Jeremy Werner

Werner Mailbag: Nov. 30

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner answers premium members' questions about all things Illini, including the future of the Illini hoops program

Do you expect Whitman to start back channeling to gauge potential basketball coach interest in the near future?

Every athletics director should have a list, but Josh Whitman -- unlike Mike Thomas -- will support his head coach publicly until the day he fires him. If he back-channels interest, that news may leak and take out Groce's legs from under him. Though Whitman showed during his pursuit of Lovie Smith, while Bill Cubit was head coach, that he can be stealth. Whitman also showed he can work quickly, unlike Thomas who let these processes drag out embarrassingly long.

Gun to your head, is John Groce the Illinois basketball coach on April 1, 2017?

There are almost four months left in the season. That means the decision doesn't need to be made now. If the team plays like it has to start this season, they probably won't make the NCAA Tournament. If they don't make the NCAA Tournament, John Groce should not return as the Illinois basketball coach. Illinois hasn't missed four straight NCAA Tournaments since the 1980 -- and back then, there were only 32 spots in the tournament. Expectations must be higher at Illinois. Whitman backed Groce, but he also is not going to tie himself to a coach he didn't hire. He meets with Groce every week, and Groce knows that Whitman won't back him unless he wins games. Groce hasn't shown he can do that. But he has time to change that narrative.

How does John Groce sell the program and the future of Illinois basketball with the season trending downward already?

Win basketball games.

If Jeremy had a college bball program in the situation the Illini bball program is in, who would be your realistic list of coaching candidates?

California's Cuonzo Martin would be at the top of my list. The East St. Louis native played at Purdue, coached at Purdue, made an NCAA Tournament at Tennessee and is bringing huge talent to California. In the short-term, I think Martin would keep this 2017 recruiting class mostly in tact, he could bring Charlie Moore to Illinois and sources in Chicago say he would kill it up there for the top talent. He certainly isn't a perfect schematic coach. But give me a guy who can get the best talent because Illinois has mostly had a talent problem the last decade. Martin was easier to get last year. Cal didn't pay him a lot, but they just gave him a sizable extension so Illinois would have to pay up.

From what I heard last year, Dayton's Archie Miller and Xavier's Chris Mack had no interest in Illinois. The Illini probably missed the boat on my favorite gettable guy last year in Bryce Drew (Vanderbilt). If a change is made, I think Whitman will look for an established name.

Do you expect there to be as st coach changes in bkb at the minimum

What's the point of that? We saw how that worked with football? That's like putting a band-aid on a gaping wound. If you don't think this coaching staff can win, change the leader of that coaching staff.

Any chance we can fire Groce and keep Walker and recruiting class?

Sure. If a new coach is hired, he certainly should consider keeping Walker due to his recruiting ability. I heard Paris Parham could be a guy some would keep on staff due to his ties in Chicago.

Maybe I am wrong but there is a tone in some of your posts/tweets that indicate you may have lost faith in Groce. I might be reading into it but would like to know your current mindset and what is needed for the Illini not to make a change.

It's been an accumulation. I genuinely like John's personality and really respect his work ethic and tenacity. But at some point, you need results. Justifying or rationalizing a loss to Winthrop was a serious misstep. Then his team followed that up with looking completely unprepared for West Virginia, and Groce said they'd practiced for that pressure since August. That's not a good week for a coach. We're simply lacking results right now. Again, Groce and his staff simply need to win. With this recruiting class, they likely only need to make an NCAA Tournament. But finishing in the top-six of the Big Ten and winning a tournament game or two certainly would earn them a lot more momentum and buy-in from fans, recruits, high school/AAU coaches, parents, etc.

If Jeremy had a time machine what realistic changes would he make to the John Groce tenure that would make us a Top 25 program. Example being players, style of play, sscheduling, staff, etc

The term top-25 program bothers me a bit because that changes based on the week. But if we're talking top-half Big Ten team or near-certain NCAA Tournament team, I think its simply landing a point guard. I'll take out 2013 because Groce did a hell of a job getting into battles for Demetrius Jackson and Xavier Rathan-Mayes. In 2014, Groce had his guy Quentin Snider -- but we know how all that went down. I'd go back to 2015. I don't blame Groce for recruiting Jalen Brunson or Jawun Evans, but they had a Big Ten quality point guard -- and a legacy -- in its backyard. Glynn Watson, the half-brother of former Illini Demetri McCamey, wanted to be an Illini. But Groce and his staff focused solely on hitting the home run (and Brunson and Evans certainly have proven to be studs) instead of starting out with hitting a double. Te'Jon Lucas is a solid point guard, but Groce needed him two years ago. Watson was that guy. He would've provided a good, stable option at the most important position in Groce's program.

I don't know if I missed the real reason, but what happened with Dee Brown? Will he ever be employed by U of I again?

