Hey, guys. This is my first mailbag answering your football questions. I hope to do one of these a week during the season and maybe up until Signing Day. We'll play it by ear. But here is a big part of premium membership. I will try to post a topic on the premium board each week to which you can reply with your questions. You can also PM me any questions.
Lots of questions for the inaugural mailbag, so without further delay...
Not that it matters but , I'm curious about the receivers 40 yard times . Who's fastest etc.
Werner: I don't have 40 times, but my top-5 speed guys on the team would probably be: Justin Hardee, Mikey Dudek, V'Angelo Bentley, Josh Ferguson and Cameron Watkins.
- Who does Desmond Cain remind you of from past years?
- Who will play the nickel?
- Do Fej and Barton have the safety positions locked up, or is there a chance Day wins one of the spots?
Werner: 1) Hmm... somewhere between Dionte Taylor and Mikey Dudek. Quicker than Taylor but note nearly as refined, or as good of a go-up-and-get-it guy, as Dudek. You'd have loved to redshirt him and have him replace Dudek as the main slot in two years.
2) V'Angelo Bentley usually slides in to the nickel position with either Darius Mosely or Jaylen Dunlap taking over at the perimeter. Bentley is more natural and nickel and it allows him to make more plays. If he's going to play in the NFL, that's his position (along with returner).
3) Fej and Barton are locked and loaded. Both are much more reliable than Day. The former four-star just has never taken the leap. Some guys play football because they're good at it. But at some point, you have to put in a lot of work to get better at this level. Maybe Day just needs an opportunity, but he hasn't earned that opportunity over Fejedelem or Barton -- both good athletes who have started in big games -- yet.
Haven't heard much about replacing last year's MVP....
How's the punting competition going?
Werner: Not much of a competition. Ryan Frain is the guy. How good is he? We'll see. His leg isn't as consistently accurate or powerful as Duvernois, but Frain's improved as camp has progressed. But I wouldn't expect the Illini punt game to be one of the Big Ten's best, like it had been the previous three seasons under Duvernois.
Best guess who redshirts and the ones that don't good move or bad move.
Werner: Might be my favorite question of the bunch. I think it's safe to bet that more true freshmen will play this season than last season (two: Mikey Dudek and Malik Turner). I'll just list each freshman and provide a comment.
Dre Brown, RB: Will redshirt 2015 after suffering a torn ACL during spring practice. Likely would have played otherwise.
Reggie Corbin, RB: Will redshirt 2015 after suffering a torn labrum in his shoulder this week. May have redshirted anyway.
Patrick Nelson, S: Will redshirt 2015 after suffering a torn labrum in shoulder. Likely would have played otherwise.
Ke'Shawn Vaughn, RB: Undoubtedly will play and will see more reps than any other freshman. He's the No. 2 running back and basically is like a starter, given Josh Ferguson's versatility.
Desmond Cain, WR: With Mikey Dudek injured, the freshman has found opportunity and made the most of it. The 5-foot-11 Florida native was recruited as a defensive back but his future is on offense. He's got the quicks and hands to play right away and currently is repping as the fourth receiver in most four-wideout sets.
Sam Mays, WR: Mays mayhave a higher ceiling than Cain, but the Illini are deeper at the perimeter spots with Geronimo Allison, Malik Turner, Marchie Murdock, Tyrin Stone-Davis and -- eventually -- Justin Hardee returning. Mays is repping with the second team, but his impact likely would be small. They may redshirt him even if he's capable of contributing now. This may be the most borderline to-redshirt/not-to-redshirt guy out of camp.
Gabe Megginson, OL: The Illini would LOVE to redshirt the four-star offensive tackle. But he's definitely on the two-deep. If the Illini stay healthy in their top-eight -- especially the starting offensive tackles -- Megginson should get a year to mature. The talent is there to contribute early though.
Adam Solomon, OT: The Illini right tackle of the future has the size to play now, but Pat Flavin's presence should allow the Illini to redshirt the Indiana native.
Zeke Martin, OL: The thinnest of the offensive linemen trio, Martin will redshirt. He could play multiple positions in the future.
Jamal Milan, DT: Illinois would love to redshirt him and could if the top four defensive tackles -- juniors Chunky Clements, Teko Powell and Rob Bain and sophomore Tito Odenigbo -- stay healthy. But if one gets hurt or if Odenigbo switches to SDE to provide depth, Milan may play and has the size (310 pounds) and burst to hold his own. Joe Fotu returning from injury would help his redshirt chances.
