October Mailbag II


Robert
Oct 6, 2020
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7 Comments

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More mailbaggery. All questions come from the Slack channel. If you don't know what that is, anyone with an Orange Tier or Seventeen Club subscription gets access to our "private message board" (a Slack channel) where we all sit around and talk about you.

Not really. We sit around and talk about how Peters-to-Bhebhe will win us the Big Ten West and the Ayo-to-Kofi will get us in the Final Four.

Not really. We just talk about our hopes and fears for Illini athletics.

Anyway, here's the next set of questions:

What's does Great, Good and Meh look like from Roderick Perry.

Love this question. Excited to answer it.

I guess the best way to answer is player comps. I try to avoid that when the one of the answers is "meh" (I never want to trash some former Illini player), but the question here is "meh" so I guess that's not totally trashing the player.

Meh is Abe Cajuste. Higher-rated juco who Beckman recruited to fix our defensive tackle issues. Picked Illinois over Pitt, Baylor, K-State, Purdue, Washington State, and Arizona. Was the cure to the DT depth issue after the 2012 seniors graduated.

And he just never got there. Injuries were a big part of it, but it was mostly a kid who went to Central Connecticut State, left there for Juco, showed out at Juco, got all these P5 offers, but was mostly just a Central Connecticut State player. So "meh" is probably "Perry is a South Carolina State player".

Good would be Jamal Milan. Not to say Milan wasn't a huge part of the defensive surge last year. Just saying that "good" means "solid college player who doesn't really get a sniff in the NFL" (like Milan).

If Rod Perry can be that, then we've done a swap-out. One guy graduated, we found a transfer to slide in and maintain that same level of play. A healthy Jamal Woods and a Milan-like Rod Perry means that if last year's pairing of Milan and Oliver got a 7.6 out of ten, this year's pairing gets a 7.5. Keep on keepin' on.

Great is Mel Agee (rest in peace). For you youngins, Moe Gardner (as he should have) got all the accolades for the late 80's defensive lines (two-time All American), but Mel Agee was the John Holocek to Gardner's Dana Howard. If Agee had been on one of the Illini teams the last 10 years we'd call him the single best Illini defensive tackle since Corey Liuget.

He was kind of a combo guy - part DE, part DT - before eventually becoming all DT in the NFL. So that doesn't really hold as a comp to Perry (who is more the nose tackle "definitely a DT" type). But career-wise, I'd point to Agee as a comp for Perry to be "great". Agee was first-team All Big Ten as a senior and was then a 6th-round draft pick by the Colts. He played five years in the NFL with the Colts and the Falcons.

I think that's a "great" for Perry. Phil Steele listed him as the #30 DT in the draft next spring. That other site I just linked last week had him as #22. And that's just from his work at South Carolina State. With a solid season, yes, I could see an All-Big Ten selection and a draft pick. That would be great.

With no returning RB having more than 100yds last year, who do you expect to be the leading rusher behind Epstein?

I guess my initial answer is the guy who had 95 yards last year: Jakari Norwood. As you probably know, I'm a next-man-up kind of guy so Norwood has had two years learning the reads and keys and should be ready to be the speed-back in this offense.

Because "reading" is key here, I think. I see it like this. In high school, most running backs are see-hole, hit-hole, break any tackles that come your way. When they get to college, there's always a learning curve because the holes are hard to sense.

Especially when it's something like an outside zone running play. You have to develop a feel for it. Basically, the hole isn't there yet, but by the time you get there, it will be, so trust it and find it. I'd be the single worst running back in the history of football because of this. I'd run where I thought I saw daylight as soon as the ball was handed to me. And I'd never gain a yard.

I'd imagine the experience for tailbacks in a play like that is kind of like the movie scene where you have to trust your ability to run through walls and just run full speed at the wall knowing that it will fizzle when you get there. That's what Rod is asking with some of these runs. On your ninth step, once Palcho gets to the spot and turns the guy, you'll see a tiny hole start to open up. And you need to be full speed to burst through it.

(I'm simplifying that. There's a lot more that the RB is reading and adjusting to. But the point: reading is the key, not "who is the fastest/strongest tailback?")

Epstein has already shown that he has a sixth sense so he starts. For the next guy, I'd love to see Chase Brown or Reggie Love based on their physical attributes. But I've been told that Norwood understands the offense the best, so I'm going with him.

(He also might whiff on his first two blitz pick-ups and never play again, so... we have a lot to learn as this season goes on.)

What player from last years team do you wish you could give one more year eligibility this year?

One to help this year, one because it just seemed to "click" last year and you think they'd be awesome this year.

