2021 Spring Football Mailbag I
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Spring football is complete. Which means I'm officially in "the offseason". There will still be plenty to write about, but "the season" for me consists of football camp, then football season, then basketball season, then spring football. May-June-July? I head to the beach. There are beaches in Champaign County, right?
There's really no offseason for me, of course. I have MOUNTAINS of things I need to take care of. If you're in the last batch of 17 shirts, I promise you'll have it by this weekend. I made a massive list for April and I really do think I can get all of it done by the end of this week.
For now, let's put a bow on spring football with a mailbag. I attended all open practice sessions but one. I've watched the spring game at least six times (no joke). I attended approximately 81% of all spring Zoom press conferences. So now I unload some of that information in the form of a mailbag post or two (or three or four).
This will be a mix of questions from Twitter and question from the Slack channel (Orange and Seventeen Club subscribers). We'll start with Twitter:
Do you think comments like Patterson's "I've learned more in 3 months than 3 years" are a little hyperbolic for the sake of recruiting? (ie - "You should come here, because it's so much better than it was." Or is there that much of a difference in the way things seem to be run?— Andy Millis (@abmillis) April 27, 2021
I'm going to attempt a shorter answer here but I never seem to be successful when attempting brevity.
First off, we should note that the tweet with the quote you're referencing was deleted. I'm assuming it was deleted for the same reason a lot of tweeted-as-he's-talking press conference tweets are eventually deleted: context was missing. So let's go through the whole thing.
Here was Jeremy Werner's question and Cory Patterson's answer:
Let's start with one part of that quote. Answering the question of "how have you grown as an on-field assistant coach", here's what he said:
"I've probably learned more in this last couple months with Coach B than I have in the last three years. That's probably funny to say but just as far as being a coach, Coach B does some phenomenal things with Football 101. It sounds crazy - it's just for the players - but I think I've probably learned maybe more than them."
What is Football 101? It's been referenced in many of the Zoom press conferences this spring - by the players, by the assistants, and by Coach Bielema. It's something he did at Arkansas and something he wanted to do again here. During team meetings (as I recall, a lot of them have been over Zoom), he goes through what I've always called "situational football". This down, this distance, this much time on the clock, what's our thinking? He wants his staff and players to know the "why" behind some of the things they do.
Let's just talk about "downs". I noticed that he referenced working 1st down this practice and then working 3rd down the next practice so I asked him about it a few weeks ago. Here was his answer:
Just from that, I'm thinking we can get a good understanding of what goes on in those Football 101 sessions. And what Cory Patterson is referencing when he says he feels like he's learned more than the players. The idea here, as Bielema says in the clip: take care of the "situational awareness" beforehand. Get them to fully understand the "why" well before the situation comes up so that when they go out for that play, they can focus on executing the play.
An example? I'm not in the meetings, obviously, but I could give you 37 paragraphs on some of the things I assume they're covering. Let me just talk about turnovers.
In college football, you win the turnover battle you win 76% of the time. Sometimes, it's all you need. I just asked Aaron Henry about the 2011 Illinois/Wisconsin game (a game where he had an interception) the other day. Illinois out-gained Wisconsin, held the Badgers to less than 300 total yards, led 17-7 at halftime... and lost 28-17. How? Because the four Wisconsin touchdown drives were as follows:
- 44 yards
- 39 yards
- 30 yards
- 2 yards
Fumble at your own two and throw three interceptions on your end of the field and you move a game with a 90% win expectancy to a 5% win expectancy. Do absolutely everything else right and it's all undone by four sloppy turnovers in your own territory.
The way the players and coaches talk about it, these "Football 101" sessions cover stuff like that. I'm sure there's stats about how interceptions at your own 20 do way more damage than interceptions at your opponent's 30. And that's just turnovers. I'm guessing Football 101 covers throwing on first down and punting from the 37 and why you drop to the ground inbounds as soon as you pick up that first down when the opponent is out of timeouts with two minutes left.
I should probably bring this back around to the question at some point. Do I think answers like that are hyperbolic for the sake of recruiting? A little bit. Holdover assistants will always say stuff like that about the new guy.
