Throughout the month of April the Big Ten will spend a Friday night and a lot of Saturday afternoon's in front of crowds going through spring football games. As things wind down we will bring you the thoughts of those plugged in to the programs - fellow bloggers and beat writers.
Last week we put a bow on the Nebraska Cornhuskers' spring game and today it's all about the Fighting Illini. Here to help us sift through last Friday night's game and spring as a whole is Robert from A Lion Eye. His insight is very well thought out, so make sure to check out ALionEye.com and follow them on twitter @ALionEye.
Coming off a horrid start to his time in Champaign there was plenty of change in store for Tim Beckman's crew, so what went down this spring and where are things heading for the basement dwellers from 2012? Let's take a look at what was an interesting spring for the Illini.
B1G Time: The offense looked like it was a lot more confident than it was a year ago. What do you attribute that to?
A Lion Eye (ALE): I attribute that to losing nine starters on defense. Until I see this offense move the ball against someone other than our own defense, I'm not sure I can fully buy in.
OK, that's not completely true. From attending four practices this spring, I can assure you that the Cubit offense is 14 times better organized than the Beatty/Gonzales offense from a year ago. We hired two recruiters as our offensive coordinators and it showed - 119th in total yards. Now, we bring in an experienced coordinator and everything is much more crisp. Crazy how that works.
It appears they have a decent line rotation figured out, and moving away from a get-out-in-space-and-zone-block scheme has apparently helped tremendously. And Donovonn Young was never built for getting to the edge - he needs to be a straight-ahead, north-south tailback. This offense is a much better fit for him.
So yes, it's not all "the defense they're facing every day is really, really green". But it's still a lot of "the defense they're facing every day is really, really green". Probably the majority.
B1G Time: Some say there is a QB battle for the Illini after last season, but after the spring game it sure looked like the "old" Scheelhaase was back. How much stock do you put in there being a QB battle given what we saw on Friday night?
ALE: I think it's an open battle. Scheelhaase has always been more comfortable in the read-option spread, so the switch to the Cubit offense meant a pocket guy like O'Toole had a much better chance to win the job.
But after Saturday night, Scheelhaase looked like the guy. It was funny - Friday night looked like the Orange team was coached by Ron Zook and the Blue team was coached by someone competent. Orange did everything right, passed for 150 more yards than Blue... and lost by 7 because they turned the ball over five times. Four of those were O'Toole interceptions.
Maybe, for the first time this century, we will actually realize "wait, you can't turn the ball over five times and expect to win? Really?"
B1G Time: No Ferguson in the running game, but damn did the offensive line look a lot better. Were they just that good or is your defensive line just that bad?
ALE: As mentioned above, partly defensive line (we graduated three starters and a fourth left early for the NFL), and partly a better blocking scheme for our offensive linemen.
I always say it this way: I'm a firm believer in fourth-year juniors and fifth-year seniors on the offensive line. Recruit them, redshirt them, give them three years of weight rooms and 6,000 calorie diets, and then unleash them on the Big Ten as redshirt juniors.
We've never really followed that. So our three redshirt juniors on the offensive line - tackle Simon Cvijanovic, guard Michael Heitz, and center Alex Hill - have all played a lot of football the last two years. Most of it way, way, WAY before they were ready. But Zook had struggled to recruit linemen later in his tenure, and we didn't have anyone else, so we just threw them to the wolves.
Maybe now that they're redshirt juniors they're ready to take a step forward. Hope so.
One other thing. At right tackle we have what might be one of the better stories in the Big Ten brewing. Corey Lewis is a tackle from Pennsylvania who played some as a true freshmen in 2008 and played a lot as a sophomore in 2009. And then, in the 2010 spring game, he tore his ACL. And then he tore it again in February 2011. And then he tore it again. Five knee surgeries, three torn ACL's, two-and-a-half years without playing a single snap, and there he was, at the beginning of November last year, running out on the field against Ohio State.
He's petitioned for a 6th year of eligibility. If he has a great senior season and solidifies the right side of our line, I'll probably write a 600 page book about him. Great kid, rehabbed five surgeries for 30 consecutive months, and now gets to play one more year of college football.
B1G Time: The secondary had a field day until the bitter end against Riley O'Toole - what were your impressions of that group and could it be the strength of this team moving forward?
ALE: The secondary is young. Boy band young. Does-anyone-even-shave young. When Tim Beckman took the job, it had to blow his mind when he looked at the roster. The day he took the job, here's what he saw for the 2012 season:
And that's it. AND, the junior safety switched to wide receiver after his shoulder popped out of joint 59 time last season while tackling people. So Beckman was left with two freshmen and then whoever he could recruit. He had six weeks to find some kids for the 2012 class and then a full year to find some for 2013.
He converted Earnest Thomas from linebacker back to safety, so he'll be one starter. The other starter will probably be a redshirt freshman from the 2012 class, Taylor Barton. Their backup is a senior walk-on, Ben Mathis, was just put on scholarship for his final season (I've been begging for the coaches to play him for three years - this kid never misses a tackle.)
At corner, it's the freshman corner listed above (who is now a redshirt sophomore) Eaton Spence. The other corner is one of the kids Beckman found in his first six weeks on the job, V'Angelo Bentley. They all have promise, but we're YOUUUUNNNNGGGG.
B1G Time: What is your biggest take away from the spring and where is the biggest area of concern for you?
ALE: Biggest takeaway was Cubit. Him getting fired as head coach at Western Michigan might have been the best thing to happen for us in a long time. He was an offensive coordinator before he got that job (OC at places like Missouri and Stanford), and so having him return to being a coordinator (after running a pretty solid offense at Western Michigan) is a win for us.
The biggest area of concern, though, is youth. This is an extremely young team, especially on defense. I believe there are only 10 seniors on the entire roster, and maybe six of them will start. That bodes well for Year 3, which is when you usually expect a big advance from your new coaching staff. But for this year, we're really, really green.
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