Jeremy Werner

Werner Mailbag: Sept. 25

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner answers premium members' questions about the road ahead for Illini football and basketball

What is the best case scenario for next year? If this 2016 season really takes a tailspin, is there any way next years returning roster + a 5th year quarterback could increase the win total? I know that isn't a fair view on advancing the program, but any more wins could help the sales pitch.

Even though the 2017 roster will be worse than the 2016 roster, there is a chance for more wins in 2017 than in 2016. That kind of reminds me of the dynamic of the 2013 and 2012 seasons for a couple reasons. First, the 2012 roster was much more talented than the 2013 roster but lost two more games. Second, the 2013 had more buy-in from the team roster. And third, the 2013 schedule was a tad easier than the 2012 schedule.

The 2017 roster has huge question marks at quarterback and all over the defense, especially the defensive line. Illinois has the chance to be the worst team in the Big Ten. Illinois has five games against "beatable" Big Ten opponents: Rutgers (home), Minnesota (road), Purdue (road), Indiana (home), Northwestern (at Soldier Field). The opener against Ball State isn't a gimme, but it's on Illinois needs to win. Certainly, Illinois seems like underdogs in games against Western Kentucky (the Hilltoppers are 22-9 under former UI assistant Jeff Brohm) and at South Florida (Willie Taggart's program is 11-6 over the last two seasons). But you would hope both are winnable.

The defense will take a big step backward next season, but the offense could take a major step forward. A lot depends on the fifth-year quarterback, which I do think the Illini will add (the who remains the question). But the receiving corps will see a huge upgrade with the expected return of Mikey Dudek, the maturation of the current group and the additions of Ricky SmallingCarmoni Green and likely some more speedy targets. Running back should be stronger with Mike Epstein and another back joining Ke'Shawn VaughnKendrick FosterReggie Corbin and Tre Nation. The offensive line will get younger but bigger.

The best-case for scenario on the field is likely four or five wins. I'll still likely have them for about two or three. Next year is the true rebuilding year, but any sign of competitiveness and/or an identity within the respective offensive and defensive systems would be nice. But for a second straight season, what happens in recruiting is the most intriguing story line. Illinois will have a small Class of 2018 (about 15 scholarships) but it could have some program-building talents (Verdis BrownQuincy PattersonHouston GriffithTrevor TroutCameron Perkins, etc.).

Which assistant coach will get replaced in order to up the recruiting capability of the staff?

Shouldn't we let a staff recruit for an entire year (should wait multiple years, actually) before we judge -- in either direction -- its recruiting ability?

Do you see any of the staff jumping ship? Or have you heard any rumors?

After three games and a 1-2 start? They don't panic as quickly as fans. Are they disappointed? Sure. But they all have really good, stable jobs under a coach they believe in. And they all knew this wasn't going to be an overnight rebuild.

Do you see any kind of staff changes - position coaches, not coordinators - before next year?

Just as there is player turnover every year, usually there is coaching turnover. At this moment, I don't expect huge moves. After all, Lovie picked these guys. Plus, it'd seem like a panic move, no? You're right in that his coordinators aren't going anywhere. McGee left Louisville and took a paycut to come coach with Lovie, a longtime mentor. Hardy Nickerson left the NFL to become Lovie's DC. Now, some of Lovie's assistants surely weren't his first choices and the list of available coaches was pretty small given the timing of his hire. Thad Ward wasn't his first running backs coach choice, but that has worked out really well on the recruiting trail. Mike PhairTim McGarigle and Paul Williams were holdovers from the past but Phair has a history with Lovie and McGarigle has great potential as a recruiter and coach. Still, if Lovie feels he can upgrade, he should.

Luke Butkus did not have a good offensive line in the previous regime.  He did not recruit well and took off as soon as he could.  Is his reputation that much better than Reiker(the former Illini offensive line coach with Cubit) or is it just that Lovie had worked with Butkus before?  It seems like our present offensive line is in shambles.  Do the players respect Butkus?

