Jeremy Werner // Illini Inquirer

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner answers premium members' Illini questions

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner answers premium members' questions about Illinois football recruiting, Illinois basketball during conference play and much more!

I've heard you mention the commitment of Kendrick Green helps us even more with Coran Taylor next year. Are there any other 2018 kids who are now more likely because of certain 2017 recruits that have jumped on board recently?

The more buzz Illinois creates with this class, the more likely they are to land future targets. Talented players want to play with talented players. Most power-five recruits want to go some place where they think they can 1) win; and/or 2) improve their chances to make the NFL. This staff helps sell reason No. 2, as do guys like Jihad WardDawuaneSmoot and Carroll Phillips. A great recruiting class helps sell 2018 and 2019 kids that they will be a part of an improving program that is on the rise.

Specifically, Green helps tremendously with Taylor, though I'm not sure the Illini needed a lot of help since they offered him first and  he seems pretty sold already on playing in Champaign. Green also helps with 2018 Peoria offensive lineman Marques Cox, though Illinois is yet to offer. Bolingbrook athlete Kendall Smith has been recruiting 2018 Bolingbrook defensive back I'Shawn Stewart.

Overall, a great recruiting class built on in-state prospects in 2017 certainly should help with guys like Verdis BrownDevin O'Rourke and possibly even Houston Griffith. Getting Larry Boyd and Tony Adams has opened the eyes of a very, very talented group of 2018 and 2019 prospects in that area. Getting the East St. Louis recruits obviously would help at a historically talent-rich program. Nabbing two players out of Cincinnati should help recruiting efforts in that area as well. Illinois would like to land some players from Indianapolis in future classes to have a similar effect.


When will 5th year transfer names begin to emerge? I'm intrigued by the DE & CB openings we have to offer.

It varies. Notre Dame's Devin Butler already announced he is transferring to Syracuse. But most players graduate after a spring semester, so likely midway through that semester. Gimel President announced he was transferring in late February. Hardy Nickerson didn't announce he was transferring until late April. Most schools likely want to keep those spots open until Signing Day and then fill short-term gaps with fifth-year possibilities. So I wouldn't expect much news on this until February at the earliest. Illinois will be most interested in defensive ends and cornerbacks, but don't overlook offensive line and tight end as possibilities. 

I've been told Illinois is not interested in fifth-year transfer quarterbacks. Garrick McGee is confident in Chayce Crouch and Dwayne Lawson giving him what he needs in the short-term.


With all the current commitments, who are the guys that will be early contributors. Last time we had a class of early impact guys (Benn/davis) the program was able to surprise. Which players in this class can have that level of impact.

Illinois isn't ready for a 2007 surprise. That group was in Year Three of Ron Zook's rebuild -- and it was his third recruiting class at Illinois. This upcoming season is kind of like Year 1.5 of the rebuild. Smith's staff has had a season to set the culture and expectations, but this will be its first recruiting class.

Of course, the JuCo guys -- linebacker Delshawn Phillips and quarterback Dwayne Lawson -- were brought in to make an immediate impact. Phillips likely will start at MIKE linebecker, and if Lawson takes care of his grades, he will compete with Chayce Crouch during fall camp. Lawson has a huge talent edge. Crouch has experience in the system.

The biggest impact freshman likely will be Ricky Smalling. The Brother Rice receiver likely would have started for Illinois last season -- a testament to him and an indictment of the Illlini receiver productions last season. He's physical, fast and refined. But most of all he's just a killer competitor on the field. He, Carmoni Green and whatever other receivers sign with Illinois should get every opportunity to play early given how bad the group was last season.

Given the Illini's talent deficit, I expect some other freshmen to start. Boyd seems like a near certainty at guard, and Howard Watkins and Vederian Lowe could crack the two-deep. Owen Carney will have a great opportunity at defensive end. Olalere Oladipo likely will play in the rotation at end as well. Cornerback Nate Hobbs should get an opportunity to play early (on both defense and special teams).  Tony Adams would too, if he's completely recovered from a torn ACL, which is a question mark. Also, a scholarship punter (like Tucker Day) better make an immediate impact -- otherwise, that'd be a disappointment.

Just to list everyone, I wouldn't be surprised if Kendrick Green played, especially if Tito Odenigbo or Tymir Oliver moves to defensive end. Running backs Ra'Von Bonner and Mike Epstein have the ability to contribute, but the Illini have veteran depth at the position. Of the current commits, Marc Mondesir and Kendall Smith seem like the best bets to redshirt, though Adams could depending on his progess, and I wish some linemen received that development year too.


