Tight Rotations

Oct 30, 2019

I've watched both the Wisconsin and Purdue games again, and it sticks out more and more each time I watch: after rotating 45-50 players into the rotation his first three years, Lovie is now playing maybe 30 guys.

In my "from the stands" post last year after the Penn State game, I made the comment that Lovie "still wasn't trying to win". I phrased that poorly, and I took some heat from that, but what I meant was that Lovie was still playing 22-25 guys on defense, even when only trailing Penn State by 4 going into the fourth quarter. I looked out there for one of the first drives of the fourth quarter in that game and we were playing our 3rd and 5th safeties (and then the next drive, the 1st and 2nd-string safeties were back in). Three years in, a game you're totally in against a ranked team, and it still felt like on-the-field auditions.

That has completely changed this season. I don't have any "snaps played" numbers in front of me, but after watching these games, I think I can easily say that these are the tightest player rotations we've seen in a long time. Defensive line is the only position on the field with a deep rotation anymore. To wit:

  • I'm fairly certain that safety was just Stanley Green and Sydney Brown for every single play. Part of that is because Tony Adams moved back to corner and guys like Delano Ware are injured. But there are third and fourth string safeties on the roster, and they're simply not playing.
  • Corner was a rotation of three guys - Nate Hobbs, Tony Adams, and Devon Witherspoon. I don't believe Quan Martin played at all.
  • I know that Khalan Tolson and Tarique Barnes played, but I'm pretty sure it was only on special teams. I believe it was just Jake Hansen, Dele Harding, and Milo Eifler at linebacker for every snap. Even on the final drive when we were up 24-6 with a minute to go. Again, In the first three years of Lovie, four, five, sometimes six linebackers would be part of the rotation.
  • Defensive line, as I mentioned above, is still a deep rotation. It basically has to be, in all phases of football, because of the physical exertion required to rush the quarterback. Everyone needs some snaps off.
  • Offensive line has been the same five guys nearly every snap (not a surprise - that's fairly typical for college football).
  • Wide receiver appeared to be just Josh Imatorbhebhe, Caleb Reams, Trenard Davis, Donny Navarro, and Casey Washington. Ricky Smalling and Trevon Sidney are injured, but Dominic Stampley didn't play at all (for the first time this season).
  • Tight end is maybe the only position with a deeper rotation right now. Because of all the twin TE looks against Purdue (run the ball in the rain), there were four tight ends rotating in (Barker, Williams, Palmer, Walker).
  • Running back and quarterback remain the same, but those are more "hot hand" positions - the number of players who play is directly related to how the starter is performing. Dre Brown was playing well, so he got 18 carries and Corbin got 12.

The obvious question here: if the starters perform better than the backups, why ever play the backups? Why not just play 22 guys every game (plus a kicker, a punter, and a longsnapper) and leave the other 75 guys on the sideline? Two reasons:

  1. You need your team to remain fresh in the fourth quarter. As mentioned above, defensive line is the hardest position to play for 60 minutes. We've seen it in every football game at every level for decades. Mid fourth quarter, the DL has nothing left, the offense that couldn't do anything all game suddenly gets yard after yard. So you play the backups to keep the freshest team possible for the all-important fourth quarter. That same thing is somewhat true at every other position. Only offensive linemen and quarterbacks typically play every single snap.
  2. You need to prepare for next season and the season after that. On-the-field experience is important. You can't just sit Calvin Avery on the bench for two years and then, once Jamal Milan and Tymir Oliver graduate, toss Avery out there with zero experience. Those 10-15 snaps per game are important. Those offseason film review sessions where the coaches can show Avery what he did right/wrong are vital for his development. Every season, a head coach has to be thinking about the next season. And the season after that. Win these games, yes, but be thinking about how your going to win next year's games.

