal flurry of posts that happen right after the spring game... let's do those now.
First off, thanks for those who offered kind words about my mother-in-law's funeral. It's why I've barely been around the last 10 days. The remaining members of the family in town for the funeral left on Tuesday, and last night I spent a long evening with my wife embracing the quiet. Today, with some time here at lunch, let's talk football.
As I mentioned in the post about basketball assistants, it's interesting to me to take some time away from my Illini obsessions and then return with a fresh look. When I look at Illini football with fresh eyes this April 13th, three things stick out. Starting with:
I'm happy to hear that Lovie is being so clear about Chayce Crouch being the #1 QB. This does not mean the competition is over, but I much prefer a head coach to name the number one guy coming out of the spring. A leader to rally around.
As you probably know, I'm pro-Crouch for a number of reasons. For starters, I've quoted that Charlie Weis quote about a dozen times here - in college football, if your quarterback can't run, you're playing 10 on 11 - and I've long preferred the dual QB's (see my Aaron Bailey campaign a few years ago). Crouch looked really, really good in the Purdue game last year (we lost, on a Crouch fumble, so no one remembers how solid he was, and then he tore up his shoulder early the next game). It's the offense Garrick McGee wants to run, Crouch can run it, if the shoulder is 100% he's 100% the guy.
This goes all the way back to training camp in 2015 when I made my prediction that Crouch would get snaps that season and not because Lunt was injured (he did, because he's a solid runner). I am who I am, and I want my quarterbacks to run, and through all three years of Lunt I kicked and screamed against the pocket. I wanted Bailey to win the job, then O'Toole took over and ran us to a bowl game, then a glimpse of Crouch in 2015, and then last year our offense looking the best against Purdue. (I also thought Lunt's insane cannon could make the Cubit offense work, but let's not talk about that right now - I'm on a roll.)
I don't really know where I'm going with this other than to say that I still believe Crouch is the guy. If Dwayne Lawson does make it to school, I hope he redshirts because I think Crouch is the guy. Jeff George Jr. led a great comback against Michigan State and can provide solid (pocket QB) backup, but I think Crouch is the guy.
Now, stay healthy.
Pretty much the entire team will return in 2018, meaning that the 2017 season is a practice season, and I think this will be the most evident on the defense. There are eight seniors on the entire roster, and five of them are on offense. Meaning that only Jaylen Dunlap (starting cornerback), Ahmari Hayes (backup cornerback) and James Crawford (backup linebacker attempting the move to defensive end) will be gone after this season. If the younger guys play more than Crawford and Hayes, then it's pretty much a defense that loses Jaylen Dunlap and no one else.
I saw a picture a few weeks ago of all the linebackers with Coach Nickerson at that bowling event and it got me thinking about how all of this might change over the next 18 months. There's just so much that we don't know about the younger linebackers. I'm looking at the picture and seeing Julian Jones and Justice Williams and Dele Harding and DelShawn Phillips and Jake Hansen and wondering how we're going to fit them in with Tre Watson. Our linebackers against Ball State on Labor Day Weekend - might they completely change by the Northwestern game in 2018? There are so many different options there and I'm just not sure who fits in where (besides Tre Watson).
Same with the defensive line. There's six new freshmen defensive ends coming in - how will that sort out. And at defensive tackle - what's the pecking order between Jamal Milan, Tito Odenigbo, Kenyon Jackson, Tymir Oliver, and Kendrick Green? I feel like that might look different in November 2018 than it does in September 2017.
My point: generally, when you have one senior starting, it's a "10 starters return" situation. But with the way this is playing out, it feels like we might have 10 starters return... with 3-4 of those starters being overtaken by younger guys in 2018. I think we might see a lot of what we saw in 2016 - Darius Mosely starts at corner, and then Ahmari Hayes, then Frank Sumpter, and then Cam Watkins. I'm certain Dunlap will start at one corner spot, but I could see at least five different players vying for the other corner spot.
It's an interesting scenario. A second year coach bringing in his first recruiting class and a very young roster across the board. There will be so many changes as the staff figures it out.
I've realized that I'm going to be a disaster watching Mikey Dudek on the practice field in August. Any time he goes down to the turf - and, news flash, players will fall to the turf during practie - I'm going to fear the worst.
Same with Dre Brown. Any player that goes down with two ACL tears over two consecutive years... I fear the worst with every contact. It's totally irrational - I can list dozens of NFL players who returned from torn ACL's and never had another knee problem again (and I can list many Illini players like Chunky Clements who never had another knee problem) - but it's where I'm going to be. I think Dre can be a great college tailback and we know what Mikey can do... so I'm going to be a mess.
Specifically on Mikey - and I have no medical basis for saying this so please take this as the insane ramblings of a fan - I'm hoping that the second injury was just bad luck. As in, the cartilage chosen for the replacement tendon was, I don't know, faulty in some way and that's what caused the partial tear (whereas the first injury was a full tear). So now that it's been fixed up, all will be fine.
Because I really want 2014 Mikey again. We had a national player for the first time in a long time - someone who made people say "have you seen that Dudek kid at Illinois?" - and I want him to make national headlines again. Just need him healthy (and with the program they put him on this time, giving him a full 16 months before contact, I think we can trust that he is).
I don't really have a point here either - just wanted to type out what we're all thinking: Please be healthy, Mikey. You're the guy.