Garrick McGee's first Illinois offense was one of just two Big Ten offense's to average under 20.0 points per game last season (thanks for the company, Rutgers).
But it's unfair to judge the Illinois offensive coordinator on his first year given a few big reasons. Some of the team's top playmakers -- including quarterbacks Wes Lunt (back) and Chayce Crouch (shoulder), receiver Mike Dudek (torn ACL) and running back Dre Brown (torn ACL) -- suffered serious injuries. Also, McGee and the Illini staff arrived in March, meaning the staff had a smaller time period to teach the offense and it wasn't able to sign its own recruiting class before it played a game.
But the potential of McGee's offense was on display this past season at Louisville with his hand-picked quarterback, Lamar Jackson, winning the Heisman Trophy. McGee and the staff have been on the recruiting trail the past two weeks to try and infuse the offense with better, more Jackson-like talent, including recent junior quarterback commit Dwayne Lawson, who will compete with Crouch for the starting job this fall.
McGee talked with Illini Inquirer to discuss his first year at Illinois and the future of the Illinois offense.
You're back home after two crazy weeks on the recruiting trail. What's a normal day like on the trail for you?
McGee: Well, this was a wild week because after the game up there in Evanston, me and my family we stayed because I was flying out of Chicago the next day. Then I took off. I think we went to Miami to start, and we were there for two days. Of course, you're up early to enter the schools, getting around the counselors and the principals and the coaches. Then during the contact period, you're in the homes at night. So the days start early and they end in multiple homes, eating multiple meals every night -- because you always have to eat the meals. We've been fortunate to be in multiple homes that the parents really cook great meals. So it's been pretty good. Then we were back for one day on Sunday, and then we went out for another week. So it's been kind of wild the last few weeks. But it's worth it. It's kind of what you sign up for when you decide to coach football at this level. Your family has to be in on it. Your wife has to complete take over because you have to go find players, and not only find them but sign them."
I talked to you a couple weeks ago before you hit the trail, and you told me Lovie Smith is 'a bona fide closer.' You guys had to feel good to get on the trail, especially to have your head coach who is the biggest celebrity coach Illinois athletics has ever had in any sport. What's it mean to get him out on the trail and in these homes?
McGee: "It's really cool for a couple reasons. One of the reasons is he recruited me. So I am a victim of him coming into my home explaining to him and my parents that he was going to take care of me. I guess I shouldn't say victim, but he definitely talked me into, 'This is where you should go to school. This is the best place for you. It's about relationships.' I've told this story a bunch of times, but believe it or not, way back in the day, I had some choices to which college I could go to. My dad said to me, 'You're going to school wherever Lovie Smith is. That's the guy I trust.' A lot of kids nowadays, the parents are saying, 'It's his decision. It's the kid's decision.' My dad saw it a little bit different because he thought, 'I've raised you this far. You are going to get to look at everything, but when it comes to decision time, I'm going to be in on the decision because I know what's best for you, and I know you.' We had that type of relationship. My dad said, 'I see this bigger than the next four years of your football career. I think you'll develop a career with Lovie that you will ultimately end up in his tree. He's going to keep moving, and he's going to move forward. If you want to be a coach, I think you need to go to school where Lovie is. He's the guy I trust.' And it all worked out.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1737672-illini-offer-special... "Of course, I get to tell that story in homes when I'm talking to parents about what it's going to be like and that when you make a decision to play for Coach Smith, you're making a lifelong decision. I'm an example that you're going to be a part of his life for the rest of your life. That's what relationships are supposed to be about. That's what recruiting is supposed to be about. I am a walking example of that. Then after I tell that story, then the following week he walks into the room himself. The other thing about coach is, like you said, he's a celebrity coach. But he's so humble about his demeanor, the way he carries himself. He just really sees himself as a regular guy, and that comes off to recruits and their parents as, 'Even though this guy is as big as it gets in this business, he's just a regular guy.' I think that's the advantage that we have when we take Coach Smith into a home recruiting."
