USA Today // Caylor Arnold

Werner Mailbag: February 2017

Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner answers more than 40 questions from premium members on the future of Illinois basketball and Illini football.

If you had to choose 5 recruits from 2018 that you think Lovie and Co. lands, who are they?

Are you asking me to be a Swami?! The guy I feel most confident in today is Peoria QB Coran Taylor. If I had to choose four others (just for fun, mind you), I'll go with Peoria OL Marques Cox (no offer yet), Mt. Carmel DE Terrance Taylor (no offer yet), Lincoln-Way East defensive end Devin O'Rourke and -- a big one for you -- DL Verdis Brown.

How many 4 and 5 star football recruits do you believe will be in the state of Illinois in 2018?

Well, the new 2018 rankings came out this week: Illinois rankings here. There are two in-state four-star prospects so far: Lincoln-Way East DE Devin O'Rourke and Carterville TE Luke Ford. Illinois squarely in the mix for both of them. Also, two former Mt. Carmel players, Verdis Brown and CB Houston Griffith, are top-160 prospects in the country. But the in-state class is still pretty strong, especially at QB and DB. With St. Louis loaded on the DL and WR, Illinois has the chance to land a great class, even if the low quantity negatively impacts the team ranking.

What are our chances with some of the big in-state recruits for football 2018? Do we really have a shot with guys like Kamryn Babb and Houston Griffith?

I didn't list Ford in my top-five because I expect him to have offers from many of the blue bloods soon, but Illinois got in early and should be in it until the end. And I like Lovie's ability to close. O'Rourke told me last summer that Illinois and Northwestern were the two offers he really wanted, but Notre Dame and others are showing a lot of interest. Verdis Brown likely will play in the Big Ten, but Illinois likely will need to beat Ohio State and Michigan to get him. The Lovie factor and distance from home help. Illinois has a chance with Houston Griffith, but he is more drawn to established powers like Ohio State, Notre Dame, etc. at the moment.I think Illinois needs to win to draw him -- and I don't see that happening in 2018. Kamryn Babb is a national recruit. Illinois got in early and he visited campus, but that'll be tough to pull off.

Is Coran Taylor (Peoria QB) if not when or when not if? 

I think so. Taylor loves Illinois, and the Illini are one of two to offer, along with Illinois State. I was told Illinois will push to make it happen sooner than later.

If you had to guess, who do you think will be the first commit for the 2018 class in football? And who of the big time recruits (Brown, O'Rourke, Trout, etc) do you think they have the best shot at?

Coran Taylor. Mentioned Brown and O'Rourke above. Trevor Trout has visited Illinois, and I think the Lovie factor gives Illinois a chance. His offer list is ridiculous though -- and will only get better.

Anything on the replacement for LB coach?  Would Brick Haley or Cornell Ford be options they look at?Have you heard anything on potential replacements for McGarigle? If not, then who would would be your top choices, and does the potential for an additional staff member in the future impact this at all?

What is your best guess on who our new football assistant will be?

Who is your first choice to be the ace recruiter with the 10th assistant spot

I have not heard names attached to this. I have heard that Hardy Nickerson likely will take over as linebackers coach, along with his defensive coordinator duties. That allows Illinois to hire to another position group, like tight ends or cornerbacks. 

No, I do not expect Charles Tillman or Brian Urlacher to leave low-stress, high-income media jobs for the long, grueling hours of a college coaching career. I also do not expect John Holocek to leave a huge salary and comfortable life at Loyola Academy for a position coach job.

People I've talked to agree that Illinois likely will focus on adding an established recruiter to the staff. I think the focus will be on someone with deeper ties into Chicago or Texas. Lovie Smith has a big rolodex, a good salary to offer and a lot of respect throughout the industry. He can draw some great candidates.

Football:Can you address the QB situation next year?  It sounds like Dwayne Lawson might redshirt, and that's if he even makes it to campus.  Suppose Crouch is the starter, he's a running QB coming off a serious injury.  Is the staff actively looking to add another veteran QB?

It's not yet clear when Lawson will arrive on campus. He told me he could arrive as early as June, which would give him time to get in the mix for the starting job. If he doesn't arrive until August, Illinois will seriously consider redshirting him so they can get two full years of his talent. I've been told Illinois will not look for a fifth-year transfer quarterback.

