After years (not as many as many of you) of being a Cubs fan and an Illini fan, I have been trained to know that once either team gets to the cusp of greatness, something or someone is going to come out and knock my feelings of elation right back down to earth. This is why I cannot get excited right now about the upcoming football season.
It is not hard to be a pessimist when looking at the Illini football team, in fact pessimism is the easiest feeling to have regarding the Fighting Illini football program right now. Anyone who is an optimist right now is a much better person than I at looking for the silver lining on every dark cloud. Looking at the Illinois football tem, all I am reminded of is the debacle of last year, and I can't get it out of my head. The second half against Northwestern will forever be burnt into my head; it was a complete and utter embarrassment for every fan of Illinois, not to mention the players and the coaches.
I keep telling myself that this is a new year, and things will turn around. I sound like myself during Spring Training when it comes to the Cubs. I mean sure Illinois lost 11 games last year, but they have Beutjer back and healthy. Mike O'Brien should be returning to put a stranglehold on the defensive line. Matt Sinclair will finally live up to the hype that surrounded him coming out of University High School in St. Louis. The addition of Mike Mallory will make the Illini defense respectable, and allow the offense to outscore opponents. The Illini's trio of sophomore running backs is the best staple of backs I have seen at Illinois under Ron Turner.
The only thing I can honestly believe in the paragraph above is the final sentence about Illinois' trio of running backs: EB Halsey, Marcus Mason, and Pierre Thomas. These guys are damn good players, there is no doubt about that. It is just too bad all three play the same position, and can't be on the field at the same time.
Every time I start thinking positive thoughts I get into what can best be described as a canned debate between Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith on Sports Center in an Old School / Nu Skool segment, except instead of the two most annoying personalities on sports television today arguing, it is my desire to be optimistic fighting with my pessimistic nature. (On a side note, with ESPN NFL 2K5 having a digital Chris Berman giving the half time highlights, is any one else looking forward to seeing and / or hearing a digital Stephen A. Smith in ESPN NBA 2K5? ESPN Video Games, make it happen because there would never be a better $20 spent than to have Stephen A. Smith telling me Slava Medvedenko is terrible when I am beating the Lakers with the Bulls. Now, if in ESPN NHL 2K5 they have a digital Barry Melrose will it be the first mullet in the history of video games?). If my pessimist / optimist arguments were broadcast to the world on Sports Center, this is probably what they would look like.
Rich Eisen: (in my world Rich Eisen never left Sports Center for the NFL Network) Hi, every one and welcome to another edition of Optimist / Pessimist, the segment on the show where we take two divergent opinions, and make them have mock arguments with each other because our executive producers think this draws in the younger audience and higher advertising dollars.
Sitting in the Optimist seat we have the most famous person sitting on the West Balcony in Memorial Stadium, the "key play" guy. Sitting in the pessimist seat, we have the famed sports talk radio caller, Abdul from El Paso.
Welcome to both of you.
Key Play Guy: Thanks for having me Rich.
Abdul: (in a disguised voice) Glad to be here.
RE: OK, guys first question. Will the Illinois defense be improved this season? Key Play Guy, let's look to you first.
KPG: Last off season, Illinois Head Coach Ron Turner realized that he would not be able to win football games on the highest level without putting more emphasis on defense. Coach Turner understood Illinois' defense was the reason his team was not winning, and he made drastic changes in his approach. He fired former Mike Cassity and hired someone he trusted more to run the defense. Mike Mallory already had the respect of the players and the coaches, and now he will be running the defense.
Mallory will focus the defense more on playing solid football instead of the gimmick defense of Cassity that relied on deception to get to the quarterback. Our cornerbacks will finally play press coverage on the line, instead of leaving seven yard cushions like they did under Cassity. With Mike O'Brien returning to the defensive line, the other Illinois defensive linemen will see less emphasis from the offensive line because opponents will have to know where exactly O'Brien is on the line.
Not only did Turner bring Mallory in to focus on the fundamentals of defense like tackling and position, he did whatever he could to improve the team speed on the defensive side of the ball. He allowed the defensive coaches to raid his former untouchable offense for players they thought could help them on defense. These position changes forced the offense to lose their number one receiver last year in Kelvin Hayden, but it also strengthened the Illini secondary as Hayden is now a starting cornerback. Morris Virgil also moved from the crowded offensive backfield to safety, further bolstering the team speed on defense.
A: Come on now Key Play Guy, we hear the same things year after year from the Ron Turner regime at Illinois. It was barely three years ago that we were hearing the exact same comments from Turner about the defense and a re-focusing on fundamentals when he fired Tim Kish and brought in Mike Cassity. We all saw how that turned out, with him being fired last season after a horrific defensive showing for the Illini.
The players that you are counting on to improve, have not shown the ability to improve in three years at Illinois, so why would their fourth year be the year the light turns on? I mean Matt Sinclair may be the most overrated linebacker in the history of Illinois, and with his recent altercation at Joe's he has already shown his leadership ability to be next to null, but at least we know he can hit someone know.
Sure, it appears team speed has been improved on the defensive side of the ball, but what makes you think they will miraculously learn to tackle? The Illini are still weak up front. Mike O'Brien is not the savior people are expecting. He is not a player that teams need to double team on the line, and with no impact freshman coming in, opponent's offensive lines should still be able to open up more holes than Swiss cheese for their runners. I just hope for no more repeats of last year's Northwestern game.
Put down the orange & blue Kool-Aid any rational human being can see this team has too many problems with basic defensive fundamentals to be fixed by just adding speed to the defense.
