The 19 Point Plan In Review (Part I) December 15, 2010
Last winter – from December 8th to April 22nd, to be exact – I laid out my 19 Point Plan for fixing Illini football. I started the day after it was certain that Zook would be returning and finished around the time of the Spring Game. The Plan was somewhat organic over those months – it started before the coordinators were hired and included a plea for Arrelious to return for his senior season – but the focus was clear: how does the football program at The University of Illinois attain the yearly 7-5/8-4 expectations that we all know it’s capable of?
When laying out The Plan, I figured the only way to approach it would be to write something that the DIA would print out and pin to the bulletin board in the break room. If this was going to be a plan, it was going to be The Plan. I would change the conversation around Illini Football. Dream big and tilt at windmills.
So I will approach this review in the same manner. 10 points today, 9 points tomorrow.
Point #1 – Gut The Assistant Coaches
Who I want gone: Jim Pry, Mike Woodford, Curt Mallory, Mike Woodford, Keith Gilmore, Reggie Mitchell, Mike Shultz
Safe: Dan Disch, Joe Gilbert
What do I want from the new coordinators? Playcalling. Especially on defense. The Disch/Mallory combo had the defensive playcalling instincts of a frightened box turtle. They never called first down blitzes. Zone blitzes were called at the exact wrong time. And worst of all, they could be read like a book. Offensive coordinators had a field day. “Hmmm… Disch and Mallory will likely call a weakside blitz here – hello wide receiver screen!” So I want the new coordinators to be known for their playcalling instincts.
I also want them to have carte blanche. No more “here’s Zook’s scheme – please come in and run it for us.” I want new schemes that are implemented in the spring, drilled in Rantoul, look awful against Mizzou, gain traction after the MSU game, and are humming right along in Fresno in December.
Pretty awesome start (except for the “humming along in Fresno” part). The only coach I asked to be gone that was retained was Keith Gilmore. And I’ll admit to being wrong. The D-line did improve in his second year. But other than that, I got exactly what I wanted. Disch retained for his recruiting but no longer a coordinator, and two play calling assistant coaches. More on that in a bit.
Point #2: Zook As A Figurehead
Ron Zook needs to give up control, hire the two best coordinators he can find, let them choose their assistants, let them practice they way they want to practice, let them set the depth chart, and let them run the gameplanning. No more of this joint CEO/CFO/COO crap. He can be Chairman of the Board, and he can speak at all the shareholder meetings, but no more running the product line. He can hire people to do that.
And you know what? A high energy guy like Zook? I think he’s built for a role like that. Play to his strengths: sell the program, cast vision, speak to the press, recruit – he’s made for that. And heck, he can even still play good cop with the players. They can still love him and come to him with their concerns. He just needs to hire two bad cops as his coordinators.
OK, I was going to wait until later to say this, but they totally printed out The Plan in the break room, didn’t they? Let’s move on before my head gets too big. I’m sure there’s a few blunders in here.
Point #3: Bad Cops
Jack Ramsey is trotting over to the sideline. On third and 2 from the Northern Illinois 46, Ramsey covered up the tight end, resulting in an illegal procedure penalty. Third and 2 became third and 7, and after an incomplete pass, the punt team was headed out on to the field.
As he passes head coach Ron Zook, he gets a “that’s alright Jackie – we’ll get ‘em next time. You’re still my boy. You know that, right?” just like always. Loves his coach, Ramsey does. But then, as he takes a seat on the bench, he sees new Wide Receiver coach Arthur McBadass headed his way. *gulp*
“Ramsey, you’re done until halftime. If you can’t show me the decency of lining up correctly, you don’t belong on my field. And get ready for a fun practice on Monday.”
Good cop/bad cop. That’s what I want. We already have a good cop – one that seemingly hasn’t ever written a ticket in his life. We need a bad cop. Or two.
Point #3 is to hire bad cops for our two coordinator positions (and, if the rumblings I’m hearing this afternoon are true, the offensive bad cop will be Arkansas offensive coordinator Paul Petrino). They don’t necessarily need to be Tom Coughlin, but I want some disciplinarians. Buck stops here. My way or the highway. I don’t care if your head coach lets you jump offsides as much as you want – you do it for me and there will be consequences.
This one wrote itself. After the most undisciplined year of Illini Football in a long history of undisciplined football, we needed some disciplinarians. Enter Petrino. Enter Koenning. Enter an improved product in 2010.