With uncertainty around Lawson readiness and whether he gets here at all who is the back up should Crouch go down- not assuming Jeff George?

Why would you assume not Jeff George Jr.? Cam Thomas needs time, and George Jr. will have four starts and an entire spring ball of reps. Unless Illinois surprises and adds a fifth-year guy, the backup will be George Jr if Lawson is not available for whatever reason (redshirt or not on campus).

I'm assuming staff has a high degree of certainty that Lawson will in fact get here based on their lack of emphasis in bringing in a 5th year or another JC guy, but don't understand the recruiting strategy. Seems like their betting answer is Lawson, as back up, if not starter, but why aren't we hedging the bet with another QB body that he is ready now vs burning one of his 2 remaining years if he is not?

Garrick McGee wants to play Lawson this fall. He's giddy about that type of weapon. But McGee knows that if Lawson arrives in August, he may only get a half year of an impact out of Lawson. So it's still very possible Lawson redshirts so the Illini can get a fully-prepared Lawson for 2018 and 2019.

McGee has a lot of faith in Chayce Crouch, whom he really likes. He also thinks Jeff George Jr. isn't such a bad option as a backup. McGee loves his makeup and thinks last year's experience plus a huge amount of reps this spring will help George Jr. take a big step forward. People around the program absolutely love George Jr.'s mentality, and he has the arm. Remember, he is just a sophomore, so he can get better (though I think he's a career backup).

At the core of this though is that the staff isn't all in on 2017. This is a long rebuild, which is why they were more interested in adding another prep quarterback (Griffin Alstott) than a fifth-year or JUCO prospect. Plus, they love their options in 2018 -- where they could add two quarterbacks -- and don't want to lock a scholarship into a JUCO or prep guy that they don't think will make an impact.

I know you mentioned 2 free scholarships (1 might go to Stonehouse), any idea on what 5th year transfers may be getting looks from the staff? Or if you had your choice, who do you think the staff should target?

I expect Illinois to add a punter. It could be Ryan Stonehouse, who may visit this month. Another guy they've looked at is Knoxville (Tenn.) punter Joe Doyle , whom Kohl's Kicking ranks fifth nationally.

As for fifth-year transfers, that market isn't fully developed yet. Here are a few who are available:

- Kendall Moore, TE Syracuse: Chicago Simeon product; 37 games, 4 starts, 15 receptions,150 yards

- Corey Winfield, CB Syracuse: St. Louis River Gardens produce: 32 games, 20  starts; all 12 games in 2016 (41 tackles, 5 PD, 4 PBU

- Aaron Cochran, OT California: 6-foot-8, 350 -- 16 starts in 3 years at Cal

- Scott Sypniewski, LS Michigan: 35 career games

Basketball:1.  I assume at this point there is no telling which direction Whitman will go with the coaching search.  That said, have boosters/people of influence started campaigning for any particular coaches? 2.  Are there any frequently-mentioned coaching candidates you can rule out?

1) Josh Whitman is not telling people where he stands on Groce's future. And to be honest, he doesn't have to until the end of the season. But he is preparing himself for either option. Whitman talks with a very small circle he can trust. I was told Jerry Colangelo will give or has given his input and will play a role (which is why Monty Williams is mentioned). Whitman also recently took a trip to Naples to speak with Illini "supporters." As Piper wrote this week, billionaire NFL owner and Illinois booster Shad Khan lives in Naples.

2) I've been told there's "no chance" on Archie Miller, but I wonder if a $3 million salary, new athletic director and upgraded facilities help. Ohio State would be an intriguing opening for Archie though. I also think Tony Bennett is highly, highly unlikely for Illinois.

Has there been back channeling to replacements for Groce?

If I knew for sure, Whitman needs to keep his circle tighter. But I was told that if Whitman decides to fire Groce, he will have his replacement lined up before he announces Groce's dismissal -- so that means back-channeling will occur. That's a breath of fresh air after we saw Thomas whiff publicly on so many candidates on a prolonged search in 2012 that resulted in Groce.

is there anything groce can realistically do to save his job

Make the NCAA Tournament. Getting commitments from Mark Smith and Ayo Dosunmu before the end of the season wouldn't hurt either -- though that won't happen.

