USA Today // Mike Granse

Werner Mailbag: Sept. 10

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner answers your Illini football questions heading into Week 2

From ILLVeteran: Jeremy, the players just seemed to play a lot looser on Saturday, and I really noticed it on defense.  Do you attribute that to Phair's influence, Beckman being gone, or maybe Cubit?  I know Kent State's bad but it seemed like they just went out and played football, which was great to see.

Jeremy Werner: Kent State was bad, but Illinois dominated a bad MAC team like a Big Ten team should. Following this crazy offseason, this team was itching to play -- which is what made Friday's postponement so difficult for them. But I think it was best for those players to sleep off the nervous energy, reset and reload the next day.

I don't know if Beckman being gone helped this team, but I think Bill Cubit has done a great job of handling the situation and keeping this team focused on the task at hand. I mean, honestly, not much changes for the players. The rest of the staff and the rest of the players are all here. And Cubit has been a relatively successful head coach before, so he knows what he's doing.

Mike Phair was a big hire, and the players have raved about him since he arrived. I don't know if much has changed with the defense, but the players are bigger, stronger, faster and more experienced, and I think Phair got the most out of them in Week 1. Despite the last two years' results, the DL is the defense's most talented group. It's just not very deep due to injuries.

Week 1 was a great performance but they have to start stacking those together. Week 2 provides another great opportunity to build more confidence heading into North Carolina next week.

From Zentrails: Could it possibly be that Banks is actually not a bad defensive coordinator? Essentially, our second string held them to 3 points.  Could our second string last year have done that? Another factor to consider is that they actually beat us on TOP, so our d was on the field a lot. Was our substitution patterns much improved over last year against YSU?

Tim Banks knows football. He's had success as an assistant coach and defensive coordinator. He hasn't had enough talent here at Illinois. Now, that is partly on the staff to recruit that talent. But you're starting to see some of those guys produce: Taylor Barton, Clayton Fejedelem, V'Angelo Bentley, Chunky Clements, Rob Bain, Jihad Ward, T.J. Neal, etc.

There are certain things maybe Banks could have tweaked the last few seasons, but I just don't think the team had the horses -- and the guys who had the natural talent were so young. There are very few underclassmen in the two-deep this year, so it's time for Banks to lead a defense that can finish in the top-10 of Illini defenses (that's not asking much, but it means they're competitive).

The great thing about Illinois is it can substitute this year. There's not a huge dropoff between the first and second string cornerbacks. Carroll Phillips could start at LEO, and Henry McGrew is stout against the run. LaKeith Walls is a capable backup LB. The issue is at DT. The Illini have been robbed of depth due to injuries to Jamal Milan and Teko Powell and Joe Fotu's suspension. The Illini aren't ridiculously deep, but they're much deeper than the past few seasons.

From IlliniDave34: With Vaughn looking good and the slot receivers not having a great day Saturday, could we see Ferguson start in the slot and play a Braxton Miller role where Vaughn starts at RB? I bet Cubit loves Josh's flexibilty

That's the ideal. Vaughn is a true four-star prospect. He has unbelievable vision and a great burst, traits that work perfectly in a zone-blocking scheme. Vaughn will take some hits from Ferguson between the tackles and if he continues to improve his pass blocking, he will allow Ferguson to line up more in the slot. Marchie Murdock is improving and Dionte Taylor is solid, but Ferguson could be one of the best slot WRs in the Big Ten. He's electric in space. My ideal would be a 60/40 split for Ferguson between rushing yards and receiving yards.

From pondhockey: the players played more to their potential.  I have seen this for years at Boise State, and I think there must be something about the culture and environment that encourages kids to play extraordinarily rather than play scared.  Is there something you can see going on?

I think this is just the maturation of a program. This is the fourth year of this defense. This is the third year for most of these players in Bill Cubit's offense. All these guys were recruited by this staff so there's no huge rift like there was in 2012. There are more established leaders on this team. And players and coaches won't tell me this, but I would imagine there's a little bit of relief that the "Will Beckman get fired?" cloud is gone. Sure, they don't know who will coach them this season, but there's not as much pressure to save someone's job. Maybe they can win Cubit a job, but the staff has done a good job of telling the players that this season is about chasing "their" dreams and improving "their" program.

From tmiller33:  Does it make the most since to extend Cubit with a low buyout, continue the schemes, recruiting relationships, ect and wait till we have time to hire a new chancellor and they have time to hire a new ad?