Cameron Watkins, CB: Great redshirt candidate because he'd give the Illini size and speed at cornerback in the future. He'd have to be a special teams stud to play. The Illini like his measurables.
Julian Jones, LB: With Mike Svetina (foot) injured again, Jones is the fifth or sixth inside linebacker right now. The Illini should redshirt the future starter who has nice length and speed.
Caleb Reams, TE: He's had some nice moments, but the Illini have enough veterans to redshirt Reams. And with little future depth at the position, redshirting Reams seems set in stone.
Justice Williams, STAR: Good looking athlete, but he must add strength. Redshirt.
Frank Sumpter, WR/CB: Definite redshirt candidate. The Illini switched him to wide receiver because of the great depth at corner.
Jimmy Fitzgerald, QB: If the Illini have to play Fitzgerald (the No. 3 quarterback), the season probably isn't going well. The Illini should only play him out of desperation (Wes Lunt injured plus Chayce Crouch injured/greatly ineffective)
Jeff George Jr, QB: See Fitzgerald.
Also, junior college transfer Jordan Fagan -- a sophomore -- also is a redshirt candidate.
How does the young LB corps. look (Watson, Roberts, etc.)?
Who is the biggest playmaker on D? Biggest hitter?
Do we feel comfortable with James Crawford at STAR this year?
Werner: Watson and Julian Jones look like future starters. Roberts hasn't received many reps because of them. Watson looks and plays like T.J. Neal. Jones is more rangy and athletic, like a LaKeith Walls with a higher ceiling. With Mason Monheim graduating, his replacement battle will be interesting next season. Does Walls get his shot? Does Mike Svetina finally return healthy? Does Watson have the athleticism for the spot? Or does Julian Jones take a leap and give the Illini a boost of athleticism?
Your second question is the question of the season for the defense. Jihad Ward makes plays but his biggest asset is that he should draw double teams to allow others to make plays. I think Dawuane Smoot has the best chance of all the potential juniors to actually break out. He's got a great mix of size and burst on the edge. Carroll Phillips has the burst and athleticism to make plays but is somewhat slight and not always in the right spot. Chunky Clements can disrupt some things in the middle as well. It's all about consistency for those guys. In the back seven, V'Angelo Bentley is probably the biggest potential gamebreaker but his size (5-foot-9) limits him a bit. Clayton Fejedelm could be the biggest hitter of the back seven.
I don't know if Illinois is "comfortable" yet with Crawford. That's why senior Eric Finney will continue to play. But Crawford is a better, longer athlete and thus, more likely to make big plays. He's just another defender with potential to break out, but he must prove it.
Since the Fall campaign has started, are you more enthused or less enthused about the prospects for the season? Why?
Werner: Not to avoid answering, but this camp was about what I expected, which is good but not great. This is the deepest team Tim Beckman has had. The second string defensive line is better than the 2013 starting defensive line. The offensive line still isn't great, but I'd say there are about 10 playable guys rather than six or seven. Receiver and running back are ridiculously deep when healthy. There is great depth at cornerback and improved depth at linebacker. Safety depth is a concern and the tight ends are inexperienced. Wes Lunt is great but the backups are green.
While depth is improved, are there more playmakers? Geronimo Allison could have a big year. Wes Lunt should, if healthy. Ferguson is still great. Besides Ward, I'm not sure any defender has lifted into stardom. Though a few guys have potential (Dawuane Smoot). The Illini are looking more like a Big Ten team, but aren't completely there. They still need to add more size on the lines and speed on defense. But this should be a bowl team.
It's well known that improvements to the tailgating environment directly correlates to increased performance on the field.
So how many additional points is the Grange Grove worth this year?
Werner: For the entire season? Obviously...it's 77.
Could you possibly compare Jeff George Sr. to Wes Lunt? Odd similarities?
I know that sounds awkward, especially since Jr is on the team.
However, I watched JG in the late 80's also transfer in and with an ok defense and mediocre OL single handedly win games that we had no business winning.
Neither were known for their wheels and JG's pro-career was dissappointing... but he still was a #1 pick.