The real reason may never come out, and I won't put it out unless it comes directly from Dee himself because it is a personal issue. Brown had a great gig that paid him well. He was set up to become an assistant coach before too long. It's a shame that it didn't work out, but Illinois wasn't at fault here.

Status quo for football staff or a change or two? is it closing time on a few of the 17 class?

Just like the player roster, there's usually attrition on a football staff. Lovie didn't land everyone he wanted to hire last spring. A lot of talented coaches are hitting the market now and over the next market as the carousel really starts to spin. All the staff members are on the recruiting trail, but I'd almost always bet that there will be some kind of turnover every offseason -- especially since Lovie actually has an offseason this year.

It's closing time on almost every prospect because Signing Day is just two months away. Some who could make a decision in the next few weeks: Howard WatkinsKendrick GreenOwen CarneyQuran Hafiz and Reggie Roberson.

How many illini football players get drafted and what rounds. Who has the best career?

I'll go with three: Dawuane SmootCarroll Phillips and Hardy Nickerson. I'll go Smoot in the late first/early second round, Phillips in the mid-third to mid-fourth round and Nickerson in the sixth or seventh round. Smoot is by far the best player. Unlike Phillips, he's really good against the run and a three-down player. He was the Illini's best player this season and consistently disruptive. His versatility to play in a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme only enhances his value.

what's your feel on the overbey13 guy saying Illini lead for Thomas? What is Miz prob at ESTL 

I talked about this a lot in my Recruiting Lounge this week. Illinois is trending really well for Thomas. Here's a bit of what I wrote on Tuesday:

"The Tigers were long assumed to be the leader because Mizzou has had a pipeline to ESL recently with former Flyers Greg Taylor, Nate Strong, Tre'Vour Simms and Terry Beckner all at Mizzou right now. Thomas told reporters he's no longer considering Missouri because those ESL players aren't playing enough at Mizzou. ESL coach Darren Sunkett tried to hush those comments by telling a St. Louis radio station that Thomas is still considering Mizzou. The coach is doing some damage control because he and Mizzou have a good relationship. But Mizzou certainy has slipped with Thomas, and Illinois certainly is gaining ground.

"Thomas is the type of talent worth waiting for, and Illinois has some friendly JuCos who would love to be their sign-and-place destination. Illinois isn't overconfident in their chances with Thomas, but they certainly feel more positive lately. Alabama has offered and Thomas is drawn to them, but will the Tide spend as much effort on a sign-and-place kid when they can get another four- or five-star prospect to take his spot immediately?"

Questions about Rey Estes (East St. Louis QB): Does Illinois like him more than Cam Thomas? Do they view him as a potential 2017 starter? Is he seriously considering Illinois? Is it known if he will have any issues with our admissions office? Is Illinois looking at any other ESL kids?

Illinois offered Thomas long before Estes, so it's safe to say they think higher of him. Thomas has a higher ceiling but is really raw due to his team situation at Marian Catholic. He's a better athlete, taller and faster. He's progressing as a passer but still pretty inexperienced as a passer.  Estes is a good athlete with a good arm, but I'm more sold on Thomas as a quaterback long-term. If Estes is your 2017 starter, you probably had a bunch of injuries. 

Yes, Estes is seriously considering Illinois. As I wrote in Recruiting Lounge this week, Missouri is really worried about Illinois flipping Estes. Right now, I'd consider the Illini his leader. No, I have not head of any admissions issues. Illinois has looked at ESL linebacker James Knight, but they really don't want to add another linebacker in this class.

Who are the 2-3 players that you would expect to see make the most improvement this offseason?

I hope one is a quarterback, but Chayce Crouch will likely miss most of the offseason after shoulder surgery.

I think you'll see big improvement from Gabe Megginson. Expectations were high for him, but he was just a redshirt freshman. Remember that Nick Allegretti didn't start as a redshirt freshman. As a sophomore, he was the Illini's best offensive lineman. Megginson should look more starter quality next season. He took the mid-season benching as a wake-up call. 

I expect Jamal Milan to take a similar leap. He's so talented and the foundation of this future defensive line and a future pro if he stays health.

Other guys I'm eager to see this spring include WR Dominic Thieman (if he's healthy), OL Adam Solomon, TE Griffin Palmer, DT Kenyon Jackson, LB Dele' Harding and CB Cameron Watkins. I could name several others because this is going to be a VERY young team next year.

My concern is our run defense. Weakness this year due to - new scheme that wasn't well-learned or executed, sub-par personnel, coaching shortcomings, other. What factors will shore up the run defense?

Talked with a former power-five defensive assistant coach about this earlier this week. Mike Phair certainly improved the Illini pass rush. They were disruptive in the backfield. But there is such a focus on getting up field that the Illini DL often runs itself out of plays, freeing offensive linemen to get to the second level quickly. This puts the linebackers in terrible matchups. One mistake by them can then cause a huge run. Talent and unfamiliarity with scheme obviously has something to do with it, but Lovie's defense is more about making big plays (TFLs, sacks, turnovers) than containing teams.