I have a lot of respect for A.J. Ricker. The O-line improved greatly after he took over for Butkus in 2013, and he was a pretty good recruiter for Illinois. I supported the idea of bringing him back. I think the OL coach is one of the most important on the team and was a bit perplexed when Butkus was brought back -- probably because the team was so bad in 2012, including the offensive line. But how much of that is on Butkus and how much of that was on Beckman and his terrible co-offensive coordinator system? Lovie gets the benefit of the doubt here, and he knows Butkus well from his time in Chicago. Butkus is hamstrung by his talent and lack of depth. But I'm less concerned about physical limitations so far than I am about mental miscues and what Christian DiLauro called "confusion" up front against Western Michigan. Those are coachable things.

As to whether players respect Butkus, I can't speak to that because even if players didn't, they wouldn't tell a reporter. Butkus does command  some respect. Hewas an All-Big Ten player at Illinois who bleeds orange and blue and spent a lot of time on NFL staffs. He has matured since he last coached at Illinois. He'll always be an old-school coach, but he based on training camp, he does appear to do more teaching and less yelling since 2012.

Did Lovie and staff know coming in how big of a rebuild they had ahead of them ?

Fair question. I think they knew they had a ton of work to do. A good indicator? The last two Illinois head coaches aren't even in the coaching profession right now. Did they know the roster had this many holes? Probably not. Lovie barely knew anything about this roster when he was hired. But this was always a four- to five-year rebuild to get Illinois back to a respectable, competitive level in the Big Ten. The staff always had its eye toward building to that. They're not happy with a 1-2 start and this roster is better than a minus-49 scoring differential to two FBS opponents.

If this got covered somewhere along the way I never saw it - was anything ever definitively said about how we went from the leader for Goodwin to the point where he went out of his way to say we were last?  Doesn't really matter at this point as the program moves on I guess but just wondering

If you don't win a recruitment, it doesn't really matter whether some says you finished second or 50th. Derek Piper has provided all the context we can about this recruitment. Goodwin wanted to commit to Illinois last fall. Someone close to him told him to wait. Illinois prioritized Goodwin longer and harder than any staff. They attended more events than any other suitor and John Groce was the only coach there as he and Althoff won a state title. Then SLU coach Travis Ford pulled out all the stops. He hired Goodwin's St. Louis Eagles AAU coach Corey Tate and sold Goodwin in the same way as Groce sold Tilmon: as the program changer. That resonated with Goodwin, who has a huge chip on his shoulder and wants to be the man. It hurt for Illinois, but they had to and have moved on. Goodwin will do big things at SLU. He's a heck of a get for them.

Looks like Groce has one more scholarship this year. Any rumors on if he will bring in a grad transfer or give it to one of the walk-ons for the year?

Groce has one scholarship available for the 2016-17 season, but they can't add anybody at this point of the season since school has already started. Illinois usually saves the scholarship in case he wants to add a mid-year transfer (Nichols, for example). If they don't add a transfer mid-year, they'll usually give it to one of the walk-ons. I would assume senior walk-on Alex Austin would have a good shot at it.


Progressing. I'm told he's right on track with where the doctor and trainers want him. He's been running for a while and has started making cuts. Dudek really wants to come back this season but doctors and trainers have made sure he doesn't push too hard to risk another injury. He'll listen to doctors and will return when they and his body says he's ready to return. Mikey would like that to be this season. But we'll have to wait and see.

Does Lovie intend to hit the Coaches Clinics to establish a rapport with the HS coaches?  I am looking at you Glenbard West and Fenwick.

Lovie spoke at the Coaches Clinic this spring and was a huge hit. Coaches were invited back to practice, where most of them were snapping pictures of him on their smartphones. Lovie is well-respected by most coaches in this state and his hiring was seen as a huge statement by Illinois. More doors are open in this state with Lovie at the helm. When Tim Beckman and Bill Cubit went into high schools, they probably had to introduce themselves. Lovie doesn't have that problem. Actually, Lovie tries to keep his travel plans stealth so that there isn't a scene. He's a celebrity in this state -- and the respect for him probably goes up with each passing Bears season without him.

