Training Camp 2017 XI: Let's Try This Again
If I'm honest, the four practices I watched last week were some of the worst practices I've seen at any Illini training camp. There's a reason for that, which I'll discuss in a bit, but that's the honest truth. Saturday night's quasi-scrimmage was really rough on the offensive side of the ball. And on the eyes.
Let's start there, because I never really wrote a post about that practice (because I didn't really want to). By my count, there were seven interceptions - two during 7 on 7 drills and five during 11 on 11. The 11 on 11 period was a long one - maybe 48 plays? - so you're going to see the average numbers go up, but still... that's a lot of interceptions. Especially when the QB is in an orange jersey and can't be tackled. A sack-less pocket for all the QB's and seven total interceptions (maybe it was only six - I lost count)? That's a rough practice. I believe Jeff George Jr. "won" the interception race with four of them (but I wasn't taking notes so these are just stats from memory.)
Now, there were reasons. For starters, that practice saw nine offensive linemen suited up. When you're down to nine, you can't even fill out a second string. And when you're missing two starters, you're just tossing a patchwork OL out on the field (with tons of freshmen) and trying to make it work. Add to that the fact that three of the main offensive weapons (Malik Turner, Mikey Dudek, and Reggie Corbin) were held out of that practice and you can see why the defense dominated the offense.
I should also note that a scrimmage like this goes from first to second to third string and plays everyone (and I mean everyone - all of the walkons get reps). Which means the 55 freshmen (FIFTY FIVE FRESHMEN when you count the redshirts and the walkons) are, like, 60% of the players participating in the scrimmage. And when you have that many players participating who barely know the playbook, it's going to be ugly.
So I didn't leave all angry or "why aren't we better?" or anything like that. It's just a function of this rebuild. It is going to be u-g-l-y for a while at this camp. We knew this. If that team taking the field for that scrimmage was facing Murray State instead of themselves last Saturday, I'm pretty sure they lose to Murray State. By October, we'd (hopefully) destroy a Murray State, but Saturday night was rough.
I should also mention - I'm totally backing down here, aren't I? - that a "scrimmage" like this (where they're not even tackling) is situational. Which includes plays like "it's 3rd and 13 and you're down 10 with four minutes remaining - you have to try to make a play here and under no circumstances may you take a sack" and "it's third and five from your own two - a turnover here is disastrous so run it instead of making a risky throw". So when the crowd is watching and they see Jeff George Jr. throw off his back foot and it's intercepted and they're saying "why did he throw that?", sometimes it's a down and distance go-for-broke kind of thing. This was not an attempt to move the ball down the field. They re-set the spot after every single play (to put the offense/defense into certain down-and-distance scenarios). So yes, there are #reasons. (Those interceptions tho....)
Now that I'm headed back up to Champaign to watch three more practices, I'd like to see some improvement. I've missed three practices, and I'd like to see that they've advanced past "the players don't know what they're doing" during that time. This is a massive undertaking - did I mention that 55 of the 102 player participating are freshmen? - but there needs to be progress along the way. I'm hoping to see some of it these next few days. Such as...
- The rust gone from Chayce Crouch. He's been on throwing restrictions since October, so you can forgive him if he's a little rusty during the first week of practice. This is his first time attempting every throw in nine months. But by the end of the second week, I'd like to see some of that rust gone.
- The confusion gone from the freshmen. I totally get that the first week can be overwhelming. There was one play where Cam Thomas was in 11 on 11, turned the wrong way to hand the ball to the tailback (who was running past him on the other side), and then Thomas just stopped (while the coaches reminded him that during a game, he probably needs to do something other than just stop when he makes a mistake). I'm not expecting the light bulbs to come on yet, but I'd like to see some progress.
- Better kicking. I want to say Chase McLaughlin went 1 for 7 during the kicking drills on Saturday night. Um, the starting kicker can't go 1 for 7. Ever.
- Run stuffing. There were some nice long runs during the scrimmage portion of the practice - they weren't tackling, but these runs were the untouched kind - and with the makeshift offensive line struggling at most things, I put a lot of those long runs on poor defense instead of great offense. Maybe I'm wrong and the run game is really coming together (oh please oh please), but it felt like this was on the D. So, gimme more D as the freshmen defensive linemen start to figure out what they're doing.
- Crispness. I'm not expecting solid, clean practices. That won't happen until next year at this time. But I am expecting the raggedness to improve. That would help me to feel a lot better.
Is that too much to ask? Maybe. There are five weeks of practice leading up to the first game and this is just week two. And I've said time and time again that I see this as a 24 game season (combine 2017 and 2018 together since the teams will be nearly identical), so we're 1.7% of the way through this journey. There's so much growth that will happen in the next 16 months. I need to be patient.
But still - with three more practices on my schedule, I really want to see some tangible improvement. I want to feel like this is all headed somewhere. I want to see it with my own eyes.
Maybe with less than seven interceptions.