Werner Mailbag: April 7

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner answers members' Illinois football and basketball questions.

Football recruits (including 4 & 5 *'s) the Illini are in a good position with

I'm in the process of updating our Trending Meter. The highest rated prospect that I think Illinois is sitting well with? Brother Rice WR Ricky Smalling. Some in-state kids they've made quite an impression on: QB Cam Thomas (no offer), OL Kendrick Green (no offer) and John Mitchell (offer). If this staff confirms its high interest in OL Isaac Hawn, I think they have a great shot there. As for out-of-state prospects, I think most will have to visit campus before I'd say they're in great position.

I know Lovie and this staff are still getting their bearings, but is it fair to expect any commitments coming out of visits during spring practices?

Yeah, the Illini are behind. They are evaluating and reaching out to prospects and are putting together their preliminary board. They could probably land a few commitments if they wanted, but they want the right prospects and impact prospects. I'd say that in-state or regional prospects -- who can visit on unofficial visits -- are more likely to pop early than out-of-state prospects, but we'll see.

Which players so far in spring practice look like they've made the greatest strides physically in the last off-season? I think you've mentioned Gabe Megginson already, but who are the others that stand out?

Gabe Megginson and Adam Solomon looked like Big Ten offensive line prospects when they arrived last summer. They now look like Wisconsin offensive linemen. They will have their ups and downs early. Megginson also has great feet and athleticism. He looks like a pro. Solomon could be a road grader in a few years. Redshirt freshman center Zeke Martin also added some good weight. Dre Brown bulked up and looks like a Big Ten back. Mike Dudek, who of course suffered another knee injury, is yoked. Future difference-maker Jamal Milan has so much natural talent but looks a bit more rock-solid. I need to watch more of him, but it appears tight end Andrew Davis added at least a few pounds. He needed to add about 10-15. Chayce Crouch always has been a great-looking athlete, but Jimmy Fitzgerald also is strong and athletic.

One guy to watch this season: senior offensive tackle Austin Schmidt. He has phenomenal feet, long arms and added even more strength. He's a finesse guy, but he could be one of the better pass protectors in the Big Ten.

Now that Lovie has seen the team on the field, as far as next year goes is he:
a. super excited given the talent he inherited
b. optimistic given the talent he inherited
c. worried due to the talent he inherited
d. saying what the hell

Good question. I completely ruled out A and quickly ruled out B. I somewhat considered D -- which I think was Tim Beckman's repsonse when he saw Ron Zook's underclassmen in 2012 --  but I'm going to go with C. I do think Beckman strengthened the team's depth, for the most part. But Illinois still is among the bottom six in talent among Big Ten teams. They aren't last. Purdue is in a category by itself there. But they're in the mix with Rutgers, Maryland, Minnesota and Indiana. None of those teams are contenders, including Illinois, due to that lack of talent. But all those teams are capable of going to bowl games.

Illinois must upgrade its size up front, the last staff was starting to do that on the offensive line but has left a poor defensive line depth chart beyond 2017. Bill Cubit's staff did a nice job of filling future holes in the secondary, at linebacker and in the secondary. Running backs and receivers tend to be easy to find. There are options at quarterback. But the defense needs more athletes and more speed across the board. It's going to be a multi-year process to upgrade these aspects, just like it was under Ron Zook. I just have more confidence in this coaching staff's coaching ability.

Has Baby Scheelhaase been born yet?!

Not yet, but it could happen any day now. Baby Scheelhaase's due date is in a week. Best wishes to Nathan and Morgan Scheelhaase! With my baby expected in about 19 weeks, I'll have to get some dad tips from Nate.

Do you have a comp for Dre Brown? I've never seen him play but hoping he can contribute as the RB2.

Good question. I try to stay away rom NFL names to rein in expectations, but he kind of reminds me of James White of Wisconsin. Not ridiculously big or strong but he's bulked up over the past year and is 5-foot-11, 205 pounds. He's not the fastest, but he's a long strider. I think he was a great fit for Bill Cubit's zone-blocking run scheme. How he fits in Garrick McGee's more power run game will be interesting. But Brown is a long strider with good one-cut ability. He's more of a finesse runner at this point than power runner. I'm interested to see how he responds to the pounding of the Big Ten. But he won the No. 2 job last spring -- before the ACL injury -- for a reason. He's a Big Ten quality back, and -- assuming health -- I expect him to have a good year and career.

