Tate: What works in Big Ten might fall flat elsewhere

Tate: What works in Big Ten might fall flat elsewhere

Here’s a tip for Bret Bielema.

Arkansas is in the same SEC division with Alabama and LSU. So if you try the “Barge,” be careful. It might sink.

Cheeseheads were delirious over the barge last weekend. Madison’s Mike Lucas waxed eloquent: “By simple definition, it’s a long, flat-bottomed boat used for carrying heavy loads. By Badger definition, it’s a lot of big-bottomed heavy loads carrying their own weight.”

“We cut out the pretty guys,” joked then-Wisconsin coach Bielema. “No wide receivers or quarterbacks. We didn’t even have a fullback out there.”

Just nine huge guys shoulder to shoulder, barging ahead. No finesse. Just bone on bone. Nebraska arrived at the Big Ten showdown with a 10-2 record, and the Cornhuskers left Indianapolis without their collective manhood.

Question now: Was this 70-31 debacle a blip on the screen? Will Wisconsin’s old-fashioned model, which salvaged a five-loss season, work for the next coach? And will Bielema’s style be effective in the SEC?

What’s Illinois’ specialty?
In building a reputation, it is important to feature something, to be known for a specialty, whether it’s quarterbacks or linebackers or the barge.

That’s a problem with Illinois football at this juncture. If the Illini have a specialty, it’s related to failure. In 12 games in 2012, the Illini finished 11th or 12th in the 12-team conference in rushing, total offense, first downs, points and yards allowed, sacks allowed, pass-defense efficiency, kickoff returns, punt returns, interceptions and turnover margin.

Individually, Nathan Scheelhaase entered the fall ranked ahead of Matt McGloin, a QB alternate at Penn State in 2011, and McGloin threw 24 TD passes to Scheelhaase’s four. Terry Hawthorne, Michael Buchanan and junior Akeem Spence entered as NFL prospects but couldn’t turn the tide.

Now the defense must go forward without departing regulars Hawthorne, Buchanan, Justin Green, Supo Sanni, Ashante Williams and Glenn Foster, plus frontline subs Justin Staples, Pat Nixon-Youman and Jack Ramsey. And Spence could turn pro.

Sounds bad, huh? Well, it probably is. But the UI coaches are planning to usher in 29 new players, that new blood amounting to roughly one-third of the 2013 roster. Of those 29, it appears that perhaps eight will arrive next month to be available for spring practice.

Two California juco transfers are among six defensive backs on the way, and that doesn’t include two high-ranked Ohioans, Caleb Day and Reon Dawson, classified as non-positioned “athletes.” Critical to the mix are two newly committed California JC linemen, Abens Cajuste (305, DT) of Victor Valley and Kyle Kragen (245, DE) of Diablo Valley.

With new blood can come a new chemistry, more position battles and, hopefully, a more positive team atmosphere.

Offense experienced
Offensive returnees remind of Jud Heathcote’s worn-out comment: “The good news is that everybody is back. The bad news is that everybody is back.”

Other than linemen Graham Pocic and Hugh Thornton, and tight end Eddie Viliunas, the UI’s key offensive members return. About two dozen returnees gained experience on offense this season, and they’ll be bolstered by new additions as they compete for 11 starting positions. That’s not to say they’ll jump from 2-10 to the Rose Bowl, as happened in 2007, but Illini revivals have happened ... and will happen again. They’re just not frequent enough.

A large group of 300-pounders are already in the weightroom. Corey Lewis and Jake Feldmeyer will be the senior leaders for a gang that includes two-year veterans Simon Cvijanovic and Michael Heitz and now-experienced guards Ted Karras and Alex Hill.

If this unit develops physically and gains a degree of cohesion, if these blockers can provide some QB protection and a few decent holes, Illinois will have a chance. If not, nothing else will matter offensively. They don’t have to be like Wisconsin, but it’s imperative that they hold their own.

