Slapdash - Spring Football
I haven't had time to write the last four days. Spring football starts tomorrow, which generally means I have a bunch of Illini football thoughts in my head all rattling around. As each day has gone by without the ability to write them down, I've grown more and more anxious. So this post will be Slapdash style - just start writing.
It remains this breaking point for me. It's been four months and I'm still broken. Any time I have a positive thought about Illini football, 63-0 enters my brain to squelch it out. When you lose that badly at home on Senior Day at the end of your coach's third season, things are seriously, seriously going in the wrong direction. It doesn't change my view of the first three years, really - we had The Youngest College Football Team Of The Decade in 2017 and Somehow Still The Youngest Team In College Even Though Almost Everyone Returned in 2018, and that's the main reason for 2-10 followed by 4-8 - but it can't explain away 63-0. It just can't.
That's where I've been stuck. Before the 2017 season I told you this was the worst training camp I ever attended so we'd likely see the worst Illini football team of our lifetimes but it still didn't change my view of the future. It was going to be one of the youngest teams ever in college football, so it was likely going to be one of the worst teams ever, but the whole point of going that young is a payoff in 2019 and 2020. If you keep The Youngest College Football Team Of The Decade together for four years it's almost guaranteed to be The Most Experienced College Football Team Of The Decade three years later. (I should also note that any time you have The Most Experienced College Football Team Of The Decade, that's going to be followed up with another crazy young and inexperienced team after that Most Experienced Team graduates, which is why no one ever does this, but that's for another day.)
So you can see where I'm stuck. One side of my brain is simply looking at the experience. They went with the youngest team in the country for two years and the payoff should be the next two years. I wrote about it before it happened, while it was happening, and after it happened. I haven't really shut up about it. The plan: start over, go crazy young, once that youth is 25-starts deep, win.
But there's also the eye test (and the stats test) of November. There's the defensive performance at Maryland. There's the offensive performance against Iowa. You can point to the youth for a lot of things, but those performances were more than "youth". A young team, in November it's second year being a young team, maybe loses 33-24 on Senior Day to a 6-4 Iowa team. It does not put together the worst loss in school history. If it does, something else (many something elses) are wrong.
Yes, I basically said "pay no attention to the scores - look for the individual players starting to get it" before the season and now I'm looking directly at the scores. I set October 12, 2019 as the date and then I'm making declarations prior to that date. I said that this program deserves a "five years, no questions asked" long-term culture rebuild and here I am with questions after three years. I'm a mess.
But spring ball starts tomorrow, which means the first step of that big, fourth-year leap is supposed to start tomorrow, so I need to regroup here. As I do every year, I throw out the previous season (for the most part) and evaluate spring ball + training camp to get a good handle on what kind of team we're going to have. I predicted 7-5 in 2007 after the 2-10 debacle in 2006 mostly because of what we saw from the defense that spring and summer. I expected the offense to step forward, but the defensive surge was a surprise. So I have to approach every season like that. Which means 63-0 needs to be in the rearview mirror.
(It's just that it was SO. BAD.)
This needs to look like a leap spring. It's the same offense, it's the same defense, and only eight scholarship seniors graduated, two of them having missed the season due to injuries. We're basically replacing three multiple-year starters (Nick Allegretti, three year starter on the offensive line, Chase McLaughlin, three year starter at kicker, and Del'Shawn Phillips, two year starter at linebacker). Everyone else that graduated was only a spot starter (Sam Mays at WR, Austin Roberts at TE, AJ Bush started eight games at QB). Bush is probably the hardest to replace in that group (after he was benched for MJ Rivers going into the Maryland game and then regained his starting spot after Rivers was injured, he was very good the rest of the season), but compared to other Illini teams, this one loses the least production of any team I've ever covered. Basically everyone returns.
Which is why this is such an important spring. The last two springs have been barely evaluateable (waits to see if a red line appears below the word... it does! That's not a word?). Last spring we held an open campus tryout for wide receivers just so we could practice. With that much roster turnover after the season (and a roster still not back to 85 players), spring ball sometimes had 30-something players available. You can barely practice.
So even when they scrimmaged at the "spring game" last year, it couldn't be evaluated. There were at least two walkons on every unit, and when you have that, it's hard to get a read on how things look. Remember last spring when we had one single quarterback on the entire roster? How do you even practice like that?
This spring should be a different story. There should be 70 scholarship players out there, not 50. The two-deeps should be full of scholarship players with walkons only getting third-string reps. They'll be able to practice practice, drills with the entire first string practicing together, not placeholders in the lineup all over the place. You can do a lot in the spring when you have a full roster.
And man, there's a lot to do.
Let's make a list of what we need to do, shall we?
- Find a quarterback. The superstar freshman arrives this summer, but there will still be a nice little competition between MJ Rivers, Matt Robinson, and Coran Taylor at camp this spring. Rivers is the best thrower, Taylor is probably the best runner (although Robinson is faster), and Robinson is the best combo of the two skills. I don't think this one is as "Rivers started a few games last year - he'll be the starter this year" as it currently appears.
- Fix the defense. The whole thing. Like, every part. It was perhaps the worst defense in school history last year. Every single part needs repair. Did I mention that it was historically bad? Statistically, it was historically bad. So, so many repairs needed.
- Find some junior leapers. The staple of every Iowa or Wisconsin team you've hated the last two decades? Junior leaps. Guys breaking out in their third (or fourth with a redshirt) season. We need a dozen of those next fall. Guys like Kendall Smith, Isaiah Gay, Griffin Palmer, Jake Cerny, Marc Mondesir - we really need some junior surprises. People always start listing off the freshmen when talking about how the team will be improved - improvement often comes from sophomores and juniors you forgot about suddenly contributing. Need it real bad.
- Make some position decisions. Does Verdis Brown stay at defensive tackle or move to offensive guard? Wide receiver is really thin - is there a defensive back who can help? Deon Pate - defensive end or defensive tackle? Is Tony Adams locked into free safety now or is cornerback still a possibility?
- Find a replacement for Nick Allegretti. I'll say this until the day I die, but he had a first-team All Big Ten kind of season last year. If he played for any other team in the conference (well, not Rutgers), he would have been first team. That's hard to replace. The obvious choice is Alabama transfer Richie Petitbon - he was brought in specifically to replace Allegretti - but he didn't win a starter job at Alabama and it's not certain he'll win it at Illinois. If Kievan Myers is the future at that position, maybe the future starts now?
- Look mature. I'm headed up to watch the four practices that are open to the media and I'm hoping to see maturity across the board. Weight room gainz. 18 year-old boys who have been turned into 21 year-old men. This will be our first upperclassman-heavy lineup in a long time, so hopefully the whole team looks more mature out there.
- Build that running game. If there's one thing that can carry us in 2019, it's that. The run game was top-10 last year and could be even higher this year with all of the tailbacks returning + four offensive linemen. The two players to replace: Nick Allegretti (mentioned above) and AJ Bush (a fairly massive loss for the running game, to be honest). Keeping that run game moving forward - building an offense that can feature Reggie Corbin and Mike Epstein - is incredibly important for the future success of this coaching staff. And to do that, the quarterback will need to prove he can handle things with his arm AND his feet.
Man, this is such an important spring. Need to see good things across the board. Night and day improvement. We're so overdue for a leap.