Q&A with new Illini offensive coordinator Garrick McGee

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner caught up with new Illinois offensive coordinator Garrick McGee to discuss his draw to Lovie Smith, his offensive philosophy, his new players and recruiting.

When I saw you were going to be the offensive coordinator hire, I went, 'Woah, Lovie Smith means business here at Illinois.' You left a great situation at Louisville under Bobby Petrino. What drew you to Illinois and Lovie Smith?

Garrick McGee: "I think it's going to be the same thing that draws recruits to our program and draws a lot more supporters to our program. The way coach Smith goes about his business, you just want to be around him. You can see good things happening with anything he's connected to. That's how it's always been. I think that was the biggest selling point to me."

You're in the coaching business and know that Illinois has struggled. What kind of impact can the hire of Lovie have for a struggling program like Illinois?

McGee: "I think it's huge for any program to hire a coach this caliber that has had this much success. But when it's within the same state that he took the pro team to the Super Bowl (the Chicago Bears), I think that's going to create instant excitement from not only our fans and our program but from high school programs and high school recruits across the state as well."

How would you describe your offense?

McGee: "It's a multiple offense. We like to say it's a multiple pro-style offense, which means that we use multiple personnel groupings, multiple formations to try to disguise our base concepts. You'll see different guys running on and off the field changing personnel groupings, but if you really pay attention to what's going on, we're really just trying to run our base concepts but make them look totally different every single snap."

You've had seasons where you pass a lot. You've had years where you run more. What's your philosophy on balancing the run and pass?

McGee: "The more balanced you are, the best opportunity you have to win because it keeps the defensive coordinator off-balance. It keeps the defensive front at a point where they have to defend the run and have to defend the pass. If you ever become one-dimensional at anything nowadays, coaches are good enough to stop that. So you always want to be multiple and keep a good balance. All of that is clinic talk. It's offseason talk. When you get in a game in the second half and give yourself an opportunity to win, at that point you do what you have to do to win. That's based on where the score is, what's going on with the clock. It's based on how your quarterback's playing. It's based on if you can handle the defensive front. If you can't handle the defensive front, then you really need to run some draw schemes and some quick passing game. If you can handle the defensive front, it may give you more opportunities to drop back or play-action pass down the field. I know coaches all over the world get on radio and get on television and talk about, 'This is what we're going to do.' And then you get into the season, and that's not what' s going on, and you question, 'Wait a minute, that's not what he said.' But I think what happens is you get into the game and you get yourself in the second half with an opportunity to win, and at that point, you got to decide what's best for us to win this game that we're playing. It may be we need to finish this off running. It may be that we're behind and we got to speed up and start tempo-ing and spread out and throw the ball more than normal. So I think after you get late into the game, you just have to figure a way to win the game."

I was going to ask if you've had time to watch film of some of your new players, but I don't even know if you've had time. What have these last couple days been like? What have you been able to do? I'm sure your family's arrangements are up in the air right now, and then you actually just have to get to work and do a job because you guys are behind a bit.

McGee: "We came in on Friday, spent some time in the office. Saturday we had a really good day in the office watching a lot of our video from last season, watching our quarterbacks play, watching our three returning (starting) offensive linemen, watching these receivers that have played and we got a couple tight ends who have played games. Just watching the game tape, watching their movements, how they compete. At the same time, you're trying to study defense, Big Ten defense. What is the defensive schemes in the Big Ten? They're a little bit different in the SEC. They're a little bit different in the ACC. What is the culture in the Big Ten in regards to defensive structure? At this point, it's an extreme situation. You're just trying to get to know your players, trying to get to know them as athletes, who are they as athletes and then when they're around the office, trying to sit down with them and have some conversation.

"You know, these kids have went through a lot in the last year or so. For them to hang in there, continue to stick together as a team. They're still working really hard. They were in the weight room (Monday) morning and doing some testing. They had a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of energy. I give those kids a lot of credit for sticking together and continuing to grind while all of this was going on around them. This happened so late. I really applaud some kids."

I'm hoping you looked back to the 2014 tape and saw wide receiver Mikey Dudek. He's a pretty good one, coach.

McGee: "I did. I remember him from high school. I had a couple of my buddies who are offensive coordinators in the Big Ten, Once they found out I was coming here, they called me and said, 'Hey, there's a guy there who hurt his leg and he's on that team and he is fantastic.' Now, the picture I saw of him, he had long hair then, so he cut his hair. He looks totally different. I actually like the short hair better. That's what I told him."

I told him the same thing. It was his injury hair though, coach.

McGee: "But I definitely remember him."

