Brad Underwood said the benefit of playing in Maui, despite going 0-3, is that he doesn’t have to wait any longer to know what his team’s about, and what they have to work on. It took longer to get to that point for Lovie and the Illinois Football program, but he’s there.
Despite the recent two-year contract extension, I think he’d agree that the “improvement” that needed to be seen in 2018, is completely imperative for 2019, or someone new will be coaching the Illini team he’s been building toward in 2020. All the buzz around the program speaks to an increased sense of urgency, and finally, some desperation to get wins.
If he’s ever going to coach the #WeWillWin hashtag into life, he should have the following at the top of his priority list for this 2018-19 offseason.
- Land your defensive Rod Smith to coach the defense, and bury your pride. Lovie’s defense was antiquated when he left the NFL, and college offenses are years ahead of the NFL. It’s not working, it’s not going to work, the sooner he realizes that he needs help on the defensive side of the ball, the better Illinois’ chances of winning. In 2019, it’s unrealistic to see as dramatic a turnaround on the defensive side of the ball, but there are strides not being realized due to bad scheme.
- Joey Boese, do your thing. Boese probably didn’t get as much praise as he deserved this year. The underclassmen from last season looked noticeably different when they stepped on the field this fall, and for some of them — most notably the offensive lineman — it was obvious in their progression. Boese needs to keep refining those players, and get to work developing the rest of the squad. I’m most interested in seeing what Larry Boyd, Verdis Brown and Calvin Avery look like nine months from today.
- Do whatever it takes to land Khalil Tate and Jeff Thomas. Lovie, you should be desperate. I’m desperate. Most of the fan base is desperate. We want to see some wins, and we want to see them now. There are substantial inroads to landing a Heisman level quarterback talent in his final year, and bringing in one of the most electric playmakers from the ACC. Khalil Tate was one of the best players in the country while Illini offensive coordinator Rod Smith was calling his shots. And Jeff Thomas, a legit 4.3 speed receiver from East St. Louis, is looking for a new home. Whatever you have to do to land these two kids, they could make a world of difference to 2019 and beyond, so do it.
- Close out the winnable recruitments strong and string together three straight solid Big Ten classes. On their own, the 2017 and 2018 classes aren’t going to move the needle, but if Illinois keeps stacking classes like those, they’ll eventually have a healthy program with class balance, experience and the occasional stud. Right now, Illinois has worked long and hard in two particular recruitments of need: Shammond Cooper, a linebacker from Trinity, and Keith Randolph, a defensive end from Belleville West. Land them both, play them early, and pick up that talent level in the defensive front seven.
- Re-recruit all current players. The younger kids on the team got valuable experience for the future this past year when there was a mass exodus of experience, but, they could have used that experience during the 4-8 campaign. I don’t know how many more wins could have been on the table, but the fact it’s a debate is reason enough to keep everyone on board. In year 4 (or 3) of the Lovie regime, it’s no longer about the future. Don’t let kids that can contribute leave the program to seek greener pastures. Convince them that they’re needed and an integral part of the present at Illinois. I don’t want to name names, but there are guys that don’t star on offense or defense, that you need to fill out special teams units or fill in should depth become a concern. Besides the guys that left, remember that Kendrick Foster and Sam Mays had both decided to transfer before coming back and being amongst the best players.
This past week Josh Whitman put pen to paper, listing out all the reasons Illinois isn’t where anybody wants it to be right now. Some read those bullet points as excuses, but they were undeniable, and stacked evidence as to how large of a project this was for Lovie to tackle. A lot of those ailments aren’t going to be permissible “bullet points” at this time next season. So for the good of us all, let’s check off the five points above.
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