Rockford Auburn coach Dan Appino told me about Lovie: "I'm excited. I like how he's really preaching about how they really need to play hard, and not what kids think is hard but what Lovie thinks is hard. That crosses ethnicities. It crosses different programs in the state. It's something  that everybody can coach up. Everybody can apply effort to get better at, so it's not talent-based. I love that about him. I think sometimes when you recruit Big Ten athletes, you just assume that comes with it. Obviously, it's not translating like it does at some other Big Ten schools. I'm really happy he's pushing that emphasis and that value in his program."

Marian Catholic coach Sean Mele told me: "I thought it was a home run for Illinois, I'll be honest with you. Being a Chicago guy, maybe it's more so for people who were Bears fans. He took them to the Super Bowl and did a lot of great things. I feel it was a great hire. I know they needed to make a spark. They needed to say, 'Hey, look at us,' and I think they did a good job. Obviously, he has the coaching ability and the personality to turn it around. I was very impressed by the hire."

Are the two losses playing with any recruits right now, or would there be negative recruiting based on them? I know the vibe was really positive coming out of the UNC game, but is the WMU showing going to hurt with any recruits? Also, the new horseshoe rendering!!! (That last part was not a question, just unbridled excitement)

There's always negative recruiting -- always. Two losses certainly doesn't help Illinois in that regard. If there's a silver lining, it's that Illinois can sell playing time even more -- just like Ron Zook did in 2005 and 2006. Some of the commits will take official visits, including Antwan Collier and Carmoni Green. But those two had planned official visits the entire time, so the staff isn't sweating those yet. Will the Illini lose a commit? History says yes, but I'd feel pretty strong about most of the current commits. Those guys bought into the long-term plan and being first on board during the Lovie Era. But a 1-2 start certainly doesn't help Illinois if they want to flip players currently committed to other power-five programs.

Out of all the Football commits, do you think any will be flipped before signing day (Boyd, Adams)?

I'm not too worried about Boyd and Adams at this point. Boyd plans on attending almost every home game. He seems all-in on Lovie. The guys you worry about are the ones who take visits. Collier will visit Nebraska, so that's a bit of a concern. I'm not too worried about Green, who will visit Oregon State, Utah and maybe Pitt. But Illinois has a great all-around sell and has the commitment already. Mike Epstein is having a big year, so his opportunities may increase soon.

Jeremy what is the thought process of offering an athlete that already has 20 offers and we are going against the big boys?

First of all, if you don't offer, you don't have a chance. Secondly, if Illinois isn't going to go for the kind of players who get 20 offers, than what is the point? Illinois fans didn't like the Illini taking a bunch of recruits with only MAC offers, right? You have to get talent to compete. Illinois can't be afraid to compete with the best. Worst-case scenario is that they're told no. Best-case scenario, they say yes. The upside is worth the downside. And it's not like Illinois is all-in on these guys without having backup options.

status of Megginson?

Guys, we're going to have more questions than answers about injuries during the Lovie Smith era. I'd love to have more clear answers, and we try to ask around, but Lovie keeps a tight lid on injuries. The last staff sent out an injury report every Thursday. Lovie had to do something similar in the NFL. He doesn't now, so he doesn't do it. He uses an inflatable injury tent now during games to keep everyone from seeing anything. Megginson has an ankle injury. I'd speculate it's a sprain. Media weren't allowed to see practice during the bye week, so we're not sure if he participated. I'd expect Megginson back this season. But given Lovie's lockdown on injuries, we don't know when. Expect similar unknowns with future injuries -- though Lovie will announce when players have season-ending injuries.

