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Well Said May 27, 2013

Several of you pointed me to this Illini preview from USA Today (from the USA Today? Somebody AP Stylebook me).  Most pointed me in that direction because the article references ALE, but I for one (I comma for one comma?) very much enjoyed the preview.  Maybe it’s just because the writer used ALE for research and tossed some of my own concepts back at me, thus making me enjoy some of my thoughts through someone else’s words (I’m not accusing – I’m bragging), but I think it’s mostly because this paragraph is, in my opinion, deadly accurate:

Illinois is not equipped in any way, shape or form to compete even in a decidedly top-heavy Big Ten, largely due to four primary factors: one, the team’s overwhelming youth and lack of experience; two, the team and program’s overall lack of direction and identity; three, the Illini’s utter lack of confidence; and four, the schedule itself. The third is a bit wishy-washy, I agree, but last season won’t be immediately forgotten or ignored: I think it’ll take some time for Illinois to recover mentally from the way last season progressed from late September through November.

Wholeheartedly agree. Couldn’t have said it better if I tried (mostly because it’s hard for me to type scathingly accurate words about the team I love). I like it so much that I want to unpack it.

1) The team’s overwhelming youth and lack of experience

With Darius Millines gone, there are now 11 scholarship seniors on this team. Which is kind of crazy young. But then you look at the career starts for those 11 seniors…

Nathan Scheelhaase – 36
Evan Wilson – 20
Spencer Harris – 20
Jonathan Brown – 18
Ryan Lankford – 15
Steve Hull – 15 (all on defense – will be WR this fall)
Tim Kynard – 6
Jake Feldmeyer – 4
Miles Osei – 0
Corey Lewis – 0
Ben Mathis – 0

Every college football team offers 264 starting game slots every year. Our seniors return 134 career starts. For a little comparison here, Jeff Allen, Graham Pocic, and Hugh Thornton have all graduated (obviously) – they combined for 117 starts on the offensive line. This entire roster of seniors has 134 starts total in three years – 27% of them from Nathan Scheelhaase.

“This teams overwhelming youth and lack of experience”? Actually an understatement.

Blame: 97% Ron Zook, 3% Tim Beckman

This actually might be the thing that Tim Beckman has done best – set up the roster for some success down the road.  He started talking about the roster issues from the moment he arrived (one cornerback for 2013, no offensive tackles, etc).  He plugged a few holes in his six weeks of recruiting for the 2012 class, and then did exactly what I would have done for the 2013 class – trim some of the fat from Zook’s 2010 and 2011 classes (players who were never going to play) to allow for a fully maxed-out class of 25 players (the most the NCAA will allow) in 2013, including six Jucos.

Unfortunately, the impact of this roster overhaul won’t be felt until 2014 or 2015.  Can Beckman last that long?

2) The program’s overall lack of direction and identity

Current program identity.  Hmmm… probably… trips and dip?  As any Big Ten fan about Tim Beckman’s Illini football team and they’ll probably bring up tripping the refs and chewing tobacco, right? When sideline missteps outweigh some kind of offensive or defensive identity, you’re in trouble.

So what is our offensive/defensive identity?  Wisconsin has always been offensive line-led run game with mistake-free quarterbacks.  Michigan State has developed a defensive identity under Mark Dantonio.  Penn State built around their defense for 40 years.

Or maybe we should look at programs that have made the climb from obscurity to relevance.  Virginia Tech did it with defense and special teams.  Missouri did it with a shotgun spread.  Texas Tech did it with the Air Raid.  TCU with a swarming defense.

Our identity?  Good question.  Because it’s already changed in the 18 months that Tim Beckman has been on the job.  We were trying to build his Toledo scatback offense, except now we’re not.  At least we recruited a bunch of tiny slotbacks in the 12 months we were moving in that direction.  Now it’s Cubitball and we’re pursuing pocket QB’s and prototypical receivers/tight ends.

On defense, we were supposed to be a get-in-your-backfield-and-pressure-the-QB defense, but then we finished 70th in tackles-for-loss and 76th in sacks.  Oh, and our pass rushers all graduated.  So yes, this program desperately needs an identity.

Blame: 68% Tim Beckman, 27% “it’s just too early to have one”, 5% Ron Zook

Nomally, in Year Two of a new coaching regime, you can chalk up “this team doesn’t have an identity or direction” to new coaching regime.  It takes a fair bit of time to establish an identity, recruit to it, and get the train moving.