Those two things have me a tiny bit concerned about these super tight rotations. I wrote on Saturday how the seniors have really stepped up this year and have led this team to these last two wins. But that makes me think about next year and the players who aren't getting on the field right now. Before the season I don't think you would have heard me say "man, Stanley Green is irreplaceable", but now, well, let's just make another list:

  • Stanley Green and Sydney Brown have been great at safety these last few games. But who replaces Green next year, especially with Tony Adams back at corner?
  • Dele Harding has been so good in his first full year as a starter at middle linebacker. But his backup is a true freshman (Tarique Barnes). Is Barnes ready to start next season? If it's him, he's going to have to do it with zero on-the-field experience.
  • Jamal Milan is probably the most irreplaceable player on the defense right now, right? There are options (Avery, Woods, Oladipo if he returns), but with both Milan and Tymir Oliver graduating, who plugs the middle?
  • Who replaces Richie Petitbon at right guard? Someone with zero snaps to their name, that's who.
  • Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown are the 1-2 punch at tailback right now. Mike Epstein returns, and if healthy, he'll be the guy the next two seasons. But can we find a combination like Corbin and Brown? Ra'Von Bonner? Chase Brown?

I hear you. Let's find two more wins before worrying about any of this. Every college team forever has to replace graduating seniors. I get it.

But most of those college teams have been developing the younger guys. Right now, after 3+ years of doing that, we've suddenly stopped doing that. It's helping us win games, but it still makes me a tiny bit worried about the long term.

I'll stop. Go Illini. Beat Rutgers. Win 8 of the next 11. (Because we're totally winning 8 of our next 11 games.)


The Olaf Rules on October 30 @ 11:20 AM CDT

It makes no sense that we kept the defensive starters in the game up 18 points with under three minutes left. What if a starter got hurt? Give the second string some snaps.

Robert on October 30 @ 12:48 PM CDT

That's kind of what led me to this. It made me realize that I wasn't sure I had seen a single backup in the back-7 of the defense all day (after looking through it, Witherspoon was the only one), and that led me to look at the last three games and see just how tight the rotations had become.

And yes - both Hansen and Harding are out there making tackles on the final drive (less than a minute left, Illini up 24-6) and I had the same "please use a pillow to tackle him" feelings.

IlliNYC on October 30 @ 12:13 PM CDT

Should I file this one under "you have to worry about something"? I'm very glad to have moved from major concerns to tiny concerns.

Robert on October 30 @ 12:49 PM CDT

You absolutely should. As I've said many times, I won't rest until there's a sustainable program built at Illinois. And the earliest I'd be able to declare that at this point is 2023. There will be a lot of worrying between now and then.

Sweetchuck13 on October 31 @ 10:25 AM CDT

Robert - even with that attitude, just try to enjoy this season for once. We've suddenly surged back to respectability (shockingly), with a chance to make it really interesting. Plenty of time to worry about next year in the offseason - don't get too distracted and miss out on what could be a fun November.

uofi08 on October 30 @ 01:26 PM CDT

This absolutely should be a concern when talking about garbage time. No reason to have starters out there at the end of a multi-score game. That's really the best time to get young guys time.

However, I feel like this should not be a concern for normal game play. Yes, ultimately it's great to get guys meaningful snaps, but a team like Illinois can really only afford to do that if the dropoff is negligible. I understand the need to build depth, but there are very few programs that can play backups significant time and not risk a very significant dropoff. That's just reality outside the top teir of programs.

DB50 on October 30 @ 01:51 PM CDT

I agree with the danger in playing the defensive starter on a meaningless last drive for Purdue. The thing I'm not as concerned about is experience for next year due to two factors, Grad transfers & Juco players. My guess would be, just like this year on offense, this will be the answer for the defensive starters graduating, just my humble opinion.

Groundhogday on October 30 @ 11:47 PM CDT

I'd bet most of the D infill comes from guys currently on the roster. LB Derrick Smith is redshirting and practicing this year. Shammond Cooper was a top LB recruit adding weight/strength. Tolson has shown flashes.

On the DL, we have 6 guys (Avery, Woods, Betiku, Shogbonyo, Carney and Gay) returning with a substantial amount of experience. Okpala and Randolph should be ready to contribute some next year for depth.