Do you have any idea, salary wise, what it will take to land a high profile BB coach? Also, any guess as to how much JW might be willing/able to offer? Thanks!

To lure a guy like Tony Bennett? I'd say $3.5-$4 million. I've heard Illinois is likely willing to pay in the $3 million range.

The Big Ten money is great, but this is all starting to get expensive for Illinois. So Illini fans may have to pay a little more for their tickets to pay for these coaches and nine-figure facilities upgrades. I've heard Illinois football season tickets may go up very slightly (maybe $20 increase for the entire season-ticket package). Illinois knows some fans won't like this coming after a 3-win season. But if you want your high-priced coach and for that high-priced coach to have the best facilities to sell to recruits, everyone is going to have to pitch in.

What is the Real Estate climate like in the greater C-U area?

Not a big fan of these tweets, messages, etc. Sure, criticize coaching, that's absolutely fair. Yes, these guys sign up for an unstable profession. Yes, Groce gets paid a lot of money. But a lot of families -- and some people who don't make a lot of money -- are affected by this. It's not a joke to them.

Any chance Illinois goes after Chris Collins at Northwestern to replace Groce? Or, is there an unwritten rule of not going after other Big 10 coaches?

Doubtful. Jim Delaney does not approve of this. Also, Illinois is a very different job than Northwestern. The right fit at Northwestern isn't necessarily the right fit at Illinois.

Is Monty Williams a candidate at all to replace Groce?

He's a possibility and an interesting one. Williams is well-respected in the NBA community and obviously has enough coaching chops to earn an NBA head coaching job. He also served on the Team USA basketball staff, overseen by prominent UI alum Jerry Colangelo. Williams, currently the vice president of basketball operations with the Spurs, also could be hired the day after Whitman announces a Groce dismissal. 

However, Williams has many questions. He's never coached at the college level, so he's never recruited. He'd need to bring a great staff with him. Plus, would high school prospects be drawn to Monty Williams (who had a .439 win percentage with the Pelicans) like they are Lovie Smith? Probably not. It'd be an intriguing hire, but one with risk.

After the tragic passing of his wife, Williams planned to take a long hiatus from coaching to raise his children. But a year away from coaching may have harder than he thought, especially considering what he's gone through, a little normalcy might help.

Jeremy, Do you think that Cuonzo Martin has a good chance to be the next head men's basketball coach at Illinois?

I think Martin will be coaching someone other than Cal next season, and Illinois makes a lot of sense -- but so does Mizzou. He's from East St. Louis, played at Purdue and coached at Missouri State. He's wanted to get to the Midwest and has recruited well -- landing five-stars Jaylen Brown (No. 3 pick of Celtics last year) and Ivan Raab -- and four-star Chicago Morgan Park point guard Charlie Moore, who could follow Martin to his next stop. Martin's three teams (Missouri State, Tennessee and Cal) have improved each of his three years at those stops. There are questions, of course. Martin hasn't stayed anywhere longer than three years, which means we don't really have a long-term sample size on his programs. Illinois has 

Pretty much a given that Monty Williams and Cuonzo Martin are the Plan B candidates for Groce job. Who do you think are Plan A?

I don't know that I'd call those guys "Plan B" guys. Are they the top Whitman targets? Not sure. Whitman has shown he thinks big and thinks outside the box. Obviously, I think you try to gauge the interest of guys like Tony Bennett, Buzz Williams and such.

One name that doesn't line up for me is Fred Hoiberg. I heard he's pretty miserable in Chicago and would have interest in the Illinois job. But the NBA regular season doesn't end until mid-April, and the Bulls currently have a two-game lead for the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference. Illinois needs a coach in mid-March to help solidify the Class of 2017 and get working on the future. Would Hoiberg really quit mid-season, a la Bobby Petrino, to take the Illinois job? That's not a great look for him. And would Hoiberg -- who has been seen as a failure in Chicago and who's known to not love recruiting -- really be a home-run fit at Illinois, which needs a strong recruiter in Chicago?

How much of a tie does C Martin have to the 2017 class and 2018 targets (Ayo)?

