Slapdash - Spring Football

Mar 26, 2019

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.)

Leap Spring

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.

The List

Let's make a list of what we need to do, shall we?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. 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?
  6. 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.
  7. 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.


W.I.N.T. on March 26 @ 09:04 AM CDT

Good write-up. I'm hoping Williams winds up winning the QB job since I think he carries the most upside in Rod Smith's type of offense. And the defense better be improved with Lovie refusing to hire a DC.

Also, the word you're looking for is "evaluable".

Robert on March 26 @ 11:03 AM CDT

Ha! That's so much how my brain works. The part that says "uh, that's not the word" is always working. But the part that says "the word is actually 'evaluable'" never seems to kick in.

ktal on March 26 @ 05:06 PM CDT that a digital valuable, like an eSport is to a real sport? /s

thumpasaurus on March 26 @ 09:53 AM CDT

You've taken a lot of heat for getting hung up on 63-0, and all the people from whom you've taken that heat are wrong. When we had that team we all knew was going to be incalculably terrible in 2017, one of the only encouraging things was how none of the games except maybe Ohio State in the first half got totally, ridiculously out of hand like 2016 Rutgers games.

Anyway, I'm worried about quarterback play. Specifically, I think that if Rivers is the clear starter, the offense will regress. Not a knock against Rivers, but with the receiving corps we have, we'll need the QB to be a major threat to run the ball for big yardage and Rivers is just never going to become that guy. He may still be the best quarterback we have, but if that's the case we're in trouble.

illiniranger on March 26 @ 11:22 AM CDT

everyone is seriously underselling the Maryland game. That is arguably the worst loss in Illinois history, despite the score in the Iowa game.

O/U for wins will be something like 5.5. i think Rivers will be the starter for the first game, and has some potential. We should be able to find about the same level of QB play as last year out of some combination of Rivers, Taylor, Robinson, and Williams.

thumpasaurus on March 27 @ 10:17 AM CDT

In our defense, that was the second of a three-game stretch where Maryland scored a total of 66 points.

That game also provided basically all of the hype around Dominic Stampley, based on touchdowns in what was decidedly garbage time (or whatever you'd call it when you're down 49-12 and the opponent is emptying their bench).

It's just not possible to overstate how bad last year's defense was. There's no comparison. After 2017 I said the offense couldn't possibly get any worse because there's just no room below what they did. The same is definitely true of 2018's defense, but just because they can't possibly be worse doesn't mean they'll improve.

thumpasaurus on March 27 @ 10:25 AM CDT

Editing is weird

illiniranger on March 28 @ 03:48 PM CDT

i think you'll see marginal improvement, i doubt there is some great leap just because of experience. still not very talented, still run a 4-3 Under and 4-2 Nickel schemes that cannot figure out how to defend up tempo spread teams, especially teams that go 10 personnel (1 back, no TEs, 4 WRs).

the thing about our Defense last year - it was bad against everything. They were bad against any uptempo spread team (Kent State, USF, PSU, Nebraska), they were bad against pro style attacks (Iowa, Wisconsin, Purdue, even WIU moved the ball pretty well), they were bad against a funky offense nobody else runs (Maryland). They did OK against run heavy spread that did not employ a running threat at QB like Minnesota, Rutgers, and Northwestern. The Minny game they played fairly well, giving up a couple TDs late to make the score look worse than it was. the NW game they played worse than the scoreboard as NW basically shut it down in the 2H because they knew we wouldn't score enough to threaten them..

I just don't know what you do with that. We couldn't stop anything with the exception of the Minny game. i think the hope is that next years schedule is just so weak that they can get away with being pretty bad. Non-con is manageable, but we will be preseason favorites in just one conference game (home vs Rutgers.) Maybe you hope PU takes a big step back, but Minny and Nebby should get better, Iowa, NW, and Wiscy will be about the same, i don't see us winning vs UM or @MSU.

Dr. Chim Richalds on March 26 @ 11:24 AM CDT

This is spot on. People can get mad about the negativity, but it also wasn't the only blowout loss. The 2006 team lost one game by more than 20 points, last year's team did that 5 times. That doesn't mean it definitely won't work out for Lovie, but there's cause for concern that should be taken seriously there.

People make a lot of internet jokes about Ron Zook - he lost 13 games by 20+ over 7 years, and not more than 2 in any season after his first. Lovie has lost 17 such games out of the 36 he has coached. Of all the oft-cited successful rebuild coaches mentioned on this site, I have to think Lovie would be climbing out of the deepest hole. I hope he's successful.

illiniranger on March 26 @ 04:37 PM CDT

the defense has been incredibly bad

DB50 on March 26 @ 02:50 PM CDT

Remember last year the offensive line, at the beginning, was the concern that turned into a strength throughout the season. I look for a similar jump from the defensive line this year. Two reasons, one they're a year older, bigger, and deeper. Two, a coordinator who knows something about defense. Naturally, key injuries to players can render this argument moot. I firmly believe Verdis Brown will stay on the defensive side of the ball and a year from now he & Calvin Avery could be a nightmare for BIG offensive coordintators. Last, but not least, to suggest, a sophmore, Kievan Myers(.8513 ntn'l 1,042) starting ahead of, a grad transfer, Richie Petitbon(.9696 ntn'l 62) is wrong. True, Petitbon never started at Alabama but how unusual is that for one of the top 2 teams, perenially. My guess would be, most of Alabama's second string could start now for Illinois.

illiniranger on March 26 @ 06:02 PM CDT

Your second reason the defense should be better... Lovie was the head coach last year. Why didn't he fix it then? In 4 games as the DC/play caller Lovie gave up in sequence: 31, 54, 63, and 24 points.

thumpasaurus on March 27 @ 10:29 AM CDT

Yeah, nobody should really be putting any stock into the "Lovie is a better DC than Hardy" thing. It implies that Hardy, in his first college gig, had 100% responsibility for the defensive scheme and coaching, which is worrying. I thought we all agreed that Lovie was really calling the defense the whole time while mentoring Hardy as a developing college coach? If it really was Hardy's defense and NOT Lovie's, we have bigger problems.

It's always been Lovie's defense. He made slight changes after Hardy stepped down, but we still lost 63-0 after that.

illiniranger on March 26 @ 06:02 PM CDT

Your second reason the defense should be better... Lovie was the head coach last year. Why didn't he fix it then? In 4 games as the DC/play caller Lovie gave up in sequence: 31, 54, 63, and 24 points.

DB50 on March 26 @ 06:25 PM CDT

Your point is valid. I still feel, with the players' growth both physically & experience wise, they should improve under the Lovie's coaching as opposed to Nickerson. Also, there is more depth than last year. If it's a repeat of last year then we're looking for a new coach after the last game.

illiniranger on March 27 @ 11:31 AM CDT

we'll be better. S&P+ (an analytic measure) says we were the 120th ranked defense in the country last year. We will need to get into the 80s or so defensively to sniff a bowl game.

A decent comp that we could shoot for is last years Georgia Tech team. They were 7-5 with a 40th ranked offense and a 100th ranked defense.

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