Elsewhere, redshirted slotman Devin Church and promising Justin Hardee will challenge up-to-now streaky seniors at receiver. Tight end Jon Davis is rated one of the unit’s top three players when he’s healthy. Donovonn Young and Josh Ferguson can carry the ball. Scheelhaase, who once headed a 13-5 Illini run and sparked two bowl wins, will be back for a fourth season at QB.

Surprises happen
Many of these offensive players have been involved in 14 consecutive Big Ten losses under two coaching staffs. The forecast is gloomy. But events frequently don’t turn out as expected.

— Tommy Davis was one of NIU’s best players, and he must have considered it an upgrade when he transferred as a fifth-year senior to the UI. Fumbles cost him the job as punt returner, a role he handled well at NIU, and he then watched his former team (12-1) earn an Orange Bowl slot opposite Florida State.   

— Notre Dame was 3-9 in 2007, suffered 22 losses in the next four years, and now the Irish find themselves 12-0 and in the national championship game. For reference, ND has landed 39 four- and five-star prospects in the last four classes, never fewer than nine ranked that high by Rivals.com in that span. By comparison, Illinois has signed two four-star prospects in the last three years, one of which (Dondi Kirby) never arrived and the other, Chandler Whitmer, transferred.

— Kansas State, once arguably the nation’s worst program, rode Bill Snyder’s shoulders to within one game of the title game.

There are reasons, of course. K-State has a special niche with JC transfers and faces no enrollment problems in taking them.

Notre Dame always has attracted extraordinary talent and was overdue to break through.

NIU, after losing to Iowa, reached the top 16 via momentum gained at the MAC level. The Huskies’ only win against a ranked team came in double overtime last week against Kent State, which lost to Kentucky earlier, 47-14. NIU doesn’t belong ahead of Oklahoma or UCLA (which lost to Illinois a year ago), but the Huskies got the nod in voting that leans too heavily on W-L records and doesn’t reflect the true abilities of the teams. If you want honest team evaluations, check Las Vegas.

Key defenders return
Without going position by position on defense, here’s my point. While it doesn’t look good for Illinois, the landscape can change in a hurry. Look  at what Oregon has done. How do Louisville and Cincinnati remain so competitive? Conversely, Iowa was 11-2 in 2009 and 4-8 in 2012. Texas brings in the best players from a huge state but has been stumbling. Arkansas went from Top 10 to 4-8, and Auburn from the 2010 national title to 3-9 in 2012.

You say it’s coaching, but isn’t it more about recruiting? As for strategy, how can wizards like Snyder and the Kellys be so superior when everything they do is recorded for others to study on film?

OK, back to Illinois. If you’re wondering about the Illini defense, it should be strong at linebacker with tackle leaders from the last two years, Jonathan Brown and Mason Monheim, heading a solid group. The secondary unit will be inexperienced with a lot of fresh faces joining Steve Hull and three others who got a taste of it in Earnest Thomas, Eaton Spence and V’Angelo Bentley. And the front four desperately needs Cajuste and Kragen to contribute to a thin and unproven group.

Illini coaches have gone far and wide to bolster the defense. Only at tackle do you find in-state products with an opportunity to start, beginning with veteran reserves Austin Teitsma and Jake Howe (recovering from a broken wrist) and including current freshmen Teko Powell and Vontrell Williams and incoming giants Bryce Douglas and Merrick Jackson. With a year to train, these hulks may have a different look in September. Who knows? There may be a Whitney Mercilus out there.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

Categories (3):Illini Sports, Football, Sports


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butkus50 wrote on December 06, 2012 at 7:12 am

Nice try; next year record another 2-10 at best. Illini had plenty of good players this year to win a few more games or at least play competitively. The coaching staff is terrible and the problem starts with the head coach. Until Beckman is replaced, Illini will be at bottom of Big Ten. It may take decades to get an average program back. Zook may not have been the answer but he provided 3 bowl games and NFL players. Beckman can't even get out of the way of refs.He is a complete joke.

TheChiefLives wrote on December 06, 2012 at 8:12 am

HAHA...so sad.


Quick! Hit the "reset" button before the game saves!



