Martin O'Donnell: Voice of reason

Martin O'Donnell: Voice of reason

He is a breath of fresh air, a soothing breeze in a whirlwind of doubt. He is banker Martin O'Donnell, former All-American guard on a 2007 Rose Bowl team and now an analyst alongside Brian Barnhart on Illini football broadcasts.

Tell us, Martin, how do you remain positive in the wake of diminishing crowds and a 10-game losing streak?

With full conviction, his response is: "The source of my optimism comes from my trust in Josh Whitman and Lovie Smith. As a former player, Josh understands Illinois, the fans and the program. He is the right person to lead the program."

Agreed, but as we wade through a critical recruiting weekend with as many as 28 prospects on campus, questions abound.

TATE: Can Illinois somehow escape this growing tradition of ups and downs?

O'DONNELL: Illinois has gone through the rebuilding phase several times, and I've been there. Lovie was hired off cycle in March 2016, so the results of Year 2 should not be a surprise to anyone. Lovie's one recruiting class on campus — the freshmen — have already shown that they can play football. Another year will make a big difference. As an example, (defensive tackle) Tymir Oliver took a huge leap in the offseason, and was a solid performer as a sophomore. Our program must develop players.

TATE: There are always fan rumblings about coaches who lose. Illinois has had six head coaches in the last 21 years.

O'DONNELL: Illinois has been ridiculously inconsistent in establishing who we are. An example: I was recruited by Ron Turner because I wanted to play in a pro-style, I-formation offense. I eliminated spread teams. Two years into my tenure, I'm into the spread for the last three years.

TATE: It seems like Illinois is forever searching for an identity. From 1980 (Dave Wilson) and up through Kurt Kittner and Jon Beutjer, the Illini were known for their drop-back passers. Along came speedsters Nathan Scheelhaase and Juice Williams, then a return to drop-back style with Wes Lunt, and now the Illini are leaning again toward a dual-threat QB.

O'DONNELL: Offensively, they want a quarterback who can run in a system that emphasizes the run. Defensively, Lovie prefers man coverage with a single-high safety, and linemen who can get up field.

TATE: A half-dozen standout UI freshmen — Nate Hobbs, Alex Palczewski, freshman All-American safety Bennett Williams, Louis Dorsey (22 catches, 395 yards), Bobby Roundtree and Isaiah Gay — were two-star prospects coming out of a high school. Is the rating system flawed? Or did the Illini happen to hit on some hidden prospects?

O'DONNELL: There is a correlation between the four- and five-star players and the nation's top teams. But the rating system is flawed. There aren't enough people working for these recruiting services to see all the players. At Illinois, you have to find those that fit your system and have the traits you want ... players like Gay and Dorsey and Williams. Our coaches have found good football players. And I am confident in their ability to develop them.

TATE: Is pro experience valuable in college coaching?

O'DONNELL: Yes, because they've done it at the highest level. Presumably, if you reach the NFL, you're one of the better coaches in the business. And that experience can resonate with kids.

TATE: There is talk of a leadership problem or a division in the squad when you have 22 freshmen playing?

O'DONNELL: No. Leadership is not class specific. You can stay on a team five years and not have respect. People tend to equate leadership to upper classes but it doesn't necessarily follow.

TATE: Smith has let 10 players go after individual meetings at the end of the season. Is that a concern?

O'DONNELL: Let go, or let themselves go? We don't know what happened in those exit meetings. Some of that has been pushed up due to the early signing period (Wednesday). Previously, the signing period for recruits was in February. There was a two-month period where guys could feel things out and make their decision. The whole process has been accelerated. And there have been a lot of reasons why players might not want to return, or why Lovie might not want to welcome them back.

TATE: The offensive line was young and struggled. Illinois finished 125th out of 129 teams in first downs.

O'DONNELL: I know people get numb in hearing this, but it is really hard to play Division I football as a freshman, and it is two times that in the offensive line. It took me 31 / 2 years to learn how to pass block one-on-one. Basically, we played four freshmen up front this season. Tackle is especially hard because you only have help on one side. And Vederian Lowe didn't even have training camp to prepare himself. I think they'll all be fine. A lot of my faith is in (line coach) Luke Butkus because he learned under my line coach, Harry Heistand.

TATE: Quarterback?

O'DONNELL: Cam Thomas looks like he belongs as an athlete. He can make plays. And Jeff George was much better than last year. It'll be a competition with athletic freshmen M.J. Rivers and Coran Taylor involved. It's about finding the right guy. Quarterback is the most important position in football, from the NFL and all the way down. Getting it right is the key.

TATE: Is Illinois capable of getting six wins and bowl eligibility in 2018?

O'DONNELL: A lot can happen between December and August, but I think they absolutely can. People look at the program and think we're farther away than we actually are. I've been in this situation. Players develop, get better and find a chemistry.

TATE: My mind is filled with too many interceptions, too few first downs, too many lopsided losses.

O'DONNELL: The numbers speak for themselves. Yes, the offense struggled. And look at the injuries. How many teams could be successful in losing their top two receivers and top two running backs? Next year, we'll have Mike Dudek back. And Louis Dorsey will be a threat in the middle of the field, which changes how defenses have to play against you. You'll see a different team in 2018.

TATE: OK.

O'DONNELL: Have I convinced you to be optimistic?

TATE: I'll give you this. I always feel better after talking to you.

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

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jjohnson wrote on December 17, 2017 at 11:12 pm

Our memories are short and it is great that Loren talked to my friend Martin. Ask him about how the illini did both his red-shirt and freshman years -- and then how they did his junior year (when they went to the Rose Bowl, although maybe I am off a year). They had almost zero offense in '06, yet we all know what then happened. The main caveat I would suggest is that by the end of the '06 season, the defense had jelled.