Does mcgee have a wildcat package like cubit used with crouch last year?

I'm not afraid to talk about personnel things I see from practice, but one of the tradeoffs of being able to watch some practice is that I don't publicize specific plays, etc. But McGee likes dual-threat quarterbacks who can make plays outside the pocket. That said, Wes Lunt gives Illinois the best chance to win, just like the immobile Ryan Mallett did for Arkansas in McGee's first year as OC there. Will he run a wildcat package with Crouch -- who reminds me physically of Jordan Lynch (that offense won't work in the Big Ten without an absolute stud offensive line)? I'm not sure.

I think the question that's on everyone's mind is will Lovie install the swinging gate in some form on extra points?    Can this be a bowl team?  How?

Ah, the swinging gate. A waste of everyone's time.

Yes, this can be a bowl team. But the Illini have to win at least two nonconference games. Murray State should be a given. Western Michigan is a talented MAC opponent, but that's a must-win. North Carolina is a tossup. After that, Illinois plays nine Big Ten games -- five on the road. Home games against Purdue and Minnesota also look like must-wins. The Illini should be touchdown-plus underdogs in road games at Nebraska, Wisconsin and Michigan and a home game against Michigan State. Games versus Rutgers (road) and Northwestern (road) could be seen as possible tossups -- and maybe Iowa at home? 

Stepping back a little, I think this team healthy can win six games. The offense -- if Dudek is there -- has the talent to be much-improved. The defensive line is a strength, likely a top half of the Big Ten group (at least for a year). But there are major questions at linebacker, safety and on the offensive line. And there isn't enough depth to withstand injuries.

If the team goes 2-1 in the nonconference, I think they have a shot to go bowling but it will be tough. Beat Purdue, Minnesota and Rutgers and steal another game.

If the team goes 3-0 in nonconference, I think they go bowling.

If Nunn is found guilty, do you anticipate him being released from the team?

I don't know how Groce and the university allows someone convicted of domestic battery to remain on the basketball team. Now, I'm kind of at odds with myself because I am a firm believer in second chances following punishment (like Leron Black likely will receive). But is even a half-year or yearlong suspension big enough punishment to hold onto a known (in this hypothetical) woman batterer? How our society views domestic violence -- rightfully so -- is different than other misdemeanor crimes. We've seen that play out in the NFL (Ray Rice and Greg Hardy) and now Major League Baseball (Aroldis Chapman and Jose Reyes). I don't think fans and supporters would support the return of a player who hit a woman. I don't think Illinois athletics should either. This is bigger than winning games.

If Nunn is released from the team, would the Illini pursue Alec Peters?

Alec Peters is a phenomenal basketball player. Better than anyone on Illinois other than Malcolm Hill. If he has interest in transferring somewhere other than Vanderbilt to join Bryce Drew, Illinois should be all over him.

Can Black, Tate and Nunn scrimmage, lift weights, etc. with the rest of the team at Ubben?

John Groce said the other day that the suspended players are allowed access to team doctors but that they do not participate in any other team activities. I'm not sure whether or not that allows them access to Ubben to shoot around by themselves or to lift weights by themselves.

When will the staff conduct their post season individual player meetings?

Groce has conducted player meetings. But a team spokesman did not know whether

Do you know why Justin Smith seems to have little interest in Illinois? Since his parents are grads I was hoping he would be more like DaMonte. Is the door still open or have the Smith's moved on?

The door hasn't closed. I think Illinois will always have a slight chance just because his parents both went to Illinois. The Illini offered really early and have stayed in contact, but Illinois -- along with many other programs -- cooled on Smith a bit after he really, really struggled last summer. The Illini focused a bit more on other in-state wings Jordan Goodwin, Christian Negron and commits Da'Monte Williams and Javon Pickett. The Illini need to play catch up, but it feels like Smith's recruitment could really blow up with a strong spring. Wisconsin has been in on this recruitment, but Indiana is a big team to watch here. 

