USA Today // Mike Granse

Werner mailbag: Oct. 15

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner answers your Illini football questions

I am sure that Thomas and the administration is going to keep it close to the vest, but do you get a feeling which way they are leaning with regards to a coaching decision? Halfway through the season, we stand at 4-2, 1-1. The defense looks much better than last year, the offense is struggling (although they have had a ton which makes it harder to gauge). This looks like a competitive team, that can compete with most teams in the B1G. 

Clearly, they are waiting on the results of the investigation, but is there any sense of which way it looks like it will go? My hope is that either way, it is decided shortly after the season. If they are going to keep Cubit, announce it and a contract shortly after the season. If not, lets get a coach named quickly as well so the new coach can continue to build. 

Thanks Jeremy! - from bhots23

There are so many variables here. First, Cubit and his staff must be cleared by the investigation results. We still don't know what or who (besides Tim Beckman) is involved in the findings. At the time of Beckman''s firing in August, Thomas said none of the assistants were named in the preliminary findings. I have no sense of where it will go, but I'd find it hard to believe Thomas would make Cubit the interim head coach if he thought he'd have to dismiss him midway through the season.

Second, who's making the hire? If Mike Thomas is making the hire, Cubit's chances are vastly improved. Thomas probably wants as little turnover/turmoil in his athletic program as possible.

Lastly, Cubit must show improvement and progress. Of course, that's not as simplistic as number of wins. Still, if Cubit gets this team to a bowl game, he's done an admirable job. But is that enough progress to vault a coach fired at Western Michigan three years ago to long-term head coach at Illinois? Illinois may aspire for someone on the rise with a higher ceiling. Though, Illinois could do worse than Cubit and his stability might be preferred because -- to Beckman's credit -- there is a foundation and a higher floor in this program than there was four years ago.

Seven wins puts Cubit firmly in the conversation. It'd be hard to fire the staff if they win eight games -- something Illinois has done just once since 2002.

I agree with you on timing. Illinois has all season to make a decision and go through channels to talk with coaches. This needs to be a quick hire so that Cubit or the new head coach can attack recruiting quickly. The program can't afford a lost recruiting class.

In regards to Cubit, what are the chances they would be willing to give him a very short 1-2 year deal, or a 3-5 year deal with a small buyout?

With Wes Lunt, I feel we can get to 3 straight bowl games. Next year we return Lunt, Dudek, most of the DLine, much of the OLine, we have Vaughn, Moran, and Brown in the backfield. I doubt Nebraska or Wisconsin bounces back that quickly, which leaves the B10 East pretty beatable once again. I would hate to bring in a staff that tries to change things up too much during Wes's last year. I don't particularly care for Cubit's offense, but players should get better in it as they get more and more used to it. We don't have a bunch of super athletes on offense or defense, it's really important that they understand the system because they can't just rely on their speed and athleticism to make up for mistakes. If a new staff comes in, the learning curve for our guys might take awhile. I don't see any of the young QBs coming in and being nearly as good as Lunt, it's tough to win with an average QB when you don't have superior talent around him.

Do you think it's worth keeping continuity in place while we have Lunt? The downside of keeping this staff is I think recruiting will continue to be below average, which would hurt the program down the line. However winning could spark recruiting, but I'm not sure if 6-7 wins is quite enough to provide that spark.

All and all, do you think keeping continuity while having a QB like Lunt plays a part in possibly keeping the staff in place given we win 6 games and go to a Bowl? I myself am torn at this point, hopefully the rest of the season will make the call easier. - from tmbenne

This is a lot to digest. If the program keeps Cubit, it needs to give him a four- or five-year deal so he can recruit. I think Cubit would agree to a small buyout, like Beckman's ($400,000 base salary). This would give Illinois a little flexibility if it didn't work after a couple years while Cubit would get the chance to be the head coach at a Big Ten program.

Keeping Cubit could be best for Lunt, but I don't think you keep Cubit just for Lunt. Wes is really smart, has learned multiple, intricate offenses already. And I think he can thrive in many offenses (even a Baylor-like offense). Would there be a transition? Yes. But Wes can adapt pretty quickly and have success with another good offensive mind.