OKOMIS wrote on December 06, 2012 at 9:12 am


Front page this morning Tampa Trib… re: South Florida

Coaches everywhere are looking for something better. And USF doesn't look that much better. Face it: It's a stepping stone, bordering on just plain stone. This next hire has to halt the skid toward irrelevance. It's a devalued program in a devolving conference. He has to sell potential, hard.

If that sounds like an all-points bulletin for Ron Zook, it isn't.

The Zooker is a tireless worker, a great recruiter, an excellent water skier. He knows Florida. I bet he'd get USF a quarterback. Then they'd finish 7-6 together.

Does USF need another underachieving coach?

What's needed is a fresh start. Let Butch Davis go get someone else on probation. I'd rather be bold and daring


Moonpie wrote on December 06, 2012 at 11:12 am

And here's a tip for Oracle Tate: nothing wrong with taking a risk and pursuing a new challenge. Or maybe Tate just hates Fayetteville because there's no soybeans there.

OKOMIS wrote on December 06, 2012 at 11:12 am

how's he on water skis??

illinihimeyiswhiney wrote on December 06, 2012 at 12:12 pm


Day of days! The oracle of oracles speaks to correct one of his lower oracles! Hear ye mere mortals, moonpie demands we sacrifice another goat for him today and take these words to heart!

And on the 6th day of Dec. 2012 he said unto us, "Nothing wrong with taking a risk and pursuing a new challenge." (This, of course, comes with exceptions like: if moon pie doesn’t agree with the risk/challenge than it is inappropriate and he will smite you with all of his tea party hate if you do it anyways) 

The word of god is beats so happily on my ear drums!

We also have learned from the great being that bringing soybeans into a discussion where mentioning soy beans would generally make you look like an ignoramus... will not make you an ignoramus. Take note that this is not because its not an ignorant thing to do and makes you look like an idiot, but because the great god of gods moonpie does it and trying to tell him it does will, again put you on the receiving end of his tea party intolerance.

Furthermore, we have learned that reading comprehension is not a valuable skill in this universe because the god of gods shows us that we can fail to comprehend the fact that that demon Oracle Tate, writing from his log cabin in the 1800's with the "injun" dancing outside and then sending those writings into the future to make the basketball team play bad, says nothing about hating Fayetteville and says nothing that could even be suggested to imply this and yet say Tate feels this way. The key thing in this world, you mere mortals, are ignorance, hate towards others, and doing things that make you miserable no matter what! As the first convert to Moonpieity I suggest you join us in this tea party bubble lest you go crazy trying to think for yourself in this cold, cruel world. 

Dear god of gods I've once again given you my goat. I hope this sacrifice pleases you while you wank to the future Tate articles and prepare the next gem of wisdom for us! 

The word of the lord,

Thanks be to moonpie 

jjohnson wrote on December 06, 2012 at 11:12 am

I like Loren's mixture of realism and optimism here. As much of a problem as the O-line was this year, keeping the glasses on a few showed the kind of individual improvement that I hope can continue. Freshman and Sophomore O-linemen, redshirt or not, are at a real disadvantage; there is a reason that offensive linemen are not the guys that get drafted after their junior years.

I think realism sets in both when we look at the reality of Nathan's not really playing like a quarterback, no matter how fine a young man he may be, and the fact that although he frequently missed open receivers, too seldom were receivers open.

The young fellows that put in some time at safety and corner looked as though they have some potential. I think we undervalued what Tavon Wilson did the previous two years, and think we probably missed that Sanni played pretty well this year.

Hope springs eternal; I just hope the coaching staff is open to learning from their experiences this past year.

CecilColeman wrote on December 06, 2012 at 8:12 pm

How many players at K-State, Oregon, 'Bama, Georgia, etc. played high school football in Illinois? None I am sure.

Notre Dame has a handfull; few of impact.

Please, Mr. Thomas, send your head coach and his assistants (with their orange Illini shirts and luggage) to California, Texas, Florida. But remind them not to bring up porridge dinners, taking stripes off of helmets as a rite of passage, games based on tossing water bottles, chewing tobacco.............

DaisyJ wrote on December 06, 2012 at 9:12 pm

And just think, with a good new coach, things can really start to turn around..duh