If Cubit wins seven or eight games and is cleared of any wrongdoing in the investigation into player abuse, he must be considered for the job. This a pretty strong staff that has made gradual momentum in recruiting. If they continue to progress this season (seven or eight wins), I think it'd be hard not to give Cubit -- who has a high approval rating among the players, fan base and administration -- a four-year deal with a Beckman-like salary (about $1.6 million per year) witha  Beckman-like buyout ($400,000 buyout per year remaining). If the new athletic director wants to make a change after two or three seasons, the cost wouldn't be great.

From Soxfreak64; Top 3 defensive players from last game? Top 3 O? Were you as impressed with Neal & surprised by Walls as I was?

Wow. Hard to pick just three defensive players from last game. I think I'd go with Jihad Ward (for consistently setting the edge against the run and making everyone else's job easier), Rob Bain (dominated double teams) and Taylor Barton (he blew one coverage but was strong in run support and picked off a pass). But I thought Dawuane Smoot, Clayton Fejedelem, Eric Finney, Henry McGrew, T.J. Neal, LaKeith Walls, Carroll Phillips and Chunky Clements all played well too.

On offense, I think I'd go with Wes Lunt (WRs dropped five passes, Cubit said), Josh Ferguson and Ke'Shawn Vaughn. I thought Joe Spencer and Christian DiLauro were pretty strong on the line.

From Kitt2Witt: If DiLaurio is our best OT why not have him protecting Lunt's blindside?  

Great question. I asked OL coach Tom Brattan about that before the season. He said the LT or RT aren't asked to do many different things in the system. He also said offensive linemen are creatures of habit and it's sometimes a process to change their sets (footwork in pass pro). DiLauro has played RT the last two seasons because of Simon Cvijanovic and Austin Schmidt played left tackle the past two seasons as a fill-in for Cvijanovic.

But here's my take. DiLauro is a phenomenal pass blocker, but he's also a very good run blocker. He's got a bit of nastiness to him. He definitely has more strength than Schmidt, who has skinny legs. But Schmidt has pretty decent feet with long arms, making him a good pass blocker. I think Illinois wants a good pair of blockers on one side, and they have that with DiLauro and Ted Karras. On the left side, Chris Boles is a better run blocker than pass blocker and center Joe Spencer pulls to the left side a lot on outside runs to help Schmidt.

From tscott14: With Beckman seeking legal actions against the University, WHAT IF these allegations are not as serious as Thomas made it out to be?  I know people may claim that the University hit the all time low in Football but this will take it another step further down. You don't want to wish anything bad on anybody but the University better hope these allegations hold up. IF NOT, you might as well say we gave ourselves the death penalty with out the NCAA getting involved.

I know there was a bit of excitment for Illini fans when Beckman was fired. He hadn't won enough games and had little fan support.

But I tried to highlight that we have little clarity to why he was fired outside of Thomas's statement. I don't think Thomas would use the preliminary findings of the external review of abuse allegations as an "out" to excuse Beckman. He's had plenty of reasons to fire Beckman after Year 1, Year 2 and Year 3. But Thomas fired Beckman without pay, meaning he has to have cause. I'd imagine DIA or University lawyers had to sign off on this knowing a lawsuit was likely. From what I've heard, Thomas read the initial findings and knew right away that he had to fire Beckman, even if he were a successful coach.

But the DIA and Thomas must show why a dismissal was necessary. That information -- or most of it -- will be made public when the review is completed. Last I heard, it could come during the footbal season.

HHSIllini: If you had the opportunity to pick the next coach and AD, who would your dream picks be? Also, record prediction?

I released version 2.0 of my Illini Coaching Hot List earlier this week. The top-four candidates really intrigue me. I think the best situation would be that Cubit leads this team to seven, eight or more wins and this staff is allowed to try to continue momentum. I think this staff is capable of continued success and at some point, Illinois needs stability from a good staff.

Mike Thomas is still the athletic director, so I haven't focused on who's next yet.

I predicted Illinois to finish 6-6. Though I was seriously close to picking them to finish 7-5.

From ILLVeteran: I'm curious what happens to Alex Golesh and Mike Ward through all of this...they have sort of hitched themselves to Beckman.  I don't think Golesh will have any issues catching on elsewhere, but I wonder how they fit in now.

These were the two Toledo assistants who chose to make the jump with Beckman to Illinois. Several stayed with Matt Campbell and may have been wise to do so. But I think Golesh has made the most of his opportunity. He has proven himself a tireless and good recruiter. For a while, he seemed like the Illini's do-all recruiter, but he's received help recently from Ryan Cubit and Mike Bellamy, two strong recruiters. Golesh is also starting to receive some much needed coordinating experience, even if it's on special teams. Golesh should have plenty of opportunities, possibly even at Illinois, after this season. He has great ties in Ohio, and expanding ties in Texas.

