2019 Training Camp IX: Offensive Improvement
Now that I got my "what I didn't like about practice today" out of the way (the lack of noise), let's get to a list of the things I liked. My first day at camp last week I pretty much only watched the quarterbacks, then I spent two days watching the defense, and today I arrived wanting to know more about the receivers (the passing game, really - receivers, tight ends, and even the backs coming out of the backfield. I picked a really good day to do that.
First, go watch these highlights from WCIA so you can see what I mean by "good day to watch the passing game". Seriously - go watch now. I'll wait.
OK, now that you have a feel for it, let's deconstruct the offense.
- Reggie Corbin, Mike Epstein, and the rest of the tailbacks are the strength of the offense.
- The four returning offensive linemen have the potential to be really good.
- Wide receivers had a really bad year last year and we're not sure of the rotation this year.
- Tight ends are a question mark with Ford sitting out.
- Who is the fifth offensive lineman?
- Quarterbacks, obviously.
I spent last Friday figuring out the quarterbacks, so I spent today on the other three. Let's go in order:
1. Wide Receivers
I think I have a feel for the receiver rotation now. I'm going to just make up categories here and list the main ten guys fighting for those spots. And I'll do this by routes - the guys running the deep routes, the guys running the drag routes (mostly slot receivers), and the guys running the dig routes. OK I just found my new thing for future depth charts. Deep, Dig, and Drag.
Deep: Ricky Smalling, Casey Washington, Jordan Holmes
Dig: Josh Imatorbhebhe, Caleb Reams, Trenard Davis, Donny Navarro
Drag: Trevon Sidney, Dominic Stampley, and Kyron Cumby
Oh man I like deep-dig-drag a lot. I struggle categorizing receivers in Rod Smith's offense. There's not a true "Z" receiver or "H" guy (at least the way I see it), and guys switch off with different roles. But if I can describe them using their typical route, I feel like it makes more sense. "Deep" guys are the route runners, "Dig" guys are the possession guys, and "Drag" receivers take care of all the underneath stuff.
That's how it currently shakes out (in my eyes). If I was asked to drill down to two guys at each spot I might say... Smalling/Washington, Imatorbhebhe/Davis, and Sidney/Stampley. And other guys might factor in later (Edwin Carter, Carlos Sandy), but for now, this is how I'm seeing it.
And before moving on, something I tweeted today but want to repeat here. I think I "get" what they want from Imatorbhebhe now. When I saw him run routes last week, I wasn't sure how we'd use him (runs like a tight end). But if he can run these six yard dig routes and then use that powerful frame to fight off a corner (and use his strong hands to attack the ball), then he can be a "4 catches for 28 yards but three were for first downs" kind of guy.
2. Tight Ends
OK so here I'm still kind of confused. I know that Daniel Barker will be the starter. But that's about it. We need someone to fill Austin Roberts' blocking TE role from last year and right now I have no idea who that is (Bobby Walker probably?). We also need a second tight end in the regular rotation and I'm not sure who that will be either. It's likely Griffin Palmer, but he wasn't practicing today and was over in the "rehab" tent (could just be a one-day thing).
Which is why Justice Williams moving to tight end is intriguing. Bigger wide receiver, former linebacker, can probably handle the blocking part a little bit, might be able to run some TE routes? I'm all for fifth-year seniors finally finding a role and having a big fifth season. Maybe tight end is the spot for Justice?
Luke Ford will make a big difference next season (I feel like we'll be able to completely trust Barker and Ford for 2020 and 2021), but right now, there's still this big opening to be the #2 guy next to Barker. Hope someone steps forward.
3. Fifth Offensive Lineman
Yes, it was Petitbon in the spring and it's been Petitbon all camp and Petitbon was brought here specifically to replace Nick Allegretti so the answer to this one should be easy. But I wasn't completely sold on Petitbon having the spot locked up this spring which means I entered camp with an open mind. Honestly, the best-case scenario for us would be Petitbon really struggling to hold off Verdis Brown or Kievan Myers for that spot. We need some competition there.
But after today, I'm fully comfortable with Petitbon. In fact, I'm fully comfortable with the entire offensive line. In fact, I'm willing to chalk up my offensive panic last week to "they were missing Lowe one day and Palcho the next". Because when this line is on, as we saw in today's scrimmage period, everything opens up.
These quarterbacks need time to throw. Today, they had time to throw. And they had their best day (at least as far as the practices I've seen).
These running backs are the make-you-miss type, not the run-you-over type, so they need some holes. Today, there were holes.
Everything opened up because the first-string line was dominant. The second string line was less dominant, so you can see the dropoff when the first stringers come off the field, but overall, it was the offense's best practice because the offensive line dictated everything that happened on the field.
And that's what I wanted to see this camp. As I wrote last week, if the defense is dominating, that's a concern. We know the defense's ceiling (they can be "better" but almost certainly won't be "great"), and this offense needs to take a "better" defense to school. Today, school was in session.
Now, part of this fell under "defensive struggles" as well. The lack of a pass rush without Roundtree. Safety play when it's any pairing other than Adams and Brown. Linebackers not being able to shed a block. The massive drop-off when the first string defense runs off and the second string runs on. As you may have heard, the Illini defense has a long way to go (and a short time to get there).
Even gauging all of that, this was still a solid offensive day. Yes, there's no One Clear Guy at quarterback yet, and when you don't have a clear starter you probably don't have a "starter". And yes, these wide receivers will have to do a lot more to prove that last year's lack of production is a last year problem and not a this year problem.
But credit where credit is due. The offense has made strides in six days. Find a starting QB, build a gameplan around his strengths, settle on 6-7 receivers, tinker with some things during the non-conference, and I think Rod Smith can feel good about his offense once Nebraska comes to town.
There's limited time before that game arrives, and there's a lot of work to do, but today was a big step in the right direction.
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