The DB all return except Green. But we get Beason back, and a year of experience for Witherspoon. Perhaps Abrams goes back to safety (though I agree he has been better at CB)? Maybe we look for a grad transfer safety?

deadguy on October 31 @ 11:08 PM CDT

DT is the biggest concern since Milan, Jackson and Oliver are all gone. I'm guessing Oladipo will get kicked off of the team.

That leaves us with Avery, Pate and Woods. That's....concerning.

McCoy shouldn't be an option. Okpala could add depth at 3 Tech. DT/SDE (same as Woods). I'm guessing Randolph stays at SDE?

I can see why we offered a JUCO DT a couple of days ago. Either that or we're going to need a graduate transfer or two at DT.

I'm guessing flipping Brown won't be an option since he's in line to start at RG.

Groundhogday on November 01 @ 11:45 PM CDT

Like you, I see a number of quality options at the 3 Tech, but we really need Avery to develop into a Milan type player. He has that potential, but is far from realizing it. He is really the only explosive wide body on the DT depth chart.

Illinimac68 on October 30 @ 01:53 PM CDT

I agree that the second and third string should be playing more when the game is out of reach though you don't want do declare the game over with five minutes left and have some weird combination of turnovers and on-side kick recoveries. However, if I'm Lovie this year I'm winning now and if that means deferring the learning experience for the underclassmen, so be it. Lots of people figured he was gone halfway through the season. Even if Whitman had decided to give him another year after 4-8 it's not a good look to recruits. Some day when our coach isn't on the hot seat he can play the younger guys to get them experience.

ktal on October 30 @ 07:42 PM CDT

Maybe this is part of Lovie's recruiting strategy? He might be showing the on-campus recruits how much we need guys who can step on campus and provide depth from day one. What we see as tight rotation might register with them as 'opportunity to provide depth that isn't met with the current roster.'

Illinibat on October 30 @ 08:20 PM CDT

You are assuming Dre Brown won't play next year but he's only used 3 years of eligibility.

Groundhogday on October 30 @ 09:39 PM CDT

FWIW, Petitbon didn't have many snaps prior to this season. He has been "okay" at best, so of all the seniors we need to replace I'm least worried about RG. There are a few guys in the system who will hopefully be ready to step up. If not, there is always the transfer market again.

HiggsBoson on October 30 @ 10:08 PM CDT

I don't expect Oladipo back. It came out today that he was suspended last year for domestic violence, and is currently suspended for more of same. The university had to comment publicly after the girlfriend posted pictures of her bruises on Instagram.

Robert on October 31 @ 10:52 AM CDT

Yeah, I picked about the worst day imaginable to write "Oladipo if he returns" given what came out four hours later. The details she put on Twitter are frightening.

From the school's statement, that's the reason for his suspension after the UConn game. There was some speculation that it was a positive drug test, but this clarifies that it was his ex-girlfriend going to the school and reporting abuse.

From her tweets yesterday, she claims there was a hearing with the school last Thursday where she "thought he would be gone", and she wasn't satisfied with the results of that hearing, which is why she went public with her claims. That hearing would be with the Title IX office, so I'm guessing the next thing we hear would be the results of their inquiry.

IBFan on October 30 @ 10:37 PM CDT

Defense stayed in to try and shut out Purdue. Once the TD was given up I agree that players could have been subbed for last defensive stand, but I think players wanted to make a statement. There’s a lot of givin’ back stacked up among the defense. Lovie mentioned many times throughout week about being embarrassed at home against Purdue last year.
I like to see as many players possible get snaps.
+ Morale + Experience + Health Let’s beat Rutgers!

Illinimac68 on October 31 @ 02:43 PM CDT

In 1983 when we played Iowa at MS -- came out in the all blue unis -- We were shutting them out 33-0. White had played some second stringers and Iowa seemed about to score. The first team came back in and stopped the drive. I can see the guys wanting the shutout especially after last year at our place.

Eagle on October 31 @ 09:10 AM CDT

Your timing is good on this Robert because you know there will be plenty of garbage time to go around this week. Now we’ll all be watching for it. Should be some against the kitties too.

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