Spring 2022 Mailbag III
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I'm in Louisiana right now. I don't know why I tell you where I am when I'm writing a post from somewhere other than Champaign, but I do. I'm in Lafayette with friends attending the Festival International de Louisiane. I'm pretty sure that's French for Louisiana International Festival.
So I've been trying to write for two days now and just haven't found the time. But it's Saturday night at midnight, and almost everyone is exhausted and asleep, so I'm gonna try to hammer out a mailbag post. These questions come from the Slack channel:
Last year it felt like it took time for us get our defense up and running and we played better later in the season. We lose a lot of key defensive pieces but this is our second year in Ryan Walters system. Do we reach our defensive peak earlier in the year this year?
I like this question a lot. Let's start with why it took some time to get the defense "up and running" last year. I think it was twofold:
- There's always an adjustment period when you switch schemes. The old "muscle memory told me to do that, coach, but I promise I've got it out of my system now and I know what you want me to do" phase.
- They didn't fully settle on a rotation until midway through the season.
A big part of the second one there was Kerby Joseph. Kerby started the opener against Nebraska but that was only because Derrick Smith was suspended for the first half because of a targeting penalty in the final game of 2020. Smith started the second half against Nebraska and then started the UTSA and Virginia games. Midway through the Virginia game they made a switch from Smith back to Kerby, Kerby grabbed that insane interception where he ripped the touchdown catch right out of the receiver's hands, Ryan Walters said (later in the season about that play) "we need to get this kid on the field", and Kerby Joseph going from unknown S-WR-CB to First Team All Big Ten Safety was born.
Kerby was the biggest part of that, but it wasn't just him. Isaiah Gay battled with Seth Coleman for the starting spot the first half of the season and then the light bulb came on - he was probably our second-best defensive player the second half of the season. Taz Nicholson started two games at corner in front of Tony Adams and that was the motivation Tony needed - once he won the job back it was the best he played his entire career.
I think that last one (Tony Adams) is the best example of how there might be more "get the defense up and running" in our future. In September, they were still motivating Tony by starting a freshman in front of him. Perhaps we'll see a lot of that this September as well, with starters being swapped out for backups to see if another Kerby Joseph emerges. And then, around mid-season, a tightened rotation they'll stick with for the rest of the season.
So that's my answer. I do not think we reach our defensive peak earlier. I think the plan is to reach the defensive peak in November. And that takes some tinkering in September and October.
- Is there enough OL depth to sustain 1-2 injuries? Are you more concerned about pass protection or run blocking with this group? Via the transfer portal, do we need additional OL depth or even another no doubt starter
- How many no doubt stating DBs are on the roster? Does the Minnesota State transfer DB actually have a chance at grabbing the #2 DB position, or is he being brought in just for depth?
- Do you feel better about our overall roster depth this year, or last year?
1. There is not enough depth. Sorry, there's just not. Brody Wisecarver and Josh Plohr both entered the transfer portal this week, so the depth is somehow even thinner now. Some of these freshmen arriving in June might immediately move onto the second string.
I think that's why you saw this offensive lineman from Furman (Dylan Davis) added today. They need depth. They've found nine linemen they like (Palcho, Pihlstrom, Pearl, Slaughter, Adams, Crisler, Kreutz, Barlev, and Gesky), but Kreutz, Barlev, and Gesky are all redshirt freshmen and Adams and Crisler are jucos in their first year playing P5 football. Take the names out and just say "Team X has nine linemen right now - two returning starters, a guy who started 5 games last year, a guy who has started 1 game in his career, two jucos, and three redshirt freshmen." Any fan of any team anywhere is going to say "holy thin OL, Batman."
So yes, I'm concerned. Adding Dylan Davis is good. Probably need another transfer (perhaps a starter?) as well. Two of the starting linemen from last season were just drafted today and the depth is thin so yes, I'm worried about a steep drop-off.
2. There are three no-doubt starting DB's on the roster: Devon Witherspoon at corner and Quan Martin + Sydney Brown at safety. As no-doubt starter as any no-doubt starters on the entire team. Three of the five best players on the defense.
Does the Minnesota State transfer have a chance of grabbing the #2 (cornerback) position? Absolutely. I have Taz Nicholson as the starter there (started two games last year, was the starter in the spring game), but that's not set in stone. There's absolutely an opportunity for Terrell Jennings to win the starting corner spot opposite Spoon.
3. If I haven't made this clear, roster depth is a massive concern. "Depth", to me, references players who are ready to be on the field. And we don't have many of those.
