Spring 2022 Mailbag V
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I have no idea why I'm such a big Roman numeral guy. Is that even a thing? "Robert? I hear he's a HUGE Roman numeral guy." But I do love using Roman Numerals. Who can forget my epic article "Camp Rantoul 2013 XXXVI - Breaking Down The Holders"?
(I don't think I've ever gotten up to XXXVI in a series. But I want to.)
Wait, I've got a better line for the parenthesis. Pretend like I didn't just type that one.
(I'm surprised I didn't call it the XIX Point Plan.)
Anyway, let's finish out the mailbag. Some questions from Slack, one from a Tweet, and one from a DM. Twitter first. And this one wasn't really a mailbag question - I just want to talk about it:
Does this mean lovie wasn’t terrible at recruiting? Not being a smart ass just saying as much as lovie struggled seems like he did somewhat upgrade the talent at Illinois. He was a bust but maybe the just the bridge we needed after Beckman to get us to the Bielema hire— Sully (@SullyVibe01) May 1, 2022
Let's start here: some of you are going to think that @SullyVibe01 is my burner account and I asked myself this question just to put the ball on a tee. This is not the case, but I probably won't be able to convince you that this is not the case.
If you're new here and you don't know what I'm talking about, let me just give you an update. My Lovie opinions over the years, condensed:
2016: "More-or-less pausing recruiting from Mother's Day, 2015 until mid-March, 2016 left a massive hole here. It will take a while for that to work its way out of the system. But on October 12, 2019..."
2017: "This is the worst training camp I've ever attended. They're going to have to play 15 true freshmen this fall (they ended up playing 22). It's suicide, but I agree with it because the freshmen are clearly the most talented players out there."
2018: "Hang on. Everyone just hang on. Where are you all going? Hang on. OK, yeah, losing 63-0 was bad, but hang on. Everyone please hang on. Pretty please. They played all freshmen last year and all freshmen and sophomores this year. There's talent in these classes which means there's a payoff coming. In fact, I'll double down. Starting with the game at Maryland on October 27, 2018, Lovie will now win 18 of his next 31 games."
2019: Even after the Eastern Michigan loss when the last 35 people got off the ship, I stayed on board and doubled down. "I swore we'd bowl in 2019, and now we need 4 Big Ten wins to bowl, but dammit, OCTOBER TWELFTH OF TWO THOUSAND NINETEEN!! I have no option here but to cling to it until it doesn't happen." (We lost 42-25. But then we beat Wisconsin the following week, the first of four Big Ten wins in a row, to go bowling. Somehow, my bowl bet had hit.)
2020: "Wait, where did everyone go? Oh, that's right, the final passengers got off the ship after the Eastern Michigan loss and they didn't even get back on to go to the Redbox Bowl. But listen, people! The freshmen in 2017 became sophomores in 2018 and then juniors in 2019 which means they're seniors in 2020. And, technically, '18 of the next 31' is still possible!" (Pandemic, season starts in late October, 2-6, Lovie fired.)
Through all of that, I never really wavered from one thing: the talent level on March 7, 2016 (when Lovie took over) was as low as I'd seen it. And I probably caught more heat for holding to that opinion than any other opinion in the last 13+ years. I remember an argument with someone regarding all of the 2016 players who made it in the NFL as undrafted free agents (Justin Hardee, James Crawford, etc) and that I was ignoring them (as "talent inherited by Lovie") in order to lower the bar for him even further. But I never really budged off my opinion (which really had nothing to do with Lovie). I've quoted these two stats so much that I don't even have to look them up:
From 2009 through 2013 (five drafts), 20 Illini players selected (4 per draft)
From 2014 through 2020 (seven drafts), 5 Illini players selected (0.71 per draft)
If we just use NFL draft picks, those seven seasons represent the largest talent valley since the 1970's. Having NFL players isn't the only way to measure that -- a roster including 55 legitimate Big Ten recruits and three NFL draft picks is better than a roster of 20 legitimate Big Ten recruits and seven NFL draft picks -- but it does give you a pretty good idea of where you stand talent-wise. And to (finally) start answering your question, yes, it does mean Lovie wasn't terrible at recruiting. Well, kind of.