In my opinion, two of the biggest problems of the post-Brandon Paul basketball teams is an inability to get past defenders offensively AND the inability to keep opposing players out of the lane. In theory, a healthy Tracy Abrams will help the second part of that. But on offense, who can get into the lane and create their own shot? And who can slow down quick guards on the other team? Both sides of this still concern me.

First of all, Tracy Abrams is an improvement at point guard on both ends of the ball for Illinois. Is he a top-half point guard in the Big Ten. Maybe not, but he's still a massive upgrade from worst point guard play in the Big Ten. Obviously, Tracy has limitations (not great at finishing at the rim and not a great shooter) and we're unsure what he'll be like after two serious injuries, but he'll be surrounded by his best supporting cast -- one where he'll be the fourth or fifth option rather than the second or third. He should help penetrate a defense. Opponents at least have to respect a 25-30 percent three-point shooter. And he adds toughness on defense.

But if the Illini roster is fully healthy, Illinois isn't counting on Tracy to do all those things all the time. This Illini offense is more dynamic. It doesn't need a point guard to penetrate the defense when it has a big man like Mike Thorne Jr. Entry passes to him can collapse a defense. Thorne, Mav Morgan and Leron Black should allow Illinois to get easier buckets around the rim, which have been scarce in recent years. Malcolm Hill isn't going to blow by many opponents with quickness, but his stepback jumper allows him to get open shots and his strength allows him to overpower smaller defenders. I'm also eager to see the progression Jalen Coleman-Lands' attack the basket game -- though the broken hand certainly stunted at least some growth there.

I'm more concerned about this team defensively than offensively, especially with Kipper Nichols not eligible until mid-December. 

You may have answered this previously (can ignore if so): Do you think Aaron Jordan transfers after the season with the influx of wings Groce seems to have?

Transfers happen all the time, espeically with players who don't get much playing time. I understand why the question is often asked with Jordan because of his lack of a role last season, Nichols gaining eligibility this season and with two more wings coming in next season. But Jordan's future is in his own hands. As Groce says, players play players. Jordan is capable of being a really good shooter and his length gives him potential as a defender. He's made good progress with his strength and his vertical jump. With Kendrick Nunn gone, there is opportunity for him to earn minutes at the two. But to hold off Nichols  when he returns, Jordan must do what he does best: make three-point field goals.

What do you we beat Purdue and Rutgers by 3 TD's each or are you going with 4 TD's ?      What's your final score prediction on those two games ?

Those obviously are the two most winnable games remaining on the schedule. Illinois will probably be a slight favorite at home against Purdue and a slight underdog at Rutgers. As of right now, I'd pick an Illini 24-14 win over Purdue and a 6-3 double-overtime classic over Rutgers -- because Illinois and Rutgers only play classics  

Marian Catholic has 21 points in 4 games, including 0 combined the last 2. How worried should the staff be about Cam Thomas not being the answer?

This is my main recruiting question as well. Seems like a great kid, but with 2 lost development years in high school. Seems like we need a fifth year senior next year and probably also the year after that as well as it is hard to envision turning over the 2018 season to Cam as a redshirt freshman. How do we increase the QB depth with this in mind? Jeff George doesn't seem the answer either to fit the new scheme coaches have in mind; poor man's Wes Lunt?

Marian Catholic was outscored 351-114 last season, so this is no surprise. The Spartans play in the East Suburban Catholic league, one of the toughest conferences in the state. Cam Thomas simply doesn't have much talent around him. Most of his Marian Catholic teammates transferred to Homewood-Flossmoor, including NIU commit Tyrice Richie and FBS running back prospect Justin Hall. Thomas chose to stay and be loyal to his other teammates. There's some character in that. Still, his football development would have been better served by going to H-F. At Marian, he often must run for his life and his skill players are pretty unreliable.

Thomas showed well in offseason workouts, including a personal workout for Garrick McGee. Minnesota and Indiana were hot after Thomas just before Illinois offered. He has elite speed, good quickness and a solid arm. Still, he's a project because he just doesn't have that much experience in the pocket. I like him as a prospect, but he'll likely need two years of development to be ready to make a Big Ten impact.

