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Mailbageddon August 22, 2012

Sometimes I type things and immediately have an internal conversation with myself. “Mailbageddon? Really? Does this end with William Fitchner talking to my son and saying ‘Requesting permission to shake the hand of the son of the greatest blogger I know’?”

See, and there it is again.  I constantly have these “WHY ARE YOU TYPING THIS?” conversations with myself.  But I always leave it.  I have this belief that the moment I start deleting things, I’ll lose the ability to ever be funny again.  So there it is.  Please know that when you read something tremendously unfunny here, I’m doing it to clear room for the one joke that lands.  You’re welcome.

To the mailbag.  First, my apologies.  I asked for questions 13 days ago, and I’m just now getting to the rest of them.  I’ve decided that instead of doing Mailbag 5 and 6 and 7 and such, I’ll just get to the rest of the questions in one giant post. I’m not really sure why. I had part of this post completed several days ago, and could have posted #5 and #6, but the idea of a 4,000 word Mailbageddon was too enticing. Since this is the final Camp Rantoul post, I wanted it to be EPIC. And now I’m posting it 10 days after Camp Rantoul ended. I’ll never learn.

Isn’t Pocic our best offensive lineman going into this season? If so, why move him to guard, the least important place on the line?

I’ll challenge you on two points there; both that Pocic is our best offensive lineman and the guard is the least important.  Feisty mailbag Robert is feisty.

I’d say it’s between Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton for “best offensive lineman going into the season”.  In Rantoul, my vote would have gone to Hugh Thornton. But that’s probably a bit unfair because they were never in a full-out, full-pads scrimmage.  I was mostly watching blocking during 11 on 11 drills.  And in all drills, Hugh Thornton was a monster.

As for the position changes, I’m all for it.  What we were trying at the end of last season wasn’t working.  The lines this spring were kind of a mess.  So our staff got creative, said that they needed to find a way to get guys like Feldmeyer and Hill in there, and came up with this solution.  With a new staff, and with a new offensive scheme, and especially with an offensive line that really needs an identity, I’m all for moving guys around.  This isn’t the NFL where you have to have a certain size/frame to play left tackle.  In the spread offense, you can spread your O-linemen around.

What were your impressions of the coaching staff collectively during Rantoul? Do they seem to gel? Anything amusing that stands out to you?

The biggest difference to me – the assistants joking with and busting on each other.  It carries over to Twitter, too…

That’s the biggest difference I see between this staff and Zook’s assistant coaches. Maybe it’s just that they’re all new, and it’s like Forbes Hall 2-South in late August of 1991 compared to Forbes Hall 2-South in March of 1992 when we were all cliqued-up. But these guys seem to be having a blast coaching together.

And it’s possible that’s intentional. Beckman will often have his coaches or grad assistants go through a drill (like maybe Coach Clink covering Coach Gonzales in a route-running drill). If Clink breaks up the pass, the defense will go INSANE. The practices are structured and disciplined, but they’re having fun out there.

Who is coaching the receivers and is there hope the offense will be improved over 2011?

Billy Gonzales is the receivers coach.  He coached receivers for Urban Meyer at Bowling Green (when Beckman was on the staff), at Utah, and at Florida, and then he left Florida for LSU where he was the passing game coordinator.  So the passing game is his thing.  Specifically, passing within a spread offense.

If you could get him to honestly answer the question, I think he’d say that he doesn’t have the receivers he needs to run the offense the way he wants it run.  At least not yet.  Darius Millines looks the part (if he can stay healthy), and Ryan Lankford is much improved as a route runner (over what I saw last year in Rantoul), but I still think he needs a new crop of 5 or 6 receivers that he can mold into the passing game he wants to run.

Will the offense be improved?  Yes.  It has to be.  We averaged 259 yards and 11 points over our final seven games last year, which I believe was second worst in the nation over that time period.  So unless we’re shooting for worst in the nation, yes, this offense will improve over what we saw at the end of the year.  Can we put up 30 points per game?  Doubtful.  Too many question marks.  And the roster lends itself to “don’t make too many mistakes on offense and let the defense win you games”.

How does the punting game (both kicking and returning) look this year? Have you seen any drills? How do the punters and the return teams look?