But when your coach makes all-over-the-internet gaffes, and you’re now on your second offensive scheme in as many years, yeah, you get the majority of the blame.  We’re basically starting over for the second time in two years. Gross.

3) The Illini’s utter lack of confidence

So true (sooooo truuuuue).  We actually showed a little bit of pluck near the end of last season.  The defense played well against Minnesota and Purdue and we kept the games close.  But the embarrassing embarrassment of an embarrassing debacle at Northwestern just killed it off.  This team’s psyche at the end of the season could best be described as Junior High Boy Rejected By Popular Girl In Cafeteria Who Then Realizes His Fly Is Open.

This really doesn’t need much more description.  I thought the USA Today article said it very well:

The third is a bit wishy-washy, I agree, but last season won’t be immediately forgotten or ignored: I think it’ll take some time for Illinois to recover mentally from the way last season progressed from late September through November.

Wholeheartedly agree.

Blame: 71% Tim Beckman, 25% Injuries, 6% Ron Zook

Blaming injuries is the most taboo thing a blogger can do, but it’s impossible to ignore here.  In all of my years following Illini football, last year was by far the most injured team I’ve ever seen.  Two of our eight linebackers healthy for a few of the games.  Players out there at 70% because we simply didn’t have other options.  If I’m remembering the statistic correctly, at one practice, 22 of the 85 scholarship players were held out with injury.  No wonder they fired the trainer.

But that wasn’t the only reason.  And it’s not like this team would have gone 6-6 with a completely healthy roster.  The offense was abysmal – 119th out of 120 teams, trailing only Maryland (who at one point lost all of their quarterbacks to injury and started a linebacker under center).  The choice to hire recruiters to run the offense was an awful one (but can they coach?), and that’s 100% on Beckman.  Injuries hurt this team.  Poor choices for assistants hurt it three times more.  And now it’s his job to try to put the fragile pieces back together.

4) The schedule itself

I was curious the other day about Kansas State.  One of the main tenets of the Bill Snyder Way is to play absolutely no one in the non conference (build team confidence, implement schemes, etc).  So now that he’s rebuilt Kansas State for a second time, they’re going to play a tougher non-conference schedule, right?  I looked it up.  They have nine conference games, so their three non-conference games this fall are:

North Dakota State

While we play Cincinnati (coming off a bowl game) and Washington (coming off a bowl game). For the rest of my life this will never make sense.  It’s what I will mumble on my deathbed.

Here, let’s play a game. The game is called How Much Better Do You Feel About This Season If We Played Louisiana-Lafayette And UMass Instead Of Washington And Cincy.  Remember we’re coming of a psyche-shattering 2-10 season, and one of the points we’re discussing right now is the Illini’s Utter Lack Of Confidence.  Insta-poll: Would you feel better about building this team’s confidence (and implementing the new schemes) with A) ULL and UMass or B) UW and Cincy.

Results are already in. 100% of you voted for ULL and UMass.  So why are we playing two bowl teams?

Blame: 104% Ron Guenther, 0% anyone else

Mike Thomas actually did his part, scheduling Miami (OH) for the one open slot he was left with.  But Guenther had already agreed to games with Washington and Cincinnati, so here we are.

But take heart, Illini fans.  There are only two more Ron Guenther scheduled games after this season.  Next year’s trip to Washington and 2016′s trip to Western Michigan (yes, both are road games) (yes, that’s so very incredibly apt).

So there’s your hill to climb, Tim Beckman.  Half of it was created by others.  Half of it is your fault (which is impressive, given that most second-year coaches still have a long leash).  Now’s probably not the time to mention it, but, um, you probably have to show significant improvement to pass the Mike Thomas Eye Test and keep your job.  Oh, and you have to do it with Ron Guenther’s schedule and a post-2009 collapse Ron Zook roster.

Good luck!

Illinigrad May 27th, 2013

After all is said, it does come down to coaching. Beckman showed poor coaching and hiring skills his first season. He could not have done much worse. Beckman really needs to show that he has quality coaching skills including CEO skills in hiring and getting the staff on the same page. If we do not see a new leaf this season he needs to go.

Lou-a-villini May 29th, 2013

We’re still undefeated in dips and trips.

Hoppy May 30th, 2013

I’m looking forward to the 90 Illini if you are going to be doing that again this year Robert.
I’m sure it’s getting close!