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Inventory Part II April 21, 2012

Part two of our (our?) look at the roster coming out of spring ball, and our future needs at each position. Because if we’re going to go on this five game winning streak over Northwestern, you need to know the players that will participate in each of those beatdowns.

Purple sucks.

Defensive End

Even with the loss of soon-to-be first round pick Whitney the Mercilus, I still think we’ll be able to get to the quarterback this fall. I truly believe that Michael Buchanan will become the fifth player in Illini history to put up double digit sacks.  I’ll wait while you try to figure out the other four.  Yes, Simeon Rice and Whitney Mercilus – those are the easy ones.  Good one – you got Mike Poloskey in 1991.  Not everyone remembers he put up 15 sacks (just one less than Simeon in 1994 and Big Whit last year.  Nope, Will Davis isn’t the fourth – he only had 9.5.  No, not Fred Wakefield, either.  His best sack total was 9 in one season.  Give up?

Scott Davis.  10 sacks in 1987.

So here’s hoping Buchanan can be the tenth.  He had 7.5 sacks last year, and off the top of my head, I can think of three sacks for Mercilus where Buchanan was coming off the other edge 0.5 seconds after Mercilus arrived.  I really think 12 sacks is a reasonable goal.

On the other side, the starter will likely be fellow senior Justin Staples.  They both played Bandit last year, but it looks like the plan is to start them on opposite ends this fall.  I like it.

After that, depth is decent to good.  Tim Kynard played a lot of minutes last fall, and he’ll be the backup at the rush end position.  At the Leo (Leo is the new Bandit), it’s redshirt freshman Darrius Caldwell.  Caldwell – oh he’s just the guy Vic Koenning compared to DeMarcus Ware and said was a future NFL star if he finds a Whitney Mercilus work ethic to match his athletic potential.  I kinda never posted that after the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl because it felt like putting undue pressure on the kid.  But after a few swim moves in the spring game, I’m all in.  Darrius Caldwell – as much athletic potential as any kid Vic Koenning ever coached.  “Another DeMarcus Ware if he works at it”.

Why so many words about Darrius Caldwell?  Because I want Illinois football to win.  And when I see lots of seniors starting on this defense next year, I get scared for the future. I get scared of 2003 again and opponents moving on us at will and dark places with bad men who make my life miserable.  And with the last three recruiting classes being the three lowest-ranked classes of the Zook tenure, I get nail-biting worried.

So when Vic Koenning tells me Darrius Caldwell is the future star of this defense, I cling to it like Pat Fitzgerald to sub-.500 non conference opponents.  I want to write things in ink.  When I saw Jonathan Brown make a read, plug a hole, and stuff a ballcarrier in October of 2010, I tweeted that we had a future All Big Ten linebacker.  Because I wanted it on the record.  Check that box, and there’s only three or four more boxes I have to check to guarantee that the bad man won’t return.  It’s way too soon to put Caldwell in ink, but I’m holding the pen.

Depth beyond that is somewhat unknown.  There’s DJ Woods, who was a project recruit added to the 2010 class a week after signing day.  But if I remember correctly, the new staff is looking at him as a defensive tackle.  Which leaves Kenny Nelson, a redshirt freshman who is raw but has that lanky frame with long arms you could mold into a college DE.  But I’m guessing he’s a few years away.  So in the 2013 class, two defensive ends, please.

Defensive Tackle

Another position where we’re set this fall and might be in big trouble in 2013.  Akeem Spence should be an all-Big Ten player.  And given that he was a redshirt and will graduate in a year, I’m guessing he’ll declare for the NFL draft in January.  The other starter in Glenn Foster, who has quickly gone from sketchy sophomore backup to Corey Liuget to solid senior starter.  I’m not worried one bit about DT this fall.

After that?  Anyone’s guess.  There were three defensive tackles in the 2011 class (Clint Tucker, Chris Jones, and Willie Beavers), but none of them made it to campus.  Well, Jones made it to campus, but was arrested 10 days later and kicked off the team.  Given that, our DT depth consists of two redshirt sophomores – Austin Teitsma and Jake Howe.  Teitsma is a high-motor guy who shows potential, but he’s still around 260, which is fairly undersized for a Big Ten defensive tackle.  He can be a great pest, but I’m unsure how he’ll perform against a massive line like Wisconsin or Michigan.  Howe is a bigger kid who looks the part, but after moving from high school fullback, is still learning the position.  It will be interesting to see how he develops this fall, because he’s a likely starter in 2013.

There’s also Chris O’Connor, who I always forget about (sorry Chris).  Like DJ Woods, I’m not sure if he’s a DE or DT.  He still has lots of strength and bulk to add, so I’m guessing two more years of getting bigger and stronger and then see what he has in his fourth (redshirt junior) year.  We’ll also add two true freshmen this fall (and fairly highly regarded freshmen) in Teko Powell and Vontrell Williams.  Because we have two solid starters this fall, I’m guessing both will redshirt and then join the 6-way battle for the two starting spots in 2013.  As far as recruiting this year, we need at least one new DT.

