It has been an eternity since Hardy Nickerson “stepped down” following a pathetic defensive effort against Maryland. It’s been even longer since Donnie Abraham bailed on August camp. And although Lovie Smith’s stated his priority was recruiting (and it paid off), he’s got two large hires to button up his coaching staff — and he’s taking his sweet time to make sure he’s doing due diligence.
That due diligence is well guarded, since names haven’t started to emerge yet on the interwebs. But from Lovie’s cryptic comments — and his general unwillingness to move away from his defensive philosophies — it appears we have either of two outcomes heading our way before the Spring.
The first, and the most likely outcome is Lovie has picked his hill to die on, and it’s that he knows how to coach defensive football, and that the shortcomings from his tenure have been talent and experience, and not system. In this scenario, the Defensive Coordinator coming in will only be that in title and salary, but Lovie isn’t changing anything and he’ll be calling the plays from the sideline. Lovie knows 4000% more about coaching defense than any of us internet pundits, but sometimes it’s really tough to lord over a press conference and call your baby ugly. But it’s been gross.
Lovie is really risking all the positive momentum here if the defense can’t find its median and at least be serviceable in 2019. The “Defensive Coordinator” that would agree to those terms is going to be accepting a sizeable raise and title change, and will basically be signing up to be a coordinator apprentice. With that, they’ll have deep recruiting roots from their time as a positional coach, and more than likely know a person or two in an area that Lovie is interested in recruiting.
That second coordinator really doesn’t have to be tied to defensive backs, but will probably be hired on recruiting prowess. With guys like Gill Byrd already on staff, Lovie can plan on the coaching chops of the staff to already be in place, and further strengthen the Patterson, Thad Ward, Austin Clark triumvirate that was so successful on the trail this year. It really doesn’t matter if Cory Patterson is the greatest developer of Tight Ends in the world; he went out and got Isaiah Williams, Shammond Cooper, Moses Okpala, Jeff Thomas and Keith Randolph. Lovie knows that he needs a couple more of those, and that should be the singular focus of this second hire.
The less likely, but best outcome is Lovie has watched his outdated defense fail enough to know that he needs reinvention, and is as flexible with his offensive scheme from a year ago as he is defense this year. Lovie found Rod Smith by checking out the stats and seeing who was available. If he did the same on the defensive side of the ball, he could take his big bag of cash, NFL reputation, and land a big time Defensive Coordinator for the 2019 season and beyond.
With the guys currently in the program, the number of DT/DE and DE/OLB tweeners with experience, and a look around college football, I’d be in favor of moving to a 3-4 scheme that brings heat and takes advantage of college quarterbacks being mostly bad.
While we’re righting the wrongs of the recent past, I’m in favor of Lovie Smith heading to Ames, Iowa and apologizing for not offering Nathan Scheelhaase a full-time position last time around, and correcting the mistake with a hefty raise. Scheelhaase is widely regarded as one of the better people to pass through the program recently, and has turned into an ace recruiter for another program (typical Illinois luck). Matt Campbell is a great young coach, and I’m sure Nate understands what strapping his career to his back means, but with the right offer, Nate might listen to the recruiting pitch. As evidenced by this last recruiting cycle, Luke Butkus needs help in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs, and getting Nate as a tag-team partner would strengthen the Illini sell inside the borders of Illinois.
For vintage inspired, high quality, and well-designed University of Illinois apparel, check out Fourth and Kirby, and look for the TCR Collection while you’re at it!