Jeremy Werner

Easterling: All Things Illini Mailbag

Illini Inquirer football reporter Ryan Easterling answers your questions on all things Illini as well as a few other sports odds and ends in this week's mailbag.

Easterling Mailbag Questions & Answers:


What are your expectations heading into spring ball especially on the defensive side since we lost so much?


The defense is going to look much different than it did last year.  No more Jihad Ward (potential 1st round pick), no more Clayton Fejedelem (a leading tackler), no more Mason Monheim (see Fejedelem), no more V’Angelo Bentley or Eaton Spence (both starting corners), and no TJ Neal (the incumbent captain on defense).  If that last list seems grim, it should.  That’s a LOT of talent to lose.  Throw in the couple of linebackers who transferred as well, and the defense took a big hit.


Now, what they do have is a very particular set of skills.. oh wait, wrong movie.. Let’s try this again.. What they do have coming back is experience on the defensive line.  Despite losing Ward, Illinois is still going to have a solid defensive line, led by Chunky Clements, Rob Bain, and the guy who I think has the most NFL potential in Dawuane Smoot.  Throw in edge rushers like Carroll Phillips and new transfer Gimel President, and the Illinois line should be fairly good.


Defensive back and linebacker are a different story, but the word I would use is “unproven”.  I think they have some good pieces, not a lot of depth, and a big question mark next to their group.  Can Caleb Day parlay that elite athleticism into being the safety everyone has been hoping for?  Can some of these young linebackers, perhaps even freshmen, step in and step up early?  Can Jaylen Dunlap finally reach his potential?  What impact will Ahmari Hayes have?  Lots of uncertainty in the back, but if the D Line can generate pressure, it will make life easier on the rest of the defense.


Who are potential under the radar players you think could possibly have a huge impact on the Football team?


Part of this could depend on injuries.  IF both Dudek and Hardee stay healthy, Illinois may not need receivers to step in right away and be impact players, but one guy who flashed early then faded out fast was Sam Mays last year.  He’s a great athlete and has serious range, but his tentativeness and lack of confidence last year cost him.  Hopefully a strong spring could catapult him into a firm spot in the rotation.  If not, a guy like Dominic Thieman could leapfrog him in the position group.  Two other guys sidelined last year with injuries who could both really have impact years are Dre Brown and Reggie Corbin.  The running back position took a beating last year, and losing those two guys really hampered depth.  Corbin is intriguing to me because of his shiftiness and acceleration, and Brown is just a great all-around athlete who had sewn up the #2 running back spot last spring before his injury.


On defense, I’m curious to see how Dunlap has progressed, but Illinois is going to need guys like Darius Moseley and Henry McGrew step up.  McGrew has flown under the radar for most of his college career so far, but could turn into a valuable rotation guy at either defensive end or linebacker.


Did the Cubit 2 year deal actually put Whitman in a bad spot to offer him an extension for an extra year seeing how our budget is a mess?


Would it be too cliché if it I said I thought it “wasn’t ideal”?  Part of Whitman’s job as AD is to be a fundraiser as well as an executive of the athletic department at Illinois.  If he believes he has a coach who can come in and win, then he not only needs to secure that coach, but also acquire the financial backing to make that change.  A one-year deal would have been a mess, too, but the silver lining of the two year deal is that the buyout isn’t substantial.  It hurts recruiting, especially from a perception standpoint, but AD’s have a quick trigger finger these days, so coaches are expected to perform, and if not, they are being let go at unseen rates.


Do I think Whitman extends Cubit?  Maybe if he really puts a good product out on the field.  But another year of that anemic offense, injuries or not, and I don’t know how he can justify it.  Whitman has made it very clear that he is committed to winning and believes in having the right people.  If he doesn’t feel like he has the right people, I don’t think he would hesitate to make a change for the best interests of Illinois.


How do you view the ILL Football and Basketball jobs? Meaning, would it be hard for Whitman to get somebody that will get the fan base pumping with excitement or this is truly a very difficult Head Coaching job in both sports.


The perception of Illinois’ revenue athletics has definitely taken a downturn the last decade or so.  Illinois has traditionally been labeled as a “basketball school” but has also had some strong football years here and there.  Any time you are in the position of having to recruit coaches to an athletic department that has endured as much turmoil as Illinois has in recent years, you fight an uphill battle. 


Josh Whitman is 37 and has very little D1 administration experience, but many within Illinois view him as a quality hire because he possesses a lot of great character and intellectual traits.  What I think endears him most to the fanbase alumni though, is that he IS an Illini.  Being an Illini guy isn’t necessarily an automatic ticket to success, just like Brady Hoke being a “Michigan Man” didn’t make him sustainably successful at Michigan.  But Whitman takes pride in being at Illinois, because he was a part of the program.  And I think that level of pride is something he will use in building the athletic department back up. 


