Training Camp 2018 VII - Player Development
I had this thought about player development while watching practice this morning and I want to write about it. It feels like one of those topics where I'll finish this post, read back through it, and realize I came nowhere close to articulating my original thought. But that's never stopped me before.,,
I'm often asked why I think that every player will improve each year. It's the part of The Way I View Football that seems to bother people the most. Just because a player is a 2.8 out of 10 as a freshman doesn't mean he'll be a 8.9 as a fifth-year senior, Robert. Not every player improves. Some players are just 2.8's.
Yes, that's true. For some players (like, say, Miami Thomas), their best season is their freshman season. And many Illini players start out at a 2.8 and never get anywhere close to 5.5, let alone 8.9. It's not that every player develops. You recruit a large lineman with decent footwork and a soild frame to add weight, and then it just never happens. Once he grew into the body type you were hoping to see, the football just wasn't there.
But every time I come to camp I remember that the vast majority of players do improve. I feel like any naysayer - anyone who tells me "you're way, WAY too caught up in 'this player will improve next year'" - would stop saying that within one hour of watching practice.
This is why time machines need to be invented. Give me 45 minutes of your time and we'll go back to the summer of 2016 and watch defensive tackle Tymir Oliver at the first practice in pads that year (we'll watch for, say, 15 minutes), and then we'll immediately jump to the summer of 2017 and watch him for 15 minutes and then we'll leap to today and watch him for another 15 minutes. After that 45 minutes, we'll sit down to discuss what we saw and I guarantee you'll say "I never knew it was THAT dramatic. That looked like three different football players. In fact, I think your time machine is fake and you just showed me a high school football player wearing #96, then a college player in the same uniform, and then an NFL player doing the same thing."
It's just so incredibly dramatic how much a player will change in college. Whitney Mercilus in 2008 vs. Whitney Merculus in 2011 was a junior high baseball player in some random suburb vs. Mike Trout. A true 0.1 to 9.9 transformation. Not all players develop as dramatically, but I feel like all players develop. Every year, when I stand on the sideline, I see players I barely recognize.
The obvious question: why hasn't that translated to wins? In my view - and this is why I hammer "scheme and coaching consistency" at every turn - we have gone out of our way to stunt the growth and development of our players. Players at Wisconsin are developed (and developed and developed) in the same schemes and the same system year after year. They've changed head coaches several times, but Barry Alvarez hasn't really allowed the new coaches to change "what" they do for nearly 30 years now. It's the same player development system cranking out juniors and seniors ready for Big Ten football year after year after year. Depth is key, too. I've heard it said about teams like Wisconsin that they have "three starters for two positions", meaning that if you have a pair of good defensive ends, developed in your system and now reaching their upperclassman years, you always have a third guy who is good enough to be a starter but just can't crack the lineup because it's too crowded. That's the goal.
Which finally brings me to my thought this morning. College football requires stacking those player developments. Just because you have one good cornerback who is a 2.3 when he arrives and then is a 8.2 when he graduates doesn't mean much. Why not? Because your Big Ten Opponent stacked five wide receivers in the junior and senior classes, all of them developed in that same system for four or five years, and they're about to overwhelm you with them.
Which means that when I get to a camp some day and see six upperclassmen defensive backs who were all slowly developed in the system, I'll know that Illinois football is ready to win some games. You get six guys above a 7.0 on my just-now-invented player rating scale, then you're there. Recruiting, in a sense, is only part of that. Find your type of player (and there are plenty to be found, even outside the top-1000 players in the country), develop develop develop develop, win.
Take the cornerbacks. Right now it's Nate Hobbs (sophomore), Cam Watkins (junior), Tony Adams (sophomore), and a rotation of freshmen (today it was Jartavius Martin). If you keep developing these players in this system, you're going to have some outstanding corners in a few years. Lovie likes bigger cornerbacks in his defense, and he settled on only one from the players he inherited (Watkins), and now he's added a bunch in his first two classes (Hobbs, Adams, Martin, Dylan Wyatt, Ron Hardge, Nick Walker). The next step is development, and that includes the strength staff, the nutrition staff, and the defensive position coaches. You want each player to improve, say, 1.5 points on my imaginary scale each season, and you know that any wrench (change schemes, change coaches, etc) will stunt that growth severely. If you want Wisconsin, consistency will be the key.
What would that look like? Something like this:
- In 2018, Hobbs, Watkins, and Adams are your "three starters for two positions". They're probably still a year away as a unit, but development is happening. Martin is the fourth corner and he's getting lots of snaps as he begins his development.
- In 2019, it's still Hobbs, Watkins, and Adams as your "three starters", with Martin now getting more and more reps. And, if he ends up at cornerback, Marquez Beason is starting to get his feet wet. This should be a very solid unit.
- In 2020, Watkins has graduated but Martin and Beason are battling to be that "third starter" (if they're not both starting). Really, you could conceivably have "four starters for two positions" with Hobbs, Adams, Martin, and Beason. And, by that point, some of the guys from this 2018 class who redshirted are just starting to get some minutes.
- In 2021, Hobbs and Adams are gone, but now Martin and Beason are ready to be the stars. One of these other corners from the 2018 class (Wyatt, Hardge) is probably ready, as a redshirt junior, having been developed for four seasons, to be that "third starter".
Please note that I'm not calling the nickel cornerback the "third starter". I'm just listing the guys for two positions on the field - nickels will come from a different pool of players. This is the kind of competition you need at every position to start consistently winning Big Ten football games. Seven names listed above, two starting positions, every single one of them needs at least 2-3 years of seasoning before they're ready.
Do that at cornerback, and at offensive tackle, and at defensive end, and at tailback (and at every other position) and you're there. That's how college football games are won. No holes at any position, players developed in the system for years, 2.7 as freshmen and then 3.9 as a sophomore, then a big leap to 6.2 as a junior, and then hopefully 8.1 as a senior. At every position, with as many players as possible from every recruiting class.
Once you reach THAT, college football games are won. The advancement seen on the field today from Tymir Oliver at defensive tackle and Cam Watkins at cornerback? Once you see that at 22 positions, Illinois football will be consistently winning Big Ten football games. Yes, you can sprinkle in some jucos who have been developed by someone else for two years, and the occasional transfer can be good, but for the most part, it's recruiting guys who fit and then developing them.
OK, I think I actually was able to articulate what I wanted to say. And now that I have that out of the way, time for some practice thoughts in my next post.
After a nap. Because I'm not really Big Ten material.