October Mailbag I
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This is the first of several mailbag posts. Questions came from the IB Slackers.
(I don't know why, but I keep doing this Perd Hapley thing where I describe what I'm doing as I'm doing it. "The post you are about to be reading is this one. And you're going to start reading it... right now.")
General thoughts on how next year will play out... Which players do you expect to use the extra year of eligibility to their advantage? Which players will it likely affect negatively? Any other unexpected ramifications from what is essentially a free year to play?
I'll answer the last question first. The "unexpected ramifications", in my mind, are the juniors, sophomores, and freshmen who return as juniors, sophomores, and freshmen. The seniors, yes, they're faced with The Clash question (should I stay or should I go?). But the real "ramifications" here are the players who will now be here for five instead of four years (or three instead of two, or two instead of one, etc.).
That can be a good thing. Say Verdis Brown wins the right guard spot in his third season this year. Well, now he can hold that starting spot for four full seasons. If some players simply aren't ready to play until they're 21 years old, there are going to be a lot more 21, 22, and 23 year-olds on the field since everyone was put into suspended animation for one year.
But it's also a bad thing for recruits arriving on campus (and spots being available for those recruits). I've been over this a lot so I'll just say this and then get to your actual question but there's going to have to be a lot of players leaving before their eligibility is up if there are to be spots for the 2022 recruiting class. Which probably makes most coaches excited. They'd all take 100 recruits every year if they could. Try them out on the field, go back and watch the film, and then keep the 25 best and get rid of the others. It will be something like that, with some third-year sophomores learning they don't have a spot anymore.
OK, your question. I'll just lay out a scenario with just the seniors and talk about how that trickles down. Here's a wild guess as to who stays/who goes:
Decides to not return because they want to take a shot at the draft (not saying they'd be drafted, just that their decision after the season is "with my degree in hand, time to see if I have what it takes to play in the NFL"): Milo Eifler, Jake Hansen, Nate Hobbs, Alex Palczewski, Josh Imatorbhebhe, Roderick Perry
Decides to not return because it's just time to move on after a "senior" season: Kendall Smith, Desmond Dan, Marc Mondesir
Decides to return: Brandon Peters, Trevon Sidney, Tony Adams, Blake Hayes, James McCourt, Blake Jeresaty, Ethan Tabel, Doug Kramer, Vederian Lowe, Daniel Imatorbhebhe, Jamal Woods, Isaiah Gay, Owen Carney.
That obviously trickles down throughout the entire roster. With another season for Peters, Williams and Spann are "blocked" for another year. Say Verdis Brown wins the RG spot - well, then if Kendrick Green returns (a junior who could technically play this season plus two more but might flip to the draft at any point), then the offensive line for 2021 is Lowe, Green, Kramer, Jeresaty, and Brown. So guys like Julian Pearl and Jordyn Slaughter, who would be entering their fourth season, would see no open spots in front of them. Gay and Carney for one more year pushes Randolph and Coleman off a year. McCourt and Hayes means Griffin and Robertson have to wait another year. You see how it goes - those who return take spots of guys who have circled 2021 as "this is when I enter the starting lineup".
It's a nice problem to have, but I could see how it might lead to some transfers, especially if the rule to eliminate the sit-out year for transfers gets approved. Guys who just aren't willing to wait until 2022 might transfer somewhere next summer and find a starting spot that fall.
This, of course, is the case across college football. So it's not some Illinois-only issue. Will be very interesting to watch, though. As I said in another post, I can see this Covid eligibility rule allowing a program like Auburn to just go through the entire roster and Crean 20 guys they don't think they'll use.
Are there other ways Lovie can use Isaiah this year? WR, could he do Kick or punt returns (and not get killed?) anything else? If Duece Spann is as advertised by "some media" then is it time to use Williams in some other ways?
First off, I have questions about "some media" talking about Spann. I'm hoping it's a reference to me because of my Four Cruises for Spann and my continued "I'm telling you he's the guy" attitude towards the future greatest quarterback in Illini history. But if others are on the bandwagon, I then unironically immediately switch to "I mean, how would anyone know since we're not allowed at practice?". That's right - I both want credit for scouting his film and I want others' opinions to be invalid because not one of us has ever seen him in person.