Let me explain where I'm coming from. Let's begin with Bill Connelly's returning production:
UPDATED RETURNING PRODUCTION RANKINGS— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) March 15, 2022
* Teams in green have gone up at least 2%, teams in red have gone down at least 2%.
* Team movement because of either (a) the portal or (b) teams releasing official 2022 rosters and me getting a better idea of who's returning. pic.twitter.com/VDaw9eKrOk
Boil that down to the very simplest thing: we lost more production than any Big Ten team. That's not opinion - it's just a formula. Connelly developed a formula that looks at statistics that are historically difficult to immediately replace after someone graduates or declares for the draft. Using that formula, we're 14th out of 14 in the Big Ten in returning production. 119th nationally.
Add to that the coaching change happening after the recruiting class had signed in December 2020. Because the 2020 season was late (Covid), and because most players sign on early signing day now, Bret Bielema didn't get a first recruiting class when he took over. He inherited one that had signed two days prior to him getting the job. He did add players like Josh McCray and DJ Johnson in January, but he didn't get the opportunity (like, say, Tim Beckman) to add a Mason Monheim and a V'Angelo Bentley and a Justin Hardee right after he got the job. His first class is this 2022 class.
So just take those two things -- 119th in returning production, new coach's first recruiting class is just now arriving for year two -- and any team dealing with that, from Alabama to Kansas, will have depth issues. It's fine, and it's all part of a new coach taking over a program, but it's still a very real concern for 2022.
I can now give you my answer to the third question: I feel better about the depth last year. By a factor of 10.
How does BB spring practice compare to previous coaches? Speed / Tempo? Level of instruction ? Level of details? Fun?
Favorite assistant coach moment from spring ball? The assistants have such a big impact on player skill/growth, curious if anything caught your eye as different from fall to spring with those guys.
Two very similar questions so I figured I'd combine them into one answer. And it will likely be an unsatisfying answer:
We don't get to watch much practice. I believe I watched either 10 of 15 minutes of nine practices and then watched a one-hour practice on 4/16 plus the spring game. Spring of 2014 I believe I watched 10+ hours of spring ball (and that's when I had another job). This year was a fraction of that.
So it's difficult to answer many of those questions. "Speed" and "tempo"? I can't answer that because some days it's 10 minutes of indy (individual drills) and then we're ushered back out. We don't see anything that could help me get a read on that.
Which means I don't really have a favorite assistant coach moment. I used to watch practices up close. Now you stand in the bleachers and watch individual drills and it's over in 10 or 15 minutes. There's no "Paul Petrino once lit up Darius Millines in front of a group of children" stories because we don't have that kind of access anymore.
I'll just talk in general, I guess. Barry Lunney Jr. has the most unique "indy" drills for quarterbacks and receivers that I've seen. So many drills where two and sometimes three quarterbacks are throwing routes at the same time, sometimes all on the same side of the field (to where I once wondered if the passes were going to collide in the air). George McDonald is extremely hands-on with his receivers. Bart Miller coaches exactly like you'd expect an offensive line coach to coach (that's a compliment). Terrance Jamison (DL), and Ryan Walters (safeties) are the quietest. Andy Buh is the loudest on the defense. Bart Miller is the loudest on the offense.
As far as overall vibe, let me see if I can describe this correctly.
You ever watch Narcos? Doesn't really have to be Narcos. Could be any crime drama. I'll just use Narcos here.
Whether it's the first Narcos or "Narcos - Mexico", there's this consistent theme with the cartels and their employees: there are henchmen who fully understand the importance of what they do and there are henchmen who are simply proud of themselves for being part of this dangerous and powerful drug cartel. When there's a social gathering, the bosses might tell five guys "relax, you're off the clock - enjoy yourselves tonight." Four of them relax and head straight to the bar; one of them just can't clock out and constantly watches the door for a rival cartel to show up. That's the guy who ends up getting promoted while the other four will all likely end up dead in the next shootout.
This staff has the vibe of the can't-turn-it-off henchman who stares at the door all night. They all seem to be the can't-turn-it-off type. There's a seriousness that's hard to describe.
That doesn't necessarily mean they're all great coaches. I'm not saying this is some all-star staff. I'm simply saying that when you're watching an episode of a show like that, it's easy to pick out the henchman who fully understands his responsibility (and the others who just think it's cool to have a gun). With this staff, there's an "oh yeah, we're definitely going to see this character for the next three seasons at least" vibe.
And hopefully it gets renewed until there are 12-15 seasons.