The other guy I wanted to ask you about has a lot of similarities to a guy you coached, Ryan Mallett who obviously had a lot of success as a quarterback at Arkansas with you. I see a lot of that in senior Wes Lunt. He's a big-armed quarterback, can make all the throws but he's limited with his mobility. What do you see initially in him and does he have any similarities to Ryan Mallett?

McGee: "I think you're right. Our offense has been flexible enough that we've been able to have success with guys like Ryan MallettTyler Wilson and Kyle Bolin. And then we've also been able to have success with Lamar Jackson and Reggie Bonnafon and these guys that are athletic. That's what I mean by being a multiple offense. You definitely see that Wes' skillset is more of Ryan Mallett, Kyle Bolin and Tyler Wilson than it is Lamar Jackson. We're in the process of installation and making sure they're learning the basics. But as a coaching staff, we're trying to figure out which style we're going to go with to have a chance to win next year and it's going to be more of Mallett style, for sure."

You recruited big backs to Louisville. Are there certain traits you want out of certain positions?

McGee: "You say 'yes' but you never pass up an elite player. I would like to say we want to hand the ball to our big tailback and let him wear the defense down. We like tailbacks with big thighs and big hips that defenders late in the game bounce off of them. They're able to carry the ball multiple times in games. That's what we would like. But if an elite player that's a smaller guy but he's competitive and he has the potential to change everything for us, then we're not ever going to turn down a great player. But on paper, I think people would say we like big, physical running backs and hammer the defense. And that's how Big Ten ball is played. This is a physical conference. It's won at the line of scrimmage. When you get to late October and early November, the weather starts to change. It could be wet out there. That's what Big Ten football is all about. I was really fortunate to be up there (at Northwestern) with Coach Walker (Randy Walker) and Fitz (Pat Fitzgerald) and have a good understanding of what the Big Ten's like. This is a conference that is physical. You win the game at the line of scrimmage."

Everyone's bringing up that Lovie Smith's been out of the college game for 20 years and how is he going to recruit. But he recruited you, coach, when he was at Arizona State. How did he sell you as a recruit and do you think he'll do the same thing two decades later?

McGee: "I told him the other day that he'll have more problems with unbalanced offensive formations -- because you can't have unbalanced formations in the NFL -- than he'll have with recruiting. I mean the guy is a people person. He likes people. He's a comfortable guy to be around when you're just having a conversation with him. He makes you feel like you're important -- anybody that he's talking to. And that's what recruiting is all about. I've heard that a lot, that, 'Coach has been in the NFL for so long, how is he going to handle recruiting?' Well, he's one of the best guys that I've ever known in regards of developing and maintaining relationships. I think that that's what recruiting is about. You have to develop relationships with high school coaches, the prospects and their parents, and you have to get those people to trust that you have their kids' best interests in mind. You need to get the parent, the high school coach and the kid to believe, 'This is where I want to go to school because I trust the leadership in this program and I think he really cares about the development of the student-athlete.' If that's the case, then there may not be a better guy out that can make people feel comfortable more than Coach Smith can. I'm really looking forward to it. I told some recruits, 'I cannot wait to come into your home and have Lovie Smith with me. We're going to knock your family out of the park. You're coming here, buddy. You better believe you're coming here.'

"We had a relationship. He and my dad had a relationship. We had a lot of guys come in my home back then and talk with us, but Coach Smith came in and started recruiting me. My dad just said, 'We trust this guy. What he's saying is the truth. He's not a car salesman who's just telling you what you need to hear so that he can get you to come to his program. You can trust everything he's saying.' And that's what recruiting's all about to this day."

Last one for you. You were a head coach at UAB for a couple years. What'd you learn most from that experience?

McGee: "That it really has helped me a lot just to develop and grow in the business. It opens your eyes to all the different elements of a program. There's a lot more that goes on than the quarterback taking the snap from the center, dropping five steps and throwing a touchdown. There's a lot. There's the marketing staff. There's the sports information staff. There's the athletic training. Just every piece of a program has to be connected together for you to consider having success. That's what I learned most. It just really opened my eyes up to all the different elements of a football program that have to be clicking on all cylinders for you to consider having success. Then it really helped me out now that I'm an assistant coach again, understanding what a head coach needs from his assistant coaches. When certain issues come up in the office, what does a head coach need from his assistants or how do you take issues off the head coach's desk? Be a problem solver. Come to the head coach with solutions. He has to understand all the problems that are going on, but don't put a problem on his desk without providing a solution also. He may not do your solution, but at least you're not just piling problems on his desk. I think that that's what Coach Petrino respected from me, that I saw that part of it and I tried to always be a problem solver. Hopefully that will continue."

Well, I know fans are excited again about Illinois football.

McGee: "Well, we got a lot of work to do. We got a lot of work to do before we fill that stadium up."

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