Although one shouldn’t read too much into the Spring game of a new staff, I rabidly watched the Illinois Fighting Illini Orange and Blue game to try to cipher out some clues as to what the new scheme would be for the Fighting Berts.
Things were kept very vanilla due to only having a limited time to work on the new scheme, player depth at certain positions were very limited, and not wanting to put too much film out there for opponents yet. (as opposed to the previous regime who kept things vanilla for years because why make adjustments when you’re 4-26 against the B1G West)
The recruits and transfers that have been added in the Bert era probably tell us more than the Spring game did. We’ve added two QBs, both of whom are big strong-armed pocket statues. We’ve added a FB and two big bruising RBs via transfers. Three of our seven 2022 commits are OL. Two of our commits are TEs and they are chasing more recruits at both of those positions. At the end of last season, we had four TEs on the roster. By the time spring practice ended, there were two transfers added, plus a C, LB, DE, and walkon QB all were switched positions so we’re going to head to fall camp with 10 TEs.
Add all that up and it suggests we are going for some old-timey power O with a vertical passing game. The Spring game did show us that the zone run blocking schemes of Rod Smith are gone in favor of more downhill runs that hit quickly between the tackles. It looks and feels like Bert is fully committed to the systems that brought success to wisconsin.
This change likely leaves Coran Taylor, and Deuce Spann out in the cold, as they are dual threat QBs, although Deuce does have a strong enough arm that he might stake a claim in Tony Peterson’s scheme despite being really athletic. We already have information that Isaiah Williams is switching to WR. That makes me sad because Wiliams nickname is The One and Deuce is, well deuce and I really wanted to have a QB tandem with the nicknames One and Deuce. My first memories of Illinois football are David Williams, who also wore # 1, being just electrifying with the ball in his hands in the open field. He pretty much owns all the receiving records at Illinois. Perhaps another Willams wearing that number can recapture that magic? Isaiah Williams and Marquez Beason were the two top recruits of the Lovie’s beard era. Beason just announced a switch from CB to WR also. With Willams and a hopefully healthy Beason and golden domer transfer Jafar Armstrong, there should be plenty of speed in the receiver corps.
The players that impressed me in the Spring game the most were Chase Brown, the Western Michigan transfer and twin of starting safety Sydney Brown, who looks to thrive in a downhill power running attack and Blake Jeresaty. Blake looked terrific at guard. He transferred from Wofford to Illinois last year. When the adults in the room at the B1G announced that they were postponing the season to Spring, he got his shoulder scoped. It was a minor procedure that could’ve been delayed, but he wanted to heal up in time for Spring football. He had his surgery just days before gutless Kevin Warren reversed course and announced the football schedule, so Blake was unable to play.
We haven’t really gotten any leads on what the defensive scheme will look like based on recruiting as we haven’t received a commitment from a defensive player yet. That’s somewhat concerning as we are extremely thin at CB, S, and LB after this year, but sure, let’s keep signing RB, TE, and OL. We currently have 8 recruits signed (1QB, 1 RB, 1 WR, 2 TE, 3 OL) and they are all at positions that we are currently much deeper on than defensive back seven. Prior to the coaching change, I would’ve said our depth needs (from least deep to most) were: S, LB, WR, CB, DT, TE, DE, OL, RB, QB. Apparently, Bert doesn’t feel like we will need to play defense.
They called the scheme a 3-4. However, the OLBs that started the Spring game were Owen Carney and Isiah Gay. Carney goes 6-3, 265# and has played 35 games at DE. Gay is also 6-3 and weighs 240# and has played 28 games at DE. So, really, our base defense is a 5-2 with the two DEs starting the play standing up rather than with a hand on the turf.
We didn’t run any nickel in the spring game, but I’m going to assume that against 4 WR sets and in long yardage situations, the OLBs will be swapped out for some speedier guys. Maybe that is a poor assumption given that our last coach would leave 3 LBs our there against 5 wideout sets on third and long, but I’m thinking we might actually adjust our personnel depending on what the offense is running now. I think Derrick Smith, who has been pretty awful at Safety if we’re being honest, will make a good tweener for nickel situations and pass rush specialist and NC State transfer CJ Hart could sub in in passing situations. Carney could move inside in those nickel setups also and provide depth at DE.
This change could work out really well for extremely large human Calvin Avery. He was in Lovie’s doghouse it seemed at times, but showed flashes of potential when he was healthy and on the field. At 6-2, 335#, he has the size and ability to occupy blocks of a prototypical Nose Tackle. He was very impressive in the Spring game as was Owen Carney at the hybrid DE/LB spot. Carney looked very comfortable standing up on the edge and looked surprisingly agile for a man his size on the few occasions he dropped into coverage. Both corners (Tony Adams and Devon Witherspoon (remember his diving shoestring tackle that saved the wisconsin game in 2019)) looked sharp, but they were covering walk-ons, a CB just switched to WR, and the backup placekicker, so they better have looked sharp.
Will it be better?
I always felt like the pieces just never fit quite right during the Lovie era. We were operating a bend but don’t break defense that relied on turnovers and were running a tempo offense that had trouble sustaining drives. That left our defense on the field for a huge amount of time, but we didn’t substitute regularly. Linebackers and safeties that struggled in coverage to begin with, really struggled when they were on the field for 60 or 75 plays. A bend but don’t break defense can work, but you should probably pair it with ball control offense and a regular substitution pattern. We also ran zone run blocking schemes which usually call for quicker linemen, but our first two guard recruits were 6-5 350 and 6-5 340. That isn’t their size after a couple years in the strength program. That’s what they were in high school! The tempo offense was far too inconsistent and it felt like we would regularly abandon the run even when it was working.
I’m not really optimistic about Bert, but I do think he will recruit to a cohesive system. There will be a plan and an attempt to establish a recognizable style. If something is working, they’ll keep doing it and if something isn’t working, they’ll do something different. That alone will be improvement.