2021 Spring Football Mailbag II
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Gonna make this one an all-Slack mailbag post. And probably the next one. I'll get to more Twitter questions with Mailbag IV (and maybe Mailbag V) but this one and the next one will be all-Slack because, really, the upper tier subscribers should get a Disney World Fastpass around here. Straight to the front of the line.
To the questions:
This would probably be tough to accurately report given the limited time you were able to watch each day but I'm curious about the overall 'feel' of practice with the new staff. You have talked about Beckman's practices being frantic and loud music, etc. and Lovie's being more calm and business-like. Where does a Bielema practice fit on that spectrum?
You're right in that it's really difficult to say given the limited time (15 minutes) the media can watch practice. Not only because of the short window, but also because it's individual drills. You can't really get any "feel" unless you're watching some 11 on 11 (or at least some 7 on 7).
You can observe each position coach taking his guys through drills, though, so I'll just compare and contrast that. Maybe the best way to do that is to talk about some previous staffs.
First time I remember a real change was Camp Rantoul 2010. Rantoul 2009 was much more relaxed. Rantoul 2010 was very intense. Paul Petrino was the loudest coach I can remember (Max, can you earmuff for me?), and Vic Koenning was a hat-thrower. So very different from Disch/Mallory on defense and Schultz on offense the previous season.
The main change from Zook to Beckman, as I wrote at the time, was the number of activities crammed into two hours. They were structured like, I don't know, a spinning class or something. Intense workout here, cool-down here, make people laugh with music playing and a strength coach dancing, then immediately put them in a goal line drill for an intense ten minutes.
Again, Beckman basically did anything Urban Meyer had ever done (stripes for freshman helmets, etc). He loved one-on-one stuff, so Beckman would call kickers out to do a one-on-one blocking drill with everyone around them yelling. I was there when, in the most unfortunate practice injury I've ever observed, Beckman had his two longsnappers (Zach Hirth and Michael Martin) go one-on-one in a blockng drill like that and Hirth dislocated his kneecap and missed the season.
I don't really know what Cubit was like because Beckman was fired the week after Camp Rantoul closed in 2015. So I don't think I ever observed a Cubit practice. I did notice a big difference when Lovie took over, though.
As I wrote before, Lovie practices were very calm. That's not to say the drills were not intense, but there was no, what's the best word to use here... anxiety. Lovie was cleaning the house on a Saturday because it needs to be cleaned - Beckman was cleaning the house on a Saturday because the boss and her husband are coming over for dinner and everything must be absolutely immaculate.
(Here's where I insert the reminder that we've only seen individual drills so I only have 20% of a read on Bielema practices.)
The main things I've noticed about Bielema practices are the "wrong, do it again" callouts from assistant coaches. That's not to say other coaches on other staffs have not done the same, but I saw a lot of first string guys being sent back to the line to do some drill again. It seems very starter-centric, if that makes any sense. Everyone gets a rep, but the reps for the starters are very important and must be repeated if not done perfectly. Not sure if that means Bielema and his staff are perfectionists, but it's something I've observed.
The next three questions I'll group together:
What will you do with all your time during camp this year?
Will Rantoul ever be a thing again and do you commute?
IF you're allowed at camp what would be the top 3 things you'd focus on as an indicator of team success/failure this year?
Pretty sure Rantoul will never be a thing again, and I'm almost certain there will be no open training camp in August for fans and media to attend. Given Bret Bielema's emphasis on practicing in the stadium (even when it's raining), I'm guessing he won't even use the campus fields that Lovie used for training camp the last four years. He might not even use the grass practice fields on the east side of the stadium. Once "training camp" opens, I'm guessing it will be the same as the spring: practices are inside the stadium, media can only watch individual drills, no fans allowed, no open scrimmages - come see us on August 28th if you want to see the team play football.
Which, of course, is crushing for me. I always use the train guy as my example. The way this guy feels about this locomotive...
...is the way I feel about Illini football training camp. If I could do anything in the world - eat at The French Laundry, see Paul McCartney in concert, take a photo of Rio from the base of the Christ The Redeemer statue - I would choose Illini football training camp. In fear of someday not being able to attend, I've gone out of my way for 10 years to not write (or tweet) anything that could be used by an opposing coaching staff because I knew that some day a coach would come along and likely say "not sure I trust the media to attend" and I wanted to have a long resume ready. But I'm not really sure how useful that resume will be when it feels like the decision to eliminate camp has already been made.
What would be the top three things I'd focus on? I mean, how can I pick just three? Let's see...