Assistant Tracy Webster watched Mark Smith last week -- even though Cal won't get Mark Smith. Martin is from East St. Louis but he didn't recruit Jeremiah Tilmon. Martin knows Morgan Park well after landing Charlie Moore, so that may help him get involved with Ayo Dosunmu -- if he's at Illinois, which has a long-established relationship with the five-star point guard.

Is Cuonzo Martin and staff recruiting Mark Smith et al for Cal or Illinois?

Mark Smith likely isn't going to Cal, and the Cal coaches know that. But they're recruiting him anyway. We all know why.

Given Groce's more-than-likely firing, do you see Adam Fletcher being maintained as the S&C coach? 

He'd be a smart hire for the next head coach. He knows this roster and implements the latest and greatest in the strength and conditioning field. Fletch has improved the strength and athleticism of this team, but a strength coach can only help a player reach his athletic potential -- and can't turn a below average athlete into an elite one. But coaches always go with who they trust. I hope Fletch gets a chance to interview though.

Football: Which players who either redshirted this year or played very little or primarily on special teams do you think could make a significant contribution next year?

I plan on covering this in my five questions for my spring football preview (coming out this weekend), but a couple guys I'm watching: LB Jake Hansen, CB Evan Jones, DL Tymir Oliver, OL Adam Solomon and TE Griffin Palmer. Maybe another guy is diminutive WR Mj McGriff.

Basketball: Which current players (assuming all return) do you think would benefit most from a coaching change and why (e.g. different system, more opportunity, out-of-the-doghouse, better player development)?

Maybe you're expecting me to say D.J. Williams or Aaron Jordan, but I think those two would struggle to land in a lot of Big Ten teams' rotations. The three guys I'm most curious about next year are the three veterans who must be good for Illinois to be good. 

Jalen Coleman-Lands is a dangerous shooter and great passer, but he's still too inconsistent. He must clean up the turnovers, improve defensively and continue to improve on his midrange and attack-the-basket game.

Leron Black had a great start to the season, and still is a very, very good rebounder (26th nationally in defensive rebound percentage). While he makes a good percentage of 2-point jumpers (47.4 percent), still relies way too much on it. More than 77 percent of his shot attempts are two-point jumpers, while only 12.2 percent of his shots come at the rim -- lower than anyone on the team except Coleman-Lands (9.9 percent). Whoever is coaching must help him find a go-to post move. Three years into his collegiate career, he hasn't found one yet.

Michael Finke has looked great offensively during Big Ten play and has improved since Te'Jon Lucas has become the primary point guard. He's a mistmatch problem, he just has to continue to get better with his defensive positioning.But I think he can be great weapon in any offense, especially the ball screen.

Plus does Cuonzo bring Charlie Moore with him? Does Charlie have a relationship with Ayo from his Morgan Park days? Help or hurt getting Ayo?

If Cuonzo is the coach at Illinois, expect Moore to follow him. Why wouldn't he? He went to Cal for that staff. He knows no one else there, and Cal could take a big step back in the next year or two. Illinois could be good in 2018-19 if Cuonzo keeps Tilmon, lands Smith and brings in Charlie Moore. Bringing in Moore wouldn't hurt with Ayo, and the two would really complement each other well: Charlie as the shooter and Ayo as the slasher. Add Te'Jon to the mix, and we can dream of Illinois having an embarrassment of riches at point guard.

any whispers of voluntary bb player transfers?

D.J. Williams and Aaron Jordan are the top candidates of course. Williams should get a lot of interest from Chicago-area programs, and Jordan would be a great fit in the Missouri Valley, especially the one that a 100-mile drive south of Plainfield on Interstate 55.

Love these questions.. I want to know who the next head coach will be, exact date and time, what recruits he will keep, and will he sign Mark Smith..... and for kicks, the exact number of wins the new coach will have for the 2017-18 season. In all seriousness, just a thank you for all the great work by you and the staff....this has rapidly become the go-to site for timely and accurate information.

Woah. OK, then. This certainly won't be the accurate information because I don't know what Whitman will do or who his top targets are.

I'll give you two scenarios:

- Whitman announces Groce's dismissal at 9 a.m. Friday, March 10 -- after a second-round exit from the Big Ten Tournament -- and announce Monty Williams as his head coach at 9 a.m. Monday, March 13.

