2021 Spring Football Mailbag V

May 11, 2021

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Yep - made it all the way to five mailbag posts. Only took me two weeks. Maybe you should just think of these posts like some newspaper reporter doing a mailbag in 1959. You ask a question, drop it in the mail, and expect an answer 2-3 weeks later. I'm telling you - I'm a magazine writer in an internet world.

My opinion? My opinion is certainly not the majority opinion. For me, I don't like starters on special teams. If I was a college coach, for my kick coverage team, I would find the 10 best guys who aren't going to be in the two-deep on either side of the ball (mostly defense) and have them dedicate their entire season to kick coverage. A freshman cornerback who isn't going to play much. A senior walkon linebacker. Tell these ten guys (plus the kicker) that their entire season should be spent making sure no kickoff gets to the 30 and no punt is returned more than 5 yards. Give them an hour each day to perfect the technique. You have more than 100 players and only 44 are in the two-deep. Find the 10 best guys from the other 50 or so and let them be the Coverage Specialists.

I mean, there's even a future in it. Fej signed a 3 year, $8,500,000 contract with the Dolphins last year mostly just to be their special teams maniac. Justin Hardee just signed a 3-year, $5,250,000 contract with the Jets this offseason simply to be their punt coverage gunner (and kickoff return tackler). In four seasons in the NFL (with the Saints), Justin Hardee has made $3,132,694 just to do this:

I'm not suggesting that players try to make a name for themselves as a coverage specialist in college and then expect NFL millions. I'm just saying that at all levels of football - NFL, college, even high school - I hope that my teams take guys who aren't being used in the regular rotation and make them coverage specialists. What Prather Hudson was for Georgia the last four years and what Christian Bobak has been for Illinois the last four years. That's how I like my coverage teams to look.

And when it goes well, I tweet about it. A lot. Here's my latest "walkons4ever" special teams tweet from last June:

So because I've always been that guy, and because we were fourth nationally in kick coverage with all those walkons in 2019, I'm fairly cemented in place as a "don't use starters for special teams" guy. Which means my reaction to Bart Miller talking about using starters for special teams again is "I do not like this".

Now, there's a lot more to it than just "use third-string guys instead of starters because it will keep the starters fresh and the third-string guys can concentrate on kick coverage alone". And I'm only talking about kick and punt coverage here - the other half of special teams is kick return and punt return, and obviously, an athlete like Luke Ford is going to be a better blocker on a kickoff return than a 5th-string walkon tight end. The starters are going to be "better" at just about every task because they're generally bigger/faster/stronger. When Arrelious Benn returned that kickoff for a touchdown against Penn State in 2007 with Vontae Davis as his escort on one side and Martez Wilson on the other side - something one of the Illini coaches referred to as "Air Force One with this two F-16 escorts" - you can see how starters are better in nearly every way.

But I still feel like unit-wise, it's kind of like the offensive line. The more they play together the fewer the mistakes. Guys like Bobak, Marchese, and McEachern have played next to each other on so many kick coverages at this point that they likely have a sixth-sense of what the other guys are going to do. I'm a fan of doing special teams that way and resting the starters.

Now, I do want a starter for both return spots. Make Kyron Cumby your kickoff return specialist and {looks left, looks right, leans in} let's get Isaiah Williams to be the greatest punt returner in Illinois history.

I answered a similar question to this in the first mailbag. But that one was "who benefits from the scheme change?" and this one is more about under the radar guys who might surprise us. This is about Big Step Guys, and I love Big Step Guys.

For the "who benefits from the scheme change?" question, I picked five guys: Calvin Avery (can be a true shade-the-center nose tackle), Jer'Zhan Newton (a DE/DT tweener who is well-suited for his new role in this defensive line), Alex Pihlstrom (right now they have last year's RG starter Verdis Brown at left guard with former tight end Pihlstrom starting at right guard so that probably means they want a more mobile guy there), OLB Seth Coleman (less run support duties, more "edge" duties at OLB), and TE Tip Reiman (the only walkon on the Orange Team for the spring game). For this, I'll pick three guys not on that list.

