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The Wisconsin Of Defensive Lines May 10, 2012

I’ve always wanted us to have a thing. Wisconsin has a thing. Penn State has a thing. We need a thing.

In the mid-nineties, I thought we might take the Linebacker U title from Penn State. But after Howard, Holocek, Rice, and Hardy left, we didn’t really follow with any NFL linebackers, and that quickly faded. I had a brief “all we do is put receivers in the NFL” phase, followed by “our last eight offensive linemen are all on an NFL roster”, and recently have settled on “one-tenth of the NFL starting running backs are Illini” (a stretch, given Mikel’s injury). But that’s as close as we’ve ever come to having a thing.

Iowa has tight ends, going all the way back to Dallas Clark. The reason they were able to pry CJ Fiedorowicz away from us a few years ago was their tight end tradition. Dallas Clark, Scott Chandler, Tony Moeaki… you too can be the next NFL tight end from Iowa. Same thing with Purdue and quarterbacks – they point to Bob Griese and Drew Brees and Kyle Orton and tell recruits that they can be the next great Purdue quarterback (it hasn’t worked very well of late, but stay with me here). Penn State is Linebacker U. Northwestern has… well, Northwestern has nothing but WISCONSIN has the offensive line thing going. Go to some random barber shop in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, ask the guys in there why Wisconsin football has been so successful the last 20 years, and I guarantee they say “offensive line”. It’s their thing.

I want defensive line to be our thing. Correction – defensive line is probably already our thing, and I want to build on it. In 10 years, I want to walk into that same Elizabeth City barber shop, ask those same gentlemen why Illinois football has been so good the last 10 years, and hear them say “defensive line – they always have a great defensive line”.

Last year, Corey Liuget went in the first round to the Chargers. This year, Whitney the Mercilus went in the first round to the Texans. Next year, Michael Buchanan will be drafted. The next year, Akeem Spence (actually, Spence will probably leave early and get drafted alongside Buchanan). That gives us the ability to tell recruits that they can be the next defensive lineman that Keith Gilmore will put in the NFL.

Which is apparently exactly what we’re doing. In the last ten days we’ve added DT Merrick Jackson, DE Jarrod Clements, and DT Kenton Gibbs to the fold. If two of those names sound familiar, that’s because you read them here two weeks ago:

Here’s 10 guys I want:

1. DB Darius Mosley (O’Fallon HS): Corner/safety with quicks. Would play early.
2. WR Kwamane Bowens (Virginia Beach Salem HS): Big WR from Chris Beatty land.
3. DE Josh Augusta (Peoria Central HS): Michigan/Oklahoma/Notre Dame offers. We need DE’s – he’d be perfect.
4. DT Kenton Gibbs (Detroit Cass Tech HS): Big DT from a football factory.
5. RB Taquon Mizzell (Virginia Beach Bayside HS): Bayside HS? Is AC Slater the coach? Another Beatty target – this kid has offers from everywhere.
6. LB Eric Beisel (Fenton, MO Summit HS): Our MLB of the future if he picks Illinois.
7. OT Jack Keeler (Barrington HS): We’ve missed on a lot of the in-state tackles already, and we’ll likely miss on Pocic, but Keeler would be a great consolation prize.
8. CB Jalen Banks (Harvey Thornton HS): We need 3 or 4 corners in this class. Mosley-Banks-Cazley would be a fantastic pairing.
9. DT Merrick Jackson (Belleville Althoff HS): Would love a mammoth nose guard in this class – Jackson would be perfect.
10. WR Shelton Gibson (Cleveland Heights HS): I can dream, can’t I? Probably down to Ohio State and Auburn, but Beckman has connections in Cleveland.

Add Josh Augusta to that mix (which will be difficult given his Michigan and Oklahoma offers), and my dream of D-Line U might come true. And even though he wasn’t on my WANT list, Clements might be the best of them all. To the point where he had such a good Nike camp last weekend in Ohio that I’m now frightened he’ll get plucked by an SEC school.

As an aside, it’s a crazy thing being an Illini football fan who follows recruiting. Given all the stuff I read about Clements after the weekend, I’m pretty sure he’ll jump to a 4-star on many rankings. Which would be great… but I kind of don’t want him to because I don’t want him to climb out of our league. I want all of our recruits to be like Brandon Lloyd – awesome on film, but completely off the radar for other schools.

Where was I? Oh yes, DL-U. I think we can be exactly like Wisconsin, just on the other side of the ball. They don’t get 5-star offensive linemen left and right; those kids go to Michigan or Ohio State or Alabama. They do get a few four-stars, but it’s mostly three-star offensive linemen like Jack Keeler that they feed into their machine and spit out top-5 college offensive line after top-5 college offensive line. They over-recruit at that position a bit (they currently have 10 offensive tackles on their roster – we have four), mostly because it’s their identity, and they want to keep that strong because it defines who they are.

I want defensive lines to define who we are. I want a machine. I want to keep Keith Gilmore around for 15 years and keep handing him recruits like Clements, Gibbs, and Jackson. And I also want to go find some blue chippers like Liuget and Buchanan to add in to the mix. You don’t need all four-star recruits (guys like Mercilus, Spence, and Will Davis show that it can be done by putting solid athletes into a system), but it can’t be done the Indiana way either, where you’re fighting the MAC for recruits. This class is just about perfect – Gibbs, Clements, and Jackson rank #34, #39, and #44 at their position nationally on Scout, and that’s better than any defensive linemen we’ve added since the Liuget/Mercilus/Foster class (and all three rank higher than everyone but Liuget).

