Werner Mailbag: June 19

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner answers premium members' Illini football and recruiting questions

Juan Harris decomitting to Iowa you think Illinois has a good shot now?

Once Juan Harris showed up to the Illini satellite camp in Chicago on June 4, I took notice. First of all, Harris is gigantic (6-foot-3, 360 pounds). He also moved really well for his size. On talent alone, he looks like a top-300 player. Second, I took notice because commitments rarely attend other teams' camps and Iowa doesn't take to kindly to commits visiting elsewhere. Illinois then offered the following week, and a decommitment seemed inevitable.

Now, that it's happened, yes, I think Illinois is a major player here. Minnesota is also showing interest, but Lovie Smith has a connection. He coached Chris Harris, Juan's cousin, with the Bears. Harris has red flags. He needs to trim weight and has rubbed some the wrong way. He's a bit of a risk, but if Lovie feels he can get the most of him, the reward could be great (potential pro). Harris won't speak with the media, but Illinois is very interested, and it appears they will prioritize him. We know what the defensive line depth chart looks like in 2017, so Harris would fill a huge need.


Saw on Twitter that Louisville just offered Champaign athlete DJ Lee. Is Lovie going to offer, and how good of a player is he?

St. Thomas More's D.J. Lee attended the Illinois Showcase Camp last week and repped at quarterback and receiver. Lee is a pretty good athlete with solid but not elite speed (he ran a 4.75). Illinois is monitoring him but doesn't seem to be prioritizing him yet. Lee camped at Ball State last week, and Iowa and Western Kentucky also are showing interest.


Do you think we'll see many commitments this summer or are they more likely to start happening right before and after football season? 

Absolutely. Many players with power-five offers want to make decisions before their prep seasons. Other want to make decisions after their official visits during the fall. Others want to wait until Signing Day. Here are a few to watch this summer. Two of the Illini in-state priorities Olalere Oladipo and Micah Awodiran -- he announced the Illini are in his final four -- plan summer decisions. I expect Tony Adams to make a decision this summer too, though he told Illini Inquirer he doesn't yet have a decision date in mind. Indiana offensive tackle Bryce Bailey also seems close to a decision, and the Illini are in his top three. The Illini also seem like the leaders for Crete-Monee duo Juawan Treadwell and John Mitchell, but neither have announced when they will make a decision.


You've relayed some anecdotes and quotes about the increased response to Coach Lovie Smith and staff as it relates to recruitment, but i want more! Any specific coaching staffs or programs in our typical recruiting region that have clearly opened their doors or given the time of day compared to behavior over the past half decade? I have a close friend that is a rabid Hawkeye fan, and HC of a 1A high school in central IL, and he admitted that Lovie in Champaign is very dangerous for his Hawkeyes, and he personally would have a hard time not being in awe of Lovie if he ever showed up at his school.

I don't think there were many in-state programs telling their kids not to go to Illinois when Tim Beckman or Bill Cubit was here. For all his faults, Beckman made a great effort to repair relationships in state. Many programs felt ignored by Ron Zook. But Beckman lost any benefit of the doubt when his first team went 2-10 along with some other gaffes (chewing tobacco on the sideline, sideline interference penalties, odd press conference, etc.). I don't think Beckman was disliked by high school coaches, but there definitely wasn't as much respect for Beckman as other head coaches, including Bill Cubit.

But Lovie is a celebrity. At this spring's coaching clinic, coaches continually snapped pictures of Lovie with their smart phones. They were buzzing and in awe that he was actually on the Illini sideline. They were like fanboys. Needless to say, that hasn't happened recently at Illinois. Lovie brings instant credibility and star power to the Illini. Though the door wasn't really closed on Illinois by high school coaches, their doors are wide open for Lovie.


We've heard that McGee's offense will look a lot like Petrino's did when he was the offensive coordinator at Illinois. It doesn't seem like they are recruiting the same types of wide receivers, though. IIRC, Petrino loved bigger, possession-type receivers. He signed kids like Kenny Knight, Spencer Harris, and Jeremy Whitlow. He also accepted a commit from a big high school receiver from Kansas who subsequently de-committed, and targeted a number of other big receivers.
Now, McGee seems to be going after the quicker, more athletic guys at WR. Is this a difference in philosophy or are there not a whole lot of big, realistic WR targets this class?

McGee's offense has a lot of similarities to the Petrino brothers' offenses. It's a power-run, pro-style scheme that prioritizes the run first to set up the pass. Less zone blocking and less bubble screens. More pulling blockers, lead draws and play-action passing. However, McGee does prefer the dual-threat quarterback more than Petrino, who historically recruits more pro-style pocket passers. Yes, Paul Petrino had a bunch of big-bodied wide receivers. These are needed in the run game, and Illinois needs a few of those (Malik Turner is a strong blocker, and Dominic Thieman has the chance to be a good one too). But Paul Petrino would've liked a few more playmakers in 2011 to complement A.J. Jenkins.

I actually think of all the positions that receiver undergoes the smallest philosophical change. McGee wants dual-threat quarterbacks but, like Petrino and Cubit, gives the quarterback a lot of responsibility at the line of scrimmage. McGee also wants big backs. And the tight end/superback is one of the more important positions in the scheme. The tight end/superback allows the offense to be more versatile and multi-dimensional. McGee wants tight ends/superbacks who can be a tough matchup in both the run and pass game. 


Are there any open scholarships for 2016 and if so, does the staff plan on filling them?

Yes, there are open scholarships. How many is unclear because Lovie's staff won't tell us. He told us this spring that he has a plan. Following the Izon Pulley transfer, I count a definite 80 scholarships of 85 taken up. Broken down by class: 35 freshmen (this will even out with redshirts), 15 sophomores, nine juniors (this will hurt next year) and 21 seniors. Now, some of these scholarships could go to current walk-ons. Everyone understandably is asking about transfers. Yes, I expect Illinois is looking at possible transfers, especially at running back and receiver.