Linebacker

I actually feel really good about the linebackers moving forward.  The starters look solid, the young kids look ready, and the recruits look strong.

Let’s just take a quick peek at the next four linebacking corps. Off the top of my head.

2012: Houston Bates – Jonathan Brown – Ashante Williams w/ Cooper/Dickinson/Fuller
2013: Houston Bates – Jonathan Brown – TaJarvis Fuller w/ Cooper/Dickinson/Grimes
2014: Houston Bates – Henry Dickinson – TaJarvis Fuller w/ Cooper/Neal/Monheim
2015: Zeph Grimes – TJ Neal – TaJarvis Fuller w/ Svetina/Monheim

I feel good about all of that, even if some of the projected starters don’t pan out.  Bates isn’t the answer at WLB and eventually moves to Leo?  Maybe Zeph Grimes takes his spot.  Dickinson isn’t ready to take over for Brown after he leaves?  Maybe Ralph Cooper or TJ Neal can step in.  TaJarvis Fuller isn’t ready to take over for Ashante Williams after next season?  Nah – TaJarvis is going to be a superstar.  Three plays in the Spring Game and I already inked him for the next four years.

OK, maybe that’s a little much, but TaJarvis Fuller looked really great out there this spring.  He caught my eye at the one practice that was open to the media (making a play on fourth down to stop the offense in the two-minute drill).  And then his 7 tackle (2 TFL), 2 PBU performance in the Spring Game made me grab my pen.  Had he come down with the second PBU (it should have been an interception but the wet ball slipped right through his hands), I might have inked him in as a four-year starter.  That, of course, is way too soon to be deciding that a kid will be a superstar, but again, I’m dying to find the future stars of this defense.  For an early-enrollee true freshman, he looked fantastic.  There really is a best-case scenario for him this fall.  One year as Ashante Williams’ understudy at the Star position, and then become a star.

Future needs?  One solid interior linebacker (Eric Beisel come on down), and one solid DB/LB that projects as a Star (Sam Linebacker).  That guy will redshirt, though, because Star is spoken for through 2015.

Cornerback

*record scratches off*

Everything was going along so perfectly.  Caldwell is the future at DE, Vontrell/Teko at DT, TaJarvis Fuller a superStar… and now cornerback.  The good news:  I really believe this year will be our top corner tandem since… I’ll say Robert Crumpton/Scott Turner in 1994.  The bad news:  The third cornerback (Jack Ramsey) is also a senior.  And the fourth cornerback is redshirt freshman Eaton Spence.  And the fifth cornerback, well, there isn’t one.

Three seniors, a redshirt freshman, and that’s it.  Seriously.  We have four scholarship cornerbacks, and three will be graduating next year.  Holy crap.

So in 2013, our starting corners will likely be Eaton Spence (who has yet to play a down of football yet) and one of the freshmen this fall (who have yet to play a down of football yet).  We might go from the best corner tandem in 20 years to the most inexperienced and pick-on-able corners in 40 years.

I wish I could tell you that we can expect to be surprised from some of the young guys, but the young guys in this case have to go to class on Monday because they’re still in high school.  It’s typically a minimum 2-year process for any high school cornerback to understand the nuances of a college defense, and now one of them will need to be starting in 2013 because we have no other corners.

The sort-of good news: my favorite player on film in the 2012 class is V’Angelo Bentley, a cornerback from Cleveland Glenville.  Here’s what I said on signing day after obsessing over his film:

He’s not ranked as high as some of these other guys, and he doesn’t have the offers that the players above have, but I might be more excited about Bentley than any other player in this class. We need cornerbacks so very badly, and I think this kid can be a great one. Go watch some of his highlights from this video to see what I’m talking about. It’s 14 minutes long, so just skip to the 2:10 mark and watch all of his highlights from the game that Glenville played at Ohio State’s stadium. Punt return for a touchdown, fumble return for a touchdown, and several great runs (he was a tailback in high school but projects as a corner in college).

I’m a huge fan of high school tailbacks at cornerback (see: Green, Justin). And with Green and Hawthorne set to graduate next year, we’ll have openings for starters at both cornerback spots. I’m guessing Bentley will hold down one of those spots in 2013.

ALE Projection: I don’t think he redshirts. I think he’s our 3rd or 4th corner next year, and a starter in 2013. That’s probably putting too much on a kid who only had 4 or 5 BCS offers, but I really like his film. And his high school.

Joining Bentley in this class are Justin Hardee (his teammate at Cleveland Glenville who might be more of a safety (or even wide receiver) than a corner, and Jevaris Little, a cornerback from St. Petersburg, Florida.  We have another corner committed already for the 2013 class (Dillan Cazley, who I really like on film), but we probably need two more corners in that class.

So that’s the best corner tandem in 20 years, followed by the least-experience corner tandem in several generations (and possibly the least-experienced corners in Illini Football history).  OK, not history.  Like, when the 1890 team lined up to play Illinois Wesleyan in the first ever Illini Football game, those corners had ZERO experience.

