Through the Trifocals

Another football season is upon us. Excitement is mixed with uncertainty as the Illini set out to reverse last season's record. In this column, Illinisports makes his prediction for the season, with the proviso that any number of outcomes are possible.

I decided to take up golf six years ago. I had played it some as a kid, but I had never taken lessons, never practiced, and never improved. I quit for many years, until I could find an opportunity to devote time and energy to the game. When I took it up again, I began to visit a driving range practically every day.

At first, I saw some improvement. In fact, I began to feel I could take on a golf course and score better than I had when young. I had a bubble of optimism surrounding me when I signed up for my first tee time. Unfortunately, I played terribly in that first round. And subsequent to that round, seeing a videotape of my swing (if you could even call it that) put me into a 6-month depression. My "bubble of optimism" was shattered, and it took lessons and significant practice at tearing down and rebuilding my golf swing before I could begin to enjoy the game of golf again and see some success.

No one wants to hear about my golf game, but I believe there is an analogy with what happened to the Illini football team in 2003. I watched their early practices last fall, and I saw all the enthusiasm and togetherness that led me to believe they would have a good year. The players themselves had a strong "bubble of optimism", and they truly believed they could win a Big 10 Championship.

Unfortunately, they were not combining logic with their optimistic outlook. If they had, they would have realized they would be playing two new receivers (one a raw freshman), a freshman running back, a redshirt freshman tight end, two new offensive linemen plus a third playing a new position, some inexperienced or lightly successful defensive players, a hole at one cornerback that was ultimately filled by a raw freshman, and a middle linebacker, the quarterback of the defense, who almost died just before the start of training camp.

We all should have realized what was about to happen when Coach Turner responded angrily to Christian Morton for his aggressive tackle on Kelvin Hayden at the Rantoul preseason scrimmage. I am sure Turner had previous issues with Morton and was quick to judge because of it. But since the tackle itself appeared to me to be an instinctive reaction and not an intentional effort to debilitate our best wide receiver, Turner's reaction was probably borne more from overall frustration than just Morton's behavior. Seeing his only deep threat go down with injury, and realizing how many holes he was trying to fill on the team, I believe Turner's outburst was probably a harbinger of future trauma.

The players continued to engulf themselves in their "bubble of optimism", undaunted by the handwriting on the wall. That is, until they couldn't pull out a winnable Missouri game. And when they barely defeated a mediocre Illinois State (their only win). And when they fought toe to toe with UCLA in the Rose Bowl, marched for the game-tying field goal, and then lost when that field goal veered off-course. And when California unleashed its future superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers on the Illini's reeling secondary, driving painlessly for the winning touchdown at Memorial Stadium.

Still, the Wisconsin game to begin the Big 10 schedule provided a chance for the players to redeem themselves. The Illini were discouraged by a 1-3 nonconference record, but they were still hopeful. That is, until an exciting interception and runback for a touchdown by Antonio Mason was nullified by penalty. That deeply deflating play, ending our last hope for success against Wisconsin, was a dagger to the Illini's heart, and their "bubble of optimism" was punctured savagely and with finality.

Our large senior class was especially devastated by events. After all, a number of them started the fall with visions of championships, conference recognition, and possible pro careers. When they saw that none of their dreams would reach fruition, their confidence level and reason to continue the fight fell to rock bottom.

All the injuries that occurred also shattered team morale. Losing your only quarterback capable of defeating quality teams, and losing your best three wide receivers, two in the same game, the offense lost hope, and the defense knew it couldn't be bailed out by the offense. Losing several key defensive players did the same to destroy the offense's confidence in the defense, as did the lifeless way the defense responded to challenges too great for it to match. The team lost its focus as one quality team after another began to maul them at will. Everything snowballed downhill, and all of Illinois went into a deep depression.

I know that many fans remember only the last few games and how it appeared the players gave up, and this has placed their minds and hearts within a dark cloud of pessimism and negativity. But rest assured, it did the same thing to the players. I don't believe the players gave up on the coaches or even themselves as much as they gave up on their dreams for great success. Regardless, they lost the will to continue the fight.

From that Wisconsin game on, there was no way we could win another game until we could rebalance, regroup, and recreate ourselves in a better light. We (players and fans alike) had to go through all the emotional stages necessary to heal from a major loss, including denial, anger, guilt, and blame before we could begin to accept our plight with humility and refocus on our responsibility for correcting the errors of the past and reinventing our goals for the future.

