2021 Spring Football Mailbag III
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Made a list for today. I'm giving myself 10 hours to get it all done. It includes three different posts - two mailbags and a Looks Like University Of Illinois post. I'm starting at 8:00 and I'm gonna go straight through until 6:00 pm with only a brief pause to eat lunch. Let's do this.
We'll start with one more set of questions from Slack, and then the next mailbag will be questions from Twitter.
Best position group outside of Running Backs, which is the weakest position group outside of Wide Receiver?
I'd definitely say that wide receiver was the weakest position group this spring, but I don't think I'd say that running backs would be the strongest. Not with Mike Epstein not here. If we're talking "position group", I'd have offensive line in front of running back.
First off, running back is pretty thin at the moment. You like to have 6-7 scholarship guys there; for many of the practices I attended there were just four tailbacks (three scholarship guys and a walkon). Coach Bielema later stated that the reason Jakari Norwood wasn't around for several weeks was that he had some family issues and had to return to Florida for a while, so that made the depth look worse than it was, but still, it's thin.
I'll just compare it to the roster two years ago. I wrote the Chase Brown LLUOI after seeing him in person for one practice at the beginning of camp, and I can remember standing on the hillside watching the running backs that day in 2019, so let me go look up that roster of tailbacks:
This spring, Fedanzo and Epstein were both on the roster but neither practiced (Fedanzo because of injury, Epstein because he's skipping the spring to decide whether he's going to return or not). So the roster was just Chase Brown, Chase Hayden, Reggie Love, and walkon Matt Bobak (plus Norwood when he was in town). I'll feel really good if the one-two punch is Chase Brown and Mike Epstein (please come back, Mike), but I'm not sure we can trust anyone else just yet. Love might be a year or two away, and Hayden only lasted one game as the starter at East Carolina last year before he was bumped down to third string, so until we see it happen on the field, not sure we can count on either just yet.
We did move Kyron Cumby from WR to RB for the final week of spring practice, and we add Josh McCray this summer, so maybe by August Mike Epstein returns and we have a full stable of tailbacks. But right now, it feels too thin to say "best position group". I'd say it's definitely behind offensive line. And probably behind linebackers as well?
OL is an "everything you might need" situation for Bart Miller right now. He walks into a situation with all tools at his disposal. Two fifth-year seniors and a sixth-year senior (Lowe, Palcho, and Kramer) who have all started games since 2017. A fifth-year senior transfer from an FCS school who missed last season after shoulder surgery but at times looked like the best interior lineman (Jeresaty). A walkon-turned-scholarship player who grabbed the starting spot at right guard this spring (Pihlstrom, also a fifth-year guy). Two starters from last season who might not start this season (Brown and Pearl). And another fifth-year FCS lineman on his way this summer (Badovinac).
And then there's depth, even though it won't be needed. If he absolutely has to, he can turn to other fourth-year guys (like Jordyn Slaughter) or third-year guys (like Mississippi State transfer Brevyn Jones) further down the depth chart. All in all, once Josh Kreutz and Zach Barlev arrive in a month, he'll have TWENTY ONE scholarship linemen. And three of them, having started for four seasons and gaining a bonus year because of Covid, will finish 1-2-3 in Illini history in number of starts (for all positions). So put me down for OL as the best position group. It's so strong that we're certain to have "I'm never going to play here" transfers this summer.
Let me also make a note about linebacker real quick. This spring there were four guys out, so it was impossible to evaluate. But with only two LB positions now (OLB positions are being filled by players from the defensive line roster last year), it has to be one of the strongest positions on the team. Five guys for two spots. And I think I'd be comfortable will all five starting next season. One was there this spring (NC State transfer CJ Hart), and the other four were out (Jake Hansen, Khalan Tolson, Tarique Barnes, and Shammond Cooper). So once fall camp starts, a guy running with the ones this spring (Alec McEachern, who was put on scholarship) will be battling for the second spot with the threes.
