Werner Mailbag: April 24

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

With a national class in the 70s in 2016, and the slow start to 2017. I'm thinking we will be happy with a class in the 45/55 range for 2017. Do we all need to realize this is more of a rebuild than originally thought. If recruiting momentum picks up as expected in 2018 those players won't be really good till 2020/2021.

Earlier this week in my "Spring Observations" column, I wrote this:

The Illini need time to establish their staff and strategy. But the Illini are far behind (in the class of 2017). They're still evaluating a lot of prospects other staffs have invested in for months or even a year or more. A delayed spring practice schedule also has delayed their schedule to get on the road recruiting for the evaluation period. Smith's hire gives the Illini a higher potential on the recruiting trail But the Illini didn't instantly pass Iowa, Wisconsin and Nebraska in recruiting. This will take time ... and, eventually, wins. Illinois wants to get the ball rolling.

I think some fans thought that when Smith was hired that recruiting all of a sudden would be easy. That's just not true. While Smith certainly should improve Illinois football recruiting, the other Big Ten West teams ahead of Illinois -- Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska and Northwestern -- didn't get worse. All those schools are doing really well in recruiting right now because they're established programs.

Meanwhile, eight of the state's top-14 propsects are already committed elsewhere while Illinois' staff still needs to see some of those prospects and meet many of them for the first time in person. The Illini are doing what it can to catch up in 2017 but they will be hampered a little bit just because of the timing of their hiring. If Illinois finishes top-50 in the country and top-10 in the Big Ten, I'd say that's a solid start. They could exceed those expectations by scooping up a good chunk of the remaining Big Ten prospects in state and landing some difference makers outside the state borders. But the 2018 class probably will be the first true measure of this staff's recruiting capability.

And the rebuild for Illinois is a big job. The 2016 roster is flawed but the 2017 roster has huge holes. Lovie doesn't have a magic wand. He'll need patience.

Since Illinois, last I read has 3 scholarships open, are there any RB's available the staff could pursue that would be eligible in the fall? After Brown's ACL injury, this team could use another body in the backfield.

Yes, the staff will be looking for a running back on the transfer market. One guy still on the market appears to be former Michigan running back Derrick Green, but I have not heard whether Illinois has interest. Other options will emerge now that spring ball is over. Illinois certainly needs someone to take a few touches per game off Ke'Shawn Vaughn's load -- and someone to provide depth in case of another injury. The staff now can sell plenty of opportunity for someone wanting to make a splash in his final season of eligibility.

While it is understood that the staff came in late, at what point should the fanbase be concerned that they are not pulling in any commits? I imagine that a successful recruiter like McGee has existing contacts from his Louisville days, so it's not like he is starting to build relationships from scratch. I understand the wait and see attitude from many kids, but I also thought that with all the buzz around Lovie, that at least one kid would take a flyer and commit to a guy with all that NFL cache.

If there is no commitment by June, it's fair to worry a bit. The staff will hit the road after spring ball ends Tuesday. That should help create even more buzz out there, and it also allows them to further evaluate prospects. The summer camps will be big too. Illinois wants to see a lot of these players up close and making some sort of athletic/football movements. Illinois still has a lot of time, but it's catching up on lost time.

I'll be watching the recruitments of in-state guys Olalere OladipoMicah AwodiranJohn MitchellCaylon May and Logan Christopherson pretty closely. I'll also be watching closely how Illinois approaches Isaac HawnJamir Whitelow and Kendrick Green. The Illini could probably land all three of those guys if they push. 

Also, quarterbacks usually commit earlier than other prospects since most programs only take one per class. Illinois really likes Kadarius Toney, but if Toney looks elsewhere, Cam Thomas could get an offer -- and Illinois would have a great chance with him.

Are the offers currently out to 2017 players, dependent upon these coaches meeting them or seeing them perform at camps in person before they can verbal? It seems a bit odd that some of these coaches, like McGee, have been in on some of these players for some time, but none of them have popped yet.

