I'll Do It Myself

Mar 30, 2019

I mentioned it last fall (that we were promoting graduate assistants to vacant positions but Lovie was coaching the players). I mentioned it last night (that Miles Smith appears to be assistant LB coach to his dad). And I think it all points to one thing: Lovie has decided to fix the defense by himself.

I'm not setting out here to write a "Lovie is on the clock" post. This shouldn't be read as an "or-else" post, although that's obviously part of it. I'm going to try to simply state what became apparent to me when watching these last two practices: Lovie is taking it on himself. Like, everything.

Remember that press conference last fall after Hardy Nickerson resigned as defensive coordinator where Lovie smiled and said he had "a pretty good idea" who would be coordinating the defense in 2019? At the time, he was (now very obviously) referring to himself. Reporters are asking if he has anyone in mind and inside he's simply thinking "of course I do - I'm going to do it".

Then the assistant hires happen. He hires a guy mostly known as a recruiter for cornerbacks coach (Keynodo Hudson, who was a recruiting assistant at USC and then a cornerbacks coach at FAU). He promotes his son from graduate assistant to linebacker coach. And we're all thinking "how is his son in any way ready to run the linebacker room by himself?". Well, I don't think he will. From these practices, I think it's Lovie's linebacker room.

So what's the point of promoting his son? Well, as we discussed at the time, the same as Kirk Ferentz promoting his son and Jim Harbaugh promoting his son. They're in charge, they get to call the shots, they have 10 assistant spots instead of nine now, and they're choosing to use one to build their son's career. (And in Ferentz's case, his son has now worked his way all the way up to coordinator.) Lovie had the option to go find an experienced assistant and felt it wasn't necessary - he'd just promote his son.

I need to pause to get technical here. It's helpful to understand how practice works. All assistant coaches are not created equal. There's a hierarchy. Sometimes, like when a coordinator is in charge of an offensive install, the assistants are more like graduate assistants and the coordinators run the show. I noted this last year at training camp. Gill Byrd ran everything for the secondary. Donnie Abraham, who was "cornerbacks coach" at the time, was more or less his assistant. Often, Byrd would be teaching the technique, and Abraham would be assisting much like the graduate assistants were assisting.

So when I'm talking about Lovie being the linebacker coach, I'm not specifically saying "he hired someone who doesn't know what they're doing so he has to do it himself", although I'm sure that's part of it here. I'm saying that Lovie has set it up like this: He is running the defense now. Defenses are always broken down between the run defense and the pass defense, so he is running the run side, Gill Byrd runs the pass side. The most important part of teaching the run side is to boost the linebacker play, so that's where Lovie will (likely) spend most of his time. This is his defense, and he needs these linebackers to know everything about it, and he is going to personally teach it to them.

Yes, there are times when Miles Smith is running the linebackers through drills and Lovie wanders over to the defensive line (another big part of fixing last year's defensive struggles). I'm not saying Miles Smith is just standing to the side, doing nothing, collecting a paycheck. My point is that Lovie is clearly -- clearly -- in charge of everything.

Which is kind of... great, right? I mean, not great if it doesn't work. But great in the sense that we're going to enter the cleanest fall of Illini football we've seen in a long time. There really aren't any loose ends. The defense desperately needs fixing, and the head coach, who was hired for his defensive prowess, plans to fix it himself. If it works, the praise goes to him. If it doesn't, the blame goes directly to him.

It all became so clear on the drive home today. When he was hired, Lovie said he would install a run game and a defense and win football games based on those two things. The first OC couldn't build a run game, but the second guy built something pretty solid last season. Lovie is letting that OC expand on that, hiring "his" guy (Bob McClain) as the offensive line coach. I wanted us to go out and get a "name" OL coach after Butkus left - Rod Smith feels he can improve this thing even more with his guy.

Same thing for the defense. I wanted names. I wanted us to take the money we had from Nickerson's salary and go hire a name defensive coordinator who would bring some cachet. Find some guy to do what Vic Koenning did in 2010 when he brought credibility to a failing defense. Instead, Lovie hired himself.

And I'm not saying that as an insult. That's not "can you believe Lovie hired HIMSELF?" I'm saying that Rod Smith fixed the running game (and was allowed to expand on that by bringing in his own guy as OL coach) and now Lovie is going Pedro Cerrano on the defense.

The obvious question here, of course, is "hasn't this been Lovie's defense all along?", and yes, that's true. He wasn't calling it, and he wasn't this involved at practice in coordinating it, but it was the Lovie Smith defense. And to be precise here, he was the one calling it for the last four games of the season which included some good (Minnesota, Northwestern) and some awful (Nebraska, Iowa). So there are obviously more layers here than just "Lovie will now take over the defense".

Like the youth. If you want to point to one thing as to why the defense was so bad the last two years, I say point to the number of freshmen on the field, not Hardy Nickerson. There may have been a disconnect with Hardy calling the defensive sets, but the biggest issue (in my view) has been running so many freshmen and sophomores out there (with virtually no seniors the last two seasons). This defense was always going to take its lumps.

