Spring Mailbag IV

Apr 29, 2019

I need to describe this scene right now. I'm sitting on a sun porch at my hotel in Yosemite National Park (this building - built in 1899). It's maybe 78 degrees, the sun is shining, my wife is napping, and I have a little time to flip open the laptop and do some writing. What better thing to write about than ILLINI FOOTBALL??

Let's do one more mailbag post.

If so much of this season turns on qb play, why are we reportedly focusing on transfer options just now, as opposed to the minute last season ended?

-- J.Guyette (@jkguyette) April 24, 2019

My first reaction is that, from all accounts, the staff just wasn't looking at transfer options in April. There have been rumblings about a certain quarterback coached by Rod Smith at his former location going all the way back to November. It appears that said quarterback will be staying at Arizona, but I'm guessing the staff has been reviewing the transfer portal quite often since November.

But it is fair to ask about the staff's plan at quarterback. When you go into a season with three second-year quarterbacks (one a sophomore, two as redshirt-freshmen) plus one first-year quarterback (the One), we need to really investigate how we got here.

And the main answer to "how did we get here?" is "we only added one quarterback in the 2017 class, and that quarterback has already left". The quarterback picture would look much different if A) Cam Thomas were still here and B) there were other quarterbacks in that class besides Cam Thomas.

Especially after Eli Peters left. I think I'm probably losing some of you who don't have roster spreadsheets that you consult all the time, so a quick refresher on how we got here.

The quarterbacks on this roster could have come from any class back to 2015. Here's what has happened with the quarterbacks in those classes:

  • Jimmy Fitzgerald, Beckman's QB in the 2015 class, transferred to Dartmouth.
  • Eli Peters, the quarterback in the Cubit class, transferred to Toledo after one spring under Lovie. The reason for the transfer - he was a pocket QB recruited by Cubit and Lovie was installing a system that required the quarterback to run. Can't blame him.
  • Lovie's first class he added Cam Thomas. Thomas started a few games in 2017 but announced a transfer last September.
  • Lovie's second class he added three quarterbacks (Rivers, Robinson, and Taylor) plus a fifth-year senior (Bush). Bush started and is now out of eligibility.
  • Lovie's third class he added Isaiah Williams.

Fitzgerald and Peters would really help right now (you know, if they were running QB's, which Fitzgerald could do a little bit), but it makes sense that when the coach (and offense) they signed up for is gone, they looked elsewhere.

Which means it all comes down to the 2017 class. With maybe two QB's in that class, and if Thomas were still around, you'd have some competition for all these underclassmen. We don't have that, which is why the quaterbacking was so erratic in the spring game and will likely continue to be so into the season.

Unless, you know, we add a fifth-year transfer...

Without going into specifics (we know Akron is watching) what give you hope that the D is WAY better this year? Experience on the D line? Better play from the LBs? A better, more experienced secondary? Scheme change? A more aggressive philosophy from Lovie as defacto DC?

-- Alana Church (@ChurchOfErotica) April 24, 2019

Seniors is the biggest thing. There were 21-23 defenders in the regular rotation last year, and only one senior. Every college coach in American winces when you suggest that.

Actually, I shouldn't just say "seniors", I should say "upperclassmen". Upperclassmen finally litter the two-deep. Senior anchors up front (Tymir Oliver, Jamal Milan, Dele Harding), and junior anchors in the secondary (Nate Hobbs, Tony Adams). Finally, it's not just a bunch of kids.

As for the "aggressive" philosophy from Lovie Smith, Defensive Coordinator, I don't think that's exactly the case. Someone asked me to describe the defense without giving much away, and I chose "Lovie makes it simple".

My sense - and this is just a guess - is that the defensive approach is somewhat similar to Denzel Washington's offensive approach in Remember The Titans. I'd look up the quote but I'm hotspotting off my wife's iPad with one bar of service so I'm not doing research for this one). I believe the quote was "we only run five plays but we run them to perfection".

I think that will be the approach of Lovie Smith, Defensive Coordinator. And, really, I don't think it comes as much surprise. We're not going to experiment from game to game like we maybe did the last few years. We're not going to have one package for Iowa and another package for Northwestern. We're going to run the Lovie Smith defense and he's going to attempt to get the players to perfect it. I think the rotations might shorten, I think the player swaps based on the offensive personnel might slow down a bit, and I think the defense will be "we'll do the same thing over and over and perfect it".

Will it work? I can't answer that. It was such a disaster last year, even after Lovie took over in November. It's hard to see it just magically be great. With the age, I do expect improvement, and then it's up to the coaching to make it a strength.

take me through your ideal 10/12/19 from wake to sleep

-- Matty Krames (@maor215) April 24, 2019

I have such a strange relationship with October 12, 2019. I put it in my Twitter bio on a whim back in March of 2016. I knew that the roster had a big dropoff after 2016, and Not Ideal left us with serious competitive issues, so I picked a date and called my shot: 10/12/19 it all returns (at home, vs. Michigan).