Do I expect Whitman to make a hasty move? Not at all.  Mike Thomas, when you really look at it, was Hogan’s axe-man.  He fired the head coach of the football, mens basketball, and womens basketball teams in a matter of months.  But Whitman also doesn’t strike me as the type of guy who will sit around and be satisfied with his alma mater being mediocre.  I mean, he was part of Illinois teams that beat Ohio State.  My guess is that if/when he conducts coaching searches for football and basketball, that he will try to find someone with a passion and energy for Illinois who has pride in the state of Illinois.


What is the staff doing differently to address in state recruiting woes of the recent past?  And/or are they focusing more in state than the last couple of years?


One of the big things is how many offers Illinois has put out over the last few weeks to prospects in Illinois.  In the past, Illinois waited to offer several of what you might call the “mid-level” guys (a.k.a. 3-star guys who they offered late and ended up elsewhere in previous years).  The fact that they are extending a lot of offers now and not just focusing on the top shelf shows a commitment to in-state recruiting that they haven’t necessarily had in previous years. 


The timing has helped as well.  It would have done more harm than good to say that you will be more committed to recruiting the state in 2017 and then throw out a boatload of offers to places like Florida, Philly, Texas, etc. and then neglect the state of Illinois.  Part of that commitment has already paid dividends with a pledge from Libertyville DT Ryan O’Malley, and if they continue to show dedication to the state, it would be hard to believe that he will be the last to commit before his senior season.


We've heard that Mike Thomas had a reputation and/or personality that may have turned off potential coaching hires. That's the rumor anyway. The new AD seems to be a much more friendly, likable guy. Also, as an Illini alum he seems to have more support from the alumni base, including former athletes, than Thomas had. Do you see Whitman having an advantage over Thomas because of these apparent factors when it comes to attracting new coaches (if and when that time comes)?


Mike Thomas wasn’t nearly as charismatic as Josh Whitman.  The two are really pretty night and day from each other in that regard.  Thomas, as many had pointed out during the AD search, was an outsider, a guy who they hired from Cincinnati and was really just filling a business role in the athletic department.  He had no personal attachment to Illinois, and because of that, I don’t think he was emotionally invested at Illinois as Whitman will be.


I think one of the biggest issues Thomas had was that he focused more on the facilities in which the teams played rather than the players who played in those facilities.  Did the Illinois facilities need upgraded? Absolutely.  But in his quest to renovate the major athletic facilities at Illinois, he seemed to lose track of the reason that people pay money to sit in the seats in those venues.


Thomas did make some good coaching hires in his past.  But his failures at Illinois will damage his track record.  And I do think his personality was a hindrance in really bringing in a quality coach at Illinois.  He was generally non-committal in publicly supporting struggling coaches and didn’t ever strike me as an overly positive person in general.


Whitman’s biggest struggle in attracting a top-tier coaching candidate may just be his breadth of connections, or lack thereof.  He seems to have the personality to close the deal if the right coach is interested and appears to be the type of boss that a coach would feel confident about having his back. 


have you heard how Dee and Josh are working together? I hope Dee is excited about working with Josh.


I haven’t heard too much outside of some of the publicity provided through the Illinois social media outlets.  Keep in mind, the two have only been working together for the last few days, but both have definitely been making their rounds.  I think where those two find common ground is in their passion for the university of Illinois.  Both are grateful for the opportunity they had at Illinois, and both take deep pride in making their alma mater great again, even if the current circumstances are discouraging.


I think both being around the same age gives them a connection, too.  Should they be successful long term, they would essentially be the next generation of alumni who could make a lasting impact on their alma mater.  Dee hasn’t kept it a secret that he has aspirations to get into coaching, and that may even take him away from Illinois for a while, but right now, the two appear to have a pretty dynamic partnership.  I see the two working very well together for those reasons.


IL basketball big ten tournament seeds under Groce 8, 9, 8, 12 (appears to be this year). Do you think if IL remains the 12 seed Groce is retained? Assuming Josh Whitman wants a new coach who would he be looking at? And do you think Dee Brown is a must hire (either a no brainier or you have to hire) for Groce if he stays or a new coach?


Prior to the Indiana game on Thursday, I was leaning more toward Groce being back next year, but that game was a total woodshed debacle.  I’ve said this numerous times that no one envies the injuries and setbacks Groce’s teams have had.  They’re playing without a full deck of cards.  But the total lack of competitiveness on the court is brutal.


Even in his better years with healthy rosters, Groce has still failed to have the team in the top half of the Big Ten.  The more time that passes, the more it looks like Groce may not have been ready to handle the rigors of being a head coach in the Big Ten.  Do I think Groce himself is a good coach?  Yeah.  But his inexperience in surrounding himself with the right balance of assistants and developing an organized system that will produce positive results.


