Training Camp 2017 XIV: Mailbag I

Aug 11, 2017

Well, Mailbag Day took a bit of a turn. I always ask for mailbag questions and then go to practice to look for those things, but Lovie cancelled practice today. So I'll have to just do all of these from memory. Here are my answers to your questions... as I can best recall from the practices I've already watched.

@ALionEye With Lovie's background on the defensive side, do u find him spending more time w/that group? Or roaming to all groups @ practice?

-- Max Barrett (@DrMaxBarrett) August 11, 2017

I would say "roaming with all groups" is the correct answer. For a few years Tim Beckman was the cornerbacks coach (when they'd break up into position drills, Tim Banks would coach the safeties and Beckman would coach the corners). But Lovie is nothing like that. He doesn't have a position group. He will sometimes participate with a position group, but I've observed him mostly obsesrving.

When they're in 7 on 7 or 11 on 11, he's usually 15 yards behind the quarterback observing the play. Garrick McGee will be near him instructing the QB's on this read or that read, Andrew Hayes-Stoker will be out on the edge (usually near one of the freshman receivers) giving specific instructions on each play, but Lovie will stand in the middle and observe.

When the 7 on 7 drills are going on (quarterbacks, tailbacks, and receivers vs. linebackers and defensive backs), there's usually a line drill on the other end of the field. Which is typically one-on-ones (the full line is lined-up but on the whistle one DL goes against one OL). Sometimes Lovie will simply pivot from his spot 15 yards behind the quarterback on one end of the field to be 15 yards behind the one-on-ones going on at the other end. On occasion he'll go up to a player with a specific instruction, but that's mostly done by the assistants.

So he's clearly the boss at practice. Everything pivots around him, sometimes quite literally. And when he calls everyone in, believe me, they rush in to circle around him. He commands respect.

@ALionEye How is the secondary looking? Are we thinking or flying around making plays?

-- Nathan Williams (@KnoxIllini2) August 11, 2017

It's looking... thin. Last night they ran out of cornerbacks and had to use nickelback Chris James at one of the corner spots on second string. Every second counts 'cause there's no second try.

At corner they were missing Tony Adams (they're taking it easy with his knee - he's just 10 months back from ACL surgery), Jaylen Dunlap (hasn't practiced yet - ankle I believe), Nate Hobbs (he's still out sick), and Evan Jones (not sure what the injury is). So they left Cam Watkins all alone at nickel and moved James on over so that they could have a rotation of four for practice (Ahmari Hayes, Frank Sumpter, James, and walkon Nolan Bernat).

At safety they're still missing Harvey Clayton Jr. (not sure why) so the rotation has been Pat Nelson with Bennett Williams and Stanley Green with Dawson DeGroot (with some snaps from Julian Hylton mixed into each rotation). Williams has been the biggest surprise. Not sure if they're trying to get him ready because Stanley Green will miss the first half of the Ball State game (ejected during the Northwestern game, has to serve a first half suspension of the next game), but Bennett Williams has pretty much been the starting free safety at every practice I've watched.

Are they "flying around"? Not really. It's very instructional right now. Guys like Adams, Williams, and DeGroot are just now learning the system. So it doesn't look anything like it will look in 2019 when nearly every one of the players discussed above will still be here. We're really young everywhere, and young players are tentative.

Is the Honeymoon over for Lovie? Will fans start to jump off bandwagon if/when losses start adding up this year?

-- Stan Rull (@stanrull) August 11, 2017

Great question. I have no idea. This answer will probably go long but allow me to ramble for a bit.

I listened to The Solid Verbal Big Ten preview driving up here yesterday. I patiently waited for them to get to us and then they barely mentioned us. It was mostly covered in one question: if you had to pick Illinois or Purdue this year, who do you pick? Both Ty and Dan said Purdue (and I agree with them). What Jeff Brohm has to work with at Purdue this year (with a QB like Blough) is probably a better situation than what Lovie has to work with (youngest team in the country). Brohm is walking into something similar to what Cubit inherited in 2015 (fourth year of a rebuild that proved to be going nowhere but there was at least some depth). Lovie has started the gut rebuild and will be leaning heavily on true freshmen.

