Through the Trifocals

The Illini football team has completed 15 spring practices culminating with last Saturday's scrimmage, and Coach Ron Turner is closer to understanding the makeup of his 2004 football team. But are we any closer to knowing how the team will fare? <br><br> Illinisports talks about all the possible scenarios that could occur and the peculiar nature of the upcoming season. At this point, there are so many unknowns that the season might be worth watching just to see what might happen.

Now that spring football practice is over, it is time to begin speculation on what will happen this upcoming fall. While some are predicting gloom and doom, I find this season to be one of the most intriguing in memory. After all, rarely has there been so much at stake and so little way of predicting the outcome at this time.

Understand now that I used the word "intriguing", which to me represents neither optimism nor pessimism. If I take off my Orange and Blue glasses and unemotionally observe the team for its potential, I see a number of possible scenarios for the fall of 2004. Rather than favoring one over another, I will just list them here with the idea that we have to wait until fall to find out which scenario is correct.

The gloom and doom bunch have already predicted total failure, the firing of Ron Turner and the naming of a new head coach. They base this prediction on their memories of how the team looked at the end of the 2003 season. At best, they see us winning only the early home games with Florida A & M and Western Michigan. If the 2004 team performs no better than 2003's team, then this prediction will definitely result.

But there are signs an improvement in that record is possible. For one thing, we have seven home games, and home games are usually easier to win unless the fans boo their own players and coaches. And we do not have either Ohio State or Penn State on our schedule. Ohio State is absolutely loaded again, and Penn State is still a quality program with many outstanding athletes. It can be considered a stroke of good fortune to have these two fine programs off our schedule.

Indiana and Northwestern are also teams that are beatable, so some people predict a 4-7 result. But the pessimists counter that we will not defeat either Indiana or Northwestern if we have lost all the Big 10 games that precede them since they are the last two games on the schedule. Frankly, if we only have two wins by the time of our home game with Indiana, we will have no confidence left with which to fight.

Regardless of which games we win, those who wish to see a change of head coaches most fear a final record of 4-7 or 5-6. They want Coach Turner fired, so they are afraid Athletic Director Ron Guenther and the UI administration will continue to support Turner if he finishes with four or more wins. This might be true, especially if the team shows promise and fight even during its losses. For example, playing Michigan into overtime and staying close with the others would give everyone much more reason for future optimism than if we lose badly.

If our offense is inconsistent and if our defense can't stop anyone, a 4-7 season will not save Turner's job. But 5-6 might, especially if the team is fun to watch and showcases its young talent. Of course, a winning record and bowl game would likely save Turner's job, but a number of fans don't believe a winning season is possible.

Let us take a look at the schedule with an eye for confidence levels and momentum. Ultimately, a confident team that gets rolling with success begins to appear much better than the sum of its parts.

Illinois plays its first four games at home. UCLA follows Florida A & M, and it is always talented despite struggling last year with its first year coach. If we win the opener, we may have some momentum and confidence with which to compete with UCLA. I don't wish to predict victory because UCLA will be better than expected. But IF we should somehow pull it out (maybe with a last-second field goal to make up for last year), then we could go into our Big 10 opener with Purdue at 3-0 if we can defeat Western Michigan.

These are big "if's", but the value of three early victories is the confidence and enthusiasm it generates going into the heart of the schedule. Purdue will be favored since they have their quarterback and much of their team back, but having them at home helps. If our young team doesn't yet know its limitations due to early success, it is possible they could give the Boilermakers a good game.

A 4-0 start, although unlikely, would give us at least a fighting chance in the following two road games with Wisconsin and Michigan State, and the home game with Michigan after that. All three of these teams will be heavily favored, but teams play better when they believe in themselves. If the Illini can somehow pull out a victory in one of the two road games, even a loss to Michigan would place us at no worse than 5-2 going into the next two games.

We have rarely played well at Minnesota, but their talent level is not that much better than us. And Iowa at home might be considered a possible victory if we have played well to that point. I for one have not been as impressed with Iowa as some folks, and they just might be rediscovering their own fallibility by then. If we have a chance at a winning season against Iowa, Memorial Stadium might fill full enough with enthusiastic fans to give the Illini the extra support so necessary for victory. If we get it, Indiana at home and Northwestern away might both seem winnable to a winning team.

Yes, the above is not likely, but it is one of several possible scenarios. I am not suggesting an 8-3 season to create false optimism. But after many years of following Illini football, I can state that many teams that appeared mediocre to start the season ended up playing much better than expected. And many teams with lofty expectations failed to reach their potential. Confidence and momentum play vital roles in determining season outcomes.