Safety

How did I get this wordy?  I’m almost to 2,000 words on the defense.  I think I gave the quarterbacks one paragraph in the first post, and then expanded each position from there, and now I’m going on and on about cornerbacks.  Oh well.  If you know anything about me, you know this – I could go on for another 1,500 words.

Safety.  Hey, look more seniors who are graduating.  The starters next year will be the starters from last year – senior Supo Sanni and junior STEVEHULL.  And the third safety off the bench, likely subbing in at both safety spots, is senior Patrick Nixon-Youman.  I think that will be the main safety rotation this fall, with a little Earnest Thomas (moved from OLB to safety) and maybe some walkon Ben Mathis (I’ll keep talking about him until you see him on the field).  Next year, it will be STEVEHULL at one spot and then a battle between Mathis and Thomas for the other spot, with a chance that redshirt-freshman-this-fall Nick North joins the party.

It was just a short time ago that I thought our safeties of the future would be Corey Cooper (now at Nebraska) and Dondi Kirby (now at a Juco in New York).  Wait, can we get Kirby back for 2013?  Someone get on that, stat. Now, after the seniors (Sanni and PNY) and the juniors (Hull and Mathis) are gone, we’re left with Nick North, maybe Earnest Thomas if he stays at safety, and several freshmen.  Not the stunning inexperience that we have at cornerback, but not much better.  We need some kids to step up FAST.  I’m looking at you, Earnest Thomas.

We do have two safeties in the incoming class, Taylor Barton and BJ Bello.  But neither were all that highly recruited, which usually means “redshirt, two years, see what that have as upperclassmen”.  Unfortunately, one or both will need to play in their second season.

Safety, like corner, is a spot where I wouldn’t mind us taking a look at a few jucos.  We need players that can play immediately in 2013, so that’s either 4-star safeties or a juco.  I’ll take one of each, please.

OK, so the whole series, summed up in one sentence:  We set at QB, need some tailbacks to add depth, just fine at tight end, desperate for a few receivers to step forward, extremely young at offensive tackle, deep at center/guard, hopeful for the young guys at DE, wait-and-see after the seniors leave at DT, surprisingly deep at linebacker, stunningly thin at corner, and not-much-better at safety.

Oh wait – special teams.  That’s easy.  DuVernois will hopefully step forward and grab the punting job, but if he doesn’t, there’s Brad Janitz and Garrett Stroup waiting in the wings (and Ryan Lankford in a pinch).  And one of these six kickers will win the job this summer and likely hold it for 3-4 years: Immekus, Zalewski (my guess), Blau, Dunn, VanMieghem, or true-freshman Frain.

OK, I’m tired.  I don’t feel like editing this one.  Sorry about the typos above.  Just consider it “Stream of Consciousness – The Roster”.

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3 Comments
illiniranger April 22nd, 2012

the big recruiting dip in the last 3 years is coming home to roost. there are too many positions that we are 1 injury away from playing someone who isn’t even close to ready. it is hard to believe that we don’t have a single offensive tackle ready to play that isn’t a redshirt sophomore.
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there is a very good chance we are better this year than in beckman’s 3rd year because of our depth issues.
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all of this complicated by the fact that the best HS football class in a decade or more is fleeing the state for other schools in the midwest. already 4 of the top HS OL are off the board with 1 x to ND, 2 x to UM and 1 x declaring for Iowa. the best of the OL, Pocic, whose brother is on the fricking team, isn’t anywhere near committing to us yet. ty isaac, one of the best backs in the country, is a very long shot to stay in state. matt alviti off the board to northwestern. that is staggering considering the depth issues we have and the opportunity for these kids to play sooner rather than later.

illini125 April 22nd, 2012

It would be staggering if playing time is the only thing recruits considered. ND, Michigan and Iowa have more to sell from a football history standpoint than we do.
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Maybe Pocic doesn’t want to follow his brother here, maybe he does. It’s only April, he’s visited here a few times, and we made his trimmed down Top 10, so we’re doing everything right with him to this point.
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We aren’t limited to just Illinois products. They are plenty of comparable players in Ohio, Florida, Virginia, etc. that we are targeting.

illiniranger April 22nd, 2012

illini125,
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no, we are certainly not limited to illinois prospects and i am excited about a lot of players on our current roster that are from the south like bad news, houston bates, nate, milines, etc, HOWEVAH, for this program to move forward we have got to get a better percentage of in-state talented kids to stick around. for us to catch say, Iowa, in the B1G standings we can’t have half the Iowa OLINE, a couple DL, the QB, and a WR being from Illinois. in the midwest it’s a numbers game. demographics are kicking the rustbelt’s ass. all the midwest schools are fighting for the same kids. UM and Iowa have made a living off Illinois OL for years. if the profile is going up, we have to keep these kids.
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with that said, i think we have to give the coaches time. we aren’t going to turn the battleship in a year. here’s to beckman landing QB Bailey and OL Pocic. that would be a nice boost to instate recruiting.