- Since this is a run-it-back season where we're giving 2020 another shot with all these Super Seniors, are we prepared for 2022 and a big dropoff once the Super Seniors (and maybe some of the actual seniors) are gone? How much are we getting the next team ready?
- We need Jafar Armstrong to have a Bhebhe-like impact and we probably need safety Eddie Smith to have a Betiku-like impact. So... are they those kind of players?
- Last year should have been Runapalooza with all those offensive line starts + tailback talent. But it just wasn't. Can we please have Runapolozza II?
OK now I'm even more sad because writing it out and then realizing it won't happen makes it a little worse. This is like telling the train guy "sorry, no more private showings of trains - just have to sit by a railroad crossing somewhere and hope an antique train rolls by some day".
Broadly speaking, what are you most worried about with the Bielema regime? I.e. if/when he eventually fails, what do you think are the most likely reasons?
THE FACT THAT TRAINING CAMP WILL LIKELY BE CLOSED.
But seriously, that's a good way to look at all of this. I guess the first thought that comes to mind - and stay with me here because you're probably going to WHAAAAT? - is the emphasis on in-state recruiting. I've always said that we'll never conquer Chicagoland, and downstate doesn't produce enough, so this is not a state you can win with a focus on in-state recruiting (unless you do, somehow, crack Chicagoland and get a large number of the players).
Maybe it's just been a dry spell, but I don't feel like the state has been producing football talent like it should. With the 2021 Draft starting tomorrow, let's real quickly go back through the 2016 class and the top 10 players in the state per the 247 Composite:
1. Josh King (Michigan State) - Convicted of sexual assault and kicked off the team.
2. Naquan Jones (Michigan State) - Hoping to be drafted this weekend, projected to be maybe 6th-7th round but more likely UDFA.
3. Daniel Joseph (Penn State) - Didn't earn a starting spot at Penn State, transferred to NC State after 2019 season, will return for Super Senior season at NC State.
4. Tuf Borland (Ohio State) - Graduated at Ohio State, is working out in preparation for the draft, but is unlikely to be selected.
5. Erik Swenson (Oklahoma) - Has started 19 games in five years at Oklahoma, will return for Super Senior season.
6. Sean Foster (Iowa State) - Didn't start until 5th-year senior season at Iowa State but did start 12 games last year and will return for Super Senior season.
7. Royce Newman (Ole Miss) - Probably the best pro prospect in this top-10. Projected as a 3rd-5th round pick this weekend.
8. Kenney Lyke (Michigan State) - Transferred from MSU to Mississippi Delta Junior College but did not land anywhere after juco.
9. Bryan Brokop (Nebraska) - Did not play in three seasons at Nebraska, left the team.
10. Amir Watts (Pitt) - Honorable mention All-ACC as a senior at Pitt, went undrafted and was not signed as a UDFA last year.
I need to be careful here because I don't want to suggest that we couldn't have used Erik Swenson the last few years. I list those names because every year there's so many Illini recruits where I have this 'if we could only land him' feeling... only for them to not be the four-star everyone thought they'd be. Erik Swenson was a 5-star when he committed to Michigan as a sophomore, and then Michigan let him go to Oklahoma and signed other OL recruits in 2016. Kenney Lyke was the safety of my dreams from Palatine and then he never played in college. Josh King and Naquan Jones were the future of Michigan State's defense and then neither really panned out. Tuf Borland and Royce Newman are probably the only players who played like 4-stars in college.
Again, Daniel Joseph will be a solid defensive end for NC State next season even though he couldn't crack the lineup at Penn State. This is not "every Illinois player is bad". You asked "if it fails, what might be a reason" and my first thought was "Illinois hasn't been producing like it should and we're going to focus on building an Illinois roster". It might just be a lull, and the NFL draft numbers, historically, have been there (and that's why I've always called us a sleeping giant), but in the last 5-10 years, it just feels like the state keeps falling short when it comes to high-end football recruits.
Maybe this is the best way to put it. Illinois is still 6th in population nationally. Besides New York where the population numbers come from New York City, a football coldbed, the other states at the top of the population list produce massive amounts of football talent. California, Texas, Florida, (New York), Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Georgia. Six football hotbeds, one non-hotbed ("high school football isn't part of the culture" is probably a good way to describe NYC), and then Illinois, which might be a little too New York-like?
That's my answer. We're going to build around in-state recruits. As an Illinois resident (and graduate), I very much like this. Pull it off and it's a dream come true to see the giant finally awaken.
But are we sure that we're sure that Illinois isn't New York?