Mine are Jamal Milan and Dre Brown.

"One to help this year" is without question Stanley Green. When the light bulb came on for him last season, it was immediately 100w. Think about that four game winning streak and how much Stanley Green was part of it. I would love it if he had redshirted in 2016 and could have a redshirt senior season this year. We need a thumping safety.

"One because it seemed to click" - I'll say Wole Betiku. I feel like everyone got so wrapped up around one statistic (five sacks in the first two games against Akron and UConn and then only four sacks the rest of the season), but I don't think that tells an accurate story. Sacks are hard to come by. Sack leader in 2013: Houston Bates with 3.5. Sack leader in 2008: Derek Walker with 6. Nine sacks is nine sacks (fifth all-time at Illinois). And don't forget - Betiku missed 3.5 games with an injury and really battled with his footing at 80% once he returned.

I really wish he wouldn't have been convinced that he was NFL ready. We could really use him this season.

Is there a number of Ws needed for Lovie to survive? Will it be more eye test, due to the circumstances with Covid potentially impacting all facets of a typical season? Or is this year a free pass?

This is the impossible question. I'll probably write 4,000 words on it in the preview (out in 13 days!).

I'll start with something I saw yesterday - a quote from West Virginia coach Neal Brown. I saw this image of the quote linked on Twitter and I can't find the actual words so I can't cut an paste. I guess I'll just link the image?

That's probably the best description of the 2020 season that I've seen. People roll their eyes when coaches talk about things like "chemistry" but I can tell you that after 10 years following Illini teams up close, it is a very, very real thing. So much of what we want to see (crisp, efficient football) comes from players all getting on the same page. It gets reduced to "we don't have enough talent", and that's often true, but it's much more complicated than that. The best coaches get all of the players on the same page mentally (Urban Meyer was a genius in this department). Somewhat-talented teams can beat talented teams when that happens.

I use that Neal Brown quote to point out how weird this season is probably going to be. We might beat Minnesota simply because they have four very important players in quarantine. Iowa State just lost to Louisiana-Lafayette and then beat Oklahoma, and we could see some of the same. No one is in rhythm, teams are missing their entire cornerback room, Covid contact tracing means important players missed important practices even though they were healthy - it's gonna be weird.

Which sucks because this is the season where Lovie needed to present his closing argument. Three years of crap, him constantly saying "just wait, it's coming", and then a 6-6 season where a bowl was achieved and Wisconsin was conquered. No Illinois team has gone to a bowl and then gotten better since 1991-1992 (yes, really), and that "improvement" went from 6-5 to 6-4-1, so that was going to be the test. Go 6-6, excellent. Now go 7-5 or 8-4 and show us that this is continuing upward.

And when we need THAT, we get an upside down college football season. I just know we're going to pound Iowa but it will be because their entire DL room is quarantining for contact tracing and we run for 375 yards. We'll all be "yay - does it mean anything?".

So it's a really hard question to answer. I think it has to be at least 4-4 going into the Championship Week game (would have been at least 7-5 if ISU, UConn, and Bowling Green were still on the schedule), but I still want a little more than that. 4-5 in the Big Ten last year? Get to 5-4 this year. And do it without any weirdness.

(There's going to be weirdness.)

Comments

illiniranger on October 6, 2020 @ 11:32 AM

i don't think Lovie will get fired this year barring a total collapse to like 1-8 or 2-7 and it looks completely non competitive. just the environment we are in.

i am very bearish on the future of the program with Lovie Smith given our lack of recruiting and inability to develop a really good team on at least one side of the ball. if you think about what Illinois is as a program it is like a lot of non-elite P5 programs - it probably can't consistently develop a great roster so it needs to have some kind of advantage on one side of the ball. An example of this would be Georgia Tech with Paul Johnson running the triple option. Another example would be like Mike Leach at three different places running the Air Raid. an example on defense would be Pat Narduzzi at Pitt running 4-3 Quaraters. Another defensive example is Matt Campbell at ISU running a kitchen sink defense that finds a way to get stops in the high powered Big 12. Even then you are probably going 7-5 a lot, but that's OK, you'll have some big upsets and occasionally win or threaten for a conference title (Johnson won his division several times in the ACC, the ACC outright once, and played in a BCS game and NY6 game.)

