Tate: A big question mark

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.

Running wild

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.

Making strides
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 ltate@news-gazette.com.

Categories (3):Illini Sports, Football, Sports


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Moonpie wrote on April 10, 2013 at 2:04 pm

Did Oracle really write, "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."

Wow! That's a new low in bushleague melodrama, even for Oracle. The guy is awful and lives in another century.

And he gets it wrong--since the 300 were the ones who held off the Persians, then it would be correct if it characterized Colby as Leonidas et al.

Too many nights wheeling his ego around the Esquire, I suppose.

walker wrote on April 10, 2013 at 5:04 pm

Your obsession w/ L T is ridiculous. Did you apply for a job at the gazette and get turned down?  Reduce your heartburn by simply not reading L T.  We would all be better off.  I still maintain that you could potentially speech write for Obama.  His low information constituency would probably get a kick out of your style and not even notice how shallow your points are.


1 illinifan wrote on April 10, 2013 at 8:04 pm

Bingo! Maybe he just needs an RC cola! He just did not get the 300 reference.

rmitchell wrote on April 11, 2013 at 7:04 am

"wheeling around the Esquire"

Now that's bleepn funny!


pberg wrote on April 11, 2013 at 9:04 am

The paragraphs where Tate is talking about the competition.  I again wonder where is Illinois going to find victories in maybe two or three games at most. Where does that leave recruiting? Oh yeah, Beckman recruiting players that have offers from Eastern Illinois, Dakota State.  I want Illinois to be successful.  I have been a fan back to Dick Butkus but there is nothing here that is going to warrant the Illini moving up. It is great that alumni Greg Colby is back but I didnt see where he had loads of success where he came from. 

ptevonian wrote on April 11, 2013 at 11:04 am

Next year's schedule sets up horribly for the Illini.  The opener against Southern Illinois is winnable, assuming the offense has any kind of handle on Cubit's schemes.  Then the Illini will get clubbed by both Cincinnati and Washington.  Miami (OH) is once again winnable, assuming the team's confidence isn't destroyed by a likely 4-touchdown loss to Washington on the big stage of Soldier Field.

And then things get bad.  The Illini defense is likely to give up close to 50 points in each of the first four Big Ten games.  Remotely winnable games vs. Indiana and Purdue become much tougher because they are both road games (to teams that both beat us in Champaign last year). 

Illinois won't be favored in any of their Big Ten games, and for good reason.  By the end of the year, the Illini will likely be 2-12 again, with a 22-game Big Ten losing streak. But hey, at least Beckman will be able to sell playing time to new recruits!

aaeismacgychel wrote on April 11, 2013 at 12:04 pm

Sadly, I'm thinking 2-10 might even be optimistic. We should beat SIU, but I could certainly see that going awry. I think we'll be an underdog to Miami of Ohio, but yeah, that's winable. Maybe. Indiana will certainly be a favorite in our matchup (how embarassing is that?) and Purdue is a much better team. While I will hope for 2-10 or 3-9, I think we might actually have a better chance of going 1-11. If we lose to SIU though, I don't see us winning a single game next season.

Which brings up an interesting posit: If Illinois were indeed to lose to SIU and go 0-12 next year in fairly uncompetitive fashion, is Beckman gone?

Denbert wrote on April 13, 2013 at 3:04 pm

Look this ain't rocket science.

500+ football isn't going to happen if Illinois doesn't bite the bullet and reinvent itself.  

Use the "business" approach. Hiring an independent consultant to perform a rigorous and honest SWOT assessment of Illinois' strengths, weaknesses, opportnities, etc.  

Illinois needs to recast as well as rebrand its football program.  Into what exactly is unknown at this point. But radical change is in order.   

The solutions lie outside the box.  Hire another coach? Drop another sport? Join a lessor conference? Build another athletic facility?  Lower admission standards?   No way!  

Face it: conventional wisdom from the AD to Loren Tate has not worked.   

Here's an idea:

Use the scientific method. Hiring an independent and reputable consulting firm to perform a standard SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) and based on that analsysis design a new business model for managing Illinois athletic operations.  


In designing a new business model take advanatge of the institution's diverse and unutilized academic assets. Implement team building at the institutional level.   

Let everyone get the opportunity to participate in Illini sports.  Even the geeks.

Organize an annual competition which invites alums, professors, students and staff from all fields to compete annually for small Athletic Department sponsored grants aimed at developing more effective  ways to recruit, train, practice, analyze tendencies of Illini and opponents, simulate actual plays and strategies using 3-d avatars, coach in real time (e.g., calling time outs in real time, optimize marketing and other business operations. Winners get to apply their skills and and have an opportunity to work with Illini AD managers, coaches, players, and staff. In addition winners get two free tickets to all sporting events that involve their research.

Crowdsource ideas.