I think the consensus opinion is that we're going to struggle again next year, but any chance we're short selling too much the development of the players and the benefit of now having a decent amount of time in the system. We played a ton of young guys last year on defense, I would like to think our skill guys will be an upgrade, maybe this team surprises next year? Agree with that, and if not, why am I wrong?

I think this team will improve at a few positions. Receiver gets a huge talent upgrade. Running back adds depth and one more year of experience. Linebacker adds a year of experience, and Phillips could mitigate the loss of Hardy Nickerson, if not provide an athletic improvement. The secondary also should improve after a year of experience for three key rising sophomores (Stanley GreenPatrick Nelson and Cameron Watkins) -- though depth there is really weak. And, of course, quarterback adds much more play-making ability.

But there are some huge question marks in the trenches. The defensive line takes a huge step down -- I mean huge. Illinois loses two pros on the edge and three other players (President, Rob Bain and Chunky Clements) who started games. Defensive tackle has some talent and depth, but the young defensive ends are probably going to get pushed around during Big Ten play. Illinois loses three seniors who started games (two who started a lot of games in Joe Spencer and Austin Schmidt) on the offensive line. While, I think they will have more raw talent -- and more physicality -- I think it will be a pretty supbar group. Also, tight end has some young, intriguing players but little experience.

Could Illinois improve from a 3-9 season? Sure. Year Two of the system and probably more overall raw talent. But Illinois also lost some pro talent and replaced it with mostly 18-year-olds playing against Big Ten men. Plus, a nonconference schedule with USF and Western Kentucky won't be easy, even if those teams have new coaches. This team possibly could win five or six games if everything goes right. But it's more of a possibility that it wins two or three.


Can we get to a bowl game next year? Will we?

Can they? Best-case scenario, they go 3-0 in nonconference with USF and WKU struggling with new coaches. Then Illinois picks off three Big Ten games from Rutgers (home), Minnesota (away), Indiana (home) and Northwestern (home).

Will they? I doubt it.


Do you know if the staff and Coach Smith are as upset as the fanbase when we continue to make seemingly correctable false start and offsides penalties week after week? If I was a position coach and I had to watch my guys get called for these mind blowing penalties week to week, it would make me want to chew the tires off my car. It kills drives on offense and extends drives against the already gassed defense.

It really doesn't matter if they are upset. It matters if they can fix it. -- and they did. During the first five games of the season, Illinois averaged 9.2 penalties per game and 75.0 penalty yards per game. During the last seven games, the Illini averaged 4.1 penalties for 37.7 penalty yards per game. They addressed the problem and minimized it. That's good coaching.


Outside of Lovie and Ward, who is the best recruiter on staff? What players is said assistant recruiting?

I really like Garrick McGee's confidence on the trail, especially with quarterbacks. He knows what he wants -- and he usually gets it. I think Andrew Hayes-Stoker has big potential as a recruiter. He's gotten Illinois into some good recruitments in Texas and Florida. In time, I think he can be one of the better recruiters on this staff. Also, I think Luke Butkus has shown more than I thought he would. He's an old-school football guy who wants old-school linemen, and he does a good job connecting with those kind of kids. I think Tim McGarigle has good potential in the Chicagoland area too.


This football recruiting class will be Illinois' best since....? From a star rating. From an overall talent rating From filling positions of need rating.

Scout had the Illini class of 2007 -- led by five-stars Arrelious Benn and Martez Wilson and four-stars Jack Cornell, DeAngelo McCray, Anthony Morris, Craig Wilson and Josh Brent -- as the No. 20 class in the country. 

Scout had the Illini class of 2008 -- which ended up better than the Class of 2007 -- as the No. 19 class in the country. That class included Corey Liuget (four stars), A.J. Jenkins (four stars), Mikel Leshoure (three stars), Whitney Mercilus (two  stars) and Jeff Allen (two stars). That's five players selected in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft.

The 2007 class had an average star ranking of 3.14. The 2008 class had an average star ranking of 2.93. The Illini class of 2015 ranked 34th nationally and had an average star rating of 2.88.

Today, the Illini class of 2017 ranks 34th nationally and has an average star rating of 3.18. 


