USA Today // Brad Rempel

Werner mailbag: Feb. 7

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner answers Illini fans questions

What is the disconnect between Shannon Ryan's article stating that Craig Tiley had interviewed versus Mike Cation's statement that he had not? Is it a question of whether he's a candidate or just of whether he actually received an interview in Indy?

I cannot comment much on other reporters' reporting because I don't know their sources. I can tell you that Shannon Ryan is a great reporter and has been on top of Illinois athletics as well as any reporter out there (i.e. the Bill Cubit contract). Ryan's sources appeared to tell her that Tiley interviewed but didn't seem to clarify whether he was in Indianapolis. Cation, who has spent a lot of time around the Illinois tennis program the past few decades, refuted that rumor that he was in Indy. Both could still be correct.

Whenever there is a huge demand for news, there is a huge pressure to report news. This is a stressful time for us reporters -- I'm including myself here -- to put out what we've heard. But we are taught to put out what we know. Ryan has sources she trusts. Others, like Mark Tupper and Loren Tate, have sources they trust. All have different motives and agendas. I side on caution when reporting news like this. And this search has been crazier than most given that their is an interim chancellor leading the search, boosters involved, a vocal board of trustees and two coaching decisions for the newest AD to make within his first year.

Still, it's almost over. I'm hearing the new AD should be announced the middle of next week (Tuesday or Wednesday) barring a surprise. But this search has been full of surprises, which is why it has been difficult to cover.


Should we expect to hear about a few walk ons fairly soon ? 

We always heard how Lunt loved to throw it to Zach Grant , and how Grant has great hands , yet we NEVER hear a word about him . Does he get reps in practice & is he still just too buried on the depth chart ?

Zach Grant is a fine football player, but he was a walk-on for a reason. This whole "chemistry" thing with Lunt is a bit -- OK, a lot -- overblown. You know what supercedes chemistry? Quickness, physical strength, speed, height. Lunt would rather be throwing to Mikey Dudek, Des Cain or Malik Turner than Grant. Grant is buried on the depth chart and will have a tough time cracking the two-deep with Dudek and Justin Hardee back and freshman Dominic Thieman and M.J. McGriff entering the program -- and possibly a fifth-year transfer who can contribute right away.

Some walk ons to watch? Senior linebacker/defensive back Cedric Doxy appeared ready to contribute as a STAR, but with the change in defensive schemes, he appears less of a fit and relegated to subpackages and special teams. Nathan Echard is moving from RB to LB and could play a bit if the scholarship players in front of him struggle. He's got the size and physicality Illinois wants. If there are injuries on the front line, defensive end Brandon Roberts could play. Punter Luke Nelson could get a chance if Ryan Frain struggles.

Best player on Offense and Defense this upcoming season? 

On offense, it's Mikey Dudek assuming he's healthy. But with a stable of healthy receivers, this is Wes Lunt's year. And Ke'Shawn Vaughn is ready to carry the load. The Illini have plenty of skill players.

Currently rostered FB player with the biggest chance of a surprise impact?

I'm assuming no incoming freshmen, but I'll give you a few. TE Andrew Davis: I haven't given up on him yet, and with 10-15 added pounds, he can be a productive pass catcher. Would Carroll Phillips be a surprise? Maybe not. But I think his impact/production could. I can see him as a guy who approaches double-digit sacks. CB Jaylen Dunlap needs to be this team's No. 1 corner. He has the size, physicality and athleticism. And safety Patrick Nelson enters spring camp as a starter at safety after missing his true freshman season with a torn ACL. He can hit hard.

New FB coach with the most to prove (Excepting the Cubits)?

Besides the Cubits, it's easily Mike Phair. Not as a DL coach. We know he's good there. But how does he put his imprint as the full-control defensive coordinator? He's unproven in that role, but this is his chance to make a big leap in his career. He's spent most of his time coaching just defensive linemen. How does he handle basically being the head coach of half the locker room?

What are you looking for in Spring Ball this year?

Here's a quick list: 1) How Dudek and Hardee look against contact; 2) The maturation of Gabe Megginson and Nick Allegretti at guard; 3) Depth on the defensive line (Jamal MilanTeko Powell and Henry McGrew); 4) Who the heck can be counted on in the back seven?.

How many days off does Groce give the kids this week?

