What It Should Look Like
So I cut last night's postgame post short (mostly because it was 1:45 am). I want to expand on that post this morning. But my brain has moved on from the details of the game to one thing: what this thing should look like next year and in 2020.
Let's start with this, because you're going to forget below: when this season is over, the likely scenario is that we look back on the Big Ten, top to bottom, and say "we were the 12th best team - we simply beat #13 and #14". While this victory felt good, and the blowout was great to see, I feel like this Minnesota team is going to get blown out three more times and finish 4-8 (with their only Big Ten win coming against #11 on that list - Indiana). We need to hold the perspective that we're still not on the level of the Big Ten West teams we're hoping to join. That's OK, and the plan is to progress to that level, but as of now, I don't think we're there.
Let's also note this: Many people tweeted me yesterday asking if this was the "sudden and violent change" I've been talking about. While I think that's partially true (yesterday was a "click"), it doesn't mean anything unless it's repeated. If Purdue, Wisconsin, and Maryland were relatively competitive games where we just weren't there yet, then yes, I might be inclined to think that yesterday was a light switch. But they were the worst three consecutive Illini defeats of my lifetime, and that still matters.
With that out of the way, we can note that bowling this year was never part of the "plan". I mean, it's always part of the plan, but with the map I laid out before the 2017 season, we're now meeting the minimum expectation. I predicted 4-8 before this season, Vegas had the over under at 3.5 wins, and we're now at four wins (with a blowout of a Big Ten opponent!). There's been too much ugly to suggest anything better than "minimum expectations met" - perhaps a surprising win these next three weeks could change that - but as of now, passing grade. C-.
Why such a curve? Why would I set four wins in year three as the bar to clear? We've been over that, but it wouldn't hurt to recap.
- Because of several factors (the Beckman firing, the lost Cubit recruiting class after Not Ideal, the fact that Lovie didn't get an initial recruiting class), Lovie's 2017 Illini roster was one of the youngest Big Ten rosters in decades. I searched and searched and could not find an equal. The cards he was dealt when he took over were ugly, and that needs to be acknowledged. He did not, in any way, have the situation Jeff Brohm inherited at Purdue. Brohm has obviously done better than Lovie in developing his program (and recruiting Rondale Moores), but this thing needs to be handicapped.
- When you run with a team that young, as a fan, in my view, you do two things: 1. Stay patient because it's going to be u-g-l-y for a while, and 2. Demand a huge payoff for that patience. The young team will get destroyed by experienced opponents for a while, and then, once they all have a certain number of starts underneath them, the whole thing needs to make a sudden change. Now YOU'RE the experienced team and YOU need to be doing the destroying. A gut-job rebuild makes no sense if there's not a big payoff.
- It probably needs to be its own bullet point even though I alluded to it above: hopping off the juco train was a huge hit to the roster. Beckman recruited 18 jucos in 2013-2015 - Cubit recruited one in 2016 and Lovie recruited one in 2017. That's a huge pill to swallow. When you recruit jucos, you're giving that scholarship to a junior instead of adding a freshman to develop. So when the juco graduates in two years, you don't have that developed third-year player to replace him. You then either add another juco in his spot (the aforementioned juco train), or you play a true freshman. That was a lot of why 2017 was 2017.
So with these minimum expectations met, what's next? Significant expectations.
I mentioned the whole "win 18 of the next 31" thing a few weeks ago, so let's check back in on that. We're 1-1, which means we now need to win 17 of 29. 17-12 the next 29 games. I set it at 31 games because of the 5 remaining games in 2017 (I wrote it the week before the Maryland game), and then the expectations of 13 total games in both 2019 and 2020 (with bowl games each year). In those 31 games, win 18. It could be a 1-4 finish this year, 7-5 plus a bowl win next year, and then 9-3 with a bowl loss in 2020. Or whatever - make your own combination. My expectations: win 18 of 31.
OK, we're finally to the meat of this post. That was a LONG preface. If we're going to win 17 of the next 29 (and we really need to win 17 of the next 29), what will it look like? What is the payoff for all of this?
I'll list three needs.
1. Need a massive defensive leap
Every player gets a year older, so many players cross that important "underclassman to upperclassman" line, and there's only one graduation: Del'Shawn Phillips. And Phillips will be replaced by a fourth-year junior who was a 4-star recruit and transferred in from Washington (Milo Eifler). So if there was ever a roster prepared to make such a "massive defensive leap", it's one that looks like this. One would hope that the leap the offensive line took from last year to this year could be matched by the defensive line next year.
The player rotations should be there at every position. A quick run-through:
DE: Roundtree, Carney, and Gay are the main three, and then you look for a fourth guy from the mix of Shogbonyo, Mondesir, Pearl, E. Holmes, and monster recruit Moses Okpala. Perhaps Jamal Woods also factors in at defensive end, but he might also...
DT: Three seniors next year are the core (Milan, Oliver, and Jackson), plus maybe Woods slots in here (he's going to slot in somewhere), and then there's the young guys (Avery, Pate, V. Brown). Tons of depth there.
