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So I've been reading back through comments on football posts the last few months. And I feel like the "because" is missing. As in "IF Lovie is able to turn things around this season, it will happen BECAUSE..." Most seem to be focused on the specifics. It will be BECAUSE we found the right quarterback in Brandon Peters or BECAUSE we fixed the run defense with an improved scheme. All of that is true - everything needs to improve. But if it improves, to me, it will be because it all finally clicked. Yes, the "clicked" cliche.
I'll attempt to break down what I mean by that, but I probably won't communicate it very well. Mostly because it's not really tangible. It's not specifically "20 of 23 contributors return on defense and that leads to big leaps forward", although that helps. It's not "Brandon Peters was the passer this offense needed" nor is it "four of five offensive linemen returned and that, along with Richie Petitbon, provided stability...". The idea is that you simply reach a tipping point. You were fighting against inexperience and locker room instability and then, suddenly, you're not. You've overhauled the team, it should be working by now, it's not working, and then, suddenly, it's working.
I've seen this happen mid-season for "my" professional teams recently. My kickball team from Birmingham, England - Aston Villa - overhauled the roster, had supposedly built a squad that could push for promotion to the Premier League, and nothing was working. Instead of pushing for one of the top two spots in the standings, Villa was mired in 14th. They changed managers and four months later were still stuck in 13th. Nothing was working.
Then, out of nowhere, it clicked. There was no moment, no event. No lineup changes, no coaching changes. A lot of money was spent putting together a great roster, the roster was wildly underperforming, and then it just suddenly clicked. They won 11 in a row, made the playoff, and won the playoff to get promoted to the Premier League. Nobody pushed any buttons. They just kept doing the same thing and it finally came together.
Same with the St. Louis Blues. There was certainly one big position change (putting rookie Jordan Binnington in goal), but really, overnight, after one drunken night in Philadelphia singing Gloria, it all clicked. Like Aston Villa, the team had gotten a new coach in November, but still, nothing was working. And then, suddenly, everything was working. The team literally goes from worst (fewest points in the NHL on January 2nd) to first (won the Stanley Cup).
Those are two extreme examples, obviously. I saw some tweet from Elias Sports Bureau saying that the Blues did what no team had ever done before: no American professional team in last place 45% of the way through the season had ever won the title. So try to stay with me. I'm not going to argue that the Illini will start 0-3 AND THEN GO UNDEFEATED IN THE BIG TEN. I'll get to my point - I promise.
When looking through the comments on football posts, there seems to be a heavy focus on what players need to step up - Ricky Smalling needs to be the alpha dog #1 receiver, one of the new linebackers like Eifler or Cooper needs to come in and take over - but that's not really how I'm viewing this. I'm willing to discuss the details - I'm going to write 25,000+ words on the details - but really, with a rebuild like this (dump the upperclassmen, play the freshmen), you're looking for a bunch of players to start contributing out of nowhere.
Some names? OK. These are not predictions, but it would look something like...
- Dele Harding is suddenly our top linebacker and the anchor in the middle of the defense. A Whitney Mercilus situation where no one even knows his name the first three seasons and then in the fourth year, out of nowhere, he's The Guy. Three years of development on the field pays off.
- With Luke Ford ineligible for a season, out of nowhere comes Griffin Palmer. This staff didn't recruit him (Bill Cubit did), but Palmer, after three years on the sidelines, with maybe 2% of the fanbase able to identify his number (#81), starts catching pass after pass. Three years of development off the field pays off.
I started with two Cubit recruits, but the bigger "click" contributors would be Lovie's first two classes. The fourth year for a head coach, you should see a ton of breakout performances from his first two recruiting classes. You know the names Ricky Smalling and Alex Palczewski, but what if Lovie were to suddenly get contributions from...
- Lere Oladipo. Picked Illinois over Michigan State and Penn State, redshirted, played some last year before getting injured, enters his third (redshirt sophomore) season. Third year is when a ton of players have "where did THAT come from?" seasons.
- Tony Adams. Has played a lot (and has been injured a fair bit). What if he has a third season like Tavon Wilson's third season where we went from "nice player" to "he'll play in the NFL for a long time, won't he?"
- Isaiah Gay. He was 17 years old when he played in his first game. And he looked pretty good against Western Kentucky offensive linemen. But once the Big Ten rolled around, he's been overmatched. At some point, he shouldn't be overmatched anymore.
- Delano Ware. Looked a bit lost at nickel last year (as a true freshman). And now has moved to outside linebacker. But what if he's one of those guys where you can say "played as a true freshman, which probably hurt the team, but all of that led to a breakout sophomore season" by the end of the year?
- Deon Pate. Yes, I know, you're saying "who?" a lot. That's my point. The whole idea behind a "click" season isn't that Ricky Smalling takes over - it's that ten Deon Pates emerge. It's year four, you have three classes of "your" guys recruited for your system, so there should be clicks coming from everywhere. (Oh, sorry - Pate is a defensive tackle who might play some defensive end because pass rushing is his forte).
My point: it's about a collective coming together. It's not about the specifics. If this is being built correctly - and 63-0 glaringly states that it's not being built correctly - then the fourth year of a tear-down rebuild is the year where everything just clicks. All of the efforts to overhaul the roster come together at once. Players who have been disappointing so far are suddenly stars. Players you forgot about are massive contributors.
If you read the 2017 preview, you know that I researched other "absolute disaster of a program" rebuilds. Mike Leach at Wazzu, Barry Alvarez at Wisconsin, Jerry Kill at Minnesota, Art Briles at Baylor (gross), etc. I looked at 7 programs like that, and here were the average win totals:
Year 1: 2.8 wins
Year 2: 4.3
Year 3: 4.6
Year 4: 7.4
Year 5: 6.5
Yes, we can debate if Lovie, taking over in March of 2016 and being unable to add a recruiting class until his second season, really started with a "year zero". But as I said in that preview, this kind of a rip-off-the-bandaid rebuild accelerates the process (at least in my mind). You hamstring your ability to win right away, but you hasten the click.
(You know, if it's being built properly.)
The numbers above clearly show that the fourth season is the season of clicks. Mike Leach went 3-9 his third year and even lost to FCS Portland State the first game of his fourth season, and then it suddenly clicked. 8 wins (even with the loss to Portland State), then 8 wins, then 9 wins, then 10 wins. Nearly every coach I studied (again, coaches rebuilding programs in the bottom of the basement like post-Not Ideal Illinois) had a fourth year leap (except for David Cutcliffe at Duke who went 3-9 in his fourth year at Duke followed by six bowls in seven years).
And nearly all of the leaps came out of nowhere. No one was predicting Barry Alvarez to go from 5-6 to 10-1. Wisconsin hadn't been to a bowl game in 11 years at that point. His rebuild simply came together at once.
Should Illini fans expect 10 wins? No, and that's not my point. I'm speaking in generalities. I'm saying that the point behind rebuilding like this is a sudden click, often during the fourth season. It's not some quarterback putting the team on his shoulders, although that's often the narrative. And there are never expectations the season before. Vegas isn't predicting seven wins here.
It's simply a click. We, the fanbase, should expect a click. Not "you know, you can kind of see this team improving" - a click.
I've been patient. I've explained the slow motion rebuild as I've seen it the past three seasons. I've said "youngest team in college football" a hundred thousand times. And doing that has earned me my click badge. Which I will now lay on the table and shove towards Lovie.
One click, please.