Spring 2022 Mailbag I
You have currently viewed 1 story this month.
IlliniBoard now offers two free stories per month, for more please subscribe.
Time for some mailbaggery. Spring football is over, which means we're entering a long four months where nothing is happening (well, recruiting is happening, but I don't cover recruiting). The best way to put a bow on spring football: take questions. I attended every moment of every practice we were allowed to attend (which was, I believe, 3 hours and 25 minutes total plus the spring game), so I'll do my best to answer any question you might have.
Sorry, I forget that sometimes there are new readers around here who might have just tripped over "I don't cover recruiting." You're probably thinking "isn't recruiting the only way to make money as a college sports subscription site?" and you would be correct. I fully understand how dumb it is. My attempt at an explanation:
I'm a recruiting junkie. Trying to figure out how good we might be in the future is, like, totally my thing. I can dig through an box in the garage and find an old Street & Smith's magazine from 1993 if you want to hear about the top-200 high school football players in the country for the 1994 class. To this day I still obsess over recruits and rankings.
But "following recruiting" has been clickbait'd to death. Those who have read my words for the last dozen years know the example I'm about to give. To me, there is no value in this:
"Jonathan McTackles, you have more than 30 offers. On that list, where would you say Southern Kentucky State fits in?"
"SKSU is definitely one of the schools I'm considering. They fit in near the top."
"BREAKING: Jonathan McTackles Has SKSU 'Near The Top' Of His List."
Jonathan McTackles isn't considering Southern Kentucky State. He was badgered in his DM's by a pushy recruiting reporter twice his age, he agreed to a five minute interview, he tried to say nice things (what high school recruit is going to say "yeah, no chance I even consider SKSU"?), and now his politeness is being spun into "we have a chance, you guys". People will always pay to be told there's a chance.
My biggest hesitation when deciding to sell my words on the internet was that I would quickly come to realize that the only way to monetize college sports words would be to write "McTackles Considering Illini Visit" articles while knowing full well that there was absolutely no chance McTackles was going to visit Illinois. That I'd start doing this as my full-time job, realize it only works when you tease recruiting articles behind a paywall, and be forced into DM-ing Jonathan McTackles.
I think I've now painted myself in a corner where you're wondering if the next thing I'm going to say will be "and I found out that it DOES work that way so I'm going to have to make a change" or "thankfully, I've found that I can monetize college sports words without recruiting articles." My answer is that I've been pleasantly surprised at the number of people who have bought-in to what I'm trying to accomplish here... and that I'm even more certain that I could double it tomorrow by teasing a McTackles verbal.
All of that to say that 25 months after quitting my job and moving to Champaign, I'm still just as "I don't cover recruiting" as I've ever been. I'll tell you what I think of a player who has committed to Illinois (well... eventually), but there's just no way I can bring myself to DM a 16 year-old kid. For decades, recruiting was covered after the commitment, not before, and I'll forever wish that we could somehow put the toothpaste back in the tube.
How am I this far into a mailbag post without taking a mailbag question? I should start with the mailbag questions now.
This set of questions comes from our Slack channel (it's kind of our "message board" for Orange Tier and Seventeen Club subscribers). If you join, you can find inside info about Jonathan McTackles and his impending decision. (You won't hear that. I have no inside information whatsoever. We did discuss the powder blue baseball uniforms, though.)
Robert, in your spring game article, you mentioned you feel really good about the skill positions on offense. Can you elaborate on that? The RBs are obviously pretty deep. But in my mind at least, we are still pretty thin at receiver and the QB room has two huge question marks. Yes, DeVito and Sitkowski have looked good at times in their careers, but we desperately need someone to step up and be a clear number one.
OK, so first thing, I don't remember saying that. I'm not saying I didn't say that - I'm saying that I finished that spring game article at 2:00 am after beginning the tailgate at noon and my brain was apparently too tired to add a "here's what you wrote that night" file. Let me go read it again.
If you didn't read it, here it is:
I probably feel best about the skill positions on offense (when's the last time an Illini football fan said that?). Chase Brown and Josh McCray are a legitimate one-two punch for a Big Ten backfield. Isaiah Williams is a budding superstar, Casey Washington is a great number two, and guys like Pat Bryant and Miles Scott appear ready. And I think Tip Reiman and Luke Ford make a legitimate Big Ten tight end pairing.
The question: is there a QB who can make it all go and is there a line that can protect? Because I think the skill positions are absolutely there.
Reading that, the first thing that jumps out is that I didn't include the QB's when talking about the skill positions. I'm not sure why 2:00 am Robert doesn't think that QB's are a "skill position", but it's, like, the skill-iest skill position out there. So I should amend.
I think there are weapons. At least 10 Big Ten teams would trade running back rooms with Illinois. Maybe 12 or 13. And I feel better about WR going into the 2022 season than any year since 2014.
Yes, coming out of the spring, I feel better about the WR room than I did for the 2015 through 2021 seasons. The last time I felt this good in the spring was Spring 2014 when G-Mo and Dude K went off at that scrimmage at SHG in Springfield. That August, Malik Turner joined them in camp and I started tweeting about Turner nearly every day that I was there. WR went from a scary position to a position of strength.