Many of the offers out there are committable. But some, like Jamir Whitelow, Isaac Hawn and Jafar Armstrong, are not. Despite wanting to get a commitment to get the ball rolling, the Illini staff doesn't want to take a commitment from a player it has too many questions on (which is why they wanted to go a different way with Ryan O'Malley).

After the Hardy Nickerson Jr. transfer news, which solidifies the LB core. Who is the one young LB that you feel has the potential to have a breakout year? The Illini need 1 of them to step up and be a stud.

As I said in my video breakdown, the Hardy Nickerson transfer was huge for that linebacker corps. He added everything they lost in T.J. Neal's surprise loss and may have added a bit extra. He fits exactly what they don't have in the important MIKE linebacker position: experience, leadership and strength as a run-stuffer. Nickerson isn't a top-flight athlete and struggled at times against Pac-12 passing attacks, but he'll fit in better against the run-heavy, physical Big Ten West Division. It's not ridiculous to think that Nickerson will be an All-Big Ten candidate behind a strong defensive line and in a defense he knows so well.

I don't know if Illinois needs a "stud" out of the open linebacker spot. For one, I think  James Crawford fits well as the WILL linebacker, or weakside linebacker, in this scheme. He's bulked up a little bit, but he's long with good sideline-to-sideline speed. The WILL makes a lot of plays in this defense because most of the action is funneled toward the WILL (think Lance Briggs and Lavonte David). Crawford, a junior, has the skills, talent and experience to be a good player.

The big impact of the Nickerson addition is you're relying on just one of the inexperienced 'backers to step up, barring an injury of course. And now, you can increase competition at the spot if you want by possibly shifting MIKE linebacker Tre Watson and/or Mike Svetina to SAM to compete with redshirt freshman Justice Williams and sophomore Julian Jones.

But to finally answer your question, I think Julian Jones has the best potential for a breakout season. He has all the physical tools, which is why Illinois didn't redshirt him last season. He's the best athlete the Illini have at the position and he always seems to be around the ball -- which leads to more big plays. He'll have some ups and downs but Jones has looked like a future starter since he arrived on campus. If I had to bet, he'll start games this season.

Related:  If we assume that Crawford will start at the WILL and Nickerson Jr at the MIKE, who would you say is most-likely to start at SAM?  

As I wrote above, I'd bet on Jones. I like Justice Williams' athleticism, but he still needs to add some bulk. If Watson or Svetina move to SAM, I can see them figuring into the mix too, especially Watson.

Also, do you know which spot Julian Jones has been at in practice?  I've been under the impression that Jones was getting reps at SAM because they needed bodies there and that his best position may be WILL.  Is that accurate?

Jones has repped mostly at SAM. There's not a huge difference in the SAM and WILL positions in regards to what they need physically. Here's what Hardy Nickerson Sr. told me about the positions earlier this spring.

Weakside ("WILL"): “Our WILL linebacker is a guy who’s a playmaker type. You can think of Lance Briggs or Derrick Brooks. Those are prototypical guys, I guess. We’re not particularly looking for a particular body type. We’re just looking for a guy who’s very instinctual, that has some speed and has the ability to make plays.”

Middle ("MIKE"): “Middle linebacker, a sturdier guy, a bigger guy. But again, a guy who has range that can run. Kind of like the WILL linebacker but maybe a little bit bigger guy that has good instincts, a leader. That’s the guy who has to stand in front of the huddle, make all our calls. He’s going to be the  guy who’s making a lot of adjustments. He’s the guy that has the ear of every other defensive player on the field. So that guy has to be a very, very good leader.”

Strongside ("SAM"): “SAM linebacker is kind of like a hybrid between the MIKE and the WILL. He’s a guy that has to have the ability to play in space because he plays in a spot that you usually have a nickel in a lot of offensive formations. He has to have some speed to him and have some savvy about him. He’s a guy that also gets opportunities to rush the passer a little bit. He’s got to be a very versatile player.”

Who's a guy on the football team that isn't talked about now, but at the end of the year will be a household name for Illini fans?

Man, I could go pretty long on this question, so I'll break this into categories.

