Knocking Down A Few Myths For Game Week August 27, 2012
Myths probably isn’t the right word. Misconceptions? Non-truths?
No, I think myths is correct. As we approach the season, I keep seeing certain phrases repeated over and over, and they bother me. It’s mostly the national media in season previews, but I’ve seen some other things on Twitter and such. They’re mostly harmless, but I’ve never met a piece of Illini Football misinformation that I haven’t wanted to set straight. Here’s three things that have been bugging me.
Zook left the cupboard stacked just like he did at Florida
Yes and no. Mostly no. Certainly not like he did at Florida.
Is our talent level higher than it was in 2005 when Zook took over? Absolutely. Without question. Ron Zook could both spot talent and recruit blue chippers. In the 2011 draft, we had three highly recruited players picked in the first three rounds. In the 2012 draft, we had four not-so-highly recruited players picked in the first two rounds. Zook could both land the blue-chippers and find the sleepers. Too bad he couldn’t coach.
We have 4 or 5 more players on this roster that should get selected next April, too. Maybe even some more first and second rounders. So yes, Zook did leave some talent. Especially in this senior class. But after that…
Recruiting class rankings on Rivals, 2006 to 2012:
Recruiting class rankings on Scout, 2006 to 2012:
Anyone else see the same trend? Yes, Ron Zook left the cupboard full. Of seniors. When the 2009 season tanked, players like CJ Fiedorowicz and Corey Cooper and Daniel Easterly and Andy Gallik bailed on their verbals. There will still some Ron Zook diamonds-in-the-rough like Jay Prosch and Jonathan Brown, but the class ranking fell quickly that December and January as seven players bailed. The 2011 and 2012 classes (2012 was mostly Zook recruits but had nine Tim Beckman recruits) just weren’t up to par with what Zook was doing from 2006 through 2009.
As such, he hesitated in 2010 and 2011 to play younger guys and build depth. Leaving Tim Beckman in the quandary he’s in now: a second string with very little experience.
So yes, Zook left us better than he found us. But the “Zook left the cupboard stocked” thing that keeps getting thrown around would have only been true had Ron Zook been fired after the 2009 debacle. It’s just not true in 2012.
The offensive struggles last year were because of Nathan Scheelhaase
Criticism of Nathan last year is very fair. You saw some of it here. I was most upset with his decision making. Taking off to run too soon, locking in on AJ too much, etc. We all wanted more.
But that doesn’t mean he won’t come out in 2012 and put together a fine season. Especially if we can get our offensive line figured out. The thing that I barely see mentioned: Nathan was running for his life last year.
Here’s some interesting stats put together by The Daily Illini:
The Illini surrendered 36 sacks last year, ranking 102nd in college football and 10th in the Big Ten, which only ranked above Northwestern and Ohio State. They also allowed 89 tackles for loss, good for 101st in the FBS and 10th in the Big Ten, above Ohio State and Indiana.
36 sacks and 89 other tackles in our backfield? I challenge any quarterback to put up solid numbers with that amount of defensive pressure. Jeff Allen and Jack Cornell had solid senior seasons last year, but I think it’s fair to say that all three of the other linemen struggled (and, as has been seen in this camp, might have been playing out of position).
Yes, part of that TFL number can be found in our lack of a passing game. Keep the safeties honest, burn a few blitzes, and the defense has to stay honest and can’t apply that much pressure in your backfield. But lots of plays in Petrino’s passing offense called for slow-developing pocket and a wait-for-it wait-for-it wait-for-it throw, and Nathan just didn’t have the time to wait for it.
Enter a new offensive scheme, a new blocking scheme, and a new “get the ball to playmakers in space” mentality. If the line can execute it well, I think Nathan can flourish.
Illinois is the only Big Ten team coming off back-to-back bowl wins
OK, so that one is true. It was two 6-and-6 teams squeaking into the bowl season, but yes, we’re the only back-to-back bowl winners in the B1G.
But that keeps getting tossed around as a way to paint this as a “healthy” or “vibrant” program that Tim Beckman inherited, and I just don’t think that’s the case. Here’s an accurate picture, at least in my mind:
1) There’s decent talent, even with the recruiting fall-off. Zook could spot talent, so even the lowly-ranked 2010 class has had several solid contributors so far. But that talent hasn’t been developed. Typically, a team that is “back to back bowl wins” healthy has developed their younger players so that they’re ready to contribute immediately when called upon. That’s just not the case here.
2) Fan interest is at an incredible low. Sorry, it just is. 2009 was a deathblow. Fans rode the wave of the 80′s and gave Lou Tepper 3 or 4 years after he started to slip, but then he left us in shambles. People bought into Turner after the Sugar Bowl, and he fell to a 1 win season in 2003 and left the program in shambles. People really bought into Zook after the recruiting wins and the Rose Bowl trip, so much so that they forgave him for 2008. But then 2009 – preseason January bowl predictions everywhere and then 3-9 – killed fan interest like nothing I’ve seen in all my years obsessing over Illini football. Two bowl wins in 2010 and 2011 and we’re still bleeding fans. It will take a significant amount of time before there’s another fan buy-in.
3) The schedule is still Guenther’d for a few more years. This year it’s two non-conference opponents who might combine to win 20 games and a trip to Arizona for a late-night start. Next year it’s back-to-back BCS opponents in Washington and Cincy. We’ve had the toughest non-conference schedule in the Big Ten the last 10 years by a factor of a bazillion, and that’s not going to just change overnight. It won’t be until 2014 or 2015 until we can schedule like every. other. BCS school that’s trying to build something.
OK, one more time, just for fun: Illinois hasn’t played a non-conference FBS opponent with a below .500 record since Syracuse in 2007. Northwestern hasn’t played a non-conference FBS opponent with an at-or-above-.500 record since Nevada in 2007. One AD who gets it, one AD who thought non-conference scheduling put hair on your chest.
4) Not one player on this roster has ever been trained on how to correctly block or tackle on any return. Kickoffs, punts, both coverage and returns, we’re 120th out of 120 in special teams. Which is why this coaching staff spent so much time during the spring and in Rantoul on special teams drills. How to properly shed a block. How to beat a gunner. How to set up a zone block on a kickoff. In terms of football smarts, these players were horrendously undercoached in terms of special teams. Saturday begins the long climb back.
Even with all of that, yes, this isn’t a completely broken football team. This is not 1997, when nearly every lineman was outmuscled and outsized by the entire Big Ten. This is not 2005, when there just wasn’t any team speed to speak of. A simple glance tells you that this team has two of the biggest factors for any successful college football team: an experienced quarterback and a solid defense. Our defensive line could be one of the top-10 lines in the country. It’s not often that a new coach takes over a program and inherits a top-flight defensive line.
But even with that, this still isn’t a “vibrant” program. Tim Beckman has so much skill development to do, so much recruiting to do for several empty position rosters coming soon, and so much fan interest to generate. He doesn’t have the uphill climb that Turner and Zook had, but he also doesn’t have it easy. Especially in 2013 and 2014 when the Zook’s recruiting dips really hit.
And in 5 days, we get our first look at how prepared he is to handle those obstacles. (Please be fully prepared please be fully prepared please be fully prepared)