What is the most important thing for you to add to this offense in the Class of 2017?
McGee: "Just speed, competitive spirit. We're going to have a lot of guys who won championships in their high school. They understand what champions do. They understand you got to be consistent, that you have to practice every day and show up and compete and perform every weekend. That's the only way to win a championship, regardless of whatever level you're on. A lot of these guys that we will ultimately end up talking about on Signing Day, they're going to be guys that won a lot of games in high school. If they didn't, then they're extremely talented players. They're kids who bring what I call exceptional talent to the table. It could be size. It could be foot speed. It could be just competitive spirit. But they need to bring what I call an exceptional talent to the table.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1736283-illini-football-sign... "We spend a lot of time talking to their coaches about practice habits because we cannot afford to miss on kids right now. We got to be right. So it takes a little longer. You just don't start firing offers around all over the world. You really need to know what you're getting into because we got to get the right type of kids. I'm really happy with where we are. I'm really going to be glad when this is over in February so we can start talking about these kids and we can start sending them information about the offense and get them developed and moving in the right direction. But this is the process that recruiting is. You got to go through this dead period and then you get back on the road in January and try to close this thing out."
I feel like we got a glimpse of what your offense is going to be when Chayce Crouch was playing: a more athletic, mobile, tough runner. He's obviously going to be out with injury until the fall. But you had some huge challenges with this offense given the personnel. But as you look back, what did you learn about Chayce and what were your biggest challenges last season?
McGee: "I really thought that the kid was prepared. From where we got in spring ball when we got here. In the summertime and training camp when I sat down with all of them, I said, 'These are the target points. These are the things we really have to concentrate on. For some kids, it's, 'We got to work on your drops or your delivery of the football or your understanding of the game.' Well, with Chayce it was, 'We have to settle him down,' because he has a tendency to be wild with the football. Once he actually got out there, I think it was the Purdue game when he finally got to play, he actually was under control. He showed me that he had developed and the things that we had been talking about were coming to life. He was efficient with the football except for the fumble at the end, but it's not like he was reckless with the ball. The ball just got knocked out at the wrong time. I think the sky's the limit for Chayce. We trust Chayce. We really like him and what he brings to the table.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1736734-patterson-more-good-... "I get tagged, and it's probably because of Lamar (Jackson) and Reggie Bonnafon, that I get tagged as wanting a running quarterback. You know, I'm just looking for a competitor, an extreme competitor, a guy that's going to lay it on the line for this program week in and week out. That's the characteristic I look for the most. It's not necessarily can he run or does he throw. My dad used to tell me all the time when I used to ask him who's his favorite basketball player of all-time, my dad would say Magic Johnson. I would go, 'He can't shoot. He can run and pass, but he can't shoot.' He would go, 'Yeah, but when he's on the floor, everybody else plays better'. That's the guy I want, and that's what I'm looking for in a quarterback. That's the skill set that you need at quarterback."
So who's going to be available at quarterback this spring? I think you're going to have three guys coming in this fall, so is it the Jeff George show in the spring? How do you prepare your offense around that?
McGee: "It's going to be fun. We're going to get a lot of fundamentals. There's going to be a lot of guys getting better because there's not going to be many guys out there, so some guys are going to get a lot of reps. But that's the way it works. We don't have a game in the spring, so we don't have to worry about winning or losing the game. So we can just focus on development. Also, a lot has been said about us getting the job late. Most times the transition doesn't happen that late. We only had a week with our players before they went on spring break. Then we had one week and then we started (spring ball). But in reality, the coaching staff needs an offseason to go back through and really spend time installing the offense and all the techniques and all the language -- because it happened fast for us also. So there's a lot of growth that's going to happen in spring ball in regards to our offense, not just with the athletes on the field but our coaching staff is going to grow a lot in spring ball."
You recruited Lamar Jackson to Louisville. What was it like to watch him win the Heisman Trophy?