It's just that when you have the worst defensive statistics in school history, it's more than just youth lumps. Whatever they were trying wasn't working. Which led to Hardy's resignation. Which led to all of us having that "who should we hire as DC?"/"if we hire a name DC to change the defense, what is Lovie here for?" debate.

Which has led to a very simple solution. There are now juniors (and even a few seniors!) on the field. There are some four-star defenders (like Marquez Beason and Shammond Cooper) joining this summer. There are other four-stars (like Verdis Brown and Calvin Avery) who will be heavily in the rotation. The youth issues are mostly behind us.

Lovie then had a choice: hire a defensive coordinator (and maybe a hotshot assistant or two) to fix what was wrong -- or -- change nothing, rely on the experience these freshmen and sophomores (now juniors and seniors) have in this scheme, and call the defense himself. He chose B.

If it works? Lovie was responsible for rebuilding Illini football. If it doesn't? Nobody to blame but himself.


greenbergj23 on March 31 @ 12:17 AM CDT

Great explanation of what Lovie did! If Lovie does unfortunately fail and the defense doesn't improve while the offense continues to improve, you can literally keep the whole offensive staff, even Clark and Hudson, promote Rod to HC and then hire a proven defensive coordinator and two energetic defensive assistants and Lovie can be responsible for a successful rebuild. There is a way better basis of players then what Lovie had to start with, and with low coach turnover, recruiting wouldn't take a dip, and turnover wouldn't be as high.

Sweetchuck13 on April 01 @ 09:18 AM CDT

Why do Illini fans always want this outcome - to fire the head coach and promote an assistant of his as the new head coach? That happens almost never, but I feel like Illini fans always get sucked in to that kind of narrative. See Weber/Jerrance, Zook/Petrino or Koenning, etc. Do other fanbases do that?

And can you find me any examples where the head coach was fired (for lack of wins, not a scandal or anything), and the AD simply retains the staff and promotes an assistant? I like RS too, but if Lovie gets fired we're starting completely over in 2020.

CraigG on April 02 @ 01:45 PM CDT

Only one that I can think of, Dabo Swinney. And he was the interim for half the previous season.

deadguy on April 04 @ 05:02 PM CDT

This actually happened at Indiana with Tom Allen after Wilson resigned and it has worked out VERY well for them. They just had their best recruiting class ever and are doing about as well as can be expected in the B1G East.

I would like to see Rod Smith promoted because we aren't going to attract any worthwhile HCs here. The search after Zook was fired was embarrassing.

Smith keeps some continuity in recruiting going and we can probably retain most of the staff on the offensive side of the ball. We'll see what McClain can do but all of those guys add something in terms of recruiting and/or coaching. Patterson is especially important with this 2020 class.

R. Smith can then clean house on the other side of the bal and find a DC who can try to fix that mess. He could probably give Tony Gibson a call who is just a Co-DC at NC State now.

DB50 on March 31 @ 09:50 AM CDT

Good, insightful article Robert & nice indirect reference to “Major League”! I totally agree with your assessment, to me, Lovie is like a blackjack player who has had a long run of losing & is pushing all his chips in for one final hand. Will it be a winner? If Peanut Tillman, Urlacher & Briggs we’re on the defensive side I would bet with him. However, I still think they’re one year away from 6 wins. Still needed, more experience, depth & a year with Lou Fernandez.

deadguy on March 31 @ 10:05 AM CDT

We could have done so much more with that extra assistant position.

If you want to go with unqualified candidates, how about Terry Hawthorne? I was against giving him a full time assistant position since he is only an assistant coach at ESL but at least he is a former player who expressed interest in the job. He could obviously help with recruiting players from ESL as well since they have a lot of great prospects in the Class of 2020 and 2021. We could then have gotten the LB coaching equivalent of Hudson or just let Hawthorne be the LB coach in name only while he is essentially a grad assistant.

We also could have hired another High School coach like Carl Reed at Lutheran North. I have no idea if he can coach at all but he has ties to lots of talented recruits.

This M. Smith hire is just so bad on so many levels. Whitman should never have allowed it to happen. It pisses off the few of us who still care about this program and hope that Lovie can find a way to turn this around.

Groundhogday on April 01 @ 08:41 PM CDT

This is my thinking. If Lovie wants to do the coaching himself, then use that DC position to hire a dynamic recruiter. That won't impact next year much, and I get that next year is the hinge point for this coach, but going into the future hiring junior instead of a proven recruiter costs you talent.

track on March 31 @ 11:08 AM CDT

The article title reminded me of the great philosopher James Brown who sang " Open up the door and I'll get it myself"

thumpasaurus on March 31 @ 11:50 AM CDT

It doesn't make any sense why Lovie wasn't calling the defense prior to Hardy's resignation. Hardy came in without any college experience, and Lovie wasn't busy being a dynamic recruiter or anything. I just assumed Lovie would be calling the defense and developing Hardy as a coordinator. Why is that not what happened?!?!