Illinois isn't going all-in on just Thomas though. As I've often reported here, Illinois is looking at grad-transfer options (their ideal option) and JUCO quarterbacks to provide a bridge between Wes Lunt and their prep recruits. Illinois also is seriously considering adding another quarterback in the Class of 2017. Now, it's going to have to be one they believe in.

Also, Illinois is doing really well with 2018 priority target Quincy Patterson. He visited for the UNC game and may visit against for the Michigan State game. Penn State, Indiana and Northwestern have offered, though Northwestern offered him as a tight end (apparently, they think he'll be too big to play QB?). Patterson is exactly what Illinois wants at the position: a strong-armed thrower and athletic, tough runner. So far this season, Patterson is 32-for-63 passing for 431 yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions with 550 rushing yards (on 60 attempts) and 12 touchdowns.

Lovie needs a cornerstone QB to build a team around like how Zook did with Juice. Who do you think will be that QB? It's tough to be competitive with average to bad QBs unless you have a top 10 defense.

McGee likes Thomas due to his speed, smarts and developing footwork. But Patterson seems to have a higher ceiling. The Juice Williams comparisons are apt. Big, strong-armed, tough and athletic. He's still got a lot of work as a pocket passer, but Illinois' QB future would look pretty bright with Patterson and Thomas.

Do you think there is any chance the staff doesn't sign the full 25 kids this year and banks a few for next year? I know normally this would never be an option but because of the late start and the fact that their aren't a whole lot of A recruits left it may be better to have say 5 extra next year with a full year recruiting them. Also do you see this staff "creening" any recruits from the past couple of classes?

Also do you think Whitman and Lovie made a mistake by imploring people to come and support the team so early in this rebuild? Was wondering cause some of the excitement and good will is going to be long gone by the time they have the roster to compete?

Yes, it is very possible Illinois signs fewer than 25 players. They'd like to sign 25 players that can help set the foundation of the program. But they also don't want to sign players just to fill scholarships. The Class of 2018 is going to be a small one (around 12-15 scholarships), so banking one or two to add better players in 2018 wouldn't be such a bad thing. Transfers always happen, especially with coaching turnover. We saw that last spring. And "creaning" happens everywhere, including Illinois. Usually, all it takes is a simple, "This is where you are on our depth chart, and playing time will be tough." Usually the players decide to transfer themselves. I'm sure we'll see transfers after the season, especially with more football players using the grad transfer rule now.

It was not a mistake to encourage a sell-out crowd for North Carolina. It was a huge opportunity, and even if Illinois didn't take advantage of it, it was a great atmosphere. It was an example of what Illinois football can be if they actually have success. Fans will show up when Illinois starts winning consistently. Any lingering disappointment from the UNC game will have a minimal, if no, effect on that.

My X-Factor for the Illini that has to play well in the Big Ten this year is Kipper Nichols. Wanna know if he's continued to play good defense and how he's doing on scoring in practice.

I asked new DOBO James Haring the other day what to expect out of Kipper Nichols, and he said defense, rebounding, tenacity and more defense. Nichols won't be counted on for a huge offensive presence early, but we've heard encouraging things from open gyms. He's not a great shooter but capable of knocking down shots, and his handle is better than advertised.He's definitely an intriguing player. Piper will have more on him in a story this week.

Assuming no Wilkes commitment (fingers still double crossed that we get him), and that we get Kigab, does he replace Malcolm next year over Kipper or DJW? Longer term, which of these 3 have higher ceiling?

I don't think Illinois will land Kigab over Oregon. If they do, Kigab brings a lot of similar traits to Nichols: size, physicality, rebounding, slashing ability. Nichols would seem to be the favorite for the position given that he'll have some experience. Williams brings more skill to the position and needs to hone that shot and consistently bring energy. All three can help though, and the competition would be great.


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