1. What to do at Quarterback? A question that’s increasingly haunting Illini fans, to the point of calling for the backup’s backup, Cam Thomas. The answer to this frustrating question is there isn’t going to be a positive solution for Illinois.
What we’ve seen so far is that Chayce Crouch can’t throw or read defenses well enough to unleash the talented wide receiver group, and the play calling is too conservative to use his athletic ability in a meaningful way. Something I didn’t anticipate seeing from Crouch was a negative effect on the running game as a decision maker in the read-option. But when the ball is snapped to him in shotgun, he’s already made up his mind to whether he’s going to hand it off or take it himself, and in too many cases his pre-snap decision is wrong. That play is in the book so that he can read the defensive end’s commitment and take advantage of that defender’s positioning or over-aggressive stance toward the running back.
Jeff George Jr. is someone that put a lot on film last season, and most of it screams “not the answer”, although in this situation, he actually might be. George Jr. came in to spark the offense and opened up the field with his passing ability. While George Jr. does have a strange release and is prone to dropping his shoulder and floating passes, he is a willing passer with the ability to zip the ball into areas of the field that Crouch simply cannot. While Crouch is the team’s leader and I’m averse to sitting a player like that, having Crouch on the field is rendering Malik Turner, Mike Dudek, Ricky Smalling and Louis Dorsey virtually useless.
The third option is Cam Thomas, a true freshman that needed a ton of work to even consider his career as a quarterback. Frankly his high school film doesn’t show much but a glimpse at tools, and both his footwork and throwing mechanics were going to take years of repetition (you’ve heard of the 10,000 hours rule). I wasn’t at training camp, so I can’t speak to his improvement over the first month of practice, but he isn’t ready. No other position in sports can be spoiled as quickly as a quarterback. If you throw a player like this to the wolves and he’s not ready, and he fails, it’s going to be awfully tough for him to ever build back his confidence to a place that allows him to contribute. I’m very weary of this option. Weary to the point that if Cam Thomas plays I think it’s more of an indictment to his future than a compliment. If Thomas plays this year, I think it’s Lovie and Garrick McGee agreeing that the incoming freshmen are better prospects anyway, so a redshirt for Thomas isn’t going to matter.
Wow, that came off pretty scathing, and I didn’t mean for it to. I’m yelling patience like I’m standing on a box in Times Square, but this is the most important position in sports, and Illinois doesn’t have any options.
2. Through three weeks, I still can’t figure out what this offense is trying to accomplish. And this is equally as concerning as the development of the starting quarterback. You can recruit a better quarterback, and young guys on the team are going to improve, but if this offense doesn’t do a better job finding an identity and using its assets, it’s a systemic problem that’s going to continue for years.
Whose job is it to fix this issue? For one, it’s Garrick McGee’s. What are you going to be? Are you going to put Jeff George Jr. in the shotgun and spread it around to your receivers? Or are you going to keep Chayce Crouch behind center and take off his training wheels? Whatever McGee’s answers to those questions are, he needs to commit to them. The offensive line is a detriment to either direction, but there are creative ways to plant your flag and build around a mindset. I watched bad offensive lines gain an advantage this weekend through creative misdirection in the running game, screen game and wide receiver quick hitters that aren’t all tunnel screens.
No matter which quarterback starts the Nebraska game, McGee has to do a better job tailoring the offense to that guy's strengths.
3. The production from the freshman class is increasingly ridiculous. Let’s put some stats to this claim:
- The team rushed for a total of 67 yards and two touchdowns, and 57 of those yards came from Mike Epstein and Ra’Von Bonner. Each finished with one touchdown on the ground.
- Illinois’ first points were on a blocked extra point. The kick was blocked by Isaiah Gay and picked up by Nate Hobbs, who showed off some serious wheels on the way for the conversion.
- Illinois had 287 receiving yards on Friday night. Ricky Smalling led the team with 99, Louis Dorsey was third behind Dudek with 62, and the only receiving touchdown was from Epstein, who finished with an additional 27 yards. That’s 188 total freshmen receiving yards.
4. It’s a good time for a bye week. What was it that John Groce used to say? Something about people learning by peeing on the electric fence? In all of John’s infinite wisdom, which was repeated at most press conferences, he nailed what it’s like to try and teach 18-year-old kids something after a win. And Lovie Smith’s team is full of 18-year-old kids. They have improved in a lot of areas, so I’m sure they’re paying attention to film sessions and accepting coaching in practice, but there’s nothing quite like watching yourself get taken to the woodshed on tape for a learning experience. The guys will be able to learn a lot from the South Florida film.
It’s also a good time to get healthy, and the teams gathered some bumps and bruises along the way, especially on the paper-thin offensive line. Doug Kramer could be close to coming back from an injury that’s kept him out since the first game, and although we haven’t had a prognosis for Larry Boyd, Lovie’s hopeful he won’t be out a long time, maybe only a bye week.