The other piece to this is that we need a hybrid guy on the outside to go with the beef at the other three DL positions. And I think we’re in good shape there as well. This year, it’s Buchanan. Next year, it will be Brandon Denmark. And the two years after that, Darrius Caldwell fills that role. I’ve hinted at this before, but I might as well come out and print it. While chatting with Vic Koenning in San Francisco, he told me that Caldwell could be “better than all of them” (speaking of Buchanan, Mercilus, and Liuget), and that he had more physical tools than any player he’d recruited since DeMarcus Ware at Troy. But, he cautioned, “he’ll have to want it like Whitney wanted it – getting better at practice every single day”. I didn’t print it at the time because I felt strange about Vic sharing all of this information with me, not knowing what was supposed to be off the record and what was on. But now that it’s 5 months later, the lines have blurred. I’m going with “he wanted me to share that”. And I really hope he’s right.

Because if he is, we can keep this machine going. The Liuget season in 2010. Then the Mercilus year. Maybe this year is the Buchanan year and (hopefully) 2013 is Akeem Spence’s year. 2014? Darius Caldwell emerges. 2015? Pick one – Teko Powell, Vontrell Williams, Merrick Jackson, Kenton Gibbs, or Jarrod Clements. Maybe even Josh Augusta. And so on.

Make this DL-U, Coach Beckman. Build a defense that can stop the run and get to the quarterback. Make that our whole identity. “Illinois? What, have they led the league in sacks and TFL’s six years in a row now?”

Hmmm… maybe I like that better. Because it really is all about sacks and tackles for loss – penetrate and stop the tailback or the quarterback in the backfield. Illinois: we’re TFLU. I smell a hashtag.

illiniranger May 10th, 2012

tremendous post. i really like the pieces we are adding on the D-line, especially Clements. anytime you can beat out Tennessee for a kid that’s a good thing. i also like that we beat out Iowa for Jackson. The other thing i like is depth. we’re not putting all our eggs in one basket but getting several kids who all have potential despite their middling “star” rankings.
recruiting is certainly on a roll now and its good to get these guys early. hopefully we can hang on to them through the recruiting process

ktcesw May 11th, 2012

Robert, love your blog! However, as a former Illini footballer, have to say that you are doing us a disservice by not putting our linebackers up there with Penn State’s. Your column went back to the 60s for a number of positions. Remember that we had a couple of great lbs that played for the Bears and Packers in those days. Also had Don Hansen, Tom Hicks, Scott Studwell. John Sullivan, Jack Squirek and a number of others before the 90s. Our lb tradition may not be as strong in this decade but, we can hold our own up to that time. Otherwise, exceptional job. When I want to read about what is happening with the Illini, I read what you have to say first.

PeoriaBucky May 11th, 2012

I’m hoping Wisconsin can keep their o-line ‘thing’ going; we’ll see how much of that was due to Bob Bostad (now with da Bears), who left in the mass coaching exodus that started when Paul Chryst left for Pitt. SEC transplant Mike Markuson should do all right, just hope he can keep the tradition going.

Hoppy May 12th, 2012

Completely agree with all this. We need an identity, and it needs to be positive. Last year our identity revolved around bad coaching decisions and an empty rise to the top 25 followed by the death spiral. I’d say the worse of the two was the name Zook. Poor guy’s name was a household gag for most sports fans.
However, if Illinois creates an identity, whether that is DE-U, or crazy awesome uniforms, or steaks and cakes, we can sell it to recruits, fans, and sell it against other teams. I reckon another coaching staff/quarterback will cringe every time they saw Illinois on the schedule if they knew a guaranteed first round DE was gonna be coming after them.
I don’t care how gimmicky the identity feels at first, just get one and sell it. My crew and I were talking about Katy Perry’s “I kissed a girl” song on the way to the chow hall. The one that made her so popular. It was such a dumb gimmick but now she’s making millions and people know her. She has her identity. Translate that into a sports identity (just not as stupid as that song) and we may have something.

illiniranger May 12th, 2012

hoppy, i think beckman is all over this, hence the NU nee Ghostbusters sign in the locker room. i like what he has done so far, even if the NU thing is a bit of a headscratcher. hey, at least he is trying.
we’ll see if it translates to the field. can’t wait for the WMU game.

Hoppy May 13th, 2012

Ranger, 100% right. I like how he is giving the team something to unify against in NW. .
On an off topic note, you’ve been deployed to OEF right? You deployed right now or back in the states?

illiniranger May 13th, 2012

Hoppy, OEF x 2.5 (1 x 2week trip. Never know if I should count it), OIF x 1, Haiti x 1. Getting out this summer.

Hoppy May 14th, 2012

Nice, good luck on the outside. I’m out here right now, was just wondering.
Back on the topic of Illini football, one thing I like about Beckman is that he isn’t afraid to offer the kids with no B1G or BCS offers yet. If the kid fits his system and they see the potential needed to help them win, they offer. That takes balls and confidence and Beckman seems to have both in spades.
People gravitate to that, players respect that, and recruits want to play for that. I think we have a great find in him.

illiniranger May 14th, 2012

absolutely. the earlier we get in on kids the more likely we are to reel them in. no guarantee, but it certainly helps the chances.