This is the best I've felt (coming out of spring) since then. IW can be a star (as he showed in the Northwestern game) and Casey Washington is a great receiver to pair with him. You know I love Pat Bryant (my 2021 Asamoah Award winner), and walkon Miles Scott was my spring crush. I'm a big fan of true freshmen Eian Pugh and Shawn Miller, too. So I'm extremely high on the wide receiver room right now. (Or I'm just high.)
The quarterback room through... yes, you're right. There's no clear #1. And it's the thing that could sink the entire thing. That and the fact that we need to find three new offensive linemen. We might be in the second quarter of the Wyoming game, see that the three new guys on the OL are getting dominated by the Wyoming defensive line, and realize that everything is sunk because the new OL needs a full season of seasoning. Or maybe the QB who wins the job throws three picks and we're already arguing that the backup should get a shot in the Indiana game.
So yes, there are question marks. But for me, the top two running backs (Brown and McCray), the top two tight ends (Reiman and Ford), and the top four receivers (Williams, Washington, Bryant, and Scott) are way better than I thought they'd be at this point.
- Is Art cemented into the 2nd string spot?
- The offensive line is noticeably bigger than last year's. Is the size increase going to be able to compensate for the youth and [lack of] experience.
- There are a slew of R-Fr listed in the secondary's 2-deep. I don't want to relive Lovie year 2 if they sustain a couple injuries. Will Walters/Bielema change alignments to protect the younglings if they're put in harms way? I still have nightmares from watching DeGroot and an undersized Sydney Brown play safety.
1. No, Art is not cemented into the 2nd string spot. He might be the starter.
2. To answer this one I'll just reference what Bret Bielema was actually saying in that press conference before the Penn State game (as opposed to what everyone thought he was saying). He was noting that he only had offensive linemen from the 2017 and 2018 classes in the two-deep. There were no 2019, 2020, or 2021 guys. That's a massive problem for any college program because it means you're going to have to either play transfers, jucos, or true freshmen once those senior linemen leave. Getting Palcho a bonus year is a huge help here, but there are still three spots where we'll likely need to use guys with little-to-no experience. I'd rather have short returnees than tall newcomers.
3. Yes, this is a massive concern for the future. For now, the coaches have three guys in the secondary they trust completely: Devon Witherspoon, Sydney Brown, and Quan Martin (another Asamoah Award winner!). Find another corner to pair with Spoon and you have a secondary you can trust this fall. But after Quan and Syd graduate, man, I just don't know what next year's secondary looks like. It's why Austin Brown was my #1 target in the 2022 class (picked Wisconsin). He would have played a fair bit as a freshman and then would have been the starter in 2023. There's no safeties I've seen (on the roster or in the recruiting class) who might be ready like Brown will be, so yes, it's huge concern beyond this fall.
You can bring one player from the Turner, Zook, AND Beckman era teams and put them on the roster to maximize the current team's performance. Can't be a QB or star player. Who are you picking?
First off, Mr. Koufax, my father was a huge fan. Such an honor for you to be a Seventeen Club subscriber. I'm not sure of your Illini connections given that you grew up in Brooklyn and attended the University of Cincinnati -- I mean, it's almost like this is just a subscriber who uses the name Sandy Koufax as their username on Slack -- but we're happy to have you as part of Illini nation. You and Butkus should totally hang out.
Second, this is how you get a question moved up to the first mailbag post. A 98 mph fastball with movement. Great stuff.
OK, one player from Turner, Zook, and Beckman to add to the 2022 Illini. I'm glad you added the "can't be a QB or a star" thing because otherwise this is just an "add Kurt Kittner and Whitney Mercilus" exercise. I'll need to work for my dinner here.
For the Beckman era I think my answer is easy: Teddy Karras. We have big question marks on the interior of the offensive line this year, and man, would Karras be perfect at left guard. Or right guard. Hell, put him at center. Teddy Karras, now going into his seventh NFL season (just signed a three-year deal with the Bengals) would be sooooo welcome on this team.
Before moving on to the Zook era, let me try to come up with the biggest needs on the team. And again, I'm glad you said "no quarterbacks" because I'd probably just add Nate or Juice so that we'd have a "known" in the QB room. I think our needs beyond interior OL would be an EDGE guy and a defensive back (either a safety to replace Kerby or a cornerback to replace Tony). Big Whit would be obvious but I'm pretty sure "first team All American" falls under "no stars." So would Vontae.
I have my pick for the Zook era. And he fits in under "no stars" because he wasn't a star in college. I mean, he was great in college but no Illini fans knew he was great until his 10-year NFL career. As the "makes our secondary better whether that's at safety or corner" guy I'm taking Tavon Wilson. Oh man, what I wouldn't do for Tavon Wilson on this team.
Which means I need an EDGE guy from the Turner era. Fred Wakefield was an Illini "star" during that era, so I don't think I can pick him. I need a deep cut.
Wait, this is easy. Derrick Strong. Led the team in sacks in 2002 and 2003 but nobody remembers (or cares) because those defenses were so bad. Was the only pass rush threat so teams would just double team him and dare anyone else to get to the quarterback (no one could). Put Derrick Strong on this defense (with Randolph and Newton preventing teams from shading to Strong's side) and we'd really have something. He was probably more OLB than DE, too, so he'd be a good fit for what Ryan Walters is trying to do.
OK, now I'm completely ready for the staff to get Derrick Strong a waiver to return for one more season (at age... 40?) at Illinois. Someone make it happen.