Next Year

Dec 01, 2019

Really odd writing this post this year. It's usually "sure, we're home for the holidays, but next year maybe...". This year it's "three weeks of bowl practices, then a bowl game, and then right on to next year, which should be better". It's more fun to write these posts.

Let's start with the depth chart. Always start with the depth chart.

QB | Peters (SR) | Williams (rs-FR) | Robinson (SO)
RB | Epstein (rs-JR) | Bonner (SR) | C. Brown (rs-SO) | Norwood (SO)
TE | Ford (rs-SO) | Barker (JR) | Moore (rs-FR)
LT | Lowe (SR) | Slaughter (rs-SO) | Sparks (FR)
LG | K. Green (JR) | Myers (rs-SO) | Griffin (FR)
C | Kramer (SR) | Plohr (rs-FR) | Engel (SO-walkon)
RG | Cerny (SR) | V. Brown (rs-SO) | Tyler (FR)
RT | Palczewski (SR) | Pearl (rs-SO) | Kirts (rs-FR)
WR1 | Navarro (JR) | Stampley (SR) | Cumby (rs-FR)
WR2 | Smalling (SR) | Sidney (SR) | Holmes (JR-walkon)
WR3 | Imatorbhebhe (SR) | Washington (SO) | Ja. Thompson (FR)
WDE | Gay (SR) | Coleman (rs-FR) | Mondesir (rs-JR)
DT | Woods (JR) | Okpala (rs-FR) | some recruit (FR)
DT | Avery (JR) | Pate (JR) | McCoy (FR)
SDE | Betiku (SR) | Carney (SR) | Randolph (rs-FR)
WLB | Hansen (SR) | Cooper (rs-FR) | McEachern (SO-walkon)
MLB | Tolson (JR) | T. Barnes (SO) | Coghlan (JR-walkon)
SLB | Eifler (SR) | DeGroot (SR) | D. Smith (JR)
CB | Hobbs (SR) | Witherspoon (SO) | Jo. Thompson (rs-FR)
SS | S. Brown (JR) | Joseph (JR) | Marchese (SR-walkon)
FS | Ware (JR) | Martin (JR) | Knight (rs-JR)
CB | Adams (SR) | Beason (rs-FR) | N. Walker (SR)
Kicker | McCourt (SR) | Griffin (rs-SO)
Punter | Hayes (SR) | McCourt (SR)
Longsnapper | Tabel (SR) | Hall (rs-FR) | Rossback (rs-FR)
Holder | Hayes (SR) | Judd (rs-FR-walkon)
Punt Return | Holmes (JR) | Sidney (SR) | Cumby (rs-FR)
KO Return | Norwood/Love | Stampley/Sandy

As expected, that's a lot of seniors. In fact, I only have one sophomore (redshirt sophomore Luke Ford) in the starting lineup. Counting kicker and punter, in the 24 starting spots, it's 15 seniors, eight juniors, and one sophomore (who would be a junior if he had been allowed to play this year). If Barker is the starter and Ford is the backup, it's 15 seniors and nine juniors.

Which means any discussion of next season starts there. It's when I play the "nameless team" game. Tell me there's some random Power Five football team with an entire two-deep of upperclassmen, 126 returning starts on the offensive line, a quarterback returning, and eight players with 25+ college starts... and I'll predict at least seven wins without knowing if the team was 2-10 or 10-2 the season before. Tell me the team was a 6-6 team that was 59th in the NERDstats and - again, without knowing the name of the coach or the schedule or anything other than the experience chart and the previous season's NERDstats - I'd probably predict nine wins.

(With 15 seniors then graduating after that season, I'd also predict four wins the following season, sight-unseen, but we can get to that a year from today.)

Does that mean we're going to win nine games? Of course it doesn't mean that. It was set up like this in 2009 and we went 3-9. It's not some guarantee or anything. I'm just saying that the pieces are there for a big season. After years of "cupboard was bare" and "youngest team in college football", we're entering a completely excuse-free season. And, since, you know, it was the "youngest team in college football" a few years ago, it's now basically "the most experienced team in college football". The vast majority of college coaches - even some who were fired today - could coach a roster like that to eight wins in Year Five.

So that's where a discussion on next year has to start. An upperclassman team with experienced 22 year-olds all over the field. Sprinkle in the young talent (from Ford to Beason to Cooper to Williams) and it should really be a thing. No guarantees - again, 2009 still stings - but that's the first point. Experience experience experience. Mike MacIntyre proved he wasn't that great of a coach, but in 2016, with 23 seniors, many of whom he started in 2013 and played for four seasons, Colorado won 10 games. (They haven't been back to a bowl since and MacIntyre was fired.)