My guess on the kicking game:

+ Nick Immekus will be the placekicker.  The last two days I was there they put him through seven pressure kicks.  He made all seven.  I was a Zalewski guy before camp and an Immekus guy after camp.

+ Taylor Zalweski will kick off.  He still has a great leg (which is why he was My Guy in the kicker battle), but I noticed that the trajectory on most of his kicks was pretty low.  This is great for kicking off, especially if you can boom it like Bubba Watson hitting a driver.  But if your placekicking has the same trajectory, you’re gonna get some blocked.

+ Oh, why not: Ryan Frain wins the punting job.  I have very little to go on besides a few boomers I saw him send skyward.  But I did see DuVernois struggle several times with flat-out shanks during punt return drills.  Frain has a huge leg, and I think he can win the job as a true freshman (and maybe contend for the kickoff job, too).

For the return teams, I didn’t see one return drill.  Which was AWESOME.  All Zook did was line up 11 guys here and 11 guys there and “practice” kickoffs.  Tim Salem, at least for the week in Rantoul, only worked on the specifics of each special team.  How to shed a block.  How to protect the punter.  How to beat a jammer if you’re a gunner.  How to avoid a block on kick coverage.  This, of course, had me dancing.  Actual, legitimate, special teams skill work.

Regarding the O line, I find your comments about these guys bulking up to 300 over a couple years very interesting. On the website, I went back and looked at the rosters from when I was in school (fall 1971 to 1975) to check out the sizes of the guys then. Larry McCarren, all Big 10 center and starter for the Packers, lived across the hall from me in Newman Hall my freshman year. He was listed as 6-3, 237. Gerry Sullivan (played for Cleveland a long time), John Gann, Mason Minnes also lived in my dorm and were under 240. John Levanti, starting guard for 3 years was 6-2, 225. Stu Levenick was in my class (and in one of my classes) and was 6-3, 247 or so. He was good enough to be drafted by the Colts but never made the team. Bob Standring was another guy in my dorm. He was starting Rover (weak side linebacker) at 6-1, 190. All those guys were bigger than most people but didn’t seem all that big and certainly not obese. It’s amazing (and kind of scary) to see how much bigger the players have become, especially the linemen.

I love questions like this. I love Illini football names I’ve never heard before. Stu Levenick is a fantastic 1970′s offensive lineman name. I want to hang out with his mustache. I just know he had a mustache.

Yes, O-linemen have certainly grown over the years.  I was listening to The Solid Verbal podcast with Luke Zimmerman talking about Ohio State’s offensive line, and he was discussing a true freshman tackle (Taylor Decker) who might be able to play right away.  And he kind of just casually mentioned that Decker was 6′-8″ and 325 pounds.  College freshman.  Presumably 18 years old.  6′-8″, 325.  What’s next?  Take Mike Tisdale, put him on an 8,000 calorie diet, and plug him in at right tackle as a 7′-0″, 410 pound superbeast? (Wait, can we do that?)

But I don’t think you’ll see us reaching Wisconsin levels with our line.  They seem to get all of their starters up to 315 lbs or so – I think we’ll average considerably less than that.  Mostly because in this spread (or at least what I think this spread will be), mobility for the linemen will be more important than running someone over.  So hey, maybe Stu Levenick would have had a shot.

Strength coach – forgot the new guys name, but man, I would have loved for the Beck-man to keep sweet Lou. Any insights on that guy? Different, similar, are the guys taking to him? I thought Mendenhall and Leshore should have built him a shrine, he did a great job with both of them (not to take away from their personal efforts, of course).

Big fan of how Aaron Hillman runs stretching.  Lots of interaction with the players.  For the morning practice, a “good morning, men” followed by a “good morning, coach” response.  Structured.  Intentional.  Interpretive.

He does have two negatives, though.  He came here from Michigan, where he was an assistant strength coach.  Strike one.  And he graduated from Missouri. Oof.  Strike two.  But if he can add weight to Pat Flavin and add speed to Jeremy Whitlow, I don’t care where he went to school.  Heck, he could have gone to Mizzou and come here from Michigan and I wouldn’t care.

