Just Like Old Times

Apr 20, 2021

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First off, everyone applaud for Holly's photo right there. How good is that? Because of Covid restrictions on photographers, Holly couldn't shoot a single basketball game this winter. It's sp nice to have her out there shooting a game for us again. Just like old times.

I'd also like to note that I'm insanely energized right now. Not because of the offensive display - there's no depth right now, so the first string better look like that against the second string - but because there's something to analyze. I've attended every open practice session save for one (this past Saturday, when I was in Idaho), but we only get to watch 15 minutes of individual drills. This was two hours of actual football. My mind is in overdrive. Just like old times.

Let's just get into it. With subheads.

As It Should Be

I tweeted this during the first quarter:

And this was exactly that. First-string offense against the second-string defense: 621 yards. Second-string offense against the first-string defense: 42 yards. That's what you want to see.

What's the biggest reason for that? Defensive injuries. Best way to do this is to take my current three-deep and bold the players held out tonight:

ROLB | Gay (SR) | Hart (SO) | Davis (FR)
RE | Newton (FR) | Pate (rs-JR) | McConnell (FR)
NT | Perry (SR) | Avery (JR) | McCoy (FR)
LE | Randolph (rs-FR) | Woods (SR) | B. Barnes (SO)
LOLB | Carney (SR) | Coleman (rs-FR) | Holmes (rs-SO)
RLB | Tolson (JR) | Cooper (FR) | Rosiek (FR)
LLB | Hansen (SR) | T. Barnes (SO) | McEachern (JR)
CB | Witherspoon (SO) | K. Smith (SR) | Leitzsey (SR)
CB | Adams (SR) | Nicholson (rs-FR) | Jones-Watkins (SO-walkon)
S | S. Brown (JR) | D. Smith (JR) | Hudson (SR)
S | Martin (JR) | Joseph (JR) | Bobak (SR)

Edit: Someone on the Slack pointed out that I missed CJ Hart, which is correct. On my last depth chart three weeks ago, when I was including Sam linebackers as a position, I had Hart at Sam with Shammond Cooper. After seeing everything last night I eliminated that position on the chart above. I moved Cooper inside but forgot Hart. I still, however, think they might use Hart in more of an outside 'backer/pass-rush linebacker role, so for now, I'm going to put him with the OLB's (even though he's currently practicing with the ILB's). Just have a hunch they'll use his size for a bit of a different LB role. Maybe he's at OLB against passing teams where he's almost always dropping with the TE (or something similar).

Bret Bielema said after the game that they found out yesterday they'd be without the services of two safeties (which would be Quan Martin and Kerby Joseph who were listed on the Orange Team roster but didn't play). With Sydney Brown and Derrick Smith already on the "limited" roster, that meant the entire two-deep at safety was out (and that doesn't even include Alabama transfer Eddie Smith who isn't here yet).

This meant that the Orange Team safeties were Prather Hudson and Tailon Leitzsey (who hasn't practiced at safety this spring) and the Blue Team safeties were Christian Bobak and Ben Schultz.

Same with linebacker. Top four were all out. So the fifth and sixth guy started with the ones and the Blue team had to go with the 7th and 8th linebackers on the roster.

When you have something like that, yes, the first-string offense is going to take advantage. The first string defense can still perform well when plugging in the 5th linebacker or the 6th safety. But there's a sharp dropoff, and when the Blue defense has to turn to the 7th linebacker and the 8th safety (among all the other backups), well, the first-string offense is probably going to put up 621 yards.

(Still fun to see, though.)

5-2 Oklahoma

OK, no, it's not the Bud Wilkinson defense from Oklahoma in 1957. But it's not far off?

First some disclaimers: this was very vanilla. The staff didn't want to show much, so they stayed in a very basic defense. You'll probably see many different looks by the second quarter of the Nebraska game.

Also, this is the 13th time these players have attempted this new defensive scheme. I'm guessing maybe 20% of it is "in". So this is a very early look at a defense that will be much more complex than what I'm about to say.