OK, weakest position is definitely wide receiver. Outside of Donny Navarro and Brian Hightower, just not sure who will be in the rotation. Lots of bodies there, but no one seems to be stepping up and grabbing snaps (or catches). Will be an interesting battle to watch in fall camp (snif) because there's an opportunity for a freshman or a walkon to get on the field.
Weakest position besides WR? Has to be safety. Corner is thin, awaiting four freshmen in the fall to fill out the depth, but I trust the starters there (Adams and Witherspoon), am coming around on Kendall Smith as a depth corner (after bouncing around to different positions the last four years), and I really like second-year freshman Taz Nicholson. Hey, let me pull out one of the gifs I didn't use from the spring game CTT and put it here to show you why I like Nicholson. It's a very subtle thing.
Here's the Chase Hayden TD from the spring game. Nicholson (23) is coming from the very top of the screen, so he's not responsible for the defensive breakdown here. But the little burst he makes when Hayden cuts it inside, nearly getting the tackle before Hayden crosses the goal line - that little shot of nitrous is key for playing cornerback. Your whole job, basically, is to burst.
Man, I'm completely off track now. I'm supposed to be telling you the second-most concerning position group and I'm talking about why I like our freshman fourth cornerback.
Behind WR, I'm concerned about safety. After a sophomore year where he was third-team All Big Ten, Sydney Brown's junior season was.. off. He missed two games with an injury and just didn't look 100% the other six games. Maybe it was a nagging injury that stuck with him all season, but his junior year just wasn't good. So Brown returning to form is very high on the list of "needs" for this defense.
But it's not just Brown. We need four safeties we can count on, and right now, I'm not sure who that will be. As you may know, I'm the world's biggest Quan Martin fan, but I've been saying that for years (since I gave him my Asamoah Award in 2018) while he keeps bouncing around from corner to safety. I'm hoping Ryan Walters sees him as a big part of the safety rotation.
Beyond those two, a whole bunch of question marks. Derrick Smith? He certainly looked like he couldn't handle the load last season. Kerby Joseph? He was moved from S to WR last season and now he's back at safety. Alabama transfer Eddie Smith? One of the freshmen?
Yeah, safety is a big concern. As it has been for the last... 15 years?
How do you see the offense evolving over the next 5 years? It's clear from the Leary recruitment that the staff prefers a passing QB. Peters has the upper hand going into next year as the 2-year returning starter and he fits the mold. What happens after that? Do we change the offense for a couple years or go after transfers? Will IW ever be QB1?
I feel like the first 10 Bret Bielema high school recruits say a lot about the plan here. Not just the eight guys in the current class, but also guys added in January (like Josh McCray). When I wrote the McCray LLUOI I was certain he'd be moved to linebacker or defensive end or something once he got here, but now I'm not so sure. Bret Bielema talked the other day about recruiting John Clay at Wisconsin as one of "his" running backs (after taking over for Barry Alvarez), and Clay played tailback at 248 lbs (!!!), so maybe Bielema is picturing Derrick Henry here?
Let's just look at some of the recruits. Starting with the two tailbacks he has added - one for 2021 and one for 2022:
Josh McCray: 6'-2", 220 lbs
Jordan Anderson: 6'-3, 230 lbs
For comparison, in high school, Reggie Corbin was 185 lbs, Dre Brown was 195 lbs, and Mike Epstein was 185 lbs. 220? 230? What's the plan here?
And then look at the tight ends who verballed this week:
Owen Anderson - 6'-4", 235 lbs
Henry Boyer - 6'-6", 250 lbs
What in the name of Daniel Fells is going on here? (Sorry, old Rams reference. I believe Daniel Fells ran around playing tight end at 270 lbs.) Are we looking for the largest recruits at every single offensive position? Here's OL recruit Hunter Whitenack next to his high school OL teammates:
This is not a rah-rah section. I'm not saying "OMG look at how big Whitenack is we're definitely winning the Big Ten West". Size without agility is just size. We don't know yet if any of these players are Big Ten players.
I'm just saying that there's a theme. How do I "see the offense evolving over the next five years"? As I said last week, seems to me the best example might be the Wrigley Field game in 2010. Line up with five offensive linemen, three tight ends, a QB, a tailback, and one wide receiver and run the ball 70 times.