I'm with you though in that while I'd prefer looking forward to a fall where we're definitely going to be good, I am still delighted to finally have a season where things are pretty cut and dry. If the defense is bad, we know why. If the team goes 3-9, we're moving on. Essentially, the count is full. Payoff pitch.

illiniranger on March 31 @ 08:34 PM CDT

The logic of letting it be that bad for 32 games before doing something about it is... a stretch.

illiniranger on March 31 @ 08:57 PM CDT

That’s not intended to be a shot at Robert, who I think is just describing what he’s seeing. But like, hey, Lovie... you probably had enough evidence after game 6 that you should be getting a lot more involved.

Robert on April 01 @ 09:12 AM CDT

Did he, though? I probably should have explored this more in the piece, but I feel like mid-year last year was the first time they looked at it as "something is seriously wrong". Obviously they should have identified the issues earlier (and those issues might just be as simple as "this NFL mind can't stop college offenses"), but "game 6" doesn't track with what we saw, in my opinion.

2016 the defense was at least acceptable - 77th in S&P+ defense, which was basically last year's offense. Not great, and certainly worse than I expected given all the seniors, but they benched all but four of those seniors and started the rebuild.

2017 was slightly worse (81st) when you'd normally see progress, but that was chalked up to youth. Youngest D in the country, blah blah blah. I think that for most people (including Lovie and Whitman), 81st was "acceptable" for such a young defense.

Even 2018 at least started OK (Kent State, WIU, USF, and the first three quarters of the Penn State game). And then it bottomed out to unimaginable depths. The worst we've ever seen. I'm saying that this bottoming out led to Nickerson's resignation and the current "fine, I'll do it" approach from Lovie.

illiniranger on April 01 @ 10:13 AM CDT

"game 6" was tongue in cheek. the point being that they should have known a lot earlier than they did. there were some pretty poor performances in 2016 that should have set off alarm bells. Getting taken to the woodshed by UNC and WMU in consecutive games (granted, both good teams, but not even a heartbeat defensively in either game). 4 of the last 6 games of 2016 they gave up 40+ points, and gave up 28 to Iowa in a game where Iowa decided to kick the ball at halftime after kicking to open the game. things were clearly not going well on the defensive side of the ball in Year 1, despite having 5x NFL players out there (Phillips, Smoot, Nickerson, Clements [who they chose not to play], Crawford [who they got nothing out of that season]).

if i want to be very generous, they should have realized something was very, very wrong after they got their shit handed to them by USF in Year 2.

i agree with your conclusion that the bottoming out led to the resignation of Nickerson and the new approach by Lovie, i'm saying the warning lights were blinking way, way earlier than the 4th quarter vs PSU.

HiggsBoson on April 01 @ 07:55 PM CDT

Hardy was a crony more than a coach.

illiniranger on April 03 @ 10:41 AM CDT

I tend to agree with you, Lovie had to put the first staff together at a weird time. IMO Hardy was really unqualified to be a P5 level defensive coordinator. The staffs that Lovie has built have been underwhelming to say the least.

Gary48 on March 31 @ 01:05 PM CDT

Great analysis, Robert. I’m pulling hard for Lovie! He has done so much the right way, I’d really like the rest of the story to be excellent as well.

HiggsBoson on March 31 @ 02:00 PM CDT

Thanks for the laugh, Robert. My indicators for success were 1) retain recruits, 2) hire a dynamic DC, and replace the GAs with real, experienced coaches.

1 surprisingly happened

2 Lovie couldn't or wouldn't make a hire and put his decidedly undynamic self in the position

3 No dice. But he did give his kid a promotion and more money.

My conclusion is that Lovie's main interest here is not winning football games,but rather scarfing as much loot for himself and family as he can while hanging out with his buds.

This experiment might have succeeded if Lovie had taken it seriously. At this point it might be beter to let him run out his contract, then drop football if we can;t someone better.

Lanta on March 31 @ 03:24 PM CDT

"scarfing loot" + "hanging out with buds" + "drop football" = troll

HiggsBoson on April 01 @ 07:58 PM CDT

I went to my first game at Memorial Stadium in 1951, Sparky. How about you?

Leaping to unwarranted conclusions = internet chucklehead

Lanta on March 31 @ 03:30 PM CDT

HiggsBoson translator: "I disagree with some of the coach's decisions and am disappointed in the results so far. Instead of expressing my disagreement in a civil or meaningful way, I'm going to continually make inane posts that I probably wouldn't ever have the guts to say to someone's face. But you know, the internet makes me bold."

HiggsBoson on April 01 @ 08:00 PM CDT

I'd say it to your face, dillweed. How about you sit down and have a nice steaming cup of cocoa, kid.

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