88 Illini (Part 11) August 9, 2010
The Final 8. The Eight most important Illini. The other 80 players? Important. These eight? Vital.
Brass tacks: If these eight players consistently play up to their ability, we can go to a bowl. 4 on offense, 4 on defense. Elite. Eight. Ok, you probably get it by now.
8. Clay Nurse
I was fascinated listening to Vic Koenning’s opinion on Clay Nurse in this video. Specifically this:
“I think he wants to be the leader of this team, and there’s nothing wrong with that, and it’s good that somebody heard me say that actions speak louder than words. I’ve probably said it a hundred times, and maybe he heard it one of those times, so maybe he will realize that is a better way to lead. So we’ll see. Once we get pads on, we’ll see that actions speak louder than words. Guys will step up and be leaders with actions and the other guys will follow.”
Nurse sat out the spring recovering from shoulder surgery, so Koenning has yet to see him play one single down of football. And until he does? Nothing is handed to him. I like that.
I also think Vic Koenning will really like Clay Nurse. Koenning has been looking for leaders, and Nurse can be that guy.
Proofreading edit: I wrote a whole bunch of stuff about Clay Nurse the Well-spoken Leader. But it can all be summarized much better by reading this article.
7. AJ Jenkins
AJ was gone. It was all over the internet. AJ Jenkins, Hubie Graham, and Cordale Scott were going to transfer. Our once-deep crop of pass catchers just got very thin. I was depressed all through December.
And then AJ decided to come back. I’m not sure if it was Paul Petrino’s description of his role in the new offense or what, but AJ decided to return. I was rejoicing all through January.
By April, I was in full on “Thank GOD Jenkins decided to return. Without him, this receiving corps would be…” mode. Here’s hoping the adversity of his sophomore campaign is the impetus for a breakout season. As we saw in the Minnesota game in 2008, he’s crazy athletic. If this blog had existed after that game, I would be pointing to an embarrassing “can he be Brandon Lloyd II?” post right about now. Who am I kidding – if he clears 100 yards receiving in the Missouri game, I’ll write 1,300 words comparing the two and making an argument that Jenkins can be just as productive as a junior.
6. Martez Wilson
Such a strange situation, this suspended “will Martez have a breakout season?” discussion. It was the talk of Camp Rantoul in 2009 – Leman… Miller… Wilson? Is he ready to be top-5 in Big Ten tackles? Nine tackles into the Missouri game his neck twists, and the discussion is over. Out for a year. Discussion suspended for a year.
Now it’s August again, so… will Martez have a breakout season? Is he ready to lead the team in tackles? Can he be as aggressive as Vic Koenning will ask him to be? Will he be at all hesitant because of the neck? Most importantly – is he a middle linebacker? Wouldn’t he be perfect at Bandit?
He’s probably the player I’ll learn the least about in Rantoul. Because the run-up is complete here. We need to know what he’ll do in a full season at his new position. His new-for-the-last-16-months position.
5. Jeff Allen
Man, writing about the top-8 is fun. With Tyler Sands, I have no idea what we’re going to get. With Jeff Allen, I know exactly what we’re going to get, and he might surprise us and be even better than that. Allen is the smart, aggressive, consistent left tackle that every college team dreams of. I’ll be sorely disappointed if he’s not at least second team All Big Ten this fall.
In 2011? Sky’s the limit. If he continues on the same trajectory, I don’t think it’s out of line to suggest that he might see his name on a few Honorable Mention All American lists. And hear his name in April.
4. Corey Liuget
In the first few August interviews I’ve seen with Vic Koenning, he has raved about Corey Liuget’s new focus. In the video I linked above, he suggested that Liuget might be the “ringleader” for all the positive changes the defensive guys made over the summer. This is very good to hear.
Quite simply, the first team All Big Ten defensive tackles should be Karl Klug from Iowa and Corey Liuget. There’s no reason he can’t be that good. Koenning really challenged him this spring, giving him the nickname “Tapout” because of his penchant for playing hard until he got tired, and then just going through the motions. At first blush, it appears that it worked, as Liuget has reportedly reported to camp in the best shape of his 3 years in Champaign. I’m anxious to see how he looks in Rantoul. And in St. Louis.
3. Nathan Scheelhaase
I was kind of a lazy student when I was at Illinois. I remember losing the sole of my shoe while running from Forbes Hall to the English Building at 11:55 a.m., desperately trying to get my Rhet 105 paper turned in and timestamped before noon. So when I hear stories of Illini football players missing class, or being late to a meeting, or even struggling picking up a scheme, I always go back to the “yeah, well, when I was 19, I lost the sole of my shoe…”
As I get older, I’m starting to develop this old-man, curmudgeony “why can’t these players dedicate themselves to discipline!” view of college football. “If I was on this team, I’d be asking the video staff for DVD’s of the opposing defense so I could watch them at home!” Stuff like that. I hate getting old.
