Tate: A big question mark
Running backs are born. Watch a speedster juke a defender, break a tackle and you know. They have it or they don’t.
Linemen can be constructed. If the bulk is there, they can be developed if they’re willing.
That’s what I’m told. We’ll see. Because when Josh Brent, Corey Liuget and Whitney Mercilus left early and were followed out the door this year by Mike Buchanan, Glenn Foster and Akeem Spence, the Illini ran out of NFL-draftable defensive linemen.
So here’s Greg Colby, thrilled to return to his alma mater, handed a modest platoon with dull blades, and asked to hold off Leonidas’ 300 Spartans.
Except for one thing. There are theories bouncing around that 300-pounders can, through extensive weight training, be molded into efficient football players.
Body building dates back to Charles Atlas. Tired of ruffians kicking sand in his face — I know, I know — he discovered something called dynamic tension nearly 90 years ago. Look at his pictures. A modern counterpart, Arnold Schwarzenegger, developed his physique, earned millions in movies and wound up in the California governor’s seat.
It can be done. We’ve seen it here, and are annually amazed at how seniors have changed from the time they arrived as freshmen. Tony Pashos and Dave Diehl come to mind. Foster, a graduating senior, looks like he was reincarnated.
So, yes, it can definitely happen, and it must if Illinois is to hold off the hordes coming to Memorial Stadium.
It is here that we must be honest with ourselves. Anything is possible — remember Butler’s tournament runs — but this is a long-shot quest. There are those who wonder if the UI’s producer of quality D-linemen, Keith Gilmore, saw writing on the wall when he left to join the growing list of former UI coaches at North Carolina.
Gilmore arrived in 2009 just as Illinois seemed to be busting with promising, young huskies. The UI’s disappointing win-loss record was in sharp contrast to Gilmore’s outpouring of NFL-level linemen. They peaked in 2011 with a school-record 41 sacks (they had 21 last year).
Now it is Colby’s job to renovate the D-line. Did I say “renovate?” Well, the Assembly Hall is a lesser undertaking, and that’ll take $160 million plus another $100 million in interest ... give or take over 30 years.
Before analyzing the new Illini under the gun, ponder the problem. When Illinois puts a 14-game Big Ten losing streak on the line next October, the first two league opponents are Nebraska there and Wisconsin here.
There are programs in America that run the ball better, but no teams WANT TO RUN it better. There are teams boasting more talented offensive linemen, but none has established a better tradition of taking a big, raw-boned youth and turning him into a bull moose.
Now-departed Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema felt so strongly about his system — the latest formation is called the “barge” — that he fired O-line coach Mark Markuson early last season to get back to basics. Montee Ball (1,830 yards) ran Wisconsin into the Big Ten championship game two straight years, and they hammered Nebraska 70-31 on Dec. 1 in Indianapolis.
AD Barry Alvarez didn’t hire Gary Andersen to change a scheme that the old coach helped to establish.
Nebraska (10-4) rushed for 3,547 yards and brings back a 1,000-yard running back, Ameer Abdullah, and an elusive option-QB, Taylor Martinez, who skipped around for 2,858 the last three years. Football is such a part of the culture that they drew 60,000 for Saturday’s spring scrimmage, and they’ll have many more hooting and hollering there Oct. 5.
Oh, the Huskers and Badgers will pass. Just to keep you honest. But they’ll run until you prove you can stop them.
And that’s the point. If you’re weak up front, nothing else matters. Right after Nebraska and Wisconsin comes Michigan State and, in case you missed it, Spartan Le’Veon Bell enters the NFL draft as the No. 1 running back. Michigan State has big bruisers poised to help the next guy take his place.
Those three opponents, all dedicated overland attackers, will be followed by Penn State, Indiana (which defeated the Illini 31-17 last year) and 2012 unbeaten Ohio State. There is a rumor that the Buckeyes also like to run.
Front and center
So keep pounding those weights, boys, because they’ll be coming after you.
When Spence bypassed his senior year, the UI’s five front positions (including the rover spot called “star”) were left with one part-time starter, senior end Tim Kynard. The opposite end, upgraded reserve Darrius Caldwell, was suspended last week to work on grades.
The four defensive backfield slots are left with one part-time regular, Earnest Thomas. According to the coaches, five defensive starters are in their first spring practice here, and 14 members of the two-deep unit are first-timers. Imagine! This is the first spring practice for 14 of the UI’s top 22 defenders. That has to be a first.
Queried about the secondary, coordinator Tim Banks said: “Thomas is back this week and will play sparingly in the spring game Friday night. Ben Mathis (former walk-on, now a senior) has improved a ton. But actually we’re doing it by committee.”
My first instinct was to get the shakes about pass defense. Then I’m reminded: It starts up front. Secondary play is heavily dependent on what happens in front of them. Besides, the trio of Thomas, V’Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence, plus freshman Darius Mosley and redshirt Taylor Barton, aren’t a bad group to rebuild with.
Colby was somber when he analyzed the interior situation after a recent practice. He said:
“Right now I’m not satisfied with where anybody is. I like their attitudes, but if we’re going to have a chance we need these guys to be mentally and physically tough. We have to push past the barriers and be fighters. And we need the young ones to step up.”
Jake Howe and Austin Teitsma, former redshirts with two years of eligibility, get first call at the tackles. They are trench battlers but don’t appear to have advanced pass-rushing skills.
In that regard, Banks acknowledged: “Nobody has separated from the rest in terms of pass rush, although Houston Bates (converted linebacker at end) has done some good things.”
Needing to “step up” are second-year prospects Teko Powell and Vontrell Williams. They are the future. Also in the hunt at tackle are converted offensive lineman Robbie Bain and juco transfer Abe Cajuste, who doubles at end.
Even against the massive blockers from Nebraska and Wisconsin, these Illini are big enough. Howe, Powell, Williams and Bain are all around 300 pounds.
Questions are: How much body development can they add in the summer months and, with limited experience, will they be good enough?
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.