Spring Game Thoughts April 15, 2012
I have one of those blocks again. Where I start a blog post 3 different times, but I don’t like any of it, so I erase it, and I go get something to eat, and I come back and wonder why the words won’t come out. Usually, I have to process something. There’s something in the way, and I need to talk about it before the words will flow. And I think I know what it is.
It’s Matt Alviti picking Northwestern. I know, right? I just got home from the Spring Game, one of my favorite days of the year, and all I can think about is a 4-star quarterback picking Northwestern. Northwestern.
As you know, if you’ve ever read any words in this space, I care way too much about recruiting. Mostly because it’s everything in college sports. The reason Kentucky and Kansas and Ohio State and Louisville went to the Final Four was 17% coaching and 83% recruiting. The reason Alabama played LSU in the title game in January was 8% coaching and 92% recruiting. If you want a chance at title games, you have to land top-end talent. It’s really very simple.
This, of course, is not to say that you can’t win games without recruiting. Boise State hasn’t exactly landed world-beating recruiting classes the last 10 years, nor has TCU or even Wisconsin. If you build a system and recruit to that system, you don’t need Alabama-like talent to win. You simply need to land the targets necessary to keep your system going strong.
But in the end, it’s about getting those players. The reason Indiana has only been to two bowls the last 20 years is because they’ve recruited the least-talented players in the Big Ten. Northwestern hasn’t won a bowl game since the 1940′s not because of a long string of poor coaches – they simply haven’t been able to recruit top-flight players. In football or basketball, where they’ve never made the tourney.
So to see them land one of the best recruits in Northwestern history today is to see me depressed. If we had a few 4-stars already verballed at this point, I’m probably not writing this. But we don’t. Not really even close. Top-flight Illinois kids just don’t seem to feel any connection to our football program. And their disinterest holds me hostage. We need them to win games. My dreams can’t come true without them. But they’re not choosing to come to Champaign. And one of them just chose Evanston. And that’s just depressing.
OK – I am now free to move about the spring game.
+ The spring game has to be the most frustrating day for Nathan Scheelhaase every year. As a running quarterback (and as a competitor), he can’t wait to run on that field and execute a read option, but in his white jersey, he’s playing one-hand-touch while all the other players are playing tackle. I get it, but it’s so unfair to him. His game is creating with his feet, both in the running game and the passing game, but in this format, if someone gets and outstretched index finger on him, he’s “tackled”.
There was one play where most every receiver ran a deep route, and the middle linebacker dropped a little too far in coverage, and Nate had about 20 yards of running room. But someone reached out as he left the pocket and he was “tackled” for a minimal gain. Seriously think about that for a second. When a quarterback escapes the pocket, in either college or the pros, how often does he do it completely un-touched? Once per game? As the pocket collapses, nearly every QB has to jump through holes or spin out of tackles to get away. But in this format, there’s really nothing the QB can do. One outstretched hand is a tackle.
+ That said, Nathan never found a rhythm today and pretty much had one of his poorer performances to date. 11-26 for 65 yards. Several air-mailed passes. One bad decision that was almost a pick-6 for Ashante Williams. An underthrown ball on a bomb to Fritz Rock that Jack Ramsey batted away. An overthrown ball on a bomb to Peter Bonahoom. Both those last two plays were touchdowns, and both were incomplete.
As I said above, I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt because his whole game flows from his feet. This is a brand new system, and as he gets more comfortable, both in the pocket and with his reads, I’m expecting to see improvement. But 11-26 won’t cut it against Michigan. And it probably won’t cut it against Western Michigan.
+ Players I loved today:
Terry Hawthorne – Scored a touchdown on a 29 yard pass play, and almost had a tipped-three-times-to-himself interception that might have made SportsCenter if he had come down with it. I want all Black Cat all the time this fall – punt returns, wide receiver, cornerback, whatever. Make this The Terry Hawthorne Year.
TaJarvis Fuller – Great instincts. He also made a few big plays in the practice I watched two weeks ago, and did so again today with 7 tackles, 2 TFL’s, and 2 PBU’s. He’s only a true freshmen, but I’d say he’s a lock to play. Watch out, Ashante Williams. You’ve got a true freshman on your heels at Star linebacker.
Jonathan Brown – Coach Beckman said after the game that he was “just tapping his potential”. I agree. I was scaring myself trying to think of our last linebacker with his instincts. “Probably better than J, instinct-wise. Do we go all the way back to Dana Howard?”
Michael Buchanan – OK, so they were touch sacks, but 3 of his 4.5 sacks today would have been legitimate sacks in a game. He beat his guy straight up and was unabated to the quarterback. They’re lucky he was kind enough to slow up and just give them a little tap.
Taylor Zalewski – I know Ryan Frain is coming in on scholarship, but I still think Zalewski can win the kicking job. Mostly because when he wins the kicking job, I can be all “I TOLD YOU BACK IN NOVEMBER HE WOULD WIN THE JOB IN 2012 AND I WAS RIGHT SO I’M PRETTY MUCH THE GREATEST KICKER EVALUATOR EVER.”
Josh Ferguson – If you watched the Spring Game Draft video the other day, you saw that the #1 pick was Nathan Scheelhaase, and the #2 pick was Josh Ferguson. Which tells me the players recognize that he’s the perfect fit for this offense. He showed that today.
Akeem Spence – He’s just so hard to contain. Defensive tackles don’t have to make tackles to have an impact. They can simply disrupt everything the offense is trying to do by clogging up the middle. He’s a state champion clogger.
Thus endeth the “players I loved today” list. And yes, I realize I only mentioned one offensive guy. You may absolutely read everything you possibly can into that statement.
+ 9 of 36 on third down between the two teams. Nine of thirty-six. Yes, it’s a new offense with a completely new blocking scheme and offensive linemen split into different teams – no offense is going to look good one month into a changeover. Especially with quarterbacks who really can’t run due to the touch rules.
But 9 for 36. Ouch.
+ Because this was the last organized football before the freshmen arrive, I always look at the Spring Game as a scrimmage that will reveal where some true freshmen might be able to play right away. Spots I see available:
Safety: with Supo Sanni and Steve Hull sitting this one out with injuries, our lack of safety depth was fairly obvious. The backups played admirably (Earnest Thomas looks better at safety than he did as a Sam linebacker), but there are still backup minutes up for grabs. BJ Bello, Taylor Barton – an opportunity for early playing time awaits.
Wide Receiver: Lots of bodies at receiver, but no real obvious threat has emerged yet. I still think Darius Millines is the go-to guy (if he’s ever healthy), and I think Ryan Lankford and Spencer Harris are the obvious #2 and #3, but there are minutes to be had if Jason Robertson (or maybe even Justin Hardee, if they try him on offense) can impress in fall camp.
Offensive Line: It’s very, very, very hard for an offensive lineman to come in and be ready to play as a true freshman. Jeff Allen did it, Hugh Thornton did it, and before them Jon Asamoah and even Ray Redziniak. But with Tim Beckman saying after the game that they might look at moving Pocic or Thornton around to find a better line balance, there’s an obvious opportunity for a Joseph Spencer or a Robbie Bain to quickly learn the system and play right away.
OK, I need to go to bed. And dream of 4-star quarterbacks coming to Champaign. Aaron Bailey, a weary Illini nation turns our eyes to you.