I went to the basketball scrimmage at Ubben this morning and was reminded, very starkly, that we only have six players right now. And then I went to the football scrimmage and was reminded, very starkly, that we're not there yet.
This is not a bad thing. It's not unexpected. When 15 players transfer after the football season, it's going to look thin the next spring. And when four basketball players transfer after the season (from a roster that was two short of full), it's going to look very thin.
To be able to scrimmage at Ubben, they had the six players, two walkons, and the two recruits in town (Griffin, the commit, and Feliz, the kid on his official visit). To be able to scrimmage at Memorial Stadium, especially with the 15 transfers and the 13 players held out with injuries today, they had to play... 12 walkons? 15?
Here's the simple math for football: there's roughly 60 scholarship players on campus right now, and with around 15 players being held out (injury, academics, etc), there's +/- 45 available players for the scrimmage. But it's a live scrimmage, which means they're tackling, and they don't want a Mikey Dudek or a RIcky Smalling to get hurt during a live scrimmage, so there were maybe 5-7 other players held out (or only put in there for non-contact punt returns and such). So I'd say maybe 35-38 scholarship players really participated in the scrimmage.
Here's an example: at safety, with none of the freshmen here yet and Stanley Green plus Bennett Williams being held out, there were four safeties total: Kendall Smith (who was at wide receiver last fall), Dawson DeGroot, sophomore walkon Michael Marchese, and freshman walkon PC Daniel. Once the season starts, it's possible that none of these players play at all. You might see Williams and Green as the starters and two of the freshmen as backups.
So what can you learn from this scrimmage? Whether Dawson DeGroot is ready to be one of the backup safeties I guess? It's just so hard to get a read on anything.
Which speaks to where we are in the rebuild. This is year three, but it's very much still being overhauled. 8 seniors graduated,15 additional players went out the door, and their replacements will be in Champaign this summer. Spring game today - maybe 35% walkons on the field at all times. Spring game in 2020? Perhaps 25 more scholarship players participating. Today? Two scholarship safeties, of which one is a wide receiver being tried at safety this spring. Spring ball 2020? Nine scholarship safeties.
There were things to learn today, all of which will be summarized below. For the most part, the OL and DL were full rotations of scholarship athletes. There was only one quarterback, and the receivers were 70% walkons, but there was much to learn on the lines. Slowly but surely it's getting there.
But overall, there's a reason Lovie canceled three spring practices and just went with walkthroughs and team meetings instead: the roster isn't even close to ready yet. The depth just isn't there. Like last year, it's mostly a lost spring, so time is better spent on everyone learning the scheme side of things. Practicing it can come at training camp.
On to the observations:
+ The most impressive thing, by far, was the running game. Much of this had to do with walkons all over the field at linebacker, cornerback, and safety. But it was still nice to see Reggie Corbin and Ra'Von Bonner break of 60+ yard runs at least five times.
In fact, that photo at the top is one of Corbin's long runs. He's at about the 44 and he's going to score. I just happened to be taking the photo when Corbin broke another long one. I really do think there were five runs over 60 yards.
Now, this was the first-string offense against the second-string defense. The second string defense had... two scholarship players in the back seven? So these are Big Ten running backs hitting the hole and then needing to juke walkons. Big Ten running backs had better juke walkons.
Still, these were some legit holes to get the tailbacks into those one-on-one matchups with the walkon secondary. The offensive line is getting somewhere. Let's make that the next plus sign.
+ The line-flipping is gone (no more "strong tackle" and "quick tackle" flipping sides based on the play), so we can list the line as "left tackle" and "right guard" again. The first string line today was:
LT: Jake Cerny (SO)
LG: Alex Palczewski (SO)
C: Doug Kramer (SO)
RG: Nick Allegretti (SR)
RT: Vederian Lowe (SO)
It seems like four of those spots are set for the season. Only left tackle might be a battle come August, with Cerny battling last year's starter (Larry Boyd) for the spot. Boyd got a lot of work at right guard with the second string line (plus some work at left tackle), so I had the thought that they're prepping him to be Nick Allegretti's replacement next year. If he does beat out Cerny for the left tackle spot this fall, so be it, and then after Allegretti leaves it's Cerny to left tackle and Boyd to right guard.
The second string line was Unije - Boyd - Gavin - Martin - Trainer, and that was a big step down from the starters. I always see this is a good thing. If the starters are clearly better, the starters are getting somewhere.
An interesting thing to watch: if the line in 2019 is truly Cerny-Palcho-Kramer-Boyd-Lowe - all juniors - then that's an all senior line in 2020... and five new starters in 2021.
+ Defensive line was the other strength. One of the reasons the second string offensive line appeared to be such a dropoff from the first string was that they had to face the first string defensive line. That line today:
WDE: Bobby Roundtree
DT: Tymir Oliver
DT: Kendrick Green
SDE: Jamal Woods
Second string was Owen Carney - Kenyon Jackson - Deon Pate - Lere Oladipo. And they held out Jamal Milan, Isaiah Gay, and Verdis Brown. Plus Calvin Avery arrives this summer.
I don't need to say much more here. The defensive line will be good in 2018, great in 2019, and possibly top-3-in-the-Big-Ten in 2020. An incredible amount of depth and talent.
+ Cam Thomas... was a bit disappointing today. Sailed a few throws. Threw a really bad interception into the wind (the ball ended up a good ten yards short of where he intended it to go). Danced around the pocket a little too much.
Now, scrimmages like this are just the worst for running quarterbacks. QB's aren't being tackled, so they're down with a touch. So, Thomas gets around the corner on a run play, likely has 18 yards in a real game, but some lineman reaches out and brushes the outside of his shoulder and he's "down". 18 yard gain turns into two yards.
Thomas is still going to need to throw for us to win, and he didn't show enough today to make me feel good about that. He hit Caleb Reams on a nice deep ball early in the scrimmage (a 70-yard touchdown), and he hit Trenard Davis on a strong throw into the endzone (from about the 15), but he also missed several reads (and throws).
The first thing I want to see at training camp: Cam Thomas stepping up and confidently firing the ball.
+ Spring is also about body transformations, and if I had to pick three, I'd say
3. Nate Hobbs (came in really skinny, is adding some bulk now)
2. Ra'Von Bonner (looked like he had trimmed maybe 12 lbs. from his playing weight last year)
1. Vederian Lowe (looked like he dropped some fat and gained some muscle)
All in all, it's part of the progress that (we hope) eventually leads somewhere. The 2017 class has now come in, gotten baptized by fire, spent an offseason getting bigger and stronger, and will now hopefully take a step forward on the field this fall. Which is when the 2018 class comes in, gets baptized by fire, spends next offseason getting bigger and stronger, and then takes a step forward. Then they're joined by the 2019 class, which will do the same thing.
And by October 12, 2019....