1. Carlos Sandy

Thing most people forget: Carlos Sandy was one of our primary kick returner in 2018 as a true freshman. He was the main kickoff return guy until Dre Brown returned halfway through the season. Stats show he returned 13 kickoffs and 7 punts (with a bunch of fair catches not included in those numbers). Sandy then missed all but one game in 2019 (missed the entire season with an injury but played in the bowl game) and then he played in 5 of the 9 games last season.

Donny Navarro and Brian Hightower were probably the two wide receivers everyone expected to be on the Orange Team (the "starters") for the spring game, but I'm not sure anyone expected Carlos Sandy and Khmari Thompson to be the other two. So it's possible that the staff sees Sandy as high as the 3rd receiver right now. Now, two very important players moved to WR this spring, and Jafar Armstrong (and Patrick Bryant) arrive this summer, so this whole thing resets come August. But for now, Sandy has pushed his way into the rotation.

2. Quan Martin

Gonna keep beating the Quan Martin drum until I break something. Once I have a guy, he remains my guy for pretty much his entire career. He made the switch to safety last season, started to play well late in the season, and might be what they need at free safety for this defense. Again, we haven't seen much of the scheme yet, so I reserve the right to change my mind once the season starts and we see what they try to do with the safeties, but for now, I'd like to put Quan on the Big Step list.

3. Julian Pearl

He's probably a year away from being a Big Step guy. but it needs to be noted that Palcho's ACL surgery was December 8th and the Nebraska game is August 28th, 8 months and 20 days later. So if we buy that whole "9 months before you can return to action - 12 months before you're 100%" thing after an ACL tear (and I know it's different for every player), we might see a limited Palcho at first. When camp starts, he'll be like 7.5 months post-surgery.

So I'm going to put Julian Pearl on this list. Palcho will eventually start once he regains form, but we might see a fair bit of Pearl early. And with 60 lbs added since high school and Year Four upcoming, he's probably ready to take that Big Step.

My first reaction is "I don't think so?". And I put a question mark there because I haven't really thought about it until I read your question. I don't think Wisconsin nor Arkansas were known for trick plays, so I don't think that's something Bielema has carried forward.

The only thing I remember with Bielema and trick plays was how this (failed) trick play by Arkansas became famous on the internet a few years ago:

The name of the gif I found is "ArkyWHAT.gif", so yeah, there you go.

Honestly, it's not a horrible trick play. If the center doesn't get driven five yards backwards like he's on ice skates, the guard has the block on the linebacker and the tailback would have gotten a nice gain. Looks like the QB has the option there to maybe fake the handoff and toss it to the guy in the "other" backfield. But the center goes backwards and trips his own guy.

Other than that play (which went around Twitter as a "what were they thinking with this?" kind of thing), I'm not sure I have any recollection as Bielema being a guy who likes to go to the trick play. But I've never followed him game-to-game, so maybe we'll find out that he does.

I guess I should have just answer your question with "not sure".

We'll end the mailbag posts with this one. For Spring Ball 2021, the biggest.....


Famous last words but it has to be the run game. Here's a quick Chase Brown fun fact from 2020 (a season where Chase Brown was third-team All Big Ten but it seems like no one remembers that fact). Brown averaged 67.5 yards per game for a 2-6 team. If it was the season before that would have been 878 yards rushing, but there were only eight games, so 540 yards rushing. But let's put that 67.5 ypg up against the last ten Illini teams. Top five running backs in Yards Per Game (minimum 8 games) since the start of the 2011 season:

Reggie Corbin 2018 (90.4 ypg)
Josh Ferguson 2015 (78.7 ypg)
Chase Brown 2020 (67.5 ypg)
Ke'Shawn Vaughn 2015 (65.7 ypg)
Josh Ferguson 2013 (64.9 ypg)

My point: if we had played a full schedule last season, we'd be looking at Chase Brown's 900 rushing yards (and his third-team All Conference accolades) and saying "wow, future star at tailback". And then (if he returns), we'd look at Mike Epstein's career 6.0 yards-per-carry stat and say "wow, we have the chance to have two guys combine for 2,000+ rushing yards". But we don't know if Epstein is coming back, and we only played six games, and we went 2-6, and I was the only Illini media member covering the Penn State game because absolutely positively NO ONE CARED at that point, so we're not talking about it.