OK, NOW we can add the names to the jerseys and look at this season's stats. We'll start with the regular stats. This really kind of tells the story of this season:

Total yards allowed in 2018: 6,100
Total yards allowed in 2019: 4,915

Total yards gained in 2018: 4,904
Total yards gained in 2019: 3,833

Scoring defense in 2018: 124th nationally
Scoring defense in 2019: 54th nationally

Scoring offense in 2018: 93rd
Scoring offense in 2019: 78th

Wait, how did the yards fall so far but the points increased? Oh right - six defensive touchdowns (which end up in the "scoring offense" category). Take out those 36 points and the offense was tied with UNLV for 99th.

OK, let's go to the NERDstats. Using SP+...

2018 offense: 70th
2019 offense: 87th

2018 defense: 115th
2019 defense: 59th

2018 special teams: 13th
2018 special teams: 9th

Where do we stand on all of that? And what does it mean for next year?

Well, for starters, Lovie can probably just stare into the camera for 45 seconds and then walk out of the room at his postgame press conference. He names himself defensive coordinator and the scoring defense goes from 124th to 54th and the NERDstats go from 115th to 59th. He delivered on what he said he was going to do by improving the defense himself. Now do it again.

On offense, I think it's fair to ask some serious questions. 70th and then 87th in two seasons. Missouri fans wanted to run OC Derek Dooley out of town without letting him pack up his stuff. That offense finished 88th in SP+ - the Illini offense finished 87th.

To be fair, there were a lot of injuries. The leading rusher in the season opener this year was Mike Epstein, the top three leading receivers were Ricky Smalling, Josh Imatorbhebhe, and Trevon Sidney, and the guy delivering the ball was Brandon Peters. None of them played yesterday. Peters missed the second half of Minnesota, all of Michigan, and all of Northwestern. Besides the third quarter against Michigan, the offense sputtered in all of those games. That's going to impact your season statistics.

Still, there are serious offensive questions. When you bring back four offensive linemen and all of your tailbacks and the running attack gets that much worse, there are serious adjustments that need to be made.

And that's where I think things hinge next season. I'll end with offseason tasks for each side of the ball:

Defense: Need to improve once again. Front 7 will be the key. There's a triangle of players there - defensive tackles Jamal Milan and Tymir Oliver, plus middle linebacker Dele Harding - who will be very difficult to replace. But the secondary should (and must) step forward to be top-3 in the Big Ten. And with so much experience everywhere else (Betiku, Gay, and Carney at DE, Woods and Avery at DT, Hansen and Eifler at linebacker, Adams, Hobbs, and Brown in the secondary), improvement over the numbers above should be expected.

Offense: One hundred and twenty six returning starts for the offensive line cannot be wasted. Coaches across the country would kill for that. There's a reason Phil Steele tracks that specific stat in his magazine. He doesn't track returning starts for linebackers or wide receivers. He's simply found that teams with the most returning OL starts are the teams that make big offensive jumps.

Time to jump.


PosterNB12 on December 02 @ 06:57 AM CST

You are forgetting Gardner, the new JUCO LB. And Walker will redshirt this year so will be a junior next year (further helping with The Cliff).

I think LB will be interesting next year. No way Degroot is in the 2 deep. I see the order as Hansen, Eifler, Smith, Cooper, Barnes, Gardner, Tolson (and all but Smith and Gardner could probably play all 3 positions). Add that we are trending well for Doyle, and the 2 deep could get very interesting.

ppbob on December 02 @ 10:03 PM CST

I thought we brought in transfer Derrick Smith from Miami (2 years left, currently enrolled?) for immediate help. If he's third string going into next year, seems like we made a mistake with limited schollies.

Also, I'm pretty disappointed that V. Brown or Kievan Myers aren't starting in Pettibon's open guard spot. 4*s should be starting by their redshirt soph year with the lack of depth we have. Cerny's pretty limited in what he can do or he'd have had much more PT.

If Josh Plohr, a good guy but a real recruiting reach from what I've heard, is going to be center if Kramer goes down, we're in big trouble. Who cam in for him kin the NW game....did Green move over? That didn't work out so well with only 14 rushing yards, did it?

We're in real trouble on the DL, especially at DT. Avery hasn't shown the conditioning nor consistency to start after two years. He's only shown flashes of his high potential. Woods is a solid player but he can't stay healthy. Okpala is unproven. We DESPERATELY need transfer DT help here, and I doubt that Coach Clark, only in his second year of P5 position coaching at age 27, can attract one.

Groundhogday on December 02 @ 11:12 PM CST

I'm getting the sense this staff wants to play three athletic LBs. Hansen, Eifler, Cooper, Smith, Gardner, and Barnes are all in smallish-but-athletic category. Tolson isn't huge. You need a minimum of 7 LBs, so I'm not worried about finding time for both Gardner and Smith.