LB: Mentioned above, but just replace Phillips with Eifler and continue what we're seeing this year: Hansen, Harding, and Eifler - three guys for two spots. Need to find a fourth guy from the mix of youngsters (Tolson, Hollins, Knight, maybe a true freshman or a juco?)
DB: I still don't know where to put super-recruit Marquez Beason. Here, tell me where he fits in...
CB: Hobbs (JR) / Wyatt (SO)
CB: Martin (SO) / Hardge (SO) or Walker (JR)
NB: Watkins (SR) / Ware (SO)
SS: S. Brown (SO) / Joseph (SO) or Smith (JR)
FS: Adams (JR) / Green (SR)
Yeah, it's probably cornerback. A three-man main rotation of Hobbs, Martin, and Beason. (But could he maybe go to wide receiver?)
I can picture that defense making a leap. The problem: they're still statistically the worst defense of my lifetime. So that "leap" might be like the offense this year: looks like an amazing leap from what we saw last year, but that's just a leap from "one of the worst in college football" to "now ranked 67th nationally in the NERDstats".
2. Need the offense to not only maintain this surge, but improve.
There are more departures on offense than defense, but it's still a very small number. The Illini will need to replace a blocking tight end (Austin Roberts), maybe the third wide receiver (Sam Mays), and one offensive lineman (Nick Allegretti, a massive loss). Oh, and now that AJ Bush has reclaimed the starting spot, a quarterback.
The last one is fairly easy to envision, I think. MJ Rivers proved to be serviceable in the five games he's entered, Isaiah Williams will be given every chance to come in and do what AJ Bush has been doing, (perhaps not yesterday's 216 passing yards, but definitely the 127 rushing yards). And there's still Matt Robinson and Coran Taylor over there on the bench.
The roster needs an influx of talent at receiver, and perhaps they get that from recruits Fabian McCray, Casey Washington, (Marquez Beason), or perhaps the return of Edwin Carter from injury. Definitely a concern if the offense is going to take a step forward, but I can see a mix of Ricky Smalling, Trenard Davis, Dominic Stampley, (Marquez Beason), Carmoni Green, and Fabian McCray getting there.
Replacing Allegretti will be tough, but it's always good to get four of five offensive linemen back. The entire offseason will be spent trying to find a right guard to join them. And there are plenty of candidates: Larry Boyd (who already has nine starts under his belt), maybe one of the soon-to-be seniors (Solomon or Martin), maybe one of the soon-to-be juniors (Cerny or Gavin), maybe one of the soon-to-be redshirt freshmen (Slaughter or Myers). All you need to find is one guy.
Tight End is perhaps the biggest concern. Louis Dorsey is now gone, so it's been Daniel Barker catching passes and Austin Roberts + Bobby Walker blocking guys. Walker returns for one more year, but who replaces Roberts? Move another linebacker over? And you need someone to pair with Barker.
Those are issues every team deals with, though. If we look at, say, the last 25 years of Illini football, maybe 22 of 25 teams have had to replace more than this on offense. This run game, as you see it, pretty much returns. Corbin + Epstein + Brown + Bonner and then you add 4.3 speedster Kyron Cumby. I think it's logical to expect the run game to still be there if not take another big step forward.
Passing game? That's the question.
3. Need to find a kicker
Might seem silly to list this as an equal with the others, but this is clearly the biggest roster spot to fill. Remember, we're talking about needs in order to make a leap to a place where we win 17 of the next 29 games. And when you do that, you go through this phase where you're trying to win a 34-31 game against Iowa or Nebraska. So many of those 17 wins, especially next season, will likely be close games.
And what do you need to win close games? A solid placekicker. What do we have right now? An amazing placekicker. What is he? A senior.
What do we want? A KICKER. When do we want it? NOW.
The good news is that we're not going to be relying on walkons to fill the void created by McLaughlin's graduation. We have the really odd scenario of having three scholarship kickers right now - a walkon who joined under Beckman (McLaughin, later put on scholarship), the kicker Bill Cubit recruited (James McCourt), and the kicker Lovie Smith recruited (Caleb Griffin).
So the battle next season will be between the redshirt junior (McCourt) and the redshirt freshman (Griffin). And the winner will maybe be the most important player on the roster as we (hopefully) enter games where we're tied with Purdue 27-27 in the fourth quarter.
What should it look like? Well, hopefully, it looks like yesterday. Run game determines everything. The playmakers have space to make plays. The quarterback keeps teams honest with his arm. And the defense is opportunistic, dialing up a blitz at just the right time and ripping the ball out here and there.
Is the roster there to do that? I honestly believe it is. The defensive hires after the season will be so, so important. They need to take these players and produce the same leap we're seeing from the offense.
Get the defense from this disaster of a season to middle-of-the-road nationally. Take the offense from, say, the 65th-best offense to the 38th-best offense. Get to a bowl, hopefully win it, and then take yet another leap in 2020. You're now competing with every team in the Big Ten West, not just knocking off the lower end.
And, of course, sending PJ Fleck back up the river without any oars.