But we should be talking about it. Because it might be November and we hear the announcers say "wow, Brown just passed Corbin's 1,085 rushing yards from 2018 so this is now the top rushing season for an Illini since Mikel LeShoure in 2010". We're gonna be talking about it, so we should start talking about it.


The true "weakness" is wide receiver depth but there are attempts to fix that by moving Isaiah Williams and Marquez Beason there (plus bringing in transfer Jafar Armstrong from Notre Dame). So I'll pick something else.

I think the weakness will be pass defense. And that term doesn't just mean "defensive backs covering receivers". It's a combination of no pressure from the DL on the QB and linebackers struggling to stick with tight ends and a bunch of other things. This year, we'll add "new scheme" to the mix.

As I pointed out in the first Check The Tape post from the spring game, our defense on the very first play was an offensive coordinator's dream. Offense is five-wide with an empty backfield and the defense has, effectively, five defensive linemen on the field. To exaggerate that, we're in goal line defense and the offense is setting up for the Hail Mary.

There are a thousand different explanations for how the defense will adjust to certain offenses (and we'll learn a hundred wrinkles to the defense by midseason), but in big broad terms, this defense should be better against the run because there's three down linemen PLUS two big defensive ends standing on each edge. It's a D ready to swarm. But it's also a D where the opposing OC might say "OK, this is easy, we'll exploit those defensive ends and linebackers dropping into coverage and hit 'em with speed speed speed".

Again, that's a massive oversimplification. but when we switch to a scheme like this, and we haven't really recruited outside linebackers for it yet, so we're putting last year's defensive ends at outside linebacker, well, my fear is pass defense.


Biggest surprise this spring. First thought is "that Isaiah Williams agreed to switch to wide receiver", but that too simple of an answer. So I'll just build on that theme.

For me, the biggest surprise was the immediate re-working of the QB room. We had a hunch that we'd be looking to recruit quarterbacks listed as PRO instead of quarterbacks listed as DUAL, but I was totally surprised how quickly the whole thing flipped. Peters was the Orange Team QB for the scrimmage, Williams switched to WR for the final three practices, Sitkowski announced his transfer from Rutgers and will arrive next month, and suddenly one of the storylines I expected for training camp ("will they shape the offense around the QB room?") was null and void. The QB room for the fall will be led by two very tall guys with strong arms, the guy who set an Illinois record last year for rushing yards by a QB in a single game has moved to WR, and there will be no "shaping" of the offense around the QB room. It's more "this is the offense, Peters can run it, we brought in Sitkowski to be his backup, we're brining in Leary for the future, and that's how this will go".

I didn't really expect it to be "settled" until maybe a few years down the road as we transition a roster built for Rod Smith's offense into a roster built for Tony Petersen's offense. But this seems like the transition has already been completed.


Deuce Spann not getting to run a run/pass offense.

OK, yes, that's just a personal thing, but for real, my biggest disappointment is the apparent lack of a QB running game. I'm a QB running game guy. And Deuce Spann is my guy. I'll stop.

My biggest disappointment this spring: only getting to watch 15 minutes of every practice. OK, fine, that's personal as well. I promise I'll get this third one right.

My biggest disappointment: the distance between the first string and the second string. We don't know how good the first string will be. They were a 2-6 first string last season and might be a 3-9 first string this fall or they'll shock everyone and be an 8-5 first string. We don't know where they'll land when matched up against the Big Ten West.

But we do know that they're miles ahead of the second string here. Part of that is a lot of players held out because of injury this spring, but there was a massive gap between the Orange Team and the Blue Team during the spring game. And that's usually a "stay healthy everyone, because there's no depth" warning sign.

So I'll go with depth as my biggest disappointment. There's some talent in the 2019 class, and they're all entering their third seasons, but at least for this spring, most of them aren't ready yet. I was hoping they would be, but I didn't see it.

Of course, I only got to watch 15 minutes every day.......


Brave Illini on May 11, 2021 @ 02:10 PM

It would be useful and interesting to see some data-backed analysis about what makes special teams effective, including what personnel are used.

MinnIllini on May 15, 2021 @ 08:01 PM

Totally agree with your S\T Hot Take

Lee23 on May 20, 2021 @ 10:52 PM

I like your Carlos Sandy pick

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