Tried to write last night, couldn't. Tried to write this morning, couldn't, so I watched the scrimmage again. I think the words are starting to arrive now, so I left my house (with the final round of The Masters on!) to capture them here at this coffeehouse. Let's see if I can grab them out of the air and put them down on electronic paper.
You know what's helping? The guy next to me in this coffeehouse is A) typing so furiously that I his fingertips have to be slightly bruised, and B) fist-pumping every so often because the music in his ears is so damn good. I mean, if that's not inspirational to someone trying to put words down on paper, I don't' know what is. Let's do this.
Yesterday, while driving home, I verbally shared all of my fears. I've found that I like this "Periscope with no video" thing that Twitter has now - it's more or less a podcast that's archived on Twitter. Want to hear an Illini football "podcast"? Click on this and listen for an hour. It's as raw as I can make it.
That was helpful, because I had a lot of fears that I needed to get out. I do feel a bit better today and feel like I was a bit too negative there, but every time someone sends me a "R-E-L-A-X we're fine" tweet, I still respond (internally) with "I most definitely will not because we most definitely are not". I attended four practices/scrimmages this spring, and I expected to see a 7 on offense and a 3 on defense, and I saw a 4 on offense and a 6 on defense, and that has me concerned, because a 4 and a 6 aren't going to get us to a bowl game, and we have to get to a bowl game. Spring forward, fall back? Nope. Spring back.
Please keep in mind that this is perhaps the most patient fan imaginable saying these things. It me, the guy who has preached "five full years, no questions asked" for any coach taking over in March 2016 after Not Ideal. My #springtakes are all archived here and on Twitter. More or less, they're this:
Spring 2016: "Lovie's staff has was finalized last week. Of course this spring is going to be ragged."
Spring 2017: "We're learning nothing here. There's maybe 46 guys available for practice."
Spring 2018: "We have one scholarship quarterback and three scholarship receivers. We can barely practice."
Now? Now there are 60-some players available for practice, not 37 (like the one practice I attended a few years ago). Now we more-or-less have a full two deep for spring. We return 24 of the 25 guys who contributed on defense last year. We lost one blocking tight end, one receiver, one offensive lineman, and one quarterback from the offense. It is now time to really learn something from Spring Ball. I mean, we finally have enough players to have an actual spring game. I woke up at 5:45 am on a Saturday because I was so excited to drive to Champaign and see some actual spring ball.
What did I see? I saw the first string offense score three points. Which means that the first string defense is way ahead of the first string offense at this point. Which is partially encouraging, of course - we'll get to that in a bit - but the takeaway, to me, is this:
2018 season: Illini rushing offense (S&P+) - 9th nationally; Illini rushing defense - 125th nationally
April 13, 2019: Illini rushing offense can't run on the Illini rushing defense
Yes, the second string offense ran on the second string defense. That 50-yard Jakari Norwood touchdown wasn't only untouched - there was no one within five yards of him. That was good (and bad) to see.
But the takeaway of this scrimmage remains "first string offense struggled with the first string defense". Maybe that means the defense has taken incredible strides since the end of the season. Man, would it be amazing if that were the case. And yes, the offensive line was missing Vederian Lowe, and maybe we'll soon learn that he's the key to the entire offensive line. AND, first string vs. first string was "thud" drill, meaning two-hand touch, basically. There was at least one Luke Ford catch and two Reggie Corbin runs that would have gone for many more yards if it wasn't "once the defender makes contact, blow the whistle".
(Note - I just paused for 45 minutes to watch The Masters finish on my phone. Holy crap.)
Even with all of that, though, the offense should be able to at least move the ball on this defense. Even with all of that, those drives shouldn't have gone backwards. I mean, this defense just finished 127th against the pass. And then this first string offense can't even move the ball through the air? They're up against, statistically, one of the worst defenses in Big Ten history. Nothing? Nothing at all?
That's where I've landed here. I'm probably not as pull-my-hair-out as I was driving home yesterday, but that's the spring takeaway. Quarterback is a massive, massive concern. Wide receiver is a massive, massive concern. Offensive line depth is a massive, massive concern. We need players to step up and we need the new arrivals this summer to be ready from the jump. The first string offense went up against the Illinois defense that just gave up 39.4 points per game (in a season that ended four months ago) and they put up one single field goal. I don't know how we can be anything but freaked out by that.
Now, yes, it's April. All that matters is what it looks like on August 31st. Like a golfer breaking down his swing and then building it back up, what it looks like now doesn't matter. Jordan Spieth tore everything apart, is rebuilding his game, and doesn't care that he's outside the top-20 in The Masters. The goal is to stay on this path and get to something repeatable so he can climb the world rankings again. It's a process.