RE: OK, OK. Now, let's go on to the offense. In his time at Illinois Ron Turner has always had a successful offense, and has often times broken school records in scoring and total yards. So will this year's offense be strong enough to score against the defenses in the Big Ten?
KPG: If there is one thing we have seen in the Turner era at Illinois it is scoring, and lots of it. This year will be no different; in fact with Jon Beutjer completely healthy, he should be able to come close to breaking school records once again. His back is not an issue, and he can regain the form that helped Illinois finish the 2002 season strong.
The three sophomore running backs will all be spectacular, as they can all run north and south, and catch the ball out of the backfield. EB is completely healthy after his injury last year, and he will be the starting tail back for the Illini. He is a true double threat, who can play in single back formations, as well as split out to the slot if Turner asked him to do so.
The offensive line is returning all but one player, and will be a much more cohesive unit than they were last year. Matt Maddox was a Rivals.com Freshman All-American this year, and he will only improve. Bucky Babcock and Duke Preston have both been solid throughout their Illinois careers. If there ever is an injury, the red shirt freshman class of offensive lineman is the best class Ron Turner has ever recruited, and they are waiting in the wings.
At the receiver position, Ron Turner has never had a problem developing talent. He turned Walter Young from a quarter back into an NFL wide receiver, and Brandon Lloyd from a corner back into an NFL wide receiver. The Illini receivers will all be ready to spread out the field and play pass and catch with Beutjer. Lonnie Hurst, Ade Adeyamo, and Mark Kornfeld already bring consistency to the position, and the Illini have some young players waiting in the wings in case of injury in guys like Bryant Creamer.
A: Come on now Key Play Guy, you are making it sound like this offense will be as potent as the St. Louis Rams when they were running rough shot over the NFL. Sure this offense will be able to score 25-30 points a game, but when the defense allows 35 a game, it will be tough to win ball games.
The Illini will always be coming from behind, so teams will be able to pass rush all game, and get at Beutjer. Last year's offensive line did not give Beutjer enough time to throw, and could not open up holes for the Illini running backs, so I don't know why basically the same line can be expected to do much more than they did last year. Bucky is playing valiantly, but he is out of position.
Jon Beutjer may have set passing records at Illinois, but he has never been a winner at any stop of his college career. The Iowa coaches showed how much they thought Jon could do to help their program when they backed Sam Aeillo over Beutjer in the incident that caused his transfer to Illinois. Then when he came to Illinois Ron Turner said he would not play him until he learned the offense two years ago. When Ron finally played him, he supposedly had to dumb down the offense to minimize the number of reads Beutjer needed to make. Last season, Jon hurt his back, and who knows how well he will hold up.
In an effort to strengthen the Illinois defense, Turner removed Illinois' only stretch the field threat in Kelvin Hayden. Mark Kornfeld is as reliable a receiver that exists outside of NCAA Football 2004, but he is a possession receiver, not someone that can change the game with his speed. That leaves Beutjer with a collection of unproven receivers to throw to once again. Lonnie Hurst showed flashes last season, especially against Missouri. Kendrick Jones showed that his hands were still made of stone. Ade Adeyamo looked the best of any one, but he saw very limited action last year due to injury.
The funny thing is, this offense is the part of the team I am least worried about, and I can still bring up a lot of questions on how things will work out.
RE: There were a lot of rumblings and grumblings around Champaign last year that Ron Turner should have been let go before this season even started. What do you think about that, and are the fans being too hard on the head coach?
KPG: I think and I thought at the time that Ron Turner should be given a chance to turn around the Illinois program, but it does not matter now what I thought. It just matters what Illinois Athletics Director Ron Guenther thought. He had enough faith in Ron Turner to turn around the Illinois program, and I have complete faith in him, so I fully support Ron Turner.
As far as the fans, I definitely think they were too hard on Turner and his players last year. The boos in the stadium were uncalled for, and they were not helping the situation out in the least. These people booing are not real fans, they are bandwagon jumpers. I can't believe they boo eighteen to twenty-two year old kids. It's just not right.
A: Come on now sparky, I paid good money for my tickets, and I will boo a lack of effort and a complete tailspin by Illinois football. That is the only way I can voice my displeasure is through my boos, or not supporting the I-Fund. I think booing is the lesser of two evils here.
As far as Ron Turner, the only reason he is here is he and Ron Guenther are good friends, and Guenther felt jilted earlier in the year by Self leaving. If the whole situation with the basketball program had never happened, I don't think Ron Turner would be Illinois' coach today. He is the only coach in the history of college football to be given the opportunity to rebuild something he built. It is insane, and I will continue to voice my displeasure over the situation.
RE: Well that was an interesting give and take, but I am being told by my producers that Stephen A. Smith has a breaking news update on Kobe Bryant. Stephen, this better be earth shattering for breaking up this riveting discussion. Did Kobe pass the ball for the first time?
I would bet many Illinois fans are looking at the current football team through one of the two visions here. There are people that are eternal optimists who happen to always find the sun on a dark and stormy day, but there are people who always find the clouds in a clear blue sky. As the last two football years progressed, I have found it easier to find clouds than the sun when it comes to the Illinois football program. The pessimist inside of me is winning the battle, as the optimist is giving up after repeated kicks to the groin from the Illinois football tanking a season that appeared to be the turning point in the Turner regime.
I am heading into September 4th's game against the Florida A & M Rattlers not even looking forward to football. I am looking forward to traveling down to Champaign and spending time with friends at tailgates, but I am not looking forward to the games themselves.