If Lovie finishes off this class the way you believe he will. Has he exceeded your expectations with the short amount of time he had to recruit these kids?

Exceeded my expectations. I kept telling you guys to manage your expectations. I though a class between 35th to 50th was likely. They should at worst be toward the higher end of that. If Illinois lands pretty highly-ranked targets like Jeff ThomasAlex PalczewskiLouis Dorsey and Joshua Fedd-Jackson, this class could crack the top-25. While rankings don't  mean everything, that's a heck of an accomplishment given that this staff got to Illinois midway through the recruiting process with several top in-state targets already off the board.

What is most encouraging is Illinois is winning 1) big in-state battles; and 2) winning against programs it needs to win against to succeed (Iowa, Missouri, Penn State, etc.).


Do you have plans to have a depth chart / recruiting big board posted on the website? Would be a quick way to see where there is depth and where football prospects could fill in. The regular hoops board has a scholarship grid and thought it'd be cool to have a football one. Maybe a member could run it.

I do a monthly Trending Meter, and I update it multiple times a month in December and January. I also provide Recruiting Board Resets when I deem necessary. That feature -- the latest here -- is kind of what you're looking for. As for an actual grid, I could consider this for the 2018 class.

Why the disconnect between what Jeff Thomas and Darren Sunkett list as a final 3? Saving face with those programs not listed by Sunkett or simply on a different page?

Sunkett is playing politics. He wants to promote Mizzou, with which he has a very close relationship. He's throwing them a bone. But Thomas really has no interest in Missouri, partly because some former ESL players haven't had the best experience there. It's a huge opportunity for Illinois, which is the leader for Thomas -- who received an Oregon offer this week.


What sort of cultural changes have you seen or heard about from upper class-men? What has stood out to you the most in the 9 months since Coach Lovie Smith has taken over? In your opinion what is the most positive change? Thanks Jeremy for all you do. Your work is top notch. Well worth the subscription.

I think the scooter ban was a prime example of new culture. The ban wasn't popular. Illinois football players have been riding scooters around campus for more than a decade. It's kind of their thing. But there wasn't any blowback because their coach 1) has clout; and 2) has the respect and buy in of his players. I think there would have been more grumbling under the previous staff.

I think there's just more accountability. Don't play well? Someone else will get the chance. We saw that with how many freshmen got starts over entrenched veterans (look at the defensive tackle and safeties, specifically). Smith also treats his players more like professionals than high school players. Less yelling (though certainly practices are intense at times) and more of a culture of expectations and responsibility. 


Simply from an exes and ohhs (I love that song!) perspective, where does fb staff rank in the B1G?

Way too early to determine that. Lovie simply doesn't have the talent yet to compare him with most of his peers. I'm his conservative nature will become a big topic eventually though.


If there are any changes made to this football staff, when do you think that would occur? After bowl season?

Well, Illinois went through one carousel (the college carousel) without any turnover. That's the first checkpoint. The next is the more interesting one for me, given that Lovie's staff mostly has an NFL background. We'll see plenty of change  to NFL coaching staffs over the next few weeks. It will be interesting to see if some assistants wants to get back into the NFL.


Ill put you on the spot! What does our class look like on signing day?

Top-35 national ranking, top-3 in the Big Ten West.

On my latest Recruiting Board Reset, I have them finishing off with WR Jeff Thomas, WR Reggie Roberson, TE Louis Dorsey,  OL Alex Palczewski, OL Joshua Fedd-Jackson, LB James Knight, DE Daniel Callendar and JuCo DE Ernest Bagner.


True or False. Nate Hobbs is the biggest sleeper in this class.

With Hobbs receiving a third star, he's no longer a sleeper. He's now the No. 68-ranked cornerback in the Class of 2017 after a strong senior season. But, yes, he was probably overlooked until that point. An Illinois staffer saw him at a camp and loved his athleticism and speed. He ran a 40-yard dash in the low 4.4s and had one of the best broad jumps the Illini staff had seen all summer. They loved him but his lack of recruiting interest gave them a bit of pause. They wanted to evaluate him in person during a game. Once they did, they were sold.

As weird as it sounds, I still think QB Cam Thomas could be the sleeper of this class. He has a lot of doubters out there, but McGee loves him. And based on what I saw in camps, he has all the tools. He played for a bad high school team in one of the state's toughest conferences. He's a few years away, but he has great speed, a great work ethic, a good arm and developing mechanics.