What is your overall feeling for the offense? With reports from the Spring game and your reports of dropped passes, I have the feeling that the non-conference portion could be pretty rough. I’m bracing for the worst.

I’d say bracing for the worst is accurate.  I watched the KFHB again the other day, and was reminded that our offense was a bit of a complete mess at the end of the season.  No rhythm, no flow, seemingly nobody on the same page.  Our third down conversion percentage, which I want to say was over 50% after our 6-0 start, fell to 42.3% by the end of the year (which would mean we were, what, 35% or so during our swoon?)

So with that, I’d say a scheme change would be great.  Mix things up, fit your personnel better, right? But a scheme change might also be awful.  We might look like Michigan in 2008, trying to figure out how a spread offense really works.

What gives me confidence?  Nathan Scheelhaase having started 26 games.  Sometimes, with that much experience, a quarterback can get into a groove that just builds week to week.  What was a tuck-and-run as a freshman is a stay in the pocket and hit the receiver in stride.  What was a poor decision in the read option last year becomes the right decision this fall.  As we switch schemes, we have to find a leader, and with no upperclassmen at tailback, it has to be Nathan.  He MUST take a big step forward.

Is Miles Osei our next “Eddie McGee”? He appears to be good athlete and have a great attitude like Eddie, but can’t seem to find a role.

I’m not sure if “can’t seem to find a role” is fair just yet.  This is just his third year, and as you may know, I’m a “first two years are useless for 95% of all college football players” guy.  Give me true juniors and redshirt sophomores or give me death.  At some point, when I’m a trillionaire, I’m going to commission a study of all Division I college football programs and the on-field impact of sophomores, redshirt freshmen, and freshmen.  And I think the numbers will come out that 94.7% make no real impact until their third year in school.  OK, maybe that’s a bit high.  Let’s say 91.6%.

So for Osei, this is the year to start to make his mark.  He’s a great athlete (I originally thought we might move him to safety if QB didn’t work out), and I think he looks really solid in the run game.  But it will probably take a bit of time until he’s really comfortable out there.  This will be his first significant playing time, so it will take a bit before the game slows down.  My expectation: around the time of the Purdue game, he has a “6 catches for 77 yards, plus 3 rushes for 31 yards and a touchdown” performance that has everyone taking notice.

If Zook’s practices were ADHD, how would you characterize the vibe of a Beckman practice?


Tell me all about how good Terry Hawthorne will be this year after seeing him at Rantoul. Also, tell me all about how he is going to have a Woodson-like season in all three phases of the game: Offense, Defense, & Special Teams.

I wish I could, but 1) he didn’t practice with the offense one single time in Rantoul, 2) there have been no reports of him practicing with the offense since Rantoul, and 3) I’m guessing Tommy Davis was brought in as a one-year transfer from NIU specifically to return punts and kickoffs.  Definitely the biggest downer of fall camp so far (for me).

I still think we involve him in the offense – I don’t see how we couldn’t with the only non-freshmen being the three junior wide receivers.  We need someone with some on-field experience to grab that big third quarter touchdown.  Why Not Black Cat?

I smell a hashtag.

What’s your take away from seeing Beckman in action these last few days? How’s his energy during the practices? Has his “impressiveness” level been raised in your view, perhaps approaching that of Coach Groce? When the BTN cameras cut to him on the sideline this Fall, will he exude the confident demeanor of an in-control field general?

Man, any time one of these questions says “these last few days” I cringe and internally berate myself for not answering these questions sooner. But then I remember I left Rantoul, took my family to Colorado, caught up on a backlog at work, and tried to return to an actual sleeping regimen. And then I don’t feeeel so baaaad.

To your question, my main takeaway with Beckman is his Plan.  He has a very specific plan for building a successful Big Ten football program.  He says he’s been putting together this plan since he was a grad assistant at Auburn in the late 80′s.  He’s taken things he’s learned when he worked under Pat Dye and Urban Meyer and Jim Tressel and Mike Gundy, he beta-tested the Plan at Toledo the last three years, and now he’s ready for full product rollout.

What are some of the elements of this Plan?  For the players, it’s about discipline off the field and on.  If you go to class, you arrive 10 minutes early for everything you do, if you are accountable to your position coach, if you are invested in teaching the underclassmen what you’ve learned, (and probably a dozen other things), this will be a successful football team.