But my view here: this is what I'm going to call "having an offensive line as your defensive line". Sure, you might call it a 3-4, but the two outside linebackers are both defensive ends, so I'm saying it's five defensive linemen. As I wrote a few weeks ago, it's a symmetrical line that goes something like this:


Defensive lines typically aren't symmetrical like that. Last year it was a strongside end, a 3-tech DT, a "nose" DT, and a weakside end. This year - at least for this spring game - it was five linemen. We didn't drop a defensive lineman and switch to a 3-4 - we added an interior defensive lineman and switched to a 5-2. (I know, I know - they're basically the same thing.)

Again, I'm sure we'll see many different looks, some with one of the interior linemen coming off and three prototypical "linebackers" playing in what looks more like a 4-3. We might even see some nickel stuff with five defensive backs. But for this game, it was more or less five defensive linemen, two "middle" linebackers (left side of the middle and right side of the middle), two corners, and two safeties. Watch out, wishbone. We're here to defend you.

(Just like old days.)

Bright Spots

Five bright spots off the top of my head:

  • Carlos Sandy and Khmari Thompson at WR. Again, a lot of this is "they were facing mostly walkons at corner and safety", but this team needs to find receiving help and Sandy's 3 catches for 56 yards plus Thompson's 2 catches for 40 yards (one of them a nice touchdown grab) were great to see. It seems like Donny Navarro and Brian Hightower are the main two receivers right now, but we really need other guys to step up.
  • The first string defense not losing a step with linebacker/safety depth issues. Maybe this one is on the second string offense (should have taken advantage of the injuries on the first string defense), but it was nice to see the ones dominate the second-string offense. 35 plays, 42 total yards.
  • Luke Ford. Free. 5 catches, 88 yards and a TD.
  • Keith Randolph, Calvin Avery, and Jer'Zhan Newton - still only freshman-junior-freshman - looking like a real deal interior DL. If you're looking to write an article in 2024 about the anchors of the defensive rebuild at Illinois, you could probably write about Newton and Randolph fitting in well at the "part DT, part DE" positions either side of the nose tackle.
  • Turnover-free football. There was only one fumble: Khmari Thompson fumbled after catching a pass 11 yards downfield but Carlos Sandy dove on it to prevent the turnover. Other than that, fumble-free, interception-free.


Starting to get tired here. We drove late last night from Idaho to the Salt Lake City Airport, slept quickly, and got up at 6:00 this morning to get on our flights and make it back for the spring game with 32 minutes to spare. That's all catching up to me right now, so let me do a list of five concerns and then head to bed.

  • Defensive depth, obviously. It's a somewhat rare situation - top four linebackers out for the spring, top four safeties out right now, and all are expected back by the fall - but still, depth is a concern. We need to find more defensive linemen for the rotation and we need at least two of the freshmen defensive backs to be ready for second string snaps.
  • Verdis Brown with the second-string offensive line. Never want a 2020 starter to be with the second string for the 2021 spring game, but that was the case tonight. Plenty of time between now and August 28th, though.
  • Caleb Griffin winning both kicking contests with James McCourt. I guess that's not really a "concern" because it means we have a backup kicker ready if the starting kicker falters. But you want your starting kicker to win that.
  • The feeling I had that even if the top four safeties were in there, would I feel that much better? I think safety is my biggest concern this fall apart from wide receiver. Need a bounce-back year from Sydney Brown and need someone else to emerge as a solid starter.
  • 163 yards of YAC. We still had the second-string corners, and second-string corners (plus the walkon safeties) can't give up 163 yards after catches.

Ok, now I'm REALLY falling asleep. Maybe I'll write a part two tomorrow. Or maybe a Check The Tape. Perhaps a mailbag or two. Say it with me...

Just like old times.


DB50 on April 20, 2021 @ 06:20 AM

I’m surprised you didn’t have a word about the most important position on the field, Peters had a solid game. His mechanics & decisions looked like a BIG QB, albeit against an underwhelming defense.

