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.
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.
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 email@example.com.