- Whitman announces Groce's dismissal at 9 a.m. Thursday, March 9 -- after a first-round exit from the Big Ten Tournament -- and announces Cuonzo Martin as his head coach on Monday, March 20, after California bows out in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.

Jeremy Werner is named the new coach for the Illini on a 4-year contract.  Here is your 2017-18 roster.  Definitely staying:  TJL, Kipper, Finke, JCL, Black, Pickett, Damonte Williams (likely medical redshirt)  Congratulations, you got a commitment from Mark Smith.  

1 stays and 1 goes.  For fun, you get to decide.  DJW or AJ  

It’s going to take all of your energy to get either Trent or JT.  Which one do you go after?  

Who are your targets to fill out the roster?  Scary version, that first list might be your team next year.  Still taking the job?

First of all, I hope I have a huge assistant salary pool because I'm in over my head. Beilein will school me every year. And thanks for the Mark Smith gift. Illinois is going to need him.

1) Most will say D.J. Williams because the ceiling obviously is higher. We've seen flashes of a Big Ten contributor -- but those are few and far between. This won't be popular -- and I expect blowback haha -- but I'll go Aaron Jordan. I know he's not dynamic, but he does a few things consistently well -- most prominently defense -- while I never know what I'm getting from Williams. I also think Jordan's a good spot shooter when he's set, even though that form is funky. To me, this is comparable to Maverick Morgan and Austin Colbert. Most would've wanted Colbert to stay because of the flashes of athleticism, but he was so inconsistent. Two years later, Morgan is one of the best players on the team and Colbert isn't playing college basketball. I know what Jordan can do. I know he'll be a good teammate and a program guy. I still think he can help, especially since Bo Ryan offered him a scholarship.

2) Two years of Tilmon or four years of Trent Frazier? Usually I side with the long-term guy and the point guard. But with Lucas on board and Smith on my hypothetical roster, I'm going to go with the five-star big man. He gives me something I need in the short-term and a possible future pro to sell to more recruits.

3) I'll go after Jacob Epperson but will try to find a fifth-year transfer big and roll the scholarship into 2018. I'm not crazy enough to be a college coach.

Just to mix up the coaching search questions, any word on the volleyball coach?

Not yet. I'm not as honed into that scene, though Scott Richey put together a good list at Whitman apparently offered Kevin Hambly to double his salary to keep him in Champaign. But Hambly likely will make way more at Stanford, where he also is provided a house as part of his compensation. Hambly has the best job in the country.

Where do you believe Mark Smith will be suiting up at next winter?

In the Big Ten.

Werner, You're the AD let's say Groce finishes the B1G going 5-13 overall. 

But Illinois goes on a crazy run and wins the B1G tourney and loses in the sweet 16 of the tourney. Do you keep Groce?

Yes. There would be legitimate excitement about the program and a path to future success because that kind of run would mean players have taken a big step forward.

However, I don't see them going 5-13 nor do I see them winning the Big Ten Tournament -- five games in five days or even four games in five days is really difficult.

Which Super Bowl had the better ending - 49 or 51? Is Tom Brady unequivocally the GOAT QB?

49 featured one of the most clutch defensive plays ever (Malcolm Butler) -- and coaching gaffes -- in one of the better Super Bowls ever. But I'll remember the Patriots' 51 comeback most.

I think Aaron Rodgers and John Elway are the most talented quarterbacks I've seen. But nobody has played the position better than Brady.

Top three sporting events to watch and/or cover.

My favorite three sporting events are: 1) My keeper fantasy baseball draft each year; 2) the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament (I've never covered one live); 3) Tie between the NBA Finals (when LeBron is in it), the Super Bowl and MLB playoffs.

My favorite events so far to cover are: 1) The Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis; 2) National Signing Day -- what a rush; 3) basketball games at Indiana.

Better salsa dancer: You, or Piper?

During college, I got my future wife dancing lessons for Valentine's Day. It was at the University YMCA on Wright Street and was taught by an old Italian woman who would whack us with a stick if we screwed up. We learned the salsa. I don't remember it fully, but I think that gives me the edge. Piper dabs better though.

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