Is there any chance that Peanut Tillman or Brian Urlacher find their way on to the staff? I think Peanut would make a great addition. Both have spoke very highly of Lovie at Illinois.

That'd be great for Illinois, but Peanut Tillman is an analyst for FOX Sports and probably gets paid more to work one-fifth as much as he would as an assistant coach. He's made great money. Same thing with Urlacher, who is a spokesman (he has hair!) and analyst for CSN Chicago. The only reason they'd coach is because they feel indebted to Lovie Smith or they REALLY want to coach.

Which 2018 recruit do you think will be the first to pledge to Lovie?

It'll likely happen this spring. You'd love for it to be Chicago Mt. Carmel Verdis Brown, who already looks like a future NFL lineman. But usually the quarterbacks act first to lock up their spot. So I'll be on either Quincy Patterson or Coran Taylor. The Illini would love for Patterson to jump on any time now but he's still seriously considering Penn State and Indiana, and Illinois may not even lead there. I'd offer Taylor yesterday, and he certainly sounds like he wants to be an Illini.

Will Illinois basketball finally see a player drafted to the NBA this year? Malcolm obviously has the best chances, anyone else have a shot? Where would they go, and how do you see their NBA careers shaking out?

I doubt it. Hill has serious athleticism questions. I think Brandon Paul was the better prospect because he could score at the rim and from three but also defend NBA talents. I do like Hill's mindset about the NBA. He knows he has to be a role player, and he has to hit threes. He's helping himself with his three-point percentage so far this season, and he rebounds and passes well. But scoring over NBA wings is going to be very difficult for him. Mike Thorne, Mav Morgan and Tracy Abrams are all overseas players.

When should we expect to see updated renderings on the South end zone renovation?

Whitman said they likely will get renderings approved this spring so probably  some time around then.

Any updates on specific football targets illinois will he seeing throughout the week? Any chance of commits on any in home visits?

Is there any way (Malik Zaire comes in and throws for 4000 yards and 40 tuddies, etc) that we can shock the world and make a bowl game next year?

It makes sense why every Illini fan focused on Zaire as the main grad transfer, but Zaire is the No. 1 target on every QB-needy team's list. Scout's IrishIllustrated.com reports that Florida, Pitt, Michigan State and Wisconsin are his top options. Do I expect any grad transfer quarterback to come in and have that kind of success behind the Illini offensive line with such a young receiving corps next year? No.

O/U 5 football commits in the month of December?

They'll have more in January than December, in my opinion. But I'll take the over with so the early enrollees deciding in December.

One more question, Is there any chance Whitman gets us out of that Western Kentucky game? I think they will be better next year that Western Michigan this year. I am terrified of that game

It'd cost a million dollars to do it and then at least another half million to schedule another game. Whitman doesn't schedule scared. But yes, it wouldn't surprise me if WKU is favored in that game. Though if I'm Purdue and I don't get Fleck, Jeff Brohm would top my list. He's a hot candidate for the lower tier of power five jobs.

With Whitman throwing down the money for the football staff where do you think the contract for the next basketball coach is going to end up? The Illini job has taken a hit the last decade, but I think we could reel in a great candidate with what the university can offer...as long as the money is there.

Sure, pay up if you want to be competitive. Now, you don't give a Tim Beckman or John Groce type candidate $3 million, but the Big Ten Network dollars give Illinois the opportuntiy to go that high for good candidates. Illinois isn't as great of a job as many fans think it is. A lot of coaches see recruiting Chicago as more of a negative than a positive. But it's still a job with a lot of potential and resources.

Robertson committed to ND and Christopherson to Mizzou, any chance they can be swayed?

Christopherson fell in love with Mizzou, so I doubt he'll change his mind now. Robertson really liked Illinois, but Notre Dame seems to be his dream school. Unles Brian Kelly decides to go elsewhere, I don't see that recruitment opening up.

more related to your radio job but I've also wondered about this. When guests come on your show (or you go on another person's show) are the guests paid to do so? I think it could be used as marketing / growing your base but you also aren't doing actual work for your employee while talking to another radio station.

A few of our weekly guests are paid a bit, but most guests want to come on because 1) it promotes their product; and 2) they have fun doing it. I hop on other shows for free just because it gets our web site out there, and I enjoy doing it. Now, I wouldn't do a daily hit without getting something for it. Some guests I've tried to book won't do it without getting paid, which I respect.

Have you challenged Whitman to an arm wrestling contest?

I consider myself in decent shape. But Whitman is a former Big Ten and NFL player who is still in his 30s and still in great shape. He has the mass and reach on me, so this wouldn't end well for me.


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