"I was very proud to see him standing on the stage looking like the Heisman Trophy winner, looking like a celebrity," McGee said. "Of course, I remember going into his school and the first time I went in there I asked him, 'All right, show me what a five-step drop is,' and he would do it. And I would say, 'You need to carry the ball a little higher,' or I would talk to him on the phone the night after a game, and I would go, 'What happened in the game?' And he would say, 'I scored eight touchdowns.' I'd say, 'No way you scored eight touchdowns.' He'd go, 'Yeah, I ran five and I threw three.' But then he got to campus and the first day that we had offseason workouts ... first day he walked out there, everyone knew he was special, that he had a skill set. He could run and make moves and he had vision that some of us have never seen before. Then it was about teaching him the offense and figuring out what he could learn to give him a chance to get out there. There were times I'd put flash cards together for him when he first got there. For some kids, they'd go, 'No. Don't make me flash cards and treat me like I'm a first-grader. But he went, 'Yeah, I do want that. Anything we could possibly do, let's do it.' And he studied them.
http://www.scout.com/college/illinois/story/1735599-illini-football-tren... "I was fortunate at the time that I had a room full of quarterbacks. I had Will Gardner, Reggie Bonnafon, Kyle Bolin, Tyler Ferguson and Lamar in the room, and Lamar was the youngest one. I'll never forget we're all in the room watching film one day, and all of those guys had started in games before. And here's this young, 17-year-old kid, and we're all start looking at each other like, 'This guy might be special.' Just the way he's trying to learn, what he can do on the field, the type of teammate that he is. He is not some hot shot high school quarterback that is arrogant. He's a great teammate. I always give those kids a lot of credit with Lamar. Will Gardner, him and Reggie Bonnafon to this day are like brothers. If you remember, Reggie was the quarterback as a true freshman when we went up there and beat Notre Dame. And then here comes Lamar and we started the season with Reggie as the quarterback. Then Lamar takes over and then him and Reggie become almost like twin brothers. That's the type of teammate that the kid was.
"I'm really happy for him. I am not at all surprised by him dominating college football. His mother is not surprised at all that he's dominating because he's always been like that. She'll tell you, 'He always scores five or six touchdowns.' But it's always good to see a kid that you have a personal relationship with end up winning the top trophy in college football. It's pretty cool to see him up on stage with that red blazer on, which I loved by the way. It was pretty sweet. I sent him a text, 'You're trying to catch up with me with your suits, huh?'"
I wanted to ask you about one more guy and that's Wes Lunt. When you're a Big Ten quarterback, you're under the microscope. That's what you sign up for. He didn't have the best pieces around him, but obviously he didn't have the career he wanted here. But he's going to get at least a shot to impress some NFL people in workouts. What's he need to do to take the next step as a player?
McGee: "Well, I think he just needs a chance. And he's going to get it (Lunt will play in the East-West Shrine Game). So they're going to get to see him in practice whip the ball all around the field. He can throw it as well as anybody can throw it. Then he'll have his Pro Day, and he's going to get into somebody's training camp because he'll have an understanding of the pro game. He'll know fronts. He'll know coverages. He'll understand how seven-man protections work and six-man protections work and how five-man protections work, which is something that a lot of kids who go to the pros they don't really understand. That's what sets some guys back is they don't understand base defensive structures, whereas Wes will understand that. So he's going to have an advantage over a lot of quarterbacks that are going to be entering the NFL this offseason.
"But then once you get that shot, you got to go for it. Some people can say his career didn't work out like he wanted. Then there are some people who will say his best football may be ahead of him. I think you just got to stay positive with the kid. He's got to continue to grow. He's got to continue to study. When you're a quarterback in the NFL, the workouts are important. You got to drop. You go to be able to make throws. But you're also going to have to get on the board eventually and explain to some general manager or offensive coordinator or quarterback coach that you can understand football. He needs to continue with that type of development, mental development also so that he can get on the board and impress people with his knowledge of the game."