Has this healing been accomplished? That is the big question that awaits discovery as a new opportunity presents itself with the football schedule for 2004. I know most of us would rather not rehash the past, but it must be healed and put to rest before we can learn to win again, as players, as coaches, and as fans. How quickly the players and coaches heal their wounds and regain their confidence will determine their degree of success in 2004. And how quickly the fans heal the past will determine who will support the team and coaches and who will not.

Given the youth of our present team, perhaps my biggest concern is how our players will react when adversity hits. Will they use it as a challenge and become more determined and unified in their quest for victory? Or, will adversity remind them of their previous tortured memories, causing a type of anaphylactic reaction that could send them back into their well of depression? We won't know the answer to these questions for some time yet, but they must be resolved in a positive way for there to be success on the field. No amount of athletic talent can function at its best if it is limited by negative memories from the past.

I try to be a realist. What that means is that optimists don't think I am optimistic enough and pessimists are convinced I am too optimistic. I try to keep my emotions out of my evaluations of Illini sports, especially when I am trying to forecast future seasons, but this is admittedly a struggle.

Thus, I am a moderate when it comes to this year's Illini football team. I see potential for future success, but I also see some weak spots that could limit us. We are a young team, really young, and young teams always tend to have large peaks and valleys in their play. So trying to predict an exact record for this year is no more than a guessing game, even to those who are most resolute in their thinking. But some conclusions can be reached.

Coach Turner is an innovative play caller who can confuse and defeat any defense when he has enough weapons with which to work. Last year, he had to limit his offense to accommodate all the youth, and he basically had to shut it down once he lost his starting quarterback. He got so predictable the average fan in the stands could anticipate his next play; opposing defenses had no trouble either. But Turner simply didn't trust his youngsters to make plays when they were having to think rather than just react.

This situation should be vastly improved this year, as long as quarterback Jon Beutjer and left tackle J. J. Simmons remain healthy and function at a high level, in my opinion. Beutjer has finally seemed to learn the value of mixing his receivers, taking what the defense gives, and considering down and distance when making decisions. If so, he could be extremely effective, given the quality depth we have at the receiver and running back positions. And since much of that talent has been around awhile and has learned the system, Turner might just be ready to turn them loose. Of course, that could change quickly if Beutjer leaves the game because he has no backup who can be equally effective at this time. Beutjer has a supporting cast, so he doesn't have to be a hero. He just has to put us in the best situations so our players can make plays.

A quality offense also requires our offensive line to plow holes in the defense for runs and protect the quarterback on passes. J. J. Simmons is our least experienced starter in the line, and he plays the important left tackle spot that must protect the quarterback from the opposing team's best pass rusher. If J. J., who has some ability and quickness for the role, can stay healthy and do his job well, then I believe we can have a quality line. Like Beutjer, there is a big dropoff of experience if not talent behind him, so an injury could hurt. The rest of the starters have all started at least one year, and we know from past experience that line coach Harry Hiestand can develop linemen.

Most people are concerned about our defense, and so am I. But I do believe it can be improved over last year. If we can just stop opponents on downs once in awhile, and get a few turnovers, then we can keep our offense on the field where it can score more points. At the least, if the offense is functioning at a high level, maybe we can outscore opponents. And if our youngsters gain confidence and mature quickly, perhaps we can begin to hold our own defensively as well.

I do believe new defensive coordinator Mike Mallory is using a good approach in his philosophy. He has simplified the defense so the players can do more reacting and flying to the ball and less thinking on the field. This will improve their speed and intensity, giving them a greater chance to make plays. And since we have no superstars on defense, Mallory is preaching gang tackling and togetherness, essential aspects of a good defense. We will still get beat by good players and well-timed plays, but perhaps our team concepts will deter some of the deep strikes and methodical touchdown marches that damaged our egos so badly last year.

I am not trying to say we will have a top defense because I don't believe that is possible this year. We simply have too many youngsters in the 2-deep. There are some good players there, and more waiting in the wings, but they lack experience and the physical development that 3-4 years in the program would provide. Some of them are confident, but they are going to be nervous and therefore unpredictable. They could be fun to watch for their potential if nothing else, and they might demonstrate enough ability to encourage us for future years.

To me, one of the biggest keys to our defense will be the play of Mike O'Brien and his defensive end compatriots. We absolutely must have a pass rush so opposing quarterbacks will not be able to stand in the pocket and pick us apart. O'Brien can be a beast on the pass rush when healthy, so it is hoped his surgically repaired knee will gain the strength and endurance necessary to play most of each game.