And now it's 5.5 months away and I feel like Michigan is going to be a 19 point favorite. I'm not kidding when I say that 63-0 destroyed so many parts of me. How can you go from losing to a 6-4 Iowa team sixty three to zero and then expect to beat top-10 Michigan at home eight games later? It just seems impossible.

But, that was kind of the point of calling this shot. I've always been a "it never looks like a thing until it actually becomes a thing" guy, so maybe now is the time to cling to October 12, 2019 even tighter. So I shall indulge. My perfect day? I'll keep this short.

First off, it's a night game. It HAS TO BE a night game. If we are to exorcise the demons of the 2000 Michigan game, it needs to be at night again.

Ideally, I tailgate all day with the same people I tailgated with before the 2000 Michigan game. If you weren't there, I don't think I'll be able to accurately describe it. We had just won eight games the year before, had started strong, were ranked, and Michigan came to town for a night game. The tailgating lots haven't been the same since.

Yes, even 2007. If you'll remember, the 2007 season didn't really turn (I mean TURN turn) until the Ohio State win. As late as late October we were struggling to beat Ball State and just hoping to get to six wins. The Penn State and Wisconsin wins were great, but I'm talking tailgating here, and tailgating buzz requires a team to be really getting somewhere. By the time we knew that team was going somewhere, it was a cold home game against Northwestern in late November.

So while this game won't have the buzz (even if we're undefeated, and we won't be undefeated), I do kind of love the idea of tailgating with the same people. This is two decades of awful I'm hoping to shed during that game, so maybe I should join the people I was with when it all started.

But I won't tailgate all day. I'll get in the stadium as soon as the pressbox opens. I usually skip the pressbox and sit in the stands for the big games (I just have to cheer), but for this one, I think I might need to be alone (with my earbuds in). I... just won't be any help in the stands. I'll be mush.

(I know this post isn't going in the direction Marty wanted. He wanted to play Titanic music behind this post, but I just don't have it in me. 63-0 broke my soul, and only 10/12/19 can put it back together.)

So ideally, I watch this one from the pressbox and we win. And if we win, I am not lying, I will cry in said pressbox. It will mean that we're getting somewhere, and I've been working at this blog thing for TEN YEARS waiting for it to get somewhere, and beating Michigan to declare that we're getting somewhere will make the last 10 years worth it and I will cry. Guaranteed.

Then I'll run down to the stands, find my footing, probably scream into my phone for an hour, perhaps unprofessionally hug a player or two, try to do interviews but not make any sense, try to go write but not make any sense, and then record 90 minutes in the car on the drive home at 1:30 in the morning screaming IT'S HAPPENING over and over and over.

I won't sleep, I'll rewatch the game twice, and then I might quit my job and follow Illini football full time like some Grateful Dead fan, living out of a van (sorry honey) and doing Chris Farley things like interviewing Reggie Corbin and saying "remember when you beat Michigan on October 12th? That was AWESOME."


Bear8287 on April 29 @ 04:13 AM CDT

living out of a van (sorry honey) and doing Chris Farley things like interviewing Reggie Corbin and saying "remember when you beat Michigan on October 12th? That was AWESOME."

Hey, St. Louis is a great spot for that. (Would it be the Missouri or the Mississippi?)

I will cry in said pressbox.

Hmmm... I could imagine that whether the Illini win or lose. That statement may just stand on its own.

Thanks for doing these, but be sure to enjoy Yosemite. It has to be one of the most beautiful places on this planet. Oh, and if you get a chance to catch the movie "Free Solo", do so. An amazing human feat. It was hard to believe when I heard that Alex Honnold had done it and after seeing the movie, I'm still not sure that it's any easier to believe. :-D

San Joaquin on April 29 @ 12:02 PM CDT

I used to train law enforcement up there. May want to weave a walk up the mist trail into your itinerary. Beautiful time to be up there.

Decadeoftears on April 29 @ 06:58 PM CDT

I just got sad and excited at the same time. I think id have to recommend you watch this one as a fan if we look anything like we could win. Off the record, is there still a chance for Tate????

Sweetchuck13 on April 30 @ 08:33 AM CDT

Ideally, I tailgate all day with the same people I tailgated with before the 2000 Michigan game. If you weren't there, I don't think I'll be able to accurately describe it. We had just won eight games the year before, had started strong, were ranked, and Michigan came to town for a night game. The tailgating lots haven't been the same since.

I've described this atmosphere to so many people over the years, and they just don't believe it. It was the most electric atmosphere I've ever personally seen at a football game - in the neighborhood of what you see at Va Tech or some of the insane SEC stadiums for a night game. I just dream about seeing that atmosphere again someday. And Whitman's mentioned it repeatedly too - he was in uniform that night.

BigRedIllini on May 02 @ 06:56 PM CDT

Just or of curiosity where did Cam Thomas transfer to? It definitely would have been nice to have an extra arm (and legs) last year.

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