Training Camp 2017 IX: Craig's Football 101 Syllabus
Lovie Smith has assembled a coaching staff with deep experience in the NFL. The Illini staff has constantly trumpeted the fact that this is a staff of pure coaches, guys who can teach. As has been well documented, this is an extremely young Illini team. There are 26 new faces in camp this year, and seven recruited seniors. Lovie brought in a staff of professors to teach football. This year is going to show if the professors can leave the lab and master's level classes, and teach College Football 101.
A quick look at the syllabus by position group.
Offensive Line with Professor Butkus:
The offensive line has 12 scholarship players, five of whom have never played OL in college before this season (Zeke Martin was a DT last season). Ideally, a college offensive line has seven players that contribute in the season (5 starters, 2 backups). In theory, Illinois would rely on its seven returning OL. However, based on camp performance to date, I predict that Larry Boyd and/or Alex Palczewski will likely surpass some of the returning guys. Prof. Butkus can help all of his new guys get ready for their first college season by focusing on hand placement, sitting down in pass protection, and scheme nuance for blocking. A large portion of 2016's offensive woes stemmed from the inability of the OL to execute the entire scheme as a unit. Something as simple as a kickout vs. seal block is the difference between a 3 yard gain and Foster taking it to the house. Last season, the Illini were explosive in the run game, just not consistent. This year, they need consistency while maintaining the explosiveness.
Quarterbacks with Professor McGee:
The most experienced quarterback on the Illinois roster is Jeff George Jr. Unfortunately, George is not ideally designed for McGee's scheme: George is a pocket passer in a system that is best suited for a dual threat quarterback. Based on last year's performance, George is not the best under pressure in the pocket either, and pressure is a given this season. Even though Chayce Crouch was declared starting quarterback, he remains somewhat of an unknown quantity. He took limited snaps in last year's injury-shortened season. Unlike George, we know Crouch moves in the pocket, movement that will help a young offensive line. Running is Crouch's forte, currently the passing game is not. Crouch needs to make better decisions with the ball and play within himself. Crouch was a gamer against Purdue and Rutgers last season; he needs to bring that level of play and add some work in the passing game. Professor McGee should take both a short- and long-term approach to Crouch's development. In the short-term, McGee can support Crouch by tailoring his scheme to fit his talent: moving Crouch on pass plays and showcasing Crouch's running abilities. In the long-term, Crouch should also benefit from a concerted effort to expand Crouch's repertoire.
Tight Ends with Professor Ligashesky:
This could really be summarized as the starter is the best blocker. Ligs has receivers in his group. The question becomes which player(s) can become an inline blocker. Teaching the nuances of blocking from the wing, H-back and online locations requires a lot of nuance, which can be added as the year progresses. Right now, a tight end holding his own straight up vs. a defensive end in the run game is a must.
Wide Receivers with Professor Hayes-Stoker:
While Hayes-Stoker has wowed all of us with his impressive work in Texas so far this year, I will be looking more towards his work on blocking and route running. The blocking portion is the hardest thing for young receivers to learn, as most never really did it in high school. Hayes-Stoker has some nice pieces to start (Turner, Dudek, Mays), but for the Illini really to shine he needs to teach route tree options and route running to the young guys on campus (Smalling, Green, Smith and Thieman). Everyone looks good on the fly route as a WR, but the receiver who can move the chains will be the one who plays this season.
Defensive Line with Professor Phair:
This is the guy I have the most confidence in with the staff. Two seasons ago, Phair came in and began teaching the core fundamentals this defense utilizes. Out of the wordwork came Rob Bain. Last season Carroll Phillips really shined; Jamal Milan and Kenyon Jackson both played significant minutes and held up well. This season, Phair needs to teach seven freshman, and needs at least three to contribute. The most important lessons for this season are hand technique and gap control. If the scheme is a single safety, gap control defense, then the defensive line needs to hold the gap.
Linebacking with Professor Nickerson:
This is the deepest, most experienced unit, so Prof. Nickerson's can focus on teaching nuance. Watson, Hansen and Jones have taken a lot of snaps in this system. Those three are all B1G caliber players, and the Illini run three deep each linebacker position. The biggest item on the syllabus this season is zone coverage, something Illinois was not particularly good at last season. Nickerson did not teach this group last season; it's time to see if he can raise their level of play.
Safeties with Professor Abraham:
Abraham is the new professor on the staff, and inherits a nifty little group of students. Illinois closed last season with Pat Nelson and Stanley Green manning the spots. While things were not perfect, a defensive backfield with B1G experience is a great start. Illinois added one of the headiest safeties I have seen in this class (Bennett Williams), which means Abraham is teaching the nuances much like Nickerson. DeGroot, Williams and Hylton are a nice trio that will challenge last season's incumbents and provide good depth at the position.
Cornerbacks with Professor Williams:
Professor Williams can count on Jaylen Dunlap, whom Robert believes is the surest thing on the roster. The other slots (opposite Dunlap and the Nickelback) are more questionable. Prof. Williams will need to get his pupils up to speed quickly. Illinois will face the top two returning quarterbacks in its first three games. To help cover up a young defensive line, Illinois will need to lean on their press man system. Press man technique requires teaching the corners on nose to nose coverage, and the hand fighting required to stay tight with receivers. Prof. Williams has a quick study in Dunlap, but requires the rest of the class of Sumpter, Watkins, Hayes, Evan Jones, Tony Adams and Nate Hobbs to step up. Short term, the corners need to support the young defense. This season Prof. Williams will need to prove his mettle as a coach. He has a reputation as a pure recruiter, but by the end of the season he will need to develop corners that can mix coverages and looks.
Dean Lovie Smith:
Lovie has three main objectives this season: Keep the kids motivated. Develop the talent. Continue to close on the recruits. This is going to be a rough season. Two of Illinois' three out-of-conference opponents are candidates for the New Year's Six bowl game. Both have new coaches, but also contain dangerous personnel. With so many freshmen, this is going to be a rough season, lots of mistakes are going to be made. The ability to teach up the kids makes all the difference this season.