2019 Training Camp XVII: What I Think
"So you were up at training camp? What did you think?"
I get this question quite often. And I get it - 15 years ago, at my desk at work, I was always wondering what was going on up at Camp Rantoul. How is the QB battle shaking out? Anyone emerging on defense? Most importantly, are we going to be any good?
With some time to think about what I saw in my time at camp, here's what I think.
I think Lovie sees transfers like NFL free agency
Lovie was always going to have an NFL bend to everything he does in college. That's his history, so that's how he's going to think. It's to be expected when hiring an NFL guy for a college job. It's helpful to have assistants around with deep college backgrounds, but that's a whole other topic and I'm already off course.
As I watched camp last week (specifically, as I was putting together my depth chart on Monday), I noticed how much play the transfers are getting. I knew that the transfers would be brought in and pushed to the front of the line fairly quickly, but I didn't realize they would all be in (or almost in) the starting lineup.
Which made me think about how this felt like an NFL training camp (yes, I attended a Rams training camp or two back in the day) and how you went there mostly to watch the rookies and the free agents. "Left guard was a mess last year - will it be the free agent guard signed from the Dolphins or the rookie we drafted from TCU?" Most often it was the free agent signed from the Dolphins.
And this feels a lot like that. I think both Trevon Sidney (if healthy) and Josh Imatorbhebhe might be in the starting lineup against Akron. Catching passes from Brandon Peters. Being blocked for by Richie Petitbon. And if Luke Ford were eligible, he'd be in there too. The answer to nearly every "we struggled there last year - will it be the rookie (2019 recruiting class) or the free agent (transfers) filling that spot?" has been "the transfer".
Which makes me wonder if this is the new normal? There are only 11 scholarship seniors on this team, which means that next year will be a smaller recruiting class again, and I'm very curious if Lovie will go crazy in the transfer portal yet again. I think he might view the transfer portal like he viewed the NFL free agent market? There were six transfers added in the offseason (Richie Petitbon from Alabama, Trevon Sidney, Josh Imatorbhebhe, and Wole Betiku from USC, Luke Ford from Georgia, and Chase Brown from Western Michigan), so perhaps Lovie might do the same thing again next offseason? Say the 2020 class ends up around 18 players or so - might it be 12 freshmen and six more transfers?
There's obviously a huge concern there with so few freshmen. You have to be building that foundation year after year. There's always the Kansas risk - Charlie Weis went crazy in the juco market and when David Beatty took over and all the jucos graduated Beatty was left with 39 scholarship players - so once you hop on the train you have to stay on. Again, those are probably issues for another post.
My point here: I get the feeling that Lovie feels much more comfortable with the current scenario. He's signed some free agents to fill some gaps while the rookies develop. And now it's time to go out and win some games.
I think Bob McClain is in the biggest spotlight
The biggest surprise last season had to be the offensive line. It wasn't immediate (remember the struggles to run the ball against Kent State and even Western Illinois?), but as the season wore on, the line was really, really good. Going by S&P+, the running game was 9th nationally on the season.
And that line returns four starters, three of them jumping over the all-important "underclassman to upperclassman" line. Every tailback returns as well, including the guy who put up more than 1,000 yards last season. There's a big piece to replace - Nick Allegretti, who was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs - but if Richie Peitbon can step into his shoes, this could be a very good offensive line. (Which means that next year's line, with four starters back again, would have the potential to be one of the better Illini lines in the last 20 years. But that's for another post as well.)
What does this mean? It means there's a massive spotlight on the new offensive line coach. Especially given his resume coming in. Luke Butkus went out the door, and in the door came a line coach that Rod Smith wanted (and had hired as an analyst last season), Bob McClain. McClain's resume?
2019 Illinois, Offensive Line
2018 Illinois, Offensive Analyst
2016-17 Lenoir-Rhyne, Offensive Coordinator/Offensive Line
2015 California University of Pennsylvania, Run Game Coordinator/Offensive Line
2014 Virginia State, Offensive Line Consultant
2010-11 Appalachian State, Offensive Line
2009 Tulsa, Tight Ends/Recruiting Coordinator
2008 Michigan, Quality Control (Special Teams/Offense)
2006-07 Glenville State, Offensive Coordinator/Offensive Line/Tight Ends/Running Backs
2003-05 West Virginia, Offensive Graduate Assistant
2000-02 West Virginia, Video Graduate Assistant
That's three years as an FBS assistant - one year as the Tulsa tight ends coach and two years as the Appalachian State offensive line coach. That's... not exactly an encouraging resume. BUT, this is Rod Smith's offense, and this is the offensive line coach Rod Smith wanted, and after last season's improvement, Rod gets to pick whoever he wants.
Still, imagine it's the second quarter at UConn and we're struggling to run the ball (and struggling to keep defensive ends away from the quarterback). Does it not feel like a massive spotlight will emerge from the sky and shine directly on Bob McClain? I'm not trying to be overly harsh here, but when you have a solid running game, and return four linemen and all running backs, and you change offensive line coaches, man, I wouldn't want to be that guy.
This is not some prediction of doom and gloom. The running game looked fine in camp. Still... I wouldn't want to be that guy.
I think it's going to be close
"Are we going to a bowl?"
"Can we get to six wins?"
I'm not ready to predict anything yet, but I've laid my eyes on the last practice of the summer (closing the scrimmage tomorrow night which cancels my trip to Champaign is more or less the old "Disneyland burned down because of something you did" Jack Handy skit for me), so I have all the information I'm going to get. We'll learn the name of the starting quarterback in about 10 days and then I'll pretty much be able to predict what I think is going to happen.
For now, I'll just say that I think it's going to be close. I don't think this is a 3-9 team and I don't think this is a 9-3 team (lol) either. I do think the skill is there now, and the experience is there, so this should be a bowl season. But I'm still so afraid of a defense that can't keep the offense in games.
I keep going back and forth. Yes, there are so many players with so many starts, and that almost always means improvement. With an easier non-conference pointing to three wins instead of last year's two, all this team would need to do is win one more Big Ten game than last season. With this much experience, that should be easy, right?
But 63-0. We literally lost 63-0 two games ago. When we were blown out like that in the 2005 season (Michigan State and Penn State), it took us about 18 games until we were a competitive football team. If we count 18 games from Iowa last season, that's.. October 2020. We don't have that much time.
I'm doing a Q&A with the St. Louis Illini Club in a few weeks at their happy hour and I know I'm going to be asked - "Robert, are we going to win six games?"
Man, it's going to be close.