I mean, maybe it's just "we like to lock down linemen early" and once the rest of the recruiting class is signed we'll see different themes emerge. But for now, it looks like we're trying to build a ground-and-pound offense.
What are some things you want to see continued from the previous regime? For as much flak as Lovie gets, he did have some successes here.
Oh man this is going to be so difficult to answer. It's like the Hingle McCringleberry skit from Key & Peele where the official has his whistle ready and is just waiting for one slight motion to throw the flag. Say something about Lovie and people have their whistles ready with a deep breath being held, waiting to pounce.
Two things come to mind. First is the attempted culture overhaul. This is going to be difficult to describe. Let me use basketball.
Brad Underwood had a successful culture overhaul. John Groce tried to take what he inherited and build from there; Brad Underwood tore it all down and started over. Using KenPom, in four years Underwood went from 102 to 84 to 30 to 4. Like Tony Bennett at Virginia, he arrived on campus and changed absolutely everything in order to establish a new identity and culture.
Lovie Smith had an unsuccessful culture overhaul. He, too, tore it all down and started over. He had the youngest P5 team in 2017 ~and~ 2018. It began to pay off in 2019 with a bowl game, but then fell flat on its face in 2020. Nothing was being built.
But I feel like the culture overhaul should still be acknowledged by the new staff. Meaning, I hope that they don't see it as Underwood did when he took over for Groce. The dysfunction of the 2015/16 school year has been flushed out of the system. The football isn't there, but some of the culture stuff has been established, I think.
Which is why I was very happy to see Bret Bielema retain Pat Embleton in the recruiting department and Tim Knox as the ops guy (among others). And I was happy to see him attempt to retain every Super Senior instead of "let's immediately start over with transfers and freshmen". A lot of the foundational stuff was there, I think, and Lovie's approach (similar to Underwood) was smart. Lowest of low points on "Not Ideal" day, so in 2016, time to fumigate.
The football, of course, never got there. That's a combination of coordinator hires (or non-hires), green assistants, and many other things (up to and including something as simple as "coaching decisions"). But for whatever it's worth, a lot of the fumigation has been done. Mother's Day 2015 to early March 2016 was about as crazy as it gets for a college program. I mean, this is an actual sentence: "Three head coaches in eight months after the interim coach was promoted to two-year head coach because we didn't have an athletic director in place yet to hire the third coach". Absolute mess.
That mess is a bit cleaner, and the roster is a bit better, and the last arrest was the spring of 2017 (Zarrian Holcombe/Darta Lee "fake" robbery), so I'm hoping for onward-and-upward, not "let's fumigate again I'm not sure we got everything the last time".
The second thing will be hard to explain as well. It's the lack of being "showy". Let's start with a story.
My mom used the word "showy" with me when I was a kid. I was a bit dramatic (me? really?), and so she'd quietly pull me aside and let me know that I was being "showy". A simple way for a parent to keep her child from craving attention in public.
That was a big change from Beckman /Cubit to Lovie. Remember when Cubit would go to the quad to sell football tickets? Remember when Beckman would get cameras in the dining room to show the the beans & weenies for the spring game losers and the steak dinner for the winners?
All of that stopped with Lovie, and I appreciated that. The cynical view might say "Lovie didn't even try", the spin might say "Lovie didn't want the spotlight", but all of the showiness disappeared. The near exact opposite of PJ Fleck.
Lovie was also the near opposite of PJ Fleck when it came to winning football games, so it's not like this is some requirement for being a college head coach. But the question here is "what do you want to see continue", and I like the general vibe around the program (as compared to five years ago). Zook, Beckman, and Cubit were all perhaps 10 times more "showy" than Lovie Smith (again, might just be "effort"), and I'd like to see that continue. Maybe I'm too bought into the "Every Day Guys" thing across the street, but the lack of flash and the "lets get to work" seems to fit in Champaign. Let's get it going with the football program.
You know, with wins.