Training Camp 2017 XIX: Saturday Scrimmage Thoughts
Long. This one is going to go long. I was all disappointed that they cancelled practice on Friday but then was rewarded with, like, 1,261 plays in Saturday's scrimmage. It's the most plays I've ever seen an Illini team run at one practice. So I have a lot to talk about.
First, some general thoughts. This is a non-tackling scrimmage, so it's not real football. It's 11 on 11, and they're calling plays, and the linemen are going full speed, but there's no tackling. No reason to risk injury from a tackle, so it's more or less violent two-hand-touch. There are officials, and those officials blow the play dead when a tackle would occur, which most of the time means "the defender has the offesive player wrapped up, he's just not taking him to the ground".
For quarterbacks it's even less than that. Quarterbacks wear orange jerseys (defense is in white, offense in blue), so that everyone on the field knows that they aren't to be touched. So for QB's it's more like one-hand-touch. As soon as someone makes contact, the play is blown dead.
Because of this, as I mentioned in my thoughts from the highway, it's a little more weighted towards the defense. A play where a ballcarrier makes contact with the linebacker at the 25 yard line but fights forward to the 22 - in a scrimmage like this the ball is marked at the 25. A QB scramble that would go for nine yards in a game is whistled dead at the line of scrimmage because someone reached out and touched the quarterback's arm.
So drives are more difficult in a scrimmage like this. "Sacks" are frequent (even though only half of them would be actual sacks in a game). Every run is marked 2-3 yards short of what it would actually be in a game. QB runs are sometimes 10 yards short. The defense never once misses a single tackle - all they have to do is bump the guy.
And, when watching, you have to constantly remind yourself that this is you versus you. Was that a great pass rush move or did the offensive tackle get flat beat? Did the cornerback jump the route or did the quarterback throw it right to him? Really, more than anything, you want to see it mostly even - neither unit embarrasses the other. A successful scrimmage is a mostly boring one.
Other coaches will sometimes run ones against twos to mitigate this. If the first string offense is scrimmaging against the second string defense, you want the offense to win (and vice versa). But Lovie mostly likes to match his ones against his ones (and twos on twos, threes on threes, etc). So this was the kind of scrimmage where the best result was "good plays from each side but it was mostly even".
There were good plays from each side but it was mostly even. The most alarming thing was the penalties - there was a full officiating crew and they were calling every penalty from holding to illegal formation - and there were a lot of them on the offense. Several false starts, a few illegal formations, some holds. This is a net "good" thing that this is happening in practice. With such a young OL - the first string was FR-FR-SO-JR-SR and the second string was FR-FR-SO-SO-SR - you want them to learn all of these what-not-to-do's in camp.
That's not to say that the OL played poorly. There were some holes there and some very long runs, especially in the first part of the scrimmage where they were just doing down-and-distance stuff (no drives, just a down-and-distance set for every play). Epstein and Crouch both had very long runs (which were certain to be long runs in a game because they went mostly untouched).
I watched most of that part of the scrimmage from the endzone because I wanted to see the holes open up (or close). On the one long Crouch run (he read the DE crashing, pulled it out of the tailback's grip, and went at least 60 yards untouched with a few good blocks), I hear an admiring "ooooooooh" to my right. Like, "ooooooooh that was pretty". The admirer? Josh Whitman. Nate Echard had a really nice block from the TE spot to spring Crouch open, and I'm guessing the former college tight end was admiring his work.
The second half of the scrimmage I watched from the hill. Which is a really great setup. The south field has a large hill on the south side (next to St. Mary's Rd). Fans can sit/stand inside the fence at the top of the hill. Midfield I'd say the hill is large enough that you're more or less sitting in the 20th row of the stadium. Great viewing for football. And, dare I say, so much better for training camp than watching from the 5-row bleachers in Rantoul.
OK, now that I've spent all this time describing HOW I watched, maybe I should discuss some of the actual football. In no particular order:
+ Freshmen here, freshmen there, freshmen freshmen everywhere. I have to start with that. On defense there were three true freshmen playing prominent roles (Tony Adams starting at corner, Bennett Williams starting at free safety, and Bobby Roundtree trading snaps with James Crawford at WDE. You also saw several other true freshmen (like Kendrick Green) rotating in with the ones.
On offense, it was similar - both redshirt freshmen and true freshmen in the rotations with the first string. Ricky Smalling and Carmoni Green are definitely part of the receiver rotation. Doug Kramer and Alex Palczewski were starting on the offensive line (Larry Boyd was back practicing but did not scrimmage). With Reggie Corbin and Kendick Foster sitting out the scrimmage, Mike Epstein and Ra'Von Bonner got almost all of the first string tailback carries. And Griffin Palmer got a lot