If Groce is let go at the end of the year, the guy I have long thought would make sense as a replacement is Valpo’s Bryce Drew.  It would be a pretty big jump from the Horizon League to the B1G, but Drew has produced a consistent winner at Valpo, and has a respected former Illini on his staff in Roger Powell.  He may need to add some experience to his assistant pool to handle the challenge of being in the Big Ten, but he makes a lot of sense and could potentially hire Brown to join his staff.  Having Brown and Powell on the recruiting trail might just help overcome some of the recent recruiting woes.


What names are you hearing for the final 3 scholarships for 2016? Were there any walks this year that might be worthy of one of the 3 remaining scholarships?


One was already taken by 5th year senior transfer Gimel President, so the count is down to two.  With President’s commitment, Illinois won’t continue pursuing Elijah Camara.  They would like to add another receiver in this class, and are targeting a couple of available prospects at the position.


Another possible target is Coffeyville (KS) DT Bently Easley, a JUCO defensive tackle with a few offers who would be a summer enrollee.  Though the interior of the defensive line may not be the highest priority, he would be a welcome addition for when Bain and Clements graduate.


If you had to guess who and when will be the first commitment (other than the RB from Florida) to next year's class?


Hmmm, I would have to guess Ryan O’Malley.. ok I cheated.  But if I had to pick the next one, I’d probably say someone from the state of Illinois.  Is that a cop out? Yeah, but with a lot of offers going out to in-state prospects, I wouldn’t be surprised to see one of those guys jump on an offer and commit.  And if Illinois can get momentum rolling in-state, then it could snowball into something positive.


As for who I think they should really push to try and land? They have good in-roads with Marist LB Micah Awodiran, whose sister is at Illinois.  Land him, and your chances likely increase with guys like Ricky Smalling, a fellow Chicago Catholic League guy and one of the best all-around receivers in the state, if not the Midwest.


in title last year before TB was let go,   Ryan Cubit was the Recruiting Coordinator.  Now that he is the OC.   Who is the RC now?


I don’t know that anything has been officially announced yet, but it sure seems like Jeff Hecklinski has assumed the recruiting coordinator duties.  He has a good track record as a recruiter, and without having the demand of being a coordinator, he has the time to dedicate to organizing the recruiting effort.


Do you think Fred Hoiberg might be available for the 2017-18 season?


Maybe.  The Bulls are lacking identity.  And though Hoiberg did well at Iowa State, he has struggled to parlay his success at the college level to the pros.  Very few college coaches are quickly successful at the professional level.  Billy Donovan just happened to inherit two of the best players in the NBA in Oklahoma city.  But Brad Stevens is still working his way through some struggles in Boston,  and Hoiberg could be in for much of the same himself.  It isn’t making things any easier on Hoiberg with Gar Forman not giving him any help from a roster standpoint, either.


I'm going to say it here I really don't think Charlie Moore is going to stay with Memphis. Pastner is more than likely going to be let go and I know for a fact that Moore is regretting not committing to ILL. I get a lot of people won't confirm this publicly but I knew this would happen. What IF he reaches out to ILL, do you feel Groce should entertain it? What would you do?


IF Pastner is let go, and IF Moore wants out of his LOI, and IF Groce (or Parham) isn’t let go, then maybe Illinois reaches out.  Illinois needs point guards, and I could see certain situations where Moore and Te’Jon Lucas could co-exist on the floor for stretches where Illinois wants to run.  But a lot would have to fall into place for anything like that to happen.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see Moore end up at DePaul if he gets out of his LOI, just because he may want to stay closer to home and may not consider Illinois the second time around, even if he regretted not committing the first time.


What are your thoughts on Black's situation? Also, is Mike Thorne out for the season? 


I hesitate to pass judgment on someone until the legal process has run its course.  However, if Black did do what he was accused of, then it was a serious lapse in judgment on his part and not something I ever expected out of him.  These guys are young and make mistakes, but pulling a knife on a bouncer, even if he treats your girlfriend in a way that he shouldn’t, is inexcusable.  I’d like to know if all of the details of the altercation have come out, or if there was more to it that would have led Black to do what he was accused of, but if he is found guilty of the offense (a class 4 felony), then I don’t see how Groce has any choice but to dismiss him from the team.  But again, that’s a decision that’s made after the legal process has played out.


As for Thorne, I’m not holding my breath for him to be back this season.  Given how the experiment of playing him after his injury went, I don’t see much reason to be optimistic about his return.  On top of that, bringing him back at this point in the year when a losing record is imminent does him no good, either.  His best course of action is probably to sit out, get healthy, heal properly, rehabilitate properly, and give it another go next year.  That is, if he’s granted another year.

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