So yes, a process. They're not trying to be consistent, they're not trying to put up 300 yards rushing - they're trying to build something between now and August 31st. The transfers (and some of the freshmen) will be a big part of that. This is not a "the season is hopeless!" post.
But it is a "maybe sound a second alarm" post. Things are not where they should be. I really, really wanted them to be, but they're not.
+ Let's discuss some good things from yesterday. As bad as the offense was, the defense was equally as impressive. Yes, impressive. Not just "the offense was struggling so they looked good" - impressive. It doesn't mean we're ready to hold Nebraska under 30 come September 21st, but it is tangible progress. I saw a defense that has made some offseason strides. To wit:
- Three interceptions, all from playmaking corners. First, Nick Walker hit Bobby Walker right after the catch, popping the ball up in the air for walkon linebacker Sean Coghlan to grab (and return for a touchdown). Then Nate Hobbs jumped a slightly underthrown (but still catchable) ball. Then Jartavius Martin out-jumped Caleb Reams for a 50/50 ball by reaching with one hand and high-pointing it. All three great plays.
- Apart from one assignment error on the Norwood touchdown, they limited the big play. The last time they went with the live scrimmage in Memorial Stadium (in August), the offense had maybe 10 big plays. Probably 15.
- Bobby Roundtree ate both offensive tackles for lunch. This is a good thing (and a bad thing).
- The defensive tackles had a great game. There's depth and experience there.
Disclaimer: this does not mean we have a great defense. This might be as simple as "hey guys, we have the 13th-best defense in the Big Ten now, not the 14th-best!". It will take seasons of growth to get this defense to respectability, which is a really bad thing to say when you're going into your fourth season with this scheme.
But for now, it's ahead of where I thought it would be this spring. Especially the line and the secondary.
+ Since I like these bullet lists, how about some players who stuck out?
- Walkon linebacker Alex McEachern had maybe 128 tackles. I mean, he was all over the place. Part of that was the second string defensive line having their way with the second string offensive line at times, with open lanes for linebackers to just go make the tackle. But... with linebacker Jacob Hollins transferring last week, I'm putting McEachern in my two-deep.
- Coran Taylor probably had the best day of the quarterbacks? Sure, he made a few freshman plays (including that scramble where he ran backwards and all the way across the field to gain two yards - against Michigan, that's a 19 yard loss). But that series where he hit Kendall Smith on maybe three consecutive slants - that was probably the best series for any of the quarterbacks all day. Taylor redshirted while the other two QB's played last year, so now, as a redshirt freshman, well, just keep an eye on him. QB is wide open right now.
- Kendall Smith deserves his own bullet point as well. There are no stats from the scrimmage, but I'm pretty sure he had the most catches. It was either Smith or walkon Donny Navarro. This team needs receivers, which is why Smith moved back to receiver from safety. Hopefully he can contribute sooner rather than later.
- Bobby Roundtree owns.
- Beyond the 50 yard touchdown, Jakari Norwood had a few four-yard runs that he turned into eight-yard runs. The second stringers were tackling (no tackles for the first string, just "thud"). So to see him keep his legs churning and spinning for a few extra yards puts him on my radar. Not sure he plays much this season but he's in my 2020 tailback rotation.
- Caleb Griffin hit two field goals including a 49-yarder. He and James McCourt have been neck-and-neck this spring when I've watched, so this pushes Griffin slightly into the lead (making pressure kicks in a live scrimmage). Although, to be fair, McCourt didn't have the same opportunity to prove himself. That battle will go well into August camp.
- Just before the first field goal when we threw to Luke Ford on the sideline and he just kind of gripped the ball with both hands while making sure he got one foot down - if he gets his waiver approved, run that play 125 times this season. Throw it to that spot and he's strong enough and big enough to keep the linebacker off him and grab that catch every single time.
+ I laughed out loud on the re-watch when I saw that Bobby Roundtree accidentally punched Reggie Corbin in the junk. Junk shots will always make me laugh. I'm 11.
+ Overall, I go into the summer concerned. This should have been the "rounding into form" spring game, and it just wasn't. Remember the 2014 scrimmage at Sacred Heart Griffin and how these two receivers named Geronimo Allison and Mikey Dudek were catching ball after ball and I wrote 3,000 words on how we seemed to be rounding into form? That's what I wanted to see yesterday. But that's not what I saw yesterday.
Which means this was a Spring Back. And now we will need to Fall Forward.