I've really enjoyed talking to Mike Ward, but it will be interesting to see his next step. He's been Beckman's right hand man for a while now.

From Zentrails: Do you think Cubit's offense will change much without TB looking over his shoulder? I like to think he would become even more innovative in what is likely his last chance (gift actually) to be a high major HC. Of course, he has to figure out some way to make sure Lunt stays healthy, so maybe that limits things a lot.

Beckman basically had no say in the offense the last two seasons. Essentially, Bill Cubit was the "head coach of the offense," which is why this transition is a bit easier.

Cubit likes to have fun and entertain some people. I don't know if that changes much of his approach this season, but I do think he feels the need to excite Illini fans and let the players have some fun. It's why I  think you'll see Bentley used in some interesting ways, and of course, you'll see more trick plays in bigger games.

From STLChief20: 1.  Do you think Mike Thomas actually made the decision to fire Tim Beckman?  I know he said he did, but to say otherwise would be a public admission that he isn't really in charge of his department.  2.  I have always assumed that Beckman more or less ran the defense and the whole discussion of which co-coordinator was in charge was moot.  But without Beckman, who is "in charge" on defense?

1) As I said before, I've heard Thomas reviewed the findings, consulted with university hire-ups, recommended the firing and they agreed. No matter what you think of Thomas, he knows the athletic department better than university administrators, so the decision should be his. As long as he is AD, it's his department. If you don't like his decision, you find a different AD.

2) Beckman had input on the defense, but like most staffs, the game-planning is an inclusive process with most of the assistants. Banks and Beckman made most of the decisions, and Phair started to have more input when he got here last spring. Banks is still in charge of the defense, but it's a collaborative effort, so Phair has his say -- and now Cubit has input as well, though it's more of an oversight role.

From bbfan25: How big of a priority is hiring a minority coach this time?

Hire. The. Best. Coach. I don't care what color or ethnicity they are, and neither should Illinois. Just hire the best coach.

Illinois has pursued or talked to plenty of minority candidates in recent years: Kevin Sumlin and Shaka Smart. And I heard Kirby Wilson got to chat with Thomas back in 2011 too.

From bhots25: Who is your best bet on who will be the next coach at Illinois? My guess would be Dino Babers who I think would be a solid choice.

As I said earlier, my list of candidates is here. Babers is a really intriguing candidate. His Baylor-style offense would give the Illini an immediate identity (Bowling Green's offense moved the ball well vs. Tennessee in Week 1 and plays Maryland this week). And he's the opposite of Beckman from an oratory standpoint. He exudes confidence and would do well with the media and donors. My big question with him surrounds his staff. It's pretty young and he's lost some good coaches the last few years. I'd be much more comfortable with Babers if he brought an experienced defensive coordinator with him.

CantonIlliniinNashville: With Harbaugh now at Michigan and Meyer at OSU, was the school essentially obligated to change out Beckman for a head coach with more "star power"? 

Beckman was fired for alleged medical misconduct. Maybe he would've been fired at the end of the season for lack of success, but it wouldn't have been in response to Michigan or Ohio State. Illinois can be a good football program, but let's not compare it to Michigan and Ohio State which have far greater histories and resources. Illinois should look at Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan State as models of success. Minnesota is trying to build that under Jerry Kill too. You just have to find the right coach, commit resources to him and keep him. They haven't been able to find the right guy since John Mackovic left.

From illiniparkie: If the team finishes 6-6 or better (or even 5-7), do you think the existing coaching staff and Coach Cubit would be retained?

Assuming Cubit is cleared of misconduct, it'd be a difficult call at 6-6. Is Illinois more competitive during Big Ten play? Does there feel like there is momentum? I tend to think Cubit would need seven or eight wins to be considered. Five wins would not be enough.

IlliniDave34: Can you talk about how appealing this Illini job is from a national perspective? Seems like all of us are so down on this team that no coach in his right mind would come here. That being said, it is still a Power 5 conference program with new facilities in a great state of talent and has had some success over the past 15 years. 

Illinois is a very difficult job. It has potential, yes. But no coach has been able to sustain that success since John Mackovic, and coaches who had success before him committed NCAA violations. It is one of the tougher jobs in the Big Ten. Chicago is a nice resource but it's also a huge challenge because you're expected to do well there even if no one up there has allegiance to the state school.

But it's still a Big Ten job, and it's a better job than Indiana, Purdue, Rugters and Northwestern (but the Wildcats found their perfect guy). You could debate whether it's better than Minnesota and Maryland, but it's in that tier -- which is appealing to a mid-major head coach, power-five coordinator or a retread. Illinois probably can't land the hottest name on the market (see: Sumlin), but it can land a good coach. It just has to find the right one.

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