When it comes to recruiting, we must remember that this staff recruited the No. 7 recruiting class in the Big Ten last year, according to the Scout recruiting rankings. Is that phenomenal? No. But it's  pretty good given Illinois' recent struggles. The staff is a bit hamstrung right now. I think they have a few recruits in particular who really like this staff and would like to commit, but there naturally are questions of whether this staff will remain here. Do they want to close down their options already before they know if this staff will remain?

To Beckman's credit, I think he was finallly putting together a strong staff, especially with Cubit and crew on offense. Mike Bellamy and Ryan Cubit have been great additions as recruiters, and Mike Phair and Al Seamonson have added nice jolts to the defense and recruiting. I do think there would be a little bit of turnover (probably a few assistants) if Cubit does get the head job. I think this staff can continue to recruit relatively well -- its expanded its reach into Texas and Florida -- if it has job security and another bowl game to sell. But they have really struggled to add defensive linemen.

Why wasn't targeting called on the hit on Geronimo? We've committed that same type of hit only to be thrown the penalty flag. That hit looked very malicious.  - from HHSIllini

Targeting includes initiating contact with the crown of the helmet ("No player shall target and initiate contact against an opponent with the crown (top) of his helmet. When in question, it is a foul.") or contacting the ead of neck area of a defenseless receiver (No player shall target and initiate contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent with the helmet, forearm, fist, elbow or shoulder. When in question, it is a foul.")

Targeting is defined as "to take aim at an opponent for purposes of attacking with an apparent intent that goes beyond making a legal tackle or a legal block or playing the ball."

The Iowa safety came at Allison low and with his shoulder pad. Allison ducked low and the Iowa defender's shoulder pad drove hard into his helmet. It was a vicious hit, but the Iowa player did not look like he was trying to do anything but make a play on the ball. Of course, this is a judgement call. But after reviewing the play, I think the officials made the right judgment. The hit was another reminder that football is a violent game, and Saturday's game had a lot of violent hits.

Can you provide an update or timeline on when we may expect any of the injured players returning? - from Geo408

If Mikey Dudek (torn ACL), Justin Hardee (broken foot) and Jamal Milan (knee sprain) don't play against Wisconsin next week, expect all to redshirt -- Milan with a medical redshirt. I think the Dudek decision is all but final.

As for Josh Ferguson, it sounds like a week-to-week deal with that shoulder right now. He's passed the point of another medical redshirt (he took one his freshman season), so when he's cleared by doctors he will play. I doubt he plays against Wisconsin, though.

It's likely too early to make judgments, but I have to believe our offensive line ranks near the bottom of the conference. Lack of any running game and protection of the immobile Lunt have been weak.

Defensive line received some judos from the board following the first two B1G games, but the fact remains that Canzeri ran for 256 yards which is kinda ridiculous. Our LBs and safeties looked slow in run support so maybe it's not entirely on the DL.

How would you rate our offensive and defensive lines against conference counterparts? - from thestilt

I think the offensive line is near the bottom of the Big Ten in run blocking. They just lack the size and strength up front to compete with Big Ten defensive lines like Iowa, Wisconsin, Penn State and Ohio State. But I think you're really harsh on the pass blocking. The Illini rank top-30 in the country in QB sacked percentage. The offensive tackles usually are left on isalnds and have done a really good job of protection, and Joe Spencer (not a strong run blocker) is really good at communicating blitzes with Lunt and the rest of his o-line. I think two of the three sacks by Iowa were coverage sacks.

The defensive line is vastly improved but it is a thin group. It wore down in the second half against Iowa. Canzeri's 75-yard touchdown was a failure of the second level (either in the play call of the execution). The defensive line has been aggressive and disruptive -- 14th in the country in TFLs -- and covers a lot of ground. The Illini linebackers and secondary don't have a lot of speed though, and it's an issue that must be fixed with recruiting. The freshmen LBs -- like Julian Jones and Justice Williams -- flash some speed but aren't ready to contribute yet.