Right now, O'Brien will be limited to 20-25 plays a game, so other defensive ends will need to help out. It is not certain that we have any others who can consistently put pressure on the quarterback, so our younger players will need to pass their baptisms of fire and develop quickly. There are some interesting athletes there, including Scott Moss, James Stevenson, Arthur Boyd, Josh Norris, Xavier Fulton, Derek Walker, and Jay Ramshaw. But all are either too young, too inexperienced or too small to be feared by opponents at this time. Let us hope that a couple of them develop quickly.

I believe another big key will be the play of upperclassmen Mike Maloney and Ryan Matha at defensive tackle. Neither one of these players has excited Illini fandom up to now, although Matha was set back by a severe knee injury. I know some fans long for rookies like Chris Norwell and Charles Myles to get more playing time and give us improved play, but experience and physical development do matter on the line.

Maloney has some quickness, and he has transformed his body in his five years on campus. If he and the physically strong Matha can occupy opposing blockers so our linebackers can make tackles, we can have improved success. I liken Maloney's situation to other fifth year seniors who came through for us in their last years at defensive tackle, players like Mark Zitnik and Jon Gustaffson. If Mike can play to their level in his last go-round, many of us will be quite pleased with the results.

I consider it a good sign that Brian Schaefering is back on the team. Of the four players who were banned from training camp, he was the one I was most hopeful could make it back. Brian is big and strong, and he has exceptionally quick feet for a defensive lineman. He will not play for awhile until he can regain the trust of his teammates and coaches. But I am rooting for Brian. He can really help us a lot if he has his priorities in order and dedicates himself to being the best player he can be. If so, we might begin to enjoy seeing big number 66 out on the field.

Matt Sinclair is our best linebacker, and he must have a great year for us to be improved on defense. He is our biggest, strongest and meanest linebacker, and he has star potential. But he can't just make the stops several yards past the line of scrimmage. Rather, he must shed his blockers and attack the ball carrier before he gets first downs. If Matt can make this improvement, our younger, faster, smaller linebackers can play their roles while knowing they have backup. This will give the entire linebacker squad more confidence, and it will help them make more plays. I like the look of youngsters like Anthony Thornhill, J. Leman, Joe Mele, Remond Willis and Russ Weil, but they need Matt Sinclair and fifth year senior Mike Gawelek to lead them.

I believe our starting cornerbacks are a team strength. Both Kelvin Hayden and Alan Ball are athletic, fast and aggressive, and they will take on any challenge. Safety Travis Williams is a quality athlete with experience and smarts, and Morris Virgil's great speed is backed by two talented, hard hitting youngsters in Kevin Mitchell and Justin Harrison, both of whom are also being considered as nickle backs. I have some concern about depth at cornerback, and I know we will get beat frequently in the secondary if we can't get a pass rush to hurry opposing quarterbacks. But I am confident there will be fewer gaping holes in the secondary than last year.

Illini fans have longed for a season with as many as 7 home games. We finally have it this year, and we don't have to play perennial powers Ohio State and Penn State. Usually, this would make us giddy with anticipation. Of course, memories of last year have destroyed that possibility, but we do still have a favorable schedule. Literally, we have never had a better schedule in my memory. This has to account for something.

In addition, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, all ranked high to start the season, are starting new quarterbacks. Certainly, a couple of these are high school All-Americans and capable of great things. But their offenses will be limited by their coaches, and their play will be much more inconsistent this year than future years. To me, this is another potential source of optimism for us.

Florida A and M will frustrate us with their great speed, and we must accept the fact they will score on us. UCLA should never be discounted. They always have top talent, and they have an experienced quarterback plus a great receiver returning from ineligiblity. Even if UCLA is not well respected on a national level, it will be a difficult game for us, although payback for last year would certainly be nice. Western Michigan is from a conference that has shown up extremely well in recent years. None of these games is an absolute certainty. And we have much to prove if we are going to be competitive during the Big 10 season as most conference teams are loaded again.

But we do not have to worry about any bubble of false optimism surrounding the team. No one expects a Big 10 Championship, so there are no egos to deflate. Rather, we KNOW we will be underdogs in most of our games. This is a much better perspective to approach the season, in my mind. We will continue to fight simply because we know we have to do so to win.

Our team does not like failure, as evidenced by how hard they have worked in the off season. They have something to prove this year. The psyche of the underdog with nothing to lose and much to gain is often an ideal one when facing difficult challenges. Let us hope it gives us an advantage this year.