Ty dismissed this as "I never really thought Lovie was the best fit there - NFL coach trying to rebuild a college team" (paraphrasing) and I immediately got all defensive. I want to scream every statistic known to man (youngest team, gut rebuild, hopped off the juco train so we have to fill the holes with freshmen, giant recruiting hole for a year from May of 2015 to May of 2016 while the Beckman/Cubit thing played out, etc etc), but I realized that none of that matters. In the "college football podcast touches on Illinois football" realm, it's going to be "it already looks like it isn't working" and that's that.

So the national answer to your question, I think, is yes, the honeymoon is over. When we lose to Ball State or WKU (or both), the national reaction will be "welp - looks like Lovie just isn't cut out for college ball".

The fanbase reaction - or my reaction at least - will be to point to all of the rebuilds I detailed in this column. If fans will jump off the bandwagon in the beginning of year two (and they might), they would also have jumped off the bandwagon of Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin, Kirk Ferentz at Iowa, David Cutcliffe at Duke, Mike MacIntyre at Colorado, and several other longform rebuilds. My sense is that fans still understand that and are patient, but I don't know if that's correct or not.

For me personally, this is a five year thing. My One Thing the last decade is that the programs around us (Iowa, Northwestern, Minnesota) all installed two systems and stuck to them for 5+ years. While we changed offenses, defenses, and head coaches trying to find the right thing. I long for us to do the same thing for five years and see where it takes us. See if we can find some program stability.

So I'm all in on getting Ricky Smalling and Bobby Roundtree to the 2020 season and see what we have. What's it going to hurt, right? I mean, we've endured 25 years with two bright spots and a lot (A LOT) of losing - what's waiting five years to see if consistency might work for us? I think most Illini fans view it that way (maybe not my five full years, but at least four), but again, maybe I don't have my finger on the pulse.

Which means all I can do is report on what I see and offer my patient opinion. It's rough right now (like we might lose to Ball State rough), but that's OK. This thing is being overhauled quickly with what I perceive to be talented players, so hopefully we don't have to wait five full years to see progress like Duke or Indiana (or even four years like Colorado, Iowa, or Wisconsin). I'm hopeful all of the rough edges in 2017 turn into a minor bowl in 2018 and then a big step forward in 2019.


Groundhogday on August 11 @ 04:00 PM CDT

This will be a rough year from a PR perspective. We've been a bad program, with a few brights spots, for some time. This is a complete gut and rebuild with an absurdly young and inexperienced football team. We COULD lose to Ball State. But no one will get that nationally, regionally or even much of anywhere outside of Champaign-Urbana and the die hard premium fan forums.

But as long as Lovie can pull in a good 2018 recruiting class and solid start to 2019 class next spring, none of this matters a great deal. FWIW, Alvarez went 5-6 his second year, but against a really weak schedule. Wisconsin wasn't competitive until year 3 (when they also went 5-6 but with a bunch of close losses, tougher schedule, and a top-20 upset win). And Alvarez was hired in the fall, not spring, and hence was able to bring in some of his guys in that first class (vs. Lovie entirely inheriting Cubit's awful scramble interim-coach class).

Bear8287 on August 12 @ 12:06 AM CDT

I agree with Robert and GHD about the program. I'd like to see improvement on the field and a minor bowl next year would be great. This is likely going to take a while.

I'm actually encouraged by how many freshman will be playing. One way to read this is that Lovie and Co. are already bringing in quality players. Freshman making an immediate impact could continue to happen for a while.

The last time the Illini went to a Rose Bowl game they did so with a Sophomore QB named Juice Williams.

But as long as Lovie can pull in a good 2018 recruiting class and solid start to 2019 class next spring, none of this matters a great deal.

Agreed. This will be the real challenge.

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