So, do we have the horses to accomplish a winning season? It is truly difficult to say. But we do have a number of excellent football players, and we could do well if these players have good seasons. Some of them are so young they may be a year away, but the potential is there as shown in the final spring scrimmage. Based on what I have seen from watching spring practices, let me speculate on the players I feel are the key for the upcoming season.

What if Kendrick Jones finally fulfills his enormous potential at wide receiver and gives us the dominant player to keep defenses honest? What if our other receivers, including Ade Adejemo, Lonnie Hurst and redshirt freshman DaJuan Warren, give us the depth and separation speed to have a wide open passing attack? What if Melvin Bryant becomes both a blocker and pass catcher at tight end? At 6'-5", he provides a wonderful target for the quarterbacks, but he will need to get stronger to provide the blocking.

What if our running back stable, including E.B. Halsey, Pierre Thomas, Marcus Mason, Jason Davis, Brock Bolen, Brian Grzelakowski and possibly newcomer Walter Mendenhall give us the running threat and pass catching option to balance run and pass? If so, Turner's offense can be difficult to stop. What if J. J. Simmons develops into a trusted left tackle and keeps speed rushers off our quarterback's back? What if Bryan Koch, overcoming his neck injury and lack of size, or alternates Martin O'Donnell or Kyle Schnettgoecke, give us consistency at left guard? What if rookie Jason Reda overcomes freshman jitters and becomes the quality place kicker we need so desperately?

What if Mike O'Brien and Brian Schaefering overcome previous injuries and play to their full potential on the defensive line? They are both quick, fast, and aggressive, and they could transform the look of the d-line. What if youngsters Chris Norwell and/or Charles Myles, both 6'-7" and aggressive, develop at defensive tackle? This may be too much to ask for this year, but they represent excellent possibilites for the long term.

What if Matt Sinclair finally fulfills his enormous promise? He has the size, athletic ability and leadership necessary to be a top linebacker. What if Mike Gawelek, youngster Joe Mele or Antonio Mason show consistent aggressiveness at middle linebacker? What if someone, either Josh Tischer, Anthony Thornhill, Cyrus Garrett, rookie Remond Willis or anyone else gives us consistently good minutes at the weakside linebacker?

What if Kelvin Hayden, the most improved spring defender, becomes a true clamp-down cover corner? He is one of our best athletes and could really solidify the whole defense if he can be trusted to threaten opposing passing attacks. What if Alan Ball overcomes a slight build and inexperience to give us athleticism at the other cornerback spot? What if Morris Virgil, Kevin Mitchell or possibly a rookie such as Justin Harrison becomes a head-hunting athletic safety to pair with the highly talented Travis Williams?

And last but certainly not least, what if Jon Beutjer gets "into the zone" and actually has the kind of season to match his years of experience and aura of specialness? Jon has the trust of his teammates, and he has shown leadership skills. If he can get on a role early and overcome the tendency to lock into one receiver, he is capable of serving a role similar to Kurt Kittner a few years ago. The other players can then relax and play their own games, knowing they can count on consistency at the quarterback slot.

Frankly, it is a lot to ask of Beutjer to compare him with Kittner. After all, Kittner seemed able to overcome inconsistency to excel during crunch time. Jon Beutjer has not shown that trait, except on a few occasions when he could fire passes at trusted receivers like Brandon Lloyd, Walter Young, Aaron Moorehead and Greg Lewis. He doesn't have the quick release of Kittner, and he is still recovering from back surgery. But if he continues to improve, and if the receivers continue to improve, the combination can serve to win some games.

Based on a law of averages, I will be pleased if even half of these "what ifs" come true. But if we should avoid injuries, get early momentum, and gain some confidence along the way, we can be a fun team that has at least a chance to win against most opponents. If our defense stops opponents on downs once in awhile and starts getting some turnovers, they can begin to believe in themselves and take some of the pressure off the offense. But if we start having problems, if failures begin to remind us of last year, we will go into the tank so fast it will make our collective heads spin.

If the Illini go to a bowl game this fall, Ron Turner likely will have saved his job. Can you imagine the pressure he must feel right now? Whether we agree with his approach or not, he has worked to the best of his ability, and his long-term future depends on all the unknowns described above. He has to remain optimistic to the team and to the fans even if he is then criticized for giving false expectations. He has to coach relaxed and confident even in the face of possible failure, and he has to set an example his assistants can emulate. And all the time, he is waiting to hear that fateful knock on his door that indicates the UI administration wants to talk to him about contract termination.