But I don't think that's why Patterson answered that way. Jeremy's question about things he's learned as a position coach took Coach Patterson's brain directly to "man, I've learned so much from these Football 101 classes the last few months", and so that's what he referenced. He's asked recruiting questions all the time, and he understands why - he was brought here because of his recruiting reputation, not his coaching reputation. When asked about coaching, his first thought is the Football 101 class the team is taking.
That's not something Lovie (or Cubit, or Beckman, or Zook) ever talked about doing, so I'm quite intrigued by the whole thing. I'm sure Arkansas fans hated when he talked about it there and would probably roll their eyes at this post and say something like "Bret should have spent more time on Recruiting SEC Athletes 101 than his stupid Football 101 thing", but Football 101 sounds pretty great for our "fired the last six coaches" program.
When you have a hired-by-the-last-coach assistant talking about how valuable these sessions have been for him, it seems pretty obvious that there was a lack of "situational football" discussion from the previous staff.
Given the usual secrecy in preseason, especially with a new coaching staff, what is your craziest surprise that Illinois could spring on Nebraska in week zero? I'm thinking things that we would never do but would be so enjoyable for fans if we did.
~Pseudo on Slack
I don't know if there will be any surprises? That's my honest reaction upon reading your question. We haven't seen any practice time other than individual drills, so I'd probably have a much better sense of these things had we seen some 11 on 11, but I don't feel like there's much of a surprise coming. We know most of the depth chart, we know that the offense will cook at 275 degrees, not 450, and we know the defense will be OLB-centric but we don't know any of the wrinkles yet.
Maybe I need to think outside the box. "Something we would never do but would be so enjoyable for fans if we did". Let me put this through the filter of the guys I usually sit with at games.....
I've got it. We surprise Nebraska by being the most go-for-it-on-4th-down team you've ever seen. Fourth and two from the 49? Go for it. Third and one from the Nebraska 33? Throw a bomb to the endzone and even if it's not complete, skip the field goal and go for it on fourth and one. Fourth and 11 from our own nine? OH GOD IS THE OFFENSE STILL ON THE FIELD???
OK maybe not the last one.
Odds that all the injured LBs are 100% good to go by first game?— chiboyinla (@chiboyinla) April 27, 2021
Is this a plant from someone I know? I mean, I just asked linebackers coach Andy Buh that exact question yesterday. My question: do you expect to have all of your linebackers at 100% at the start of camp in August? His answer:
"To my knowledge, that is our expectation. Yes."
So there you go.
Top 5 players who can benefit from coaching/scheme change.
~jd2510 on Slack
Great question. There's always players who benefit from scheme changes. I don't want to overthink this so let me just go with the players who pop into my head (meaning this will be a numbered list but they probably won't be in any order)...
- NT Calvin Avery. That's the first name that comes to mind. The defense will have a true, shade-the-center nose tackle now, and that guy needs to clog the middle. Avery's best quality is "immovable object".
- DL Jer'Zhan Newton. This is a good defense for "tweener" defensive linemen. Is he a defensive tackle? Is he a defensive end? With the OLB's standing up on the edge, the guys either side of the NT will have hybrid DE/DT duties. That's perfect for a guy like Newton (and a guy like Keith Randolph).
- OG Alex Pihlstrom. Pihlstrom was a tight end who was moved to offensive line last year. And that's the thing I always used to call "The Wisconsin Way" in recruiting. So I think Bart Miller and Bret Bielema see Pihlstrom as that "bulked-up tight end at right guard" Wisconsin always seems to have. Because he's a bulked-up tight end at right guard.
- OLB Seth Coleman. His issue was always going to be "can he get big enough to play defensive end?", so maybe this OLB position (where he's dropping into coverage a lot) is perfect for him. I asked OLB coach Kevin Kane about him earlier this spring and he mentioned that he has the "prototypical" frame and athleticism they're looking for at that position.
- TE Tip Reiman. He was the only walkon in orange at the spring game (orange was the first string, both on offense and on defense). So for a freshman walkon tight end, that's a really good sign for the future. He moved quickly up the TE depth chart this spring.
Ha. Just realized I picked three guys along the line on defense and two guys on the line on offense. Not a back or receiver to be found.
But I guess that makes sense. If everything goes correctly, that's where we should see the biggest improvement over last season.