I think the Illini offensive line in totality is probably one of the bottom five groups, though it is better than Penn State and Purdue and maybe better than Maryland -- and possibly a very, very young Wisconsin group?

I think the Illini starting defensive line is probably between 8-10 in the Big Ten, but that's a vast improvement. They were easily No. 14 the last two seasons.

We are no longer alone on the list of programs in interim head coach limbo.  Does the addition of more prestigious impending openings at USC and, well, USC, impact the situation and search at Illinois in any way?  Are we now in a position that we have to wait and see who's left after USC and USC make their choices? - from Kitt2Whit

I did a video on this and got some other opinions on this in a post the other day.

The USCs have little to no effect on Illinois. USC is a blue blood and should put a call into some of the best coaches interested in a college gig. South Carolina has a bunch of resources and the pull of the SEC. If I were them, I'd throw a bunch of money at Memphis' Justin Fuente, who I've always thought was a shoot-for-the-moon candidate for the illini.

Maryland is the one who could have an impact on the Illini. Illinois has a more storied history and a more manageable division. But Maryland has the UnderArmour founder bankrolling the program with the idea of making it the Oregon of the East. Those resources might interest a candidate enough to overlook the annual games against Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Penn State.

As I wrote earlier, Illinois should have its hire within days of the Northwestern game. It has all season to make its decision.

What is the deal with TE's and the lack of using them?  This has seemed to be a recurring complaint even back to the Zook days when we had these talented NFL caliber TE's but never used them. Cubits offense looks like a TE with hands could be really successful.  I know White was out but is now back.  He was getting some good plays early in the season when we were spreading the ball out more.  Are we trying to hold or TEs back to give Lunt more pass protection, or are we just not throwing to them?

I never understood why a team like Iowa and Miami is known for using their TEs not so much elsewhere that I am aware of although I know those aren't the only two.  You are always going to have a mismatch and its a big target for a QB. In todays game there are so many very mobile big TE's that concentrate much more on offense, just surprised we dont target them more with the issues we have had with virtually our entire WR corps. - from tmbenne

Illinois has had some good tight ends that it didn't use enough: Michael Hoomanawanui (though he's a better blocker than receiver), Jeff Cumberland and Matt LaCosse. The problem is that Illinois doesn't have really good tight ends right now, and it doesn't have enough of them.

The Illini used Tyler White and Tim Clary a lot early on in their double tight end package. But Clary is likely lost for the season with a hand injury. White got most of his targets in the 12 personnel, and now, Cubit doesn't have enough confidence in Andrew Davis, Nathan Echard or Ainslie Johnson to run that package as much. Cubit mostly uses a four wide receiver set now because they are most effective in that package. The problem is it's less effective in the red zone. Also, for what it's worth, White has displayed less than stellar hands in practices and scrimmages. He's a good blocker though.

With the progress shown this year so far, how much better of a position is this program in for the next head coach coming in than when Beckman took it over? - from tmiller33

I made reference to this earlier, but I think Beckman raised the floor of this program. When accounting for walk ons, this team is made up of a majority of upperclassmen. When Beckman took over, he had about 25-30 upperclassmen. Now, the program has about 50-60. The team has many more players who redshirted so it is older, stronger, wiser. The team has a nice collection of depth at receiver and running back (though it's banged up right now). The offensive line is starting to look more and more like a Big Ten depth chart.

The major issues remain depth on the defensive line -- it gets scary in 2017 -- and the lack of speed at linebacker and in the secondary. I think the Illini defense may take a big step back after 2016. But the offense could be pretty good for the foreseeable future, assuming an effective quarterback steps up after Lunt.

Beckman had many faults. But he did leave this program with a deeper, better roster than he inherited. If Cubit leads the team to a bowl and is not named the head coach, he would leave the program on an upward trajectory. But the next coach still has challenges, especially with the long-term future of the defensive line.

Thanks for all the questions!

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