As far as Williams is concerned, I think I've made my personal feelings clear: Deuce to One. I want Williams to be Spann's greatest weapon. The reason Alabama and Ohio State and Clemson and Oklahoma offered Williams is because he's a freakish, Adoree Jackson-like athlete. So I want us to use him as a freakish, Adoree Jackson-like athlete. Even if it eventually means "cornerback who returns punts".
But I also acknowledge that he wants to play QB and came here because we said he could play QB so we're probably going to have to give him a shot at QB. Yes, he played WR in the Redbox Bowl, so I'm hoping to see more of that, but for now, my guess for 2020 is he stays in the QB room and they develop third-down packages for him.
Epstein has 802 career rushing yards at 6.4 yards per carry. What are the odds he doubles his career total this year? He's due for a good bounce injury wise. (fingers and toes crossed).
I went on the radio after last season and GUARANTEED 1,400 yards from Epstein this season. Then Covid reduced 12 games to 9, so I don't think we're going to get there. But I do think he's healthy, and I do think he can get to 900 yards in nine games. If he does, you will see me declare that he would have had 500 total yards against Illinois State, UConn, and Bowling Green so my prediction would have been right.
Let's talk about the health thing. Here's how I see it. As you will see, I am not a doctor and my medical opinions will make some doctors laugh out loud. But here's how I view things:
Some people have weak ACL's and will snap both if they play football. Dre Brown did this. I was at the practice where he snapped his right ACL running a passing route out of the backfield untouched. Two straight springs, two ACL's, and 2.5 seasons lost. But then he came back with new ACL's and eventually regained form. The final 2.5 years, he wasn't injured again.
There's also what I call the Justin Hardee foot injury. If you remember, Hardee missed most of two consecutive seasons with a stress fracture issue in his foot. It was near a growth plate, and he was 19 with his growth plates still open, and a stress fracture in that spot becomes this impossible thing to heal. Like Epstein, he thought it had healed, he played, he reaggravated it, and missed a second consecutive season. But then the body is done with the growing process, and the foot is fully formed, and the stress fractures go away, and Justin Hardee played a senior season here and now four seasons in the NFL without any injury issues.
So my non-medical-degree brain says "some players get injured a lot at 17-18-19 years old when their bodies are still closing down the growth process and then the injury susceptibility shuts down at 21-22-23 years old". There might be zero science behind that, but it's how I've always viewed "he's so susceptible to injuries" players. So many had injury problems early and then no injury problems late. Or players whose new ACL's somehow made them stronger (like Adrian Peterson).
I'm rambling. My point: I see Epstein as Dre Brown + Justin Hardee. Epstein tore one ACL as a high school junior and the other as a college junior. He also had the Justin Hardee foot issue his freshman and sophomore years in college. With all of that behind him, I'm honestly expecting huge things. Healthy Mike Epstein is better than Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown.
Outside of Brandon Peters who are the 2-3 lynchpin players to us having a successful offense and maybe the same question for defense?
Roberts Official 2020 Lynchpin Team
Offense: Epstein, Palcho, Barker
Defense: Carney, Hansen, Adams
Epstein because we need a #1 back and I'm not sure if any other tailbacks are there yet. Big dropoff after Epstein. Palcho because he just turned 21 (remember, he and Kofi were born within a month of each other). So having just turned 21, Palcho, now about to start his 37th game, has to be the "everything falls into place and he has a monster season" guy. And Barker because everyone is talking about Ford and Bhebhe2 but Barker is the key to the TE passing game.
Carney because without a DE who can hold up against the run we're sunk (like, SUNK sunk). And Keith Randolph, while solid, is a redshirt freshman and probably not there yet. Hansen because this defense, with its DL question marks, will need an eraser at linebacker who fixes up to 9 defensive line mistakes per game. And Adams because Stanley Green will be missed more than any of us realize and it's probably up to Adams alone to fix that issue.
2020 Lynchpin Team is a production of IlliniBoard, LLC. Any rebroadcast, reproduction, or other use of the pictures and accounts of this Lynchpin Team without the express written consent of Robert's Big Head Holdings is strictly prohibited. Thank you and enjoy the season.