Here's how I see it. Through a series of unfortunate events (Zook recruiting 20 NFL draft picks in four classes followed by 1 NFL draft pick in his final three classes, Beckman getting investigated and then fired, Cubit being extended on Not Ideal Day effectively destroying the 2016 class, Lovie taking over in March instead of December), there was a talent deficit throughout the 2010's. You can see that in draft picks and you can see that in all-conference players and you can see that in wins. I feel even better now about what I said at training camp in 2017: the talent level has never dipped this low.
Was Lovie then a "great recruiter" getting us back to where we needed to be in order to climb the ranks in the Big Ten West? Absolutely not. Was he a horrific recruiter who went to his Arizona house in the offseason and didn't care at all about adding talent? Absolutely not. I was the world's biggest "Lovie cared" defender then and I remain the world's biggest "Lovie cared" defender now. He certainly had recruiting faults, the largest probably being "just give me track athletes from Florida and Texas and I'll teach them how to play football", but in my view, it wasn't that he didn't care.
He was, in my view, an average recruiter. Meaning, he got us back to where Illinois football has always been with talent, save for a ten year period from 1981 to 1991 and the four Zook classes I mentioned above. The two draft picks last year and the three draft picks this year get us back to where we used to generally be. We had two draft picks in 2004 (Christian Morton and Sean Bubin) and two draft picks in 2005 (Duke Preston and Kelvin Hayden). 1991, my freshman year, was a rough season, but then there were three guys drafted in April of 1992. That's about where we were as a program year after year. And Lovie got us back to that.
But we don't want to be that. We want to be better than that. We have 109 wins in the last 25 seasons, an average of 4.36 wins per season. I don't know about you, but I'd like to win more than 4.36 games per season.
I believe that Lovie got us back to 4.36-win football (after taking over a roster that had dipped to, I don't know, 2.57-win football). I would now like Bret Bielema to get us to 7.09-win football. And to do that, he'll have to recruit and develop better than Lovie. The end.
That answer was way too long. This next one is somewhat related to that and comes from a DM. Maybe I can be short-winded this time. Doubtful.
Any info on Blake Hayes?
I don't think there's really any "info" beyond his NFL draft evaluation. He's a lefthanded specialist out of the bullpen - maybe one of the top lefhanded specialists in all of baseball - but teams are looking to draft starting pitchers who touch at least 94 on the gun.
The reason Steve Weatherford had a long career in the NFL and Blake Hayes probably won't is simple: hang time. (If you were born between 1982 and 1987 there's a good chance you just thought of the Saved By The Bell-ish Saturday morning TV show with Reggie Theus and, later, Dick Butkus called Hang Time.) The one thing missing from Blake Hayes' golf bag is the long, towering Rory McIlroy drive. He hits a three wood off the tee (which is fine for college), and he keeps it in the fairway, and he can go pin-hunting (my God can he go pin-hunting), but to stay on the Tour you have to be able to bomb it 310+.
OK, I'll tell you the truth now. Someone kidnapped my entire family last night and said they would only release them if I could work baseball, golf, Reggie Theus, and Dick Butkus into two blog paragraphs referencing our punter. Well, Mr. Kidnapper person... Let. My. People. Go.
Maybe the best way to explain why Blake Hayes was not drafted nor initially picked up as a street free agent would be to just quote his draft profile on NFL dot com. And it's not letting me cut and paste right now so I'll just screencap the page:
Sounds harsh, I know, but this is the NFL trying to identify the top-32 punters on the entire planet. In "Strokes Gained: Approach", he's Russell Henley. You swear he's just throwing darts that stick exactly where he wants them to. Blake Hayes having five touchbacks in the last three seasons is an INSANE statistic. "Punt God" Matt Azaira from San Diego State had 15 touchbacks last season alone.
(By the way, if you want to know why Jordan Stout from Penn State was selected ahead of Azaira, Stout had a punt average of 46.0 and a net of 44.5. Azaira had an average of 51.2 (crazy) but a net of 44.2. The NFL wants bombs, fair catches, and balls pinned at the one. Azaira gave up 251 return yards last season. Stout? 39.)
Let's go back to Russell Henley and the PGA Tour. If Henley is first in Strokes Gained: Approach, why does he only have 3 PGA Tour wins in 11 years? Well, because there's more to golf than just throwing darts close to pins when you have an iron in your hands. Henley is currently 113th in Driving Distance and 107th in Strokes Gained: Off The Tee. And he's 96th in Strokes Gained: Putting. You have to have it all to consistently win on the PGA Tour.