Possibly use this as a vehicle to hype up the Wes Lunt 1st Round NFL pick potential?
Werner: I did not watch Jeff George Sr. during his Illini career. My memories of him are as the big-armed quarterback for the Colts, Falcons and Raiders. George had a stronger arm than most NFL quarterbacks, let alone Lunt. Where I think Lunt can be better is his accuracy. In my time at Rantoul, I can only remember one interception -- this Thursday, and that was wind-aided (40 mph gusts). He threw just three interceptions in 241 attempts last season. He rarely misses his spot.
Lunt doesn't have fast wheels but he's been much more mobile during camp than he was last season after suffering the leg fracture. He was a sitting duck after the injury. He now makes subtle moves side-to-side and forward in the pocket. Lunt has the potential to be special, even if his offensive line is just OK. He's the most important player on the Illini and would likely be the biggest reason for a surprise season.
Christian Hackenberg is a very good pro prospect, probably a little better than Lunt. But I don't think Lunt is that far behind.
Who needs to step up in order for the run defense to be much improved over last year? It was embarrassing at points last year.
Werner: "Embarrassing" might be an understatement when you're allowing 280 rushing yards per game. It all starts up front. The most important guy is Jihad Ward, when he gets healthy. I think Dawuane Smoot and Carroll Phillips will be fine against Kent State and Western Illinois. But can Phillips, and even Smoot, hold an edge against Nebraska, Iowa and Wisconsin? I'm not so sold. Jihad Ward's reutrn will be huge. He's not an elite pass rusher (though he's good). His best ability is to use his long arms and his strength to set an edge and separate from defenders. The interior should be improved against the run with the return of Teko Powell and emergence of Rob Bain, one of their better run stuffers at the end of last season.
Linebacker Mason Monheim got caught up in the wash a bit too much last year, and T.J. Neal went for the big hit too often instead of making the sound play. Long answer? Everyone must improve, but they have shown solid progress at practice.
Teko looked really tired and gimpy on his feet last Friday in Rantoul while I was there. Is this a concern? Could his foot explode again? Also, who is the best COACH on staff? My vote goes to the new DL coach! He gets it! Love his colorful language too as did my 10 year old!;)
Werner: After suffering a fracture twice in a year, Teko Powell's foot health will always be a concern. I wrote about the orthopedics he now uses to stabilize that foot. But it wasn't the foot that was botherin him last week. Powell suffered a minor knee injury and was in the red jersey for a few practices. Beckman said the injury is just precautionary, the same thing he said about linebacker Mason Monheim's ankle injury. If gameday were today, Powell would play.
Mike Phair is an entertaining, sometimes R-rated, coach in practice -- though not to the f-bomb level of Paul Petrino! He demands a lot of his players, but he loves on them a lot too. The players have responded extremely well to him, and I think his NFL experience bought him a lot of credibility very early.
Beckman's first staff was a disaster. He over-prioritized recruiting potential over a blend of recruiting and play-calling experience. But Beckman has made some pretty fantastic hires the last few years, starting with offensive coordinator Bill Cubit and followed by receivers coach Mike Bellamy and linebackers coach Al Seamonson and now Phair and quarterbacks coach Mike Phair. He also had a good one in former offensive line coach A.J. Ricker, who left for Mizzou after one season, and made a solid, quick hire in Tom Brattan. This is Beckman's best staff, both on the field and on the recruiting trail.
Are the players affected in any way by the charges of Simon C. against the football program? Do they talk about it? And is there any indication about when the outside report will be released?
Werner: This is kind of a dead story around the program, at least in terms of how much it is talked about in-house. Beckman and the senior leaders had to answer about it at Big Ten Media Day because it was the first time they talked publicly about it. But little has changed since then. The players say the ordeal brought them closer together. I think we'll find out if that's true at the first sign of adversity.
There have been obvious effects. Beckman no longer requires injured players to wear purple jerseys (a nod to Northwestern) . Injured players now wear red jerseys. Also, Illinois has had a former trainer, independent from the university, watch every practice just as an extra set of eyes, just in case allegations were to occur again. These are smart moves.
No word on when the outside investigation will be complete. Simon Cvijanovic had not been cooperative and has not yet filed a lawsuit either. If his allegations are true, he could easily prove them by releasing his medical records -- which should detail every procedure and interaction he had with medical personnel.