1.  With the AD search now behind us, have you gained any clarity as to the motivation of any of the untrue rumors being spread around during the search?  I recall you telling us that sources were spreading conflicting information, meaning that someone must be lying to advance an agenda.  Now that it's all over do you know any more about what was at play?

There are a lot of agendas at a public university, especially the University of Illinois. Also, when you have a huge hire like Illinois athletics director, the demand for news often outweighs the actual supply of available factual information. So there are a few key factors in this: 1) people spread rumors for their own agendas; 2) there is pressure on reporters to get news so they may run with information that isn't completely vetted; and 3) social media has added another avenue to both create and spread the rumors.

One of the issues with the AD search was that so many people were involved -- interim chancellor, president, university officials, search committee, board of trustees, etc. -- due to a lack of leadership. Those are a lot of mouths to keep silent. Some people talk just because they like to talk. Others have an agenda, as we've seen on the board of trustees previously. I tried to provide what I knew throughout the search: 1) donors tried to get Rick George and failed; 2) Barbara Wilson was blown away by Josh Whitman; 3) Craig Tiley was interested but there was little contact with Illinois. There were a lot of other names and rumors out there, but those were the three things that were pretty clear.

In the end though, Wilson and company seemed to pick the right guy for the job, one who gives Illinois athletics much-needed leadership.

Josh Whitman's stealth hire of Lovie Smith showed how quiet a search can be if the circle is kept tight. I'd expect future athletic hires to be run the same way. I don't think he'll make a move unless he's already made his next move. Also, Whitman is not a fan of search firms.

2.  Am I correct that Leron Black, despite having reached an agreement to avoid a criminal trial, will likely still be subject to a student conduct hearing by the Office of the Dean of Students?  I would think using a knife in a fight (though I'm sure Black will argue as to how exactly he "used" it) would be grounds for expulsion.  The fact that no one was injured should help Black's case.

I tend to think the university will follow the court's ruling on this one. If the state deems Black is not a threat to the public, I imagine the university will deem the same. Black has no priors. No one was injured. The bouncer he allegedly threatened is not contesting a plea deal. I think Black will receive a second chance but will be punished by the basketball team and monitored closely by the university and athletics department. He can't afford another incident.

3.  Along the lines of student conduct hearings - should Jaylon Tate end up in such a hearing, do you have any idea what the University policy on hearsay evidence is?  I know the standard of proof is only "preponderance of the evidence" as opposed to "beyond a reasonable doubt" as in a criminal trial.

This from the university code of conduct. I put in the bold for emphasis. "The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (“University”) is committed to providing a safe and welcoming campus environment free from discrimination based on sex, which includes sexual assault, sexual exploitation, stalking, sexual harassment, dating violence, and domestic violence (collectively referred to as sexual misconduct). The University prohibits and will not tolerate sexual misconduct because such behavior violates the University’s institutional values, adversely impacts the University’s community interest, and interferes with the University’s mission."

I would think the courts will set the precedent for the university here.

will Groce consider adding Dee and/or Rodger Powell to the staff?

Doubtful. I haven't heard anything along those lines and just don't think Groce will fire one of his chosen guys at this point for a new assistant. Should he? Maybe. But these are the assistants who have recruited the Class of 2017 prospects Illinois so desperately needs to land. Now, maybe an Illini assistant chooses to take another job (maybe with more stability?) which would open a spot. If so, I wonder if Groce would pull the trigger on Dee Brown -- who has no coaching or recruiting experience. I think it has to be awkward for Groce to have Dee around, knowing the former Illini is more popular than him. I've always thought Dee is an easier sell as a non-assistant staffer for a year before getting promoted to an assistant. That way, he can learn the ins and outs of business for a year before taking the assistant job. But right now, Dee's special assistant to the athletics director gig pays him about double or triple what a basketball support staffer makes.

Roger Powell is a candidate for the head coaching job at Valparaiso. If he doesn't land that job, I'd expect him to follow Bryce Drew to Vanderbilt. I don't think Illini fans truly understand how much respect Powell has in the business. He's building a great resume and is a fast riser. He'd be a no-doubt, slam-dunk assistant hire for Illinois, but I just don't think the timing is right for him to come to Illinois right now given the uncertainty around Groce.