That's the best way for me to describe Blake Hayes. In Yards Gained: Inside The 20, I believe he'd have to be first in college football the last 2-3 years. Last season he had 2 touchbacks out of 80 punts (and one of them, at Minnesota, should have been downed inside the five but Eddie Smith lost track of the ball in the air). Hayes (and the Rutgers punter whose name escapes me right now) were masters at putting backspin on a punt.
But in the NFL, you need bombs as well. And while Hayes was great at hitting that low spiral into the wind, the one thing he doesn't have in his arsenal is a consistent long bomb. Which is why, harsh as it may be, he wasn't drafted. He might yet grab a camp spot, or he might go the CFL (he was drafted by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats on Tuesday), or he might just head to medical school. Remember, he won the Wayne Duke Scholarship (given to one male and one female athlete in the Big Ten). He's planning on medical school next, so perhaps he'll just start down that path and use his scholarship now.
That's my info on Blake Hayes. Well, that and another article I'm writing for later this week. (See? I can tease my articles from time to time.)
With the draft over, who's your guess to be the first off the board from Illinois next year?
OK good, a short question with a short answer. I just wrote two complete articles, so I'll try to keep these last two very short.
First off, it's a unique situation right now with everyone technically using their Covid bonus year. There are "redshirt freshmen" this fall in college football who are third year players (Covid year in 2020, redshirt season in 2021). So you could see some player have a huge "freshman" year and then declare for the draft. All the NFL asks is that you're three years removed from high school, not three seasons on the field.
That means nearly everyone on the field at Memorial Stadium this fall will be draft eligible. Johnny Newton is a "sophomore" but he'll be a third-year player. He played in 2020 (didn't count) and 2021 and will now play the 2022 season. Keith Randolph is a "redshirt sophomore" but he's a fourth-year player - he could have declared for the draft after last season if he wanted to. So I should start by saying "just because someone has 'sophomore' next to their name - like Isaiah Williams - they're still a player who might consider the draft."
But your question was "who is the first off the board?", and we don't know if Newton or Randolph or Williams is even considering leaving after their third season. So I think I'll keep it simple. I'll say Alex Palczewski.
Palcho tore his ACL in the Rutgers game in 2020. His surgery was in December which meant that when he played in the Nebraska game in August he wasn't even nine months post-surgery. He's added a lot of leg strength since then, so I'm expecting a big sixth year. I think he'll hear his name called next April.
In fact, on Thursday, when the draft started, I looked at Mel Kiper's "best available at each position" on ESPN to see where he had Vederian Lowe ranked among the offensive tackles. He had Lowe 21st (and Lowe was picked in the 6th round). And then I noticed he had Palcho 26th on that same list. Kiper apparently didn't get the memo that Palcho had pulled out of the draft and was returning for a sixth season at Illinois.
So put me down for Palcho. And then find some way for Newton, Randolph, and Williams to all play this coming season and then two more before going 1-2-3 in the 2025 draft.
How many transfers do you think will we get between now and August, and at which positions are they needed?
Hard to say. But I'll give it a shot.
I count 87 scholarships at the moment, but we don't know the status of any of the walkons who were put on scholarship. Walkon-to-scholarship guys are renewed year-to-year. Right now, I'm assuming that two of them go back to walkon this fall (to get us to 85). But it might be 3 or 4 (opening one or two spots for blueshirt transfers). Or maybe five more players leave and we bring in even more transfers. Or maybe everyone returns and we add no one.
In the time since you asked this question, we added Dylan Davis, an OL transfer from Furman. And I would have suggested that something like that was coming. Two interior offensive linemen entered the portal last week (Josh Plohr and Brody Wisecarver), so it seemed likely that there would be at least one interior OL transfer coming in.
So let me just guess at two more transfers and give you the two positions. In my mind it would be pretty simple: an edge guy and another OL. We're not exactly sure who is going to get to the quarterback this fall, so adding an edge rusher from the portal (like they added Virginia Tech's Alec Bryant from the portal) would be helpful. And while we know that Julian Pearl, Alex Pihlstrom, and Palcho will likely start on the offensive line, the question marks at the other two spots might mean that we'll add another OL to the mix.
There. Answered the last two questions very succinctly. First one off the board? Palcho. Two more transfers? DE and OG.
Blake Hayes? Coffin corner GOAT.