Seems like most years a new name comes up the last week before signing day. (Maybe another team loses a coach) Or we just kept quiet about them. What are the chances of a name that hasn't been tied to us yet showing up on signing day?

The guy I'd watch is former Tennessee commit C.J. Cotman. He recently visited North Carolina, and the Tar Heels are the favorite. But some thought he'd have committed by now. He's currently slated to visit Illinois in January. If he does, Illinois will be a major player. Lovie knows him from his time in Tampa, and Hayes-Stoker visited him in home recently -- and the Illini got good vibes from that trip.


Assuming that Dudek is healthy, and what the hell, Jeff Thomas is in the orange and blue next season. Where would you rank our receiving corps in the Big Ten? Dudek, Turner, Thiemen, Thomas, Smalling, and Green. And how much does that ranking change without Jeff Thomas?

It's definitely one of the most talented Illini receiving corps in a while, probably since Arrelious Benn and A.J. Jenkins were in the same receiver group. The Big Ten isn't a loaded receiver conference, so I'd put Illinois toward the top. But that assumes Dudek is fully healthy. Plus, freshmen likely will have a few bumps. Though, I expect Smalling to have fewer than most. He's game-ready.


Verdis Brown and Houston Griffith, what is their status? Especially with Florida St.

Brown recently followed Griffith down to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Obviously, "it's not ideal" for either to go down to Florida. It's not necessarily that I think they now will ignore Illinois. The Illini are major players with Brown, and at least have the ear of the Griffith family. But the distance just makes it much harder to make a visit. Brown visited Illinois several times since the spring, mostly just to hang out. That likely won't happen next year. That might mean that Illinois needs to make a big push to close this summer. These always were national recruitments. But now, these are national (out-of-state) recruits. Those inherently are more difficult.


Are other B1G West fans and coaches starting to fear Lovie and the Illini yet or are overreacting regarding recent recruiting wins?

No one is trembling about Illinois football right now. But they are intrigued by what Lovie can accomplish. I think Iowa, Northwestern, Nebraska and Wisconsin now know that they will have to battle for top state of Illinois targets.


Is there a chance that no one besides the Tight Ends from the 2016 offense class ever makes a serious contribution on the field?

I'm a bit surprised at this question since several true freshmen played last season, and only one of them was a tight end (Zarrian Holcombe) -- who played receiver. I still give some credit to Bill Cubit (though that's not popular) for finding some players who can contribute. DT Kenyon Jackson started as a true freshman. FS Stanley Green started as a true freshman. Linebackers Dele' Harding and Jake Hansen both earned a start and made big contributions on special teams. Offensive lineman Darta Lee started a game. Wideout Dominic Thieman started to break out before a season-ending ankle injury. About half the 2016 class probably will be buried -- and that's what happens when you agree to a two interim coach a two-year deal -- but half should make long-term contributions and help this program.


Has MJ McGriff got any consideration as a DB with the class of WR coming in likely jumping over him? Isn't he super fast?

McGriff is fast, maybe not superfast. But like Reggie Corbin, he's shifty in short spaces. He's too small to play defensive back in Lovie's scheme. The Illini want long, physical cornerbacks who can jam receivers at the line of scrimmage and win jump balls.


How does Groce defend his claimed desire to want to play fast against an unwillingness to use or develop depth?

Eight Illinois players average 15 minutes or more, and Te'Jon Lucas and D.J. Williams average 10.0 per game -- when they play. I'm sure this question is about Williams, Lucas or Kipper NicholsI'd like to see Lucas more. I would've liked to have seen him more earlier. But Jaylon Tate has Groce's trust and does a few things well. Plus, Lucas hasn't played great in his limited playig time recently. Would I like to see him for a few more minutes? Sure. As for Williams and Nichols, I really don't want to see those guys taking minutes from Malcolm Hill or Leron Black. I also haven't given up on Michael Finke, who is still more reliable than Williams.

These "playing fast" and playing 9-11 guy narratives are great in all. But at some point, you have to play your best players the most minutes. I think there's no doubt that Groce does that one through seven. We can argue over the eighth and ninth guys. But this is still a deep team, especially in the post. And I think the play of Morgan and Finke is much more important than the play of Tate/Lucas and Williams/Nichols.


How much tick do you think Nichols and Lucas will average in conference play? 