But they could also look to use these scholarships on early enrollees. Early enrollees (JUCO or prep prospects) can be back-counted to the Class of 2016, where the Illini have a few open spots. So Illinois could conceivably sign a few of their 2017 commits to the Class of 2016 and still sign a full class of 25 in February.


Would you say that the recruiting philosophy of the new staff is more similar to the Zook staff or the Beckman/Cubit staff? From an outsiders perspective, it seems that the new coaches have a more Zook like style and are offering players who have all the measurables(height, weight, speed), and then they will try and develop them into playmakers while on campus. I think the class is developing very nicely and I think every player has the physical ability to eventually develop into players that belong in the Big Ten.

Well, I think Beckman wanted to recruit like Zook but he couldn't pull it off. But, yes, I guess Lovie has more of a Zook feel to him. He wants pro athletes and measurables. More pros = more wins. Zook landed plenty of them but couldn't win enough win them. Beckman couldn't get enough of them and couldn't win without them. Given his background and his staff's background, Lovie probably has an even better chance than Zook to land those players, develop them and win with them.


Talent wise, including the football class we are getting for next year or reasonably expecting.... from a pure player talent perspective, where do you feel the team as whole ranks in our 14 team conference with our Offensive Unit ?   Defensive Unit ?    (Example:    7th offensively, 12th defensively) 

I can guess-timate on this, but I think overall Illinois is between ninth and 13th in the Big Ten (Purdue is terrible). With Lunt, I think they have a top half defensive line (for a year) and could crack the top half in quarterbacks due to Lunt. The rest of the groups are probably in the bottom five. Ke'Shawn Vaughn is good, but the depth chart behind him is scary. Mikey Dudek's injury really hurts the receiver group. The offensive line has the potential to be top-nine with Christian DiLauro and Austin Schmidt as the anchors, but there are a lot of questions on the interior. Hardy Nickerson and Julian Jones help this linebacker group go from possibly the worst group in the Big Ten to a solid one. The secondary has some young talent but is so inexperienced.

Talent-wise, I'd go defensively this group is between 9-11. Offensively, between 10-12.


If you had to guess, besides Epstein who is your pick for the first out of state commitment to Lovie?

I'll go with Tony Adams or Bryce Bailey. Florida wideout Carmoni Green is a possibility too.


What will be main differences in the strength and conditioning focus?

Is strength and conditioning work in full gear? Since I heard a lot of criticism of the last staff, how is this S+C team different as far areas of focus and where do you anticipate seeing major gains?

Every strength coach has the same goal, get your team as strong, fast, explosive and as healthy as possible. I wasn't a big fan of Beckman's strength and conditioning staff. I was told by some that there was too much of a focus on offseason conditioning, agility and speed drills. The players seemed a bit overworked in field drills during the offseason, which may have been a factor with all the non-contact injuries. I also think the linemen just lacked explosion and functional strength. Joey Boese, 36, reminds me a bit of young Illini basketball strength coach Adam Fletcher. Both are newer school and take injury prevention very seriously. Boese had great results at Fresno State. There is a lot more technology and metrics that allow strength and conditioning coaches to personalize programs for players. I expect Boese to use most of these tools, but I have yet to talk with him (I've asked). I will soon and will try to get more specifics.


If Lovie gets the QB he wants for next year does that mean Fitzgerald or George sit .?

Lovie got the quarterback he wants -- or the one Garrick McGee wants -- in Cam Thomas, but Thomas is a year or two away from competing. The Illini might take the right JUCO to add competition to the mix, but I expect the 2017 quarterback battle to pit Fitzgerald against George. I just haven't seen the passing talent out of Chaycce Crouch. George has the best arm of the group and is a gamer, but he's the least athletic and the skinniest. He's also a bit inconsistent, but he took a major step this spring. Fitzgerald has the best overall skill set. He's big, strong and a leader with a solid arm. But he's inconsistent with his accuracy so far.


Lots of Offers in California... Whom do we have the best shot at this year? Also, how does a kid from Alabama with 4.39 speed (verified at our camp), not have an offer before Illinois?

I think the Illini are a longshot for Alijah Vera-Tucker, who played at the same school where Nickerson once was the head coach, but Vera-Tucker seems drawn to the Big Ten's style of play. The Illini just offered Trajon Cotton. But it's too early to tell on the Cali kids. We'll be able to tell who really has Illini interest when official visits start.

For your second question, I'm guessing you're referring to Jaylond Adams, who just visited Illinois this past weekend with a few teammates. Adams does have a Southern Miss offer, and they are big competition right now. Adams is a bit raw, but he obviously has great speed. He's dynamic with the ball in his hands and has an extra gear in the open field.


Jeremy will Lovie have any Preferred Walkons?

Sure, every program does, especially with special teamers. But it's too early to tell now. One preferred walk-on joining the team this fall is Hinsdale Central RB Christian Bobek.


Who lands a 5-star recruit first, Football or Basketball?

Wowza. Hell of a question. Illinois basketball obviously has an opportunity this summer/fall with Jeremiah Tilmon. But they missed a chance to close this spring, and Kansas and North Carolina are starting to push harder. 2018 prospects Ayo Dosunmu and Tim Finke aren't five-star prospects yet, but they could be close by the time they sign. Lovie has brought a lot of buzz to Illinois, and there are some big-time 2018 prospects in state, including Mt. Carmel teammates Houston Griffith and Verdis Brown, who both have at least a chance to be five-star prospects. Groce may have the best chance in the short-term to land a five-star prospect, but if I were a betting man, I'd side with Lovie.


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