I don't have his exact practice schedule, but they usually get a day off per week and a few days of light work. This season, he's been especially careful with how much and how hard to practice. Do I think he works his guys too hard (I think that's what this question is getting at)? No. But we aren't allowed to see practice, so I don't know for sure.


In recent years, there have been recruits who have committed to the Illini early in the recruiting cycle.  Do we have any 2017 recruiting targets that stand out as getting ready to commit to the Illini?

I'm guessing you mean football here. It is really early, but they have built good relationships with wide receivers Isaiah Robertson and Ricky Smalling, both four-star recruits. Mike Bellamy has done a good job there, and they seem attracted to doing it for their home state school. Jeff Thomas has interest but he's a possibly five-star guy and will have his pick of programs. A guy with the potential to pop early? Big in-state OT Isaac Hawn.


I'm going down the rabbit hole here a little bit, but would be your top realistic hires if Groce is fired? 

What would it take to get Archie Miller or Chris Mack on the Illini sideline as the next head coach?

I would very much like to see an analysis of which coaches would realistically be options if Groce is not the coach after this season. 

I have heard that Bryce Drew is interested in the Illinois job if it opens up. Have you heard this rumor?

I figured I'd attack all of these at the same time.

If the Illinois basketball job opens up again, we'll certainly hear conversations of whether it is a "great job" or a "top-15 job." Here's my take: Illinois is a potentially great job (we've seen that with Henson, Kruger and Self and the early Weber years) but it has a bunch of challenges that other programs don't have to deal with (the state of Illinois dysfunction, Chicago basketball circles, really high expectations, etc.).

Illinois cannot just expect to get the top candidates. We saw that in 2011 when Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens passed on the job despite then being at mid-majors. Neither wanted to deal with the challenges of Illinois when they knew other great opportunities would come along. Plus, mid-major coaches don't have to jump at the first big job. Those programs -- like VCU and Butler -- are paying their coaches high-major like money. They also are experiencing high-major success. Coaches no longer have to go high-major to have great succcess, both in the tournament and financially.

That brings me to Archie Miller and Chris Mack.  Both make good money (Miller close to $700,000 and Mack close to $1.1 million). Miller has won four NCAA Tournament games the previous two seasons, including a run to the 2014 Elite Eight. Mack has made three Sweet Sixteens in his first five seasons at Xavier, his team is currently ranked No. 6 in the country and he has recruited two top-25 classes in the past three seasons. Honestly, why would he want to leave for the challenge that is Illinois?

I've heard neither Miller nor Mack would have much, if any, interest in Illinois. So I'd stop dreaming of them. "But Illinois could offer a bunch more money," you may say. Maybe. But the Illini finished in the red last year for the first time in a long time. There isn't as much money as some think, unless the new AD creates an infusion of money.

If Illinois were to make a chance, I think the realistic candidates starts with Valparaiso''s Bryce Drew. He's a Midwest guy, former college star, former NBA player and has a great resume at Valparaiso: 58-18 in the Horizon League, on his way to a fourth conference title in five years, on his way to his third NCAA Tournament in four years. He also makes just $300,000, so Illinois would provide a huge career and financial bump. And yes, I've heard he'd be interested. But other programs will be interested too, especially if Valpo wins a tournament game or two.

If Illinois made a change, I think it'd be good for them if Wisconsin holds onto Greg Gard. Wisconsin is the better, more attractive job right now.


If you were hired as the AD, what would you do at this point as far as Groce?  Same question for Cubit?  Extend, replace, vote of confidence.  No hiding!

I'll answer Cubit first. I'd add a two-year contract extension immediately with a small buyout (say $200,000 per season). This would give Cubit at least some ammo to fight the negative recruiting. And for the school, if he does well in 2016, you don't have to worry about a huge extension where he could demand a big raise.

As for Groce, I really don't know. Groce had a tough rebuilding job, and he's made mistakes. But he's also had the worst fortune of any coach I've seen. I honestly think I need to see the rest of the season. Momentum is important in coaching and recruiting. If the Illini finish 4-14 in conference, I think you have to make a change. If they battle back and have a good showing to close the season, then I think I give him the chance to recruit 2017 during the spring and summer and give him a make-or-break 2017. If it's somewhere in between (Illinois finishes 5-13 or 6-12), it might depend on who I think I can get on the market.