Let's say he keeps his job. He is still not out of the woods. He then has to figure a way to win every year, and he has to recruit players who are ignoring us now because they assume we are losers. What national elite recruit will listen to Illinois when USC, Ohio State, Michigan, Oklahoma, and Miami come calling?

And think of all the gloom and doom fans. Can you imagine how vengeful they will be if they can't get their way two years in a row? I imagine that Ron Turner and his family will continue to hear occasional negativity from at least a few fans for years to come. Once burned, some fans become permanent adversaries. I'm not certain that Ron Turner will feel much like a winner no matter how well he does.

But if I were Ron Turner, I might also realize the value of overcoming all these odds to perform the miracle of transformation. I would realize that overcoming obstacles and developing a program that wins in the long term might be the best accomplishment one could have. The feeling of satisfaction he could create for himself and his partners could rival and/or top winning the National Championship on a team that is expected to do so year in and year out.

And what would make it most enjoyable is knowing he would have done it at the last possible moment. He is truly going to be at that unique moment in time where his entire career will either sink permanently or rise back up to prominence. It is a special time, win or lose, so I can understand why he might want to be here to find out what happens next. Will the "cosmic tumblers" all fall into place? We will find out this fall.

If the Illini fail this fall to the point of requiring a coaching change, then a number of additional scenarios are possible. Unfortunately, most of them are not favorable. Sure, maybe Guenther can somehow attract a great coach, or a young, enthusiastic coach with a great recruiting reputation who can excite the fans, motivate the players and recruit top newcomers. But if we have two terrible years in a row, we will not be capable of attracting the best replacement prospects. After all, it is as unlikely to get a great coach to switch to a losing school as it is to get a great recruit to attend a losing school.

We may find a replacement coach who comes in, finds a nucleus of excellent young players, and takes advantage of their maturation to win early. That is what helped propel John Mackovic to two straight Big Ten Coach of the Year awards. But if we lose big this fall, then perhaps we really don't have that great a nucleus of young players. If so, rebuilding will be mandatory and frustrating. The fact our second team battled on even terms with the starters through most of the final spring scrimmage could mean we have better depth, or it could mean we have no quality at the top. At this point, we don't know which.

In most cases, changing head football coaches requires a minimum of 3-5 years to produce consistently good results. So whatever enthusiasm the coaching change might muster would likely be counterbalanced with the need for even more patience than we have shown these last few years. After all, without cheating it is extremely difficult to recruit outstanding players who can come in and win right away. And Illinois has a mandate to not cheat because of previous run-ins with the NCAA. That alone has put us at a disadvantage compared to some teams who shall remain nameless but known to most.

If we do get a new coach, a few fans will be mad because he doesn't have the characteristics they desire in a head coach. They will be negative from the start because they will assume failure regardless. And they will blame Guenther and/or university administration for "lacking the commitment" (meaning lacking mucho bucks) to hire a big name coach, even if no big name coach would touch the job. A few others will immediately put the new coach on a pedestal and presume greatness with or without proof. Their expectations will be so high they cannot help but crash and burn within a year or two of the hiring. Both of these kinds of fans will frequent this and other football forums to rant against the program, just like now.

Or maybe, just maybe, the majority of fans will be really excited with a new coach. If we could somehow, even accidently, hire someone with charisma, communicative skills, a broad understanding and success rate with a wide open offense and aggressive defense, known recruiting expertise with a stated emphasis on a national approach, a commitment to hiring aggressive teacher/recruiters as assistants, and a destiny for national prominence, then most of us would be truly excited around the end of 2004. But I am not holding my breath over that one. And even if we get him, then we would have to worry about losing him to some elitist university with money to burn and arrogance to match.

Now do you see what I mean about the interesting nature of the upcoming season? It is like one big soap opera. Will Ron Turner find peace and happiness in the corn fields and cow pastures of central Illinois? Will Ron Guenther be able to retire with a legacy of having created a stable overall athletic program with both football and basketball as his flagships? Will the Illini football players overcome their memories of a season that must be forgotten and learn to win again? Will Illini fans forgive the past, cheer the present, and celebrate the future?

Stay tuned, ladies and gentlemen. The immediate future is certainly intriguing, isn't it?

Go Illini!


Illini Inquirer Top Stories