I remember back to the early 1960's and see a potential analogy to this year. In 1961, Pete Elliott's Illini went 0-9. And the losses continued to mount in 1962 as youngsters such as Dick Butkus went through the trauma of inexperience and playing superior opponents. They got killed by Washington, Northwestern, Ohio State and Minnesota to start the season. I remember reading how a number of our sophomores had to play with injuries in the USC game, another loss, but it was a necessary part of the maturation process.

Fortunately, that team never gave up, and after 15 straight losses over three seasons they fought their way to a road victory over Purdue, 14-10. And they defeated a quality Michigan State team at Memorial Stadium to end the season, 7-6.

I was never more proud of a team, continuing to fight even as their fans gave up on them. And when the experience and maturity gained by those excellent sophomores were combined with the athleticism and youthful enthusiasm of a great freshman class to begin the 1963 season, we suddenly had a Rose Bowl Champion team on our hands.

If the 2004 version of the Fighting Illini can live up to its name and continue the fight despite all odds, good things can happen. And whatever is accomplished this year can be improved upon next year when our youngsters have gained the necessary level of maturity, strength and experience to fight on equal terms with everyone on their schedule. If we can just bear with them for awhile longer, our future could be bright.

I believe a big factor for us this year will be how well our fans rise up and support the team during its games. Fans can do wonders to a team's confidence level by getting loud and boistrous at the right times. Our young players especially need all the support they can get, and our defense can benefit greatly if it knows the fans are behind it.

Perhaps this will be a tough sell, given the distrust some fans have in our team from previous years. And I know our nonconference results will have to be positive for year-long support. But if we can suspend past memories for the sake of the present, we might just be able to help the team grab an interception or make a tackle that might save an important victory. At the least, we will know we did everything we could to help, and that we did nothing to speed their demise.

I have not mentioned the threat to Ron Turner's job security, but I would be remiss if I ignored it. Some people are convinced that a change of leadership is needed, and they argue their points well. Like it or not, Turner has been given another year to demonstrate long-term potential by using the athletes he was able to recruit after our 2001 Big 10 Championship and Sugar Bowl appearance. So I would hope every loyal Illini can put aside their personal preferences temporarily to help the team this year. If we fail like last year, then a change is guaranteed. But if Turner can give us a team toward which we can be proud, then perhaps he deserves to continue his struggle to bring Illinois into consistent national prominence.

Thus, a great deal is riding on this season. If Turner is affected by the pressure of his tenuous situation, he has not yet shown it. In fact, he appears to be much more relaxed this year than last. I do sense a little hesitation on his part at times when he is asked how the team will do this year. After all, he is a frank person who is required to be optimistic no matter how he really feels. But my sense is that he is more concerned about the youth of the team than his job status. If accurate, he is either resigned to his fate or simply cautious in his optimism. I prefer to believe it is the latter.

Of course, I am a true blue Illini fan and want desperately to find reasons for optimism. I care less about who is our coach than I do seeing us have a successful football team and a prosperous Division of Intercollegiate Athletics. But I do see more reasons for optimism this year than I did last. And win or lose, I do believe we will be an exciting team to watch due to our diverse offense, even if we may be a little unpredictable and inconsistent at times.

Thus, I estimate we will have a 5-6 record this year, although I am hopeful of one or two more victories to give us a badly needed bowl bid. But in truth, we can end up anywhere from 2-9 to 9-2 (yes, anything is possible when a team with an experienced quarterback gets on a roll). There are simply too many unknowns, and not just with our own team.

Last year, it seemed we played teams when they were either the most confident or most desirous of reversing a difficult loss. The timing of when you play someone is as important as who you play. And injuries are always a major unknown. Right now, we are as healthy as anytime in my memory going into a season. If some of our opponents suffer the kind of injuries we faced last year, then they could become vulnerable.

Regardless, we are living in interesting times. By the end of the season, we will either have more pride and confidence, or we will look forward to starting over and seeing if a new coach can instill the optimism and success rate necessary to get the Illini back into the limelight that fans believe we deserve. Either way, it will be a better feeling than the depression everyone has felt since last season.

Personally, I prefer to win this year, whatever that means for the future. So give us the good fight, Illini. Give us everything you have until the last whistle blows. Never give up on yourselves, even if adversity hits in bunches. Stay confident no matter what some friends, fans or reporters might conclude about your play. Play with pride and passion at all times, and believe in your destiny. You are the Fighting Illini, and we will be happy to see you live up to your name and heritage.

Go Illini!!!!!!!
Illinisports
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