I think Lucas still has a role on this team, which is why it is concerning that he only has 100 minutes under his belt. But Big Ten scouting will expose Tate, and Lucas should get opportunities. It's still a huge question whether he can make the most of those chances.


If ayo dosunumu commits for 2018? Could that team be a legit final 4 team?

One thing you'll probably learn about me is I hate when people use NCAA Tournament advancement as a qualifier of success. I just think the NCAA Tournament is so dependent on match-ups and small sample sizes that calling a team "Sweet Sixteen" or "Final Four" is a bit too random. I'd rather measure teams based on Big Ten finish. 

Recently, Illinois has been in the bottom-six of the Big Ten. They hope to be in the top half this season. In reality, they probably hope to just stay there in 2017-18 as they lose a deep senior class but add talented young players. 

But if you add five-star point guard Ayo Dosunmu to a talented roster that will include seniors Jalen Coleman-LandsMichael Finke and Leron Black and sophomores Jeremiah TilmonTrent Frazier and DaMonte Williams ... that team definitely has the talent to be a Big Ten title contender. In fact, it'd probably be a disappointment if they weren't  in the title hunt that season. Which is why Groce still has a chance here.


Looking ahead to next season, who do you see filling Hill's playing time? Combo of DJW and AJ or do you think we see some freshman getting some time?

There will be a lot of big questions heading into next season. Who will split time at the five with Tilmon? Will Coleman-Lands and Black be ready to be the stars of a team? Will Frazier beat out Lucas for the No. 1 point guard role? But you hit on a good one. Personally, I haven't seen enough flashes from Jordan to think he's a big-time Big Ten contributor. He defends, but he doesn't do well enough the one thing he's supposed to do well: shoot. Maybe he's a late bloomer, but I think this will mostly be a D.J. Williams and Nichols rotation -- possibly with a (healthy) Da'Monte Williams playing in small lineups. Illinois needs someone who can defend and attack the basket. Both D.J. Williams and Nichols have that potential. But we haven't seen either really do it yet.


When will the ncalvin actually do something about Carolina. Do we then assume 2005 championship

Even if UNC has to vacate its title, Illinois will not be a national title winner. Personally, I hate the vacation of  titles. The game happened. We saw it. We know who won. I know why they vacate titles, but I don't think it's nearly as punitive as taking scholarships or show-cause penalties.


Now that non conference is over how many wins do we need to make the Dance? And do you think this team does it.Since Groce took over, how many weeks have the Illini been ranked in the Top 25 AP Poll?

It's not just a question of quantity. Ohio State won 20 games overall and 11 conference games last year and still missed the dance -- because they had few quality wins. Illinois needs a quantity of wins, sure. Get 10 and you're feeling pretty good. But that also depends on quality. Wins over Indiana, Purdue and/or Wisconsin would be huge. But Illinois only has a shot at those teams once -- and Indiana and Purdue are on the road. This is why I wouldn't always celebrate one plays against the conference's best teams.

The early games against Maryland and Ohio State are big, as are the two games against Michigan.


What comes first,an ILLINOIS Mascot or ILLINOIS Bowl game?

Bowl game. I don't think Josh Whitman is excited about a mascot, and I don't think the new chancellor should make it a priority. As much as I appreciate her sassiness, Sassy the Squirrel doesn't need to be on the sidelines quite yet.


If you had to pick one basketball and one football recruit that is coming in next season that you are most intrigued/excited for who would it be?

Intrigued and excited are too different things, so I'll separate them.

Excited: Basketball -- Jeremiah Tilmon. Almost went Trent Frazier, but Tilmon should be a future pro. Illinois needs more of those, and they need big men like him to contend in the Big Ten. Football -- Ricky Smalling and Larry Boyd. It's just so much fun to watch Smalling compete, and Boyd is the type of massive, physical offensive lineman Illinois needs.

Intrigued: Basketball -- Da'Monte Williams. He has all the tools but none of the consistency and now the injury on top of it. He could be great. He could be a disappointment (like Crandall Head). Football -- Dwayne Lawson. He has elite (yes, elite tools), but I have no idea if he can play quarterback at this level.


Are you more excited for the future of Illini Football or Basketball and why?

In the short term, I'd still lean Illinois basketball for now because I think there's a path in the next three years for Illinois to contend for a Big Ten title. I don't see that for Illinois football -- though I do think they'll be very competitive in the Big Ten West, probably in earnest by 2019.

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