For the program, I think a lot of that is found in recruiting.  He’s added a Director of Player Personnel (Paul Nichols), an Assistant Director of Player Personnel (former Illini Mike Bellamy), and a grad assistant working under them (Chad Creamer).  That’s a three man team doing a job that really didn’t exist under Zook (at least not in that capacity).  Their job is to promote this program to every high school football coach within a 6 hour radius (and beyond), to get former Illini players (especially those in the NFL) involved in this program again, and to develop relationships all across the recruiting landscape that will build Illini Football.

And that’s just two pieces of his Plan.  It’s a binder full of stuff.

As for his demeanor on the sideline, well, TBD.  But I’d guess he’ll be organized about it in some way.

How do this year’s crop of freshman stack up to previous classes at the same point in time? Obviously it is extremely early and not necessarily an accurate portrayal of their long term prospects at Illinois. I believe that, according to Rivals, this is our lowest ranked class in years. I was curious of your initial impressions after a week of practice.

I’ve been to the last five Camp Rantouls, and this was easily the smallest number of early impact players I’ve seen.  That’s not to say it won’t be a good class after the players go through the skill development and strength training that this new staff will put them through.  But when you ask me to compare this to, say, Corey Liuget/Mikel Leshoure/Tavon Wilson, that class was three times further ahead.

There will be some early impact players – Dami Ayoola and V’Angelo Bentley come to mind, and the coaching staff seems to really like Justin Hardee at receiver – but for the most part, I think this class won’t make much of an impact until 2014.

With all the emphasis on WRs, I am more interested in whether we have a RB who looks as though he hasn’t been raiding the donut store and can actually run north and south. I know Ferguson has looked good so far but I doubt he has the physical tools to be a full time BT RB. What about Young? I have been skeptical about his ability to be The Guy. Does he look like he has progressed from last year and give Alyooa a redshirt year?

What are your thoughts on this group of RB’s? Can we get production out of this spot?

What are chances we have a radically better running game with Ferguson back in the mix?

Several questions about the tailbacks, so I’ll try to answer them all here.

First, remember the Missouri game in 2010 when they ran the fly sweep over and over and over?  De’Vion Moore or Kendial Lawrence or Henry Josey, Missouri’s stable of midget tailbacks, would line up in the slot, start in motion back towards the QB, and get the handoff after a timed shotgun snap gave Blaine Gabbert the ball just before the tailback crossed in front of him?  Remember that?  When you think of our future running game, I think you need to think of that.  It won’t be Mikel following Jay Prosch through a hole as a guard pulls for a kickout block – it will be Josh Ferguson motioning from the slot into the backfield and then taking a pitch on the fake TE shovel pass option play.

Both Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales tossed around the word “multiple” the past few weeks, which means we’ll do all kinds of things with our running game.  But as for “north and south” running like Mikel?  I think you’ll see very little of that.  Sure, we’ll run some power stuff with Donovonn.  But this won’t be the Petrino Pistol.  Nor will it be the Locksley spread.  Speed and shiftiness will be the key.

As far as the carries are concerned, I think Ferguson gets the bulk (just like Josey got the bulk of the carries for Missouri).  Smallest and fastest tailback gets the ball.

Question: Is Illinois going to an Oregon/Tiller type spread a bad move? Are they making things too hard on themselves? I mean this in two ways

1. What will the impact be on recruiting offense? Specifically, the Illinois recruiting pitch to me seemed to be gaining steam. Come to Illinois, develop, get drafted. RBs (Leshore, Rashard, Thomas), WR (Jenkins, Benn, Cumberland), OL (Allen, Asomah). It would seem this takes a step back. There will be players that will not consider the spread because they want to be groomed for the pros. tOSU, Oklahoma, etc can get away with this…but I am not sure Illinois can long term. Illinois needs to be Iowa, MSU, and Wisconsin for the preferred 3-star players, does the spread hurt in those recruitments?