Robert on April 20, 2021 @ 11:36 AM

It was mostly because of the second string DL vs. the first string OL. With Perry and Woods out, Avery and Newton were with the ones. And that meant the second string line had guys like early enrollee Sed McConnell and juco transfer Anthony Shipton starting. Those guys couldn't get any push (only Marc Mondesir was able to, which reminds me that I need to add him to the chart above). So Peters could just stand there and throw practice passes.

ktal on April 20, 2021 @ 09:31 AM

Holly: what a perfect image! Great to have you back.

Robert, really looking forward to all the thoughtz. Great having fb to write about.

The Olaf Rules on April 20, 2021 @ 10:43 AM

Nice to see some football. Ford looked great. I thought Williams made some nice throws, and looked decent under the circumstances he was dealt. The defense-side injuries are concerning; will all these guys really be back at 100% in 3.5 months for camp?

Lastly, any thoughts on what is going on with Beason? Objectively one of the best athletes we’ve had over the past decade, but rarely sees the field. And now a position switch going into his third year, which is something usually only seen with bottom of roster guys.

Robert on April 20, 2021 @ 11:39 AM

Bielema said in the press conference that Beason had been injured and missed the previous 10 practices. He was cleared on Saturday but there's a long process to work back into the rotation. A guy cleared by doctors is gonna need 5 practices to get back to bring scrimmage-ready.

IBFan on April 20, 2021 @ 11:37 AM

I’m not sure if what I’m hearing is correct and maybe Robert can clarify, but I think Beason is not going to be with the team this fall. He’s not been listed on depth charts, hasn’t been at practice, wasn’t on the list of players sitting out due to injury. Lots of moving parts and limited time at practices for press so could be some of this info is off. Really enjoyed game last night. Great to see Luke get some catches. Excited for this upcoming season warts and all.

Robert on April 20, 2021 @ 11:44 AM

I was responding to the question above while you were stating this but I'll try to clarify.

I saw Beason at the first two practices (at corner) and then he was with the wide receivers at the third practice. Haven't seen him since, so I assumed injury. Bielema clarified last night that it was an injury and he wasn't cleared by doctors to return to conditioning until Saturday.

Doesn't mean what you suggest won't come true. But he was listed on all the rosters in the pressbox last night. Including the "flip card" where he was listed with the receivers.

IBFan on April 20, 2021 @ 04:49 PM

Thanks Robert! Hopefully we get him healthy soon.

BriCrozier on April 20, 2021 @ 03:56 PM

Great to see Luke Ford get some more targets, I think he and Barker can be effective weapons in the Big Ten and the play-callers will get the tight end position involved more when appropriate. It was also nice to see Navarro get more looks, I think he's a sneaky good receiver.

On the other side of things, however, it is still hard to see what the plan is regarding Williams. If the staff intends to keep him at quarterback, then (In my opinion) he really needs to be the starter in 2021. And that's no offense to Peters, who I think would be better at the position in 2021, but I think a 2022 and 2023 Williams benefits from getting starts in 2021, and 2022 and 2023 are the years that this program needs to start winning. In essence, it is the short term pain vs. long term gain question. If this staff doesn't think Williams is the long-term answer at quarterback, then they should be honest with him about that. Maybe that honestly leads to a position change, maybe it leads to a transfer, I don't want to see a transfer, but in the end this program needs an answer at the quarterback position.

HNLINI on April 21, 2021 @ 01:06 AM

Not sure what the future holds. Given the line composition in 2021, perhaps Juice's mobility isn't the same asset it is with a less experienced line; however, in the future it may be. They certainly wanted to take a long look at him as more of a passer the other night, and it's difficult to say whether he "passed" the test, due in part to the dominance of the #1 DLine against the #2 Oline when he played with that unit and in part due to the "tag" rule on White-shirts. Juice was 2-10 passing vs. the Orange; but 3-4 vs. the Blue. It looked like many of his other pass attempts vs. the Orange ended up as "runs" where he was flushed from the pocket and gained a yard or two (impacted by "tag" and a quick whistle). I'm wondering if the staff wanted to see more patience out of him.

I think Coach B intends to win "now", in the hopes of increasing program momentum (and by win, I'm talking a 5- to 6- win season) rather than taking the complete rebuild approach.

PowerGranger on April 20, 2021 @ 05:09 PM

I don’t think we’ll be starting our second best qb.

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