Spring Game Questions April 10, 2012
ZOMG Spring Game in four days! I have put Bruce Weber to bed on his cute little purple pillow and I’m ready to talk football. Specifically, the Spring Game. More specifically, Everything I Want To Learn On Saturday But Probably Won’t Because They’ll Keep The Playbook Simple So As To Not Give Anything Away About This Offense Before The Season Opener.
And I’m serious about that. We probably won’t learn anything from this game because of two things: 1) the aforementioned closed playbook, and 2) they’re drafting “teams” for this, so you’ll see the first string offensive tackle lined up next to the third string walk-on offensive guard. Some defensive lineman will have a huge game, and many will claim him to be the star of the show and the next breakout player, but most likely he’ll simply have dominated an inferior, green opposing lineman. Sorry to ruin your buzz.
But you should still TOTALLY GO. Because it’s Illini football, and everything’s new, and some defensive lineman just might have a huge game. Here’s four questions I want answered in this game-that-won’t-answer-any-questions:
1) Do we have any depth in the secondary?
Four “starters” return. I say “starters” because even though Justin Green got starter minutes at corner last year, he wasn’t technically a starter (Tavon Wilson was). But we were in a 5-DB set the vast majority of the time, so Green is a “starter” in my book. And with Hawthorne and Green potentially making up the best Illini corner tandem in quite some time, plus two starters returning at safety from a defense that was 3rd nationally in passing defense last year, things are looking up for the defense.
But what if there’s an injury? Because there are always injuries. What players are ready to step in and play? And with three of these guys graduating this fall (Hawthorne, Green, and Sanni), I’d also like to see what the future looks like.
So on Saturday, I’ll probably watch more Eaton Spence than any other player on the field. With Valdon Cooper having transferred and Jack Ramsey (another backup corner) also injured, Eaton Spence is pretty much a lock to start in 2013. Saturday is our first chance to see if he’ll be ready for that.
I’m also looking for safeties. Who backs up Sanni and Hull? Is Earnest Thomas a safety now or his he bouncing between S and OLB? Can my boy Ben Mathis go from walkon to 2013 starter? What about Nick North or that preferred walkon from the 2011 class, Austin Abner? Who will be the future?
2) Who will be our utility infielder?
That’s an ALE original right there – utility infielder. It’s the name I’m using for a position I’m anticipating. I watched some extended highlights last night of Toledo’s game against Ohio State last year (because that’s what bloggers do at 1:15 in the morning). In that game, Toledo’s all-everything player Eric Page was actually all-everything. He split wide and went deep. He lined up in the slot and ran crossing routes. He lined up on the outside and caught WR screens. He motioned into the backfield and took a handoff. He caught screen passes. He even took a snap in the shotgun and threw for a 2-point conversion.
I’m not saying our offense will be Toledo’s offense. We might do more of what Billy Gonzales did at Florida and LSU, or even some things that Chris Beatty did at West Virginia and Vandy. But in a lot of those offenses, and especially at Toledo, they had a utility guy (like Jeff Demps at Florida) who did a little bit of everything. We’ve never had a guy like that. So… do we have a guy like that?
Josh Ferguson is probably the most likely candidate, given that he’s small and dart-y with good speed. But maybe some of our wide receivers can fill that kind of role. (Sadly, we won’t get to see if Darius Millines can be that guy because he’s out with an injury.) Whoever it is, I’m anxious to see a few playmakers emerge on offense.
3) Will we see a difference on special teams?
Again, in a scrimmage, it’s hard to see improvement in these areas. When the returner brings the kick back to the 44, you either have a vastly-improved return team or a porous coverage unit. And splitting the squads will make this even harder to determine, because the final coverage and return teams won’t be playing next to each other.
But you can see differences in scheme and execution. Especially in punting situations. What will our punt coverage scheme look like? How will we set up the blockers for a punt return? I’m anxious to see what’s different from last year. OK, and I’m anxious to see actual execution as well.
And kickers – will we see a kicker emerge on Saturday? It’s a five-way battle at this point – sophomores Patrick Dunn and Nick Immekus, and freshmen Taylor Zalewski, Baron von Mieghem, and JJ Blau. I did that from memory, by the way. ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?
So which kicker emerges? I’m still in the “Immekus for kickoffs and Zalweski for place-kicking” camp, if only because that was my camp last summer and I have not one piece of new information since then. That, and Tim Beckman tweeted that Zalewski won the kicking competition at practice last night by booting a 57 yarder followed by a 52 yarder. So put me down for Team Zalewski. We’ll have shirts and everything. And then scholarship freshman Ryan Frain will win the job this summer.
(And yes, it’s “Brennen VanMieghem”, but he’ll always be Baron von Mieghem to me.)
I want you all to know that every time I type that, I put in the correct spacing for the chant to match the Janet Jackson song. Four dots after the Black, 2 dots after the Cat. If we were back in 7th grade band, and Mr. Lanewski were telling us how to count out the proper rhythm for Black Cat in 1-e-&-a 2-e-&-a style, it would be “Black-e-&-a-2-CAT-&-a Black-e-&-a-2-CAT-&-a”. Thus, four beats after the Black, 2 after the Cat, repeat. Tomorrow, we’ll cover other forms of syncopation.
The most exciting thing for me in all of Illini sports right now, more so than the new AD or the new football coach or the new basketball coach, is the fact that Tim Beckman plans to play Terry Hawthorne both ways this fall. This is a topic so important in ALE history that it was covered in the very first post 3+ years ago. I also dedicated one whole point of the 19 Point Plan to playing Terry Hawthorne both ways. I’ve mentioned it several times over the years, the most recent being the day before spring practice opened a month ago.
So you can see why I broke into song at the news. Three long years of waiting, and now my boy will get his chance. He finally gets his chance to return kicks in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl… and he puts up 31 of our 70 total punt return yards in one game (yes, 12 games under Zook… 39 punt return yards. One game under Koenning with Hawthorne returning punts… 31 yards.) Now, he finally gets a few plays on offense. Possibly starting Saturday.
I’ll be the guy in the stands with a single tear running down his cheek.