2. Is this offense the way to gain sustained success in the big10? Again, tOSU and the like can do what they want. But the three schools who have level jumped recently are Iowa, Wisconsin, and MSU. All built with pro-style offenses and recruiting to match. Purdue (under Tiller) had success but could not sustain without long careered NFL QBs (Orton, Brees). NU cannot make the jump despite more than its fair share of good pub and improved recruiting.

First off, let’s not call this a Tiller spread.  I don’t think we’ll use any “basketball on grass” concepts in this offense.  I think Chris Beatty said it best when he said it’s a “hybrid between recent West Virginia and Florida offenses”.  A spread’s spread.  To your two questions:

1. I don’t think the spread hurts recruiting.  At least not like it scared people 10 years ago.  Yes, there will be big tailbacks like Ty Issac at Joliet Catholic who won’t go to any school that doesn’t have a pro-set tailback spot for him.  But Ohio State is recruiting to a spread now.  And Missouri built their entire program once they switched to a spread and started recruiting speed from Texas.

Personally, I like the idea of a Wisconsin or MSU – build a solid defense and a run-heavy, ball-control offense and win Big Ten football games.  But that’s not where we’re headed.  We’re headed for a spread and we’re looking for specific athletes to fill those spots.  And that’s the key, at least to me.  We can recruit specific talent to our system.  Hey Aaron Bailey, want to come run our spread for four years? BOOM.  Hey Josh Augusta – want to play for an aggressive defense that features the DL? (Boom? Please?)

2. A fair point (and I agree with you).  But when I’ve made this argument with friends before (the “we should build a pro offense and play power, Big Ten football” argument), their response has always been “worked SO WELL for Tepper and Turner”.  I think their “been there, done that” point has merit.  We tried building that, and it didn’t work.  Zook was able to recruit spread athletes immediately, but he couldn’t maintain it.  I’m willing to put that on Zook the coach and say that Beckman can recruit speed to Champaign and build the program like is program building idol: Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State.

(Please to note that Robert is not saying we’ll build another Oklahoma State in Champaign.  I’m saying that if you want to know what program Beckman is using as a model for how to go from the bottom to the top by recruiting speed, it’s Oklahoma State.)

After seeing what you saw at the spring practices and at Camp Rantoul, and given the current talent on the team and commitments, how have your views towards what we need or don’t need out of the 2013 class changed? Are there positions that you think are stronger now than they were before Camp? Weaker? Do the additions of players like Nowicki and Klachko change things?

Yes, I think Nowicki and Klachko change a lot (and not just because they reduced our potential class from 23-25 players to 21-23 players.  I think offensive line is much less of a concern.  Klachko joins a deep group for the three inside spots (Hill, Karras, Spencer, Durkin, Boles, Bain), and Nowicki joins the three tackles in the 2013 class (Chadwell, Schmidt, and DiLauro) to shore up that position.  So I’d guess we’re done with offensive line (although we probably wouldn’t tell Dennis Finley no).

From what I saw at camp, I’d say wide receiver is now the biggest concern, with defensive end being the sleeper concern.  WR you probably already know about, but DE/Leo is a bigger issue than I realized.  At Leo, there’s Michael Buchanan backed up by Darrius Caldwell and a walkon.  So after this year, it’s Caldwell and???  And then at defensive end, it’s Justin Staples (senior), Tim Kynard (junior) and then, well, no idea.  Maybe redshirt freshman Kenny Nelson (who still needs to fill out his lanky frame)?  Or DeJazz Woods (who looks more like a DT to me).  I really think we need to pull in two defensive ends in this class, with at least one of them versitile enough to play the hybrid Leo spot.

I want to know your read on Beckman so far. He’s got a lot going on…music, stripes, t-shirts, dinner tables, awards, northwestern signs, purple jerseys, slogans, Beckman time, apparently lasagna dishes frozen in his basement ready for the season. But how is it coming together?? Is it needed?? I’m guessing an all out culture change is what he’s shooting for…but the x’s and o’s and focus on winning football games…is there the right balance?