The same question the new AD should be asking:

Is Groce capable of turning the program around? Is there a reasonable chance of him doing so?

I think he's capable, but he must hit on the Class of 2017. He must get players like DaMonte Williams and Jordan Goodwin. He'll have the roster to make some noise next season. But his team must stay healthy, and he must get the most out of them. But this season can't be what 2012 was for Weber. The team must win some games and try to regain some momentum heading into the offseason to give fans and recruits some hope.


Jeremy what changes do you here coming in the strength and conditioning area?

Cubit is keeping S&C coach Aaron Hillman but he's switching up the philosophy. Beckman prioritized conditioning and agility work. Cubit wants to get bigger and take some offseason miles off their legs. It's fair to say Cubit seems to think Beckman overtrained his guys during the offseason and thinks it helped lead to the non-contact injuries during spring ball.

As for basketball, I really like S&C coach Adam Fletcher. He played the game. He knows what basketball players need, what they don't need. And if you look at him, you know he knows how to sculpt impressive bodies. I don't think he's been any reason for the injuries. He inherited most of those. I'm interested to see what he can do for Mav Morgan, Michael Finke, Jalen Coleman-Lands, D.J. Williams and Aaron Jordan during the offseason.



What kind of impact does Lucas give us next season? Ppg? Asst?

I think Illinois got a good one in Lucas. He's not Jalen Brunson or Jawun Evans but he could make a similar impact to what Glynn Watson is making at Nebraska. He understands the game, has a very good skill set and has an opening for a huge role. Despite his experience, Jaylon Tate likely will take a back seat to Lucas and we don't know how much the Illini can count on Tracy Abrams. I wouldn't be shocked to see Lucas average 6-8 points, 2-4 assists next season. Can you imagine what that'd mean to this team?


Is Tejon Lucas gone to another school if Groce is fired or did he commit to the school not the coach. Obviously, there is plenty of playing time available in either situation.

I don't know if he's certainly gone. He has an early path to playing time at Illinois, regardless of the coach. But he has more of a loyalty to the coach than the school. If Groce were fired and Illinois released Lucas of his letter of intent, (they likely would if he asks), Wisconsin likely would come after him hard.


A question was posed by another poster in a thread earlier this week...

Can you (or anyone) point to an example of a recruit that was denied admission at Illinois and was subsequently admitted to another Big Ten school? 

Man, you're putting me on the spot. Not off the top of my head. Illinois has higher admissions than others. They should allow a few exceptions per year, like they did before the "clout" scandal -- and be awarded or denied those spots based on the success of those exceptions -- so they can compete on the same level as their Big Ten peers. I think it is a challenge, and one the new AD should try to change, but I don't think it is one of the top three reasons Illinois is not currently winning.


With Rauner as Governor, hopefully a new strong AD and a new chancellor bringing a strong sports dynamic is there any chance or thought to bring the Chief back?

No. I know this is an emotional issue for many. The Chief was a part of the gameday tradition for generations of Illini fans. But the sooner they understand the Chief is gone for good, the better. Now, the university should absolutely stay away from the "Three-In-One."


Do you think that George or Tiley might not accept the job because of the lack of a permanent Chancellor?

I think it's an issue. Illinois went about this a bit backward. They decided on a coach before the athletics director was hired. They'll decide on an AD before a chancellor is hired. We all want to know who our boss is. I think it's especially important for George, who wants to know he has the power to change things he wants to change (admissions standards, etc.). Colorado has given him basically a blank slate to do what he wants to do. Illinois must do the same. Does president Timothy Killeen guarantee him that and hold his new UIUC chancellor to that promise? He should.


Who you got winning the Super Bowl?

At the beginning of the playoffs, I called Patriots-Cardinals. Eh, I was close, I guess. For some reason -- probably because they are the new team on the block -- I've doubted the Panthers all season. But they've won 18 of 19 games and dominated most of them. They have the NFL MVP, Cam Newton, a player who can beat you even when you do your job well. They have an opportunistic defense. I do think the Broncos defense is one of the best we've seen in recent memory, and I'm really interested to see how Wade Phillips attacks Cam. But I just don't think Peyton Manning and the Broncos offense can score enough...

I'm going Panthers 28, Broncos 23.


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