Starter on offense people know but will know a lot more: Malik Turner, WR -- The one wide receiver on the team that I think is capable of and ready to be a No. 1 wideout. Big, long, athletic and a phenomenal blocker. Is he mentall ready to be the go-to guy? He showed some flashes of it at the end of last season. I also want to give the starting offensive tackles, Austin Schmidt and Christian DiLauro, a shout out. They're both really solid.

Starter on defense people know but will know a lot more: Carroll Phillips, DE -- Big-time burst off the line of scrimmage. Teams will focus on stopping Smoot, which will open opportunities for Phillips. I think Illinois has one of the better pass-rushing duos in the Big Ten.

Offensive surprise: Kendrick Foster, RB -- I struggled a bit to find one here, which is a concern. Can TE Andrew Davis really become a reliable, Big Ten pass-catching threat? Can Zach Grant crack the rotation as a solid receiver? Can Desmond Cain or Dionte Taylor be more than just quantity catchers? Someone must step up. I don't think Kendrick Foster is a star. He's short, and frankly, slow for a running back. But he's physical and always moving forward. He could fit better in Garrick McGee's power run scheme. He did rush for 56 yards last season at Minnesota and looked strong in the open spring scrimmage. He'll have plenty of opportunity with Dre Brown out for another season.

Defensive surprise: Cameron Watkins, CB -- We knew the redshirt freshman was a long and fast track star, but he's shown that he's also a football player. He's been really physical, which with those other traits, have put him squarely in the competition for the starting cornerback spot opposite Jaylen Dunlap, also a longtime Werner favorite.

When do you plan to do a fb strength and conditioning coach article? Your bkb one was great

I plan on trying to talk to Joey Boese. Hopefully in the next week or so.

Who is surprising the coaching staff or the press in spring football?

I've written a few above, but some of my standouts: QB Wes Lunt, RB Ke'Shawn Vaughn, OT Austin Schmidt,  DE Carroll Phillips, DE Dawuane Smoot, DT Chunky Clements, LB Julian Jones, CB Jaylen Dunlap and CB Cameron Watkins. Some other guys who have taken some incremental steps include S Darwyn Kelly, CB Chris James, LB Tre Watson, OL Nick Allegretti, TE Andrew Davis, WR Malik Turner, DT Tito Odenigbo and RB Reggie Corbin.

Do you expect any more academic casualties like pulley?

Last month, I was told two signees could have issues with admissions. It appears Pulley will be the only casualty.

will the FB team get to a bowl game this year?

If they go 3-0 in the nonconference, yes. If they don't, I think it will be tough.

What is your prediction on wins and losses with the football team?

I'm waffling between 5-7 and 6-6. Probably more toward 5-7 after the injuries. That difference could be huge. A bowl game in Lovie Smith's first season would be seen as a step in the right direction (though it's interesting that a bowl under Bill Cubit in 2016 would've been viewed kind of as a dilemma/stalling for the program). If they don't make a bowl game this season, they might not have another chance until 2018. Despite having something to work with in 2016, don't forget that this is a rebuild.

Do you anticipate the football team getting a few more graduate transfers?

Yes. Running back, wide receiver and/or offensive line seem like possibilities. I do know that many graduate transfers have reached out to Illinois, several of whom Illinois would have little interest. Illinois will be vigilant on the transfer market, which should become more clear in the next few weeks with the end of spring semester.

I forsee the 2018 class (football) to be a top twenty-five class. Do you think that's possible or most likely fantasy?

I like the enthusiasm and this staff seems to have that potential. Ron Zook only had two top-25 recruiting classes. His second-year recruiting class ranked 28th. That's a lofty goal, but it's attainable if things fall right. I think a fair expectation for 2017 is top-50 nationally and top-10 Big Ten. I think a fair expectation for 2018 is top-35 nationally and top-half Big Ten. If Illinois starts recruiting like that annually, they will be competing with the Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin and Northwestern -- which is where they need to be. Again, I do think 2018 is the class where we'll really start to see what this staff is capable of in recruiting. They'll have a full two years invested in recruiting that class.


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