That’s the question, isn’t it?  I describe above how he has a Plan, and how everything you mentioned (stripes, awards, slogans, “Illini Time”) fits into this grand Plan.  I agree with most everything he’s done.  This idea he has for “Becks Balcony” – setting up a BBQ and tents during the game for students to use the patio outside his office (northeast corner of the stadium)? BRILLIANT.  I love it so very much.  We’ve done so very little to promote student involvement over the years besides WE MUST SELL MORE STUDENT TICKETS campaigns.  Football Saturdays should be a campus-wide event, and we’ve always treated it like a football game.  I love everything that Beckman is doing to try to involve the student body.

And recruiting – he’s really impressed me with his recruiting so far.  One of the best spread quarterbacks in the country plays his football in this state? Beckman landed him.  Ron Zook left the secondary cupboard completely bare?  Mosely Day Dawson Jones Kelly Cazley.  He’s added a Director of Player Personnel (with two assistants) to cultivate relationships with coaches and players within driving distance of Champaign, setting us up for future recruiting wins.  I really think he gets it, and he’s assembled a staff to help him get there.

But… can he coach?  Can he settle the team in a timeout with 1:44 to go and come up with the correct play call?  Will he make the right call on fourth down?  Will our players be disciplined and avoid penalties and turnovers?  Those are the questions, aren’t they?

illiniranger August 23rd, 2012

What a great post and so insightful. Two things I’d like to share thoughts on…
Can we recruit to a spread? While some people will say “Tepper and Turner didn’t do it with a pro style,” that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Despite the athleticism in the state of Illinois, most of our athletes play with the spheroid shaped ball instead of the oblong shaped one. When you go back and look at Illinois prep recruiting there are usually 1-3 high level skill position guys and a whole mess of OLine/TE types. That’s about it. We don’t produce a ton of LBs, we don’t produce a ton of DEs, we produce very, very few DBs, not many WR (maybe 1 or so a year that has the goods) 1 QB and 1 RB. Our margin for error recruiting to the spread in-state is effectively nil. Imagine if we don’t land Bailey this year? Who the hell would we have recruited? We probably aren’t going to land Laquon Treadwell – who else are we going to recruit to play WR?
I’m not buying that we can just go to the South and get the right type of player. The absolute best players, the type that can take you to the B1G promised land, simply aren’t going to be available because they will go to UGA, FLA, Bama, Auburn, LSU, etc. We’re left picking up 2 and 3 star players, and while rankings aren’t everything, you need depth in your recruiting. FSU is successful not because they recruit one 5 star player but because they recruit 7. of those 7, 2 won’t work out at all, 2 will be marginal players, and 3 will be flat out studs. That’s how these things play out. now at Illinois say you recruit the oine 5 star WR available in state; you have about a 50-50 chance that he’s a bust. Kyle Prater anyone?
Now, if we went the other way and recruited big halfbacks, big OLinemen and uglied the game up I think that is much more feasible given our typical in-state talent. WITH THAT SAID, BEING SUCCESSFUL IN THE SPREAD IS NOT IMPOSSIBLE HERE. I just think it is going to be much more difficult to do because it will be harder to recruit to. Tepper and Turner did not fail because they ran the wrong system – they failed because they were crappy coaches.

illiniranger August 23rd, 2012

The other thing I’d like to comment on is the PLAN. This has me excited. Good leaders do a few things very well. One of them is that the can conceptualize a vision. More important than that – they can COMMUNICATE

illiniranger August 23rd, 2012

(sorry, accidentally hit the enter key)
that vision. And I think Beckman can do that and IS currently doing that. So much of football happens far away from what we can see. Games aren’t won and lost in the last 1:44 of the 4th QTR. Those games are toss ups. When games are close and time is limited variance plays a HUGE factor and coaches have little control over that.
Guys like Meyer and Saban are so great not because they are good at the end of games but because THEY DON’T GET INTO THE TOSS UP SITUATION. Their programs are run such that the overwhelming number of games they play are over before the 4th QTR starts. And that is a hell of a lot more than recruiting. Its recruiting, but it’s also player development, game planning, practice design, weight room scheduling, academic balance, NCAA compliance, and the list goes on and on and on and on.
Can Beckman get us there? That I don’t know – but I damn sure like what I have seen so far.

mportsch August 23rd, 2012

FYI, Stu Levenick is now a group president at Caterpillar. I actually had no idea he ever played football at Illinois.

Holly August 23rd, 2012

Great post!!