Nathan Scheelhaase asks the video staff for DVD’s of opposing defenses so he can watch them at home. Nathan Scheelhaase woke up hours before his alarm and convinced Steve Hull to go to the stadium and run some out-routes before the spring game. Nathan Scheelhaase sat down with his father when he was 7 years old to review game tape of his pee-wee football games. (Nathan Scheelhaase was the starting center for his pee-wee team.)
I think we’re gonna like this kid.
2. Terry Hawthorne
OK, so he won’t be playing both ways this year. Disappointed, but I’m OK with that. If all he does in 2010 is sit at the feet of a proven secondary coach like Vic Koenning and learn all he can about the position, I’m happy.
Wait – that’s not true. He needs to return punts. And kickoffs. Punt return, kickoff return, and cornerback. All of that, and I’m happy. Pass catching can come in his upperclassmen years.
Truth be told, I think Vic Koenning was a bit disappointed with Black Cat this spring. Every time he talked about the cornerbacks, he seemed to praise Tavon Wilson while saying “Terry has to learn to stay home” or something similar. Apparently it’s working, because in a post-practice interview the other night, Koenning said that Hawthorne has “grown tremendously” over the summer.
He’s the most talented athlete on the team. He might be the most talented athlete to wear orange and blue in the Zook era. Heck, on pure athleticism, he’s probably top-5 in Illini history. Will “athlete” translate to “football player”? We shall see. But if it does, #1 won’t be high enough for this list next year.
1. Mikel LeShoure
First things first: Is it LeShoure or Leshoure? Big “S” or little “s”? His official bio on the university website used to say LeShoure, but now it says Leshoure. But the majority of news articles say LeShoure. Somebody needs to get to the bottom of this. Because it matters.
OK, on to our #1 most important Illini.
Aside from his case of the dropsies in Rantoul last August, Mikel has been My Man since Spring Ball in 2009. The evolution of my Leshoure thoughts, starting with Spring of 2009:
I’m still liking LeShoure to be our feature tailback this year. He just looks smoother this spring. Hits the hole, makes a move, delivers a devastating blow (on his TD). I’m not trying to go too far with this, but he reminded me of Shonn Greene today. Not nearly as good as Greene was last year, but similar running style. I like.
I’m a LeShoure guy now. I’ll dig out my son’s #5 jersey, see if it still fits him, and make him wear it to a game next year. He just looked different this spring, both on video and in person. Watch the run at the 1:48 mark of this video and tell me he’s not ready to be a feature back.
Maybe it’s just the #5-breaking-his-jaw-and-losing-weight talking, but I’m really, really excited to see what LeShoure can do this fall. My number one goal walking into the spring game was to see if LeShoure’s spring film was for real. It was. Even grumpy ol’ Loren Tate was oohing and ahhing.
I’d love to see what LeShoure can do with 25 carries. Here’s hoping that the newly balanced Mike Schultz offense gives him that chance against missouri (intentionally un-capitalized out of hate).
(LeShoure in the Michigan State game: 3 carries. Grrrrrrrr.)
Rantoul notes: Jason Ford and Justin Green looked strong. Mikel LeShoure looked, I don’t know, uninspired? I loved what I saw from him in the spring. Ford clearly looked stronger tonight, both in drills and on the field. And the ball in the flat that LeShoure dropped isn’t helping his case for more carries. He and Daniel Dufrene had to stay after practice for some up-downs to pay for their ball-dropping sins.
And since I’m really tired of typing (who am I kidding – no I’m not. I love the Top 8. I’m just lazy.), here’s what I wrote about my expectations for Leshoure this fall:
I really hope we gameplan for LeShoure. It’s not so much his burst or his drive that has me so impressed; it’s his vision. He’s an instinctual runner who knows when to wait for his blockers and knows when to hit the hole. Watching the 1990 Colorado game recently (I do this occasionally to boost my spirits), I noticed a similarity between Mikel and Howard Griffith. HG was thick, but with a surprising burst and great vision. I think that describes My Man Mikel. And I want to see more of him.
Most of all, though, I want our offense to be intentional. I want it to have purpose. I want it to have an identity. And with a green quarterback (whoever it is), that identity next fall will need to be a running back who can get you 4 yards on 3rd and 3. And 31 yards on 2nd and 9.
So I want to see the same counter play practiced 135 times in Rantoul until the offensive linemen know it by heart. I want the threat of LeShoure to open up the passing game (and play action), not the other way around. I think he’ll be our best offensive player by quite a large margin – let’s make Big Ten opponents gameplan around him the way they gameplan around John Clay at Wisconsin. When we have a 28-17 fourth quarter lead next fall , it should be treated the same as 2007 – if you want the ball back, you’re gonna have to stop #5 before he gets to the sticks.
There you have it – feed My Man Mikel. Spell with Ford, scat with Green, and pound with Fuller every now and then to keep ‘em honest. But Feed#5.
That sounds better. FeedFive.
Want to know why I’m a “but in 2011″ guy? The Top-12 of the 88 Illini: Junior, Sophomore, Junior, Junior, Senior, Junior, Junior, Junior, Junior, rs-Freshman, Sophomore, Junior. The bad news? Teams with (possibly) only one senior leader typically look rudderless throughout the season. The good news? But in 2011…