Robert on December 03 @ 01:19 PM CST

I wasn't sure where to put Gardner. Looks like a linebacker on film, but someone is going to have to play safety. DeGroot? Is that where Smith goes?

For now I left it with DeGroot backing up Eifler (like we saw in the MSU game) and Smith third there. But Smith could very well be the starting safety and Gardner could be Eifler's backup.

Gardner could also redshirt, which I think is a real possibility. Redshirt and then play once Eifler and DeGroot graduate.

PosterNB12 on December 05 @ 11:14 AM CST

For me the ideal is that Gardner plays safety (even though that isn’t how he was recruited). A 6 foot safety with top speed seems more realistic than a 6’3 safety (Smith).

If that happened and we got Doyle, I would feel great about LBs (my guess is Eifler, Hansen, Cooper, then Doyle, Barnes, Smith).

I would also feel decent if our safeties were Brown, Ware, Gardner, Quan, and Kirby Joseph. Whoever is 5th in that group could redshirt.

Brave Illini on December 02 @ 08:17 AM CST

On paper, or the screen, we look like a killer team next year. What's going to keep that from happening? I wish I had more confidence in our head coach to cause the guys to bring it every game, to avoid the sleepwalks.

thumpasaurus on December 02 @ 10:22 AM CST

That's why the Northwestern game is such a downer. College teams have their ups and downs. I get it. But imagine the feeling if we win that game, collect a second rivalry trophy and have the best record in 12 years heading into a bowl.

We're all thinking the conference championship game is on the table, right?

Doesn't seem that way anymore.

Robert on December 03 @ 01:25 PM CST

Maybe I'm alone in this, but it really didn't change my view of next year very much. I wish we would have gotten to 7-5 for my prediction, and I hate that we keep coming up one short of my 3-5-7-9 thing, but I'm still thinking the Big Ten West is on the table with an all junior and senior starting lineup.

Brave Illini on December 03 @ 08:05 PM CST

That's actually comforting to know, Robert. I respect your opinions and projections much more than anyone else's, especially mine. Your practice of mining data, almost always quite relevant, your skill in translating that data into meaningful commentary, and your respectful manner all make this site so valuable for those wanting to gain insight to the Illinois sports and teams you cover.

Groundhogday on December 02 @ 10:31 AM CST

My personal take on the Offense: get a good running QB to lead this unit and all is well. Rod Smith did a decent job adapting to Peters, but his offense will always work best with a dynamic runner at QB.

IlliNYC on December 02 @ 10:52 AM CST

Maybe, but I'm dubious of Rod's handling of the offense after Saturday and looking at these year end stats. It could be as simple as playing a lot more against soft defenses last year (we were so far behind in more games).

ppbob on December 02 @ 10:08 PM CST

and the problem is that he's shown no ability to recruit one here. Let's be honest...I Williams is tremendous athlete but you cant' invest all that coaching a nd practice time for a player not durable enough to stay healthy even if he had great passing skills...which haven't been evident at this point.

I strongly believe that Peters replacement for 2021 isn't on campus yet....

dprobst7 on December 02 @ 02:17 PM CST

Bigger need in 2021 at DT or OL? Consider moving Verdis Brown back to DT?

Groundhogday on December 02 @ 02:49 PM CST

OL is the bigger need. Plus IMHO Verdis is a better OL than DL prospect.

Groundhogday on December 02 @ 02:20 PM CST

I'd agree with Robert about the D front 7 being key.

LB - Losing Harding is huge, but overall this unit should have more depth and athleticism than this year. A year of experience for Tolson, Barnes, Cooper should get them ready to contribute if not start. Adding two transfer LB/S types with Smith and Gardner should help athleticism.

DL - this is the big ?/concern. Unit hasn't developed as expected the past couple of years, and we're losing the one dominant guy in Milan. Can the returning guys step to control the LOS and generate a rush next year?

Robert on December 03 @ 01:21 PM CST

My hope for the DL is that Randolph and Coleman are ready to contribute Year Two. If this was 2017, both would have started all season and would be looked at like 2018 Roundtree and Gay. We had numbers, so they could redshirt, and now they hopefully step forward. Maybe Okpala, too.

Groundhogday on December 03 @ 11:19 PM CST

I agree we'll see major contributions from second year guys in 2020. But these guys as well as most of the experienced guys are somewhere between WDE, SDE, and 3-tech DT. We could REALLY use a grad transfer who can plug the middle of the line.

If we can plug the middle of the line, I like how the defense next year shapes up with a lot of athleticism, experience and playmaking at LB and DB.

Robert on December 04 @ 10:24 AM CST

Yep. I was just looking at the Transfer Portal list on 247's website last night, trying to find a fifth-year DT to replace what Oladipo would have brought. Doesn't look promising yet (the only fifth-year I saw was the kid from Stanford but he never played and is likely transferring down to a small school).

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