I'll Do It Myself
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.