Point #4: Find A Way To Keep Arrelious Benn Here One More Year
Uhhh, yeah. Moving on…
Point #5: Terry Hawthorne = Chris Gamble
It happens every season for nearly every BCS team – fans think back on how Billy Studpants played both ways in HS (and kicked), pick out the best athlete on their college team, and say “hey, can Watkins play both ways for us?” And 99% of the time, no, Watkins can’t play both ways. Besides physical exhaustion, learning two roles within intricate collegiate offensive and defensive schemes is above the pay grade of nearly every Division I athlete (pun intended). It is very, very rare for a team to have an instinctive, born-to-play-football athlete like Deion Sanders or Charles Woodson or Chris Gamble on their team.
I think we have one. He would clearly rank fourth when listed with the above players, but I think we have one. He is the Black Cat. And he was born to play football.
You know how they say some players are “fast in pads”? That’s Terry Hawthorne. His 40 time is solid, but when he’s cranking up the gears in his uniform, he’s the fastest guy on the field. This was true when I saw him in high school, and was certainly true when he ran down Roy Roundtree. I can only remember two other Illini players with this kind of speed in the last 20 years – Christian Morton and Scott Turner. Maybe Vontae, now that I think about it, but I really do think Black Cat is faster.
So what do you do with all that speed? You do what Ohio State did with Chris Gamble’s speed – spread it all over the field.
Stupid “stress reaction”. Stupid “Hawthorne re-aggravated his earlier foot injury and will sit out…”. In retrospect, we probably should have redshirted him this fall. He was only a healthy contributor in 3 or 4 games.
Oh well. Let’s make this one Point #1 for next year’s plan. May he return every punt.
Point #6: Move Players Around
Many have wanted to see what Martez could do coming off the corner as a Simeon Rice-ish LB/DE hybrid. Yet the scheme is just as entrenched as Tez is at middle linebacker. We have 7 outside linebackers on the roster and 2 tight ends. Can Justin Staples catch? How about Supo Sanni at outside linebacker? Justin Green cornerback? Greg Fuller middle linebacker? Leon Hill defensive tackle?
I’m not saying make all of these moves. Or even half of them. I’m saying I want our staff to be more creative than “4th-string linebacker Anterio Jackson has been moved to offensive guard”. Most all of our position moves over the past few years have been line-related (Xavier Fulton from DL to OT, Rahkeem Smith to DL, etc.) We have the “he’s too bulky now – let’s move him to the line” thing down. Now I want creativity.
I want a scheme that is set in stone, and then a roster shaped around that scheme. I want roster audits at the end of every season, trying to find areas of depth and areas of weakness, and then moving a few pieces here and there to bring more balance. This is all to be done with purpose – “you are being asked to move because it will benefit our team, and team is our #1 goal”. No more promises. No more attempts to keep everyone happy.
Hey look! Martez’s hand in the dirt on third-down situations! Justin Green at Cornerback! Justin Staples and Nate Palmer to the D-line! Glenn Foster moved inside to D-tackle! Jack Ramsey at corner! Steve Hull at safety!
Of all of the points in The Plan, this one was probably the most “implemented”. We were more creative with the roster – sometimes by necessity – than any year I can remember. Some of the moves, like Green at cornerback, might really pay off down the road.
Point #7: Utilize The Depth Chart
That’s what I want: urgency. When there are 4 starters at running back, there’s no urgency. When the defensive line depth chart doesn’t change once the entire season on a defense ranked last in Total D, there’s no urgency. No, I’m not saying start the third-stringer every time the first stringer needs motivation. I’m asking that we do what Iowa and Ohio State and Purdue and Wisconsin and nearly every other Big Ten team does: go public with the depth chart, and let it serve as a motivating tool for the players. Keep the “-OR-” out and simply list one starter and one (or two, if the position requires) backups. No more “everybody gets their name on the list”.
Utilize The Depth Chart. Update it weekly. No starting spot is safe. Every player must stay motivated at every practice.
For the most part, no change. As far as I could see. This might have been implemented at practice without any of us knowing, but as far as the official depth chart, there were only reactionary changes during the season.
I still would like to see depth chart changes go public like they are at other Big Ten schools. But in retrospect, a lot of that is for selfish reasons. I’m Robert, and I have a depth chart problem. I’m a junkie.
