Just Like Old Times
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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:
If you're wondering what to cheer for, it's exactly this. One offense should dominate the two defense. One defense should dominate the two offense.— Robert Rosenthal (@ALionEye) April 20, 2021
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.)
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:
LOLB - LDE - NT - RDE - ROLB
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.)
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.