When you have an average program you need something that you can hang your hat on. I don't believe getting outgained by 200 yards and forcing just enough turnovers to hang around in a game like we did last year is that something. It's just not sustainable; might work for a year or two but that isn't built for the long haul.

sschwaeber25 on October 6, 2020 @ 03:41 PM

Fantastic comment couldn't agree more. Monken's triple option at Army, as well, another good example. Just don't think it makes sense to do what your opponent does but to a worse degree. I've said many times, Narduzzi would be a great get for an Illini coach.

illiniranger on October 7, 2020 @ 06:38 AM

the lack of any interest in the triple option after the success Paul Johnson had at GaTech is surprising to me. if you are program like Illinois, Kansas, Oregon State, Syracuse, Wake Forest, Vandy, etc i don't understand what you have to lose.

Johnson went to 9 bowl games in 11 years, won his division 4 times, won the ACC 1 time, played in 2 Orange Bowls (winning one), and won more than 9 games 4 times. Niumotololo and Monken both coached with him for extensive periods.

Nimotololo's career winning % is .614. Since Navy went to the All American Conference in 2015 (the best G5 conference in the country) Navy has won their division 3 times, won 10 or more games 3 times, and posted an eye popping 28-13 record in conference play. The man knows how to coach football.

Jeff Monken at Army has a career 81-53 record and took over an Army program that was about as bad as a FBS program can be. Since arriving at Army he is 43-37 (they lost 18 games in his first two seasons before they started to win), finished ranked in the AP poll after an 11 win 2018 where their only losses were to an 8 win Duke team and a #5 ranked Oklahoma team. He's been to 3 bowl games in 6 years winning all 3 bowl games. The point differential for his team this year is 144-54 with their only loss being on the road to #11 Cincinnati.

Troy Calhoun at USAFA never coached for Johnson. USAFA's version of the triple option is different as they run more formations than either Army or Navy and tend to have better athletes due to being able to recruit the West Coast and Texas better than Army and Navy due to geographic location. So they pass a little more and spread a little more. But the base is still the flexbone and the I formation. Calhoun is 99-69 at USAFA since 2007. Playing in the Mountain West, the second best G5 conference, he is 59-44 in conference since 2007. He's had only 3 losing seasons, been to 10 bowl games, had 2x 10+ win seasons, and finished last year ranked 23 in the Coaches Poll.

Why isn't some sad sack P5 program hiring one of these guys? Johnson proved that you can win for over a decade at the P5 level running the triple option.

reykjavik2020 on October 6, 2020 @ 01:54 PM

"I don't believe getting outgained by 200 yards and forcing just enough turnovers to hang around in a game like we did last year is that something."

That is exactly what I was thinking for much of last season, Ranger. I'd have more faith in a defense that shows it can consistently get stops and get off the field on third down rather than a team that gives up huge yardage and first down totals but depends on turnovers. This Illini defense really scares me.

Hoppy on October 6, 2020 @ 07:28 PM

So while I understand most posters don’t think the turnover thing is sustainable, I’d argue that IS the Lovie thing. (The “gimmick” if you will that Ranger is talking about)

It’s not like last year was the first year a Lovie team at any level has been getting takeaways. It seems to be what he relies on.

But I won’t defiantly challenge anybody on it yet. We saw one mediocre year where the turnovers were huge. If it becomes a thing and we stack at least 3 .500+ seasons on top of each other, averaging similar turnover numbers, then I’ll challenge people on questioning the turnover strategy.

illiniranger on October 7, 2020 @ 02:25 AM

Bill Connelly who does SP+ for ESPN had a tweet pre-Covid that I cannot find that Illinois was something like 85th in expected turnovers and ended up like 8th in actual turnovers.

i do not believe that type of expected vs actual turnover discrepancy is sustainable.

if you are a believer in Connelly's Five Factors he says that turnovers are by far the "squishiest" and hardest to duplicate consistently. So if we are relying on turnovers, and it becomes a "thing" it will have more variance than explosiveness, efficiency, finishing drives, and field position.

you can read Connelly explain his take on the five factors here:

http://www.footballstudyhall.com/2014/1/24/5337968/college-football-five-factors

ktal on October 7, 2020 @ 09:20 PM

I think Josh sees the weirdness of the year to open the door to a free pass. But I agree with and want to see a 5-4 season because I think we've got the talent and experience to do it. But that is not his job-survival number. If we get enough wins this year that Lovie has the confidence of his team, there's a chance he can retain the talent to be even better next year.

As to Ranger's concern above, I think the answer is in his own comment; Lovie's recruiting indicates the difference maker he's going for is speed on special teams, by recruiting track athletes. I think Lovie's strategy is just to play the odds of what happens when you regulrarly pin opponents five yards deeper and get the ball five yards further out than the other. Add to that the ability to break one loose, and that's a good phase of the game to win. Contrast this year's special teams with Zook's, if you dare to remember. What an emotional danger zone that was!

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