Point #8: Schedule Like We’re Illinois
I have to admit, my view on this issue has changed dramatically in the last 15 years. Had you been standing around my office’s proverbial water cooler in 1998, I would have given you an earful on Bill Snyder and his scheduling practices at Kansas State. Vitriol would have been spewed. The word “namby-pamby” would have been used. I might have even made a “Sisters of the Poor” crack. I know, yikes.
But in the 12 years since then, I’ve changed. And not just because we’ve only been to three bowls in those 12 years. The change is this: I now understand that no one is asking us to schedule Sisters of the Poor indefinitely. It’s that we must schedule them until we’ve taken the program up a rung, and then we add in a Southern Miss or a New Mexico State. And after we move up another rung, we add a Fresno State or a Duke. The next rung adds Arizona. The next a home and home with Boston College. And then (and only then) do we agree to a neutral series with Missouri. (You have no idea how much pain I endure when typing the name of that last team.)
Compare that to this. Tossing out the FCS games (when they added the 12th game, everybody got a freebie), here are the regular season records of our last 6 non-con opponents: 8-4, 12-0, 8-4, 9-3, 6-6, 9-3. Nope, not a misprint. 52-20. We get to choose our opponents, and we choose opponents who went 52-20.
The next 8 non-conference games: Arkansas State, South Dakota State, Arizona State, Western Michigan, Western Michigan, at Arizona State, Charleston Southern, and Louisiana Tech.
They totally listened. To this point and a thousand other message board posts and radio call-ins. Our non-conference scheduling in the first 6 years of the Zook era was absolute insanity. And it has finally changed. Hallelujah.
Point #9: Build The Offense Around My Man Mikel
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. Point #9: Feed Five.
The birth of #Feed5! February 1st of last year.
And Feed Five we did. To the tune of second team AP All American. Hallelujah.
Point #10: Build A Program
I am OK with Ron Zook being given 2 more years. (I just lost 75% of you, didn’t I? Stay with me.) My preference would be that Temple’s Al Golden would be settling into his office at Memorial Stadium, putting the finishing touches on his first recruiting class and getting to know Illinois high school coaches. But I have that feeling every year. Last year, it was Turner Gill. The year before that (well, the year before that, we were in Pasadena). But after the Ohio loss in 2006, I pondered how great Steve Kragthorpe would look on the Illini sideline. Each and every year there’s a coach out there who seems perfect, and will surely arrive and take us to the promised land.
But that’s no more than me in my college years, thinking about that girl in my Econ 105 class, just knowing that life would improve with her by my side. It didn’t. It rarely does. You see, there’s a rose in the fisted glove. And the eagle flies with the dove. And if you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love Ron Zook.
So I’m willing to give him 2 more years as long as Point #2 and Point #3 are met. I know this is severely disappointing to those of you who want him gone and want the next girl brought in. But I want a program.
I want recruiting relationships that stretch 10 years. When Mackovic left and Tepper started, he had to re-establish connections with high school coaches all over the country. And when Tepper left and Turner started, he had to re-establish connections with high school coaches all over the country. And when Turner left and Zook started, he had to establish connections with high school coaches all over the country. That whole time, Barry Alvarez was sitting on his throne in Madison, calling the same coaches and recruiting the same farm boys to block for the same running game. I want that.
I want schemes that evolve and grow as coordinators come and go, but I want consistency. I want this Petrino offense, whatever it is, to last 15 years. I want (ugh) what Missouri has right now (puke). Brad Smith leaves, Chase Daniel steps in and runs the same offense. Daniel leaves, Gabbo steps in and runs the same plays. Dave Christensen left for Wyoming? No matter, take an assistant (a floppy-haired freakshow at that) and promote him to OC and keep the train moving. Practice is run the same. Terminology is the same. Play calling feels like Christensen never left.
The jury is certainly out on this one, and will be for some time. But I’ll say this. 6-6 with a freshman QB and two new coordinators is a good start. Return 16 starters next year with an easier schedule, win 7 or 8 to take us to back-to-back bowls, start attracting 4-star kids again, and we might get this thing movin’. Set up a succession plan with Jeff Brohm so that the very moment that Paul Petrino gets hired at Wake Forest, Brohm steps up to offensive coordinator and continues to develop and grow the same schemes. Do the same with Vic Koenning and Ron West. Continue to schedule like we’re Illinois. Sell ourselves as a running team and get the next FeedFive in here. Get to a Florida bowl, let our orange fill half the stands, and then use that to recruit recruit recruit.
Build a program.