Any insight on how happy Dee is in his current position? Is there an expectation on his part, or a promise on the AD side of things, for a coaching position in the basketball program?

Dee is happy. He shakes hands, kisses babies and takes selfies. But Dee is competitive. He wants to coach. He wants to coach soon. It was a smart PR hire for Mike Thomas, who needed good PR, but I also think Dee's hire made it awkward for Groce (I know fans don't care about that). I haven't heard whether a basketball position was guaranteed or implied by Thomas, but obviously there's a new sheriff (Josh Whitman) in town. We know Dee can do two things well: talk and play basketball. Those make him an intriguing basketball assistant/recruiting. But can he teach the game and can he develop the relationships in recruiting? I think so. But he is unproven, which gives him at least some risk.

what's the contingency plan at the 5 if Thorne doesn't get another year?

Find a fifth-year transfer big man. The issue is that we may not know whether Thorne is back until early May. By then, most of the fifth-year transfer market may have dried up. Otherwise, the Illini are rolling with Maverick Morgan and Michael Finke -- skilled bigs, but neither is a rim protector.

Jeremy , On theb small chance that Thorne get another year , is his knee healed enough to take that chance or is he good to go now ? Not like good to go one game and then sit three to recover.

I don't know how his body will react in the future, but I would imagine that months of rest and rehab will help him get back to strength. Whether he can avoid anymore setbacks, I don't know. Remember, Thorne played three years of collegiate basketball without injury.

how much can we expect from Tracy Abrams when he comes back?

Do you think Abrams will be back as a player next season? or have his injuries taken too much out of him?

Tracy Abrams isn't a quitter. He'll be back if his body allows it. I don't expect 2013-14  Tracy Abrams. Can he play to that level? Quite possibly, but I'd imagine an ACL and Achilles injuries zap him of some ability. Plus, he must get over a mental hurdle. Still, 75 percent of Tracy Abrams is an improvement over what Illinois' had at the position the last two seasons. Plus, he won't do it alone with freshman Te'Jon Lucas coming in. I'd like to see a 50/50 split at the position or maybe even more tilted toward Lucas -- if he performs well. I expect Abrams to defend, lead and attack the rim -- but he struggled finishing at the rim even before the injury. Hopefully, he can shoot threes at about a 30 percent clip. Abrams always was best served in a supporting role (not the 2nd option like in 2013-14). I think he can play well in that role next season. I just hope he stays healthy. He gives the team a voice and a heart.

What are we most likely to add from the transfer market a big or a point guard. And who are some names we might be after

Any news on who the basketball staff might be looking at on the transfer market?

Too early for names, sorry. Illinois needs to figure out who will be back on its roster first, though I'm sure it's monitoring the market. 

But the answer to your first question is big man. Illinois will add two points guards -- Lucas and Abrams -- and may have Jaylon Tate back to offer an emergency option. The Illini need a rebounding, rim-protecting presence. If Mike Thorne Jr. does not return, they have no one who fits that description -- especially with Leron Black possibly facing a suspension.

Has JW implemented any changes to the Athletic Department?

Outside of the excitement and buzz he's brought with the hire of Lovie Smith, Whitman is in the preliminary stages of evaluating the department, from coaches to facilities to DIA staffers. One associate athletics director, Mike Waddell, made a mutual decision with Whitman to be reassigned within the university while he finds his next stop in college athletics. Expect Waddell to earn some looks as an AD elsewhere.

How many games will the Cubs, Sox and Cards win this year?

Cubs: 95 -- Best roster in baseball will get better when they trade for a starting pitcher midseason. That lineup will exhaust pitching staffs.

White Sox: 83 -- I hope for more. The power and pitching depth has improved, but I'm not sure the OBP and defense have improved enough to win a tough division.

Cardinals: 87 -- Still a great organization and a good roster, but one that needs a lot to go right to compete with the Cubs, Pirates, Nationals, Mets, Giants, Dodgers. The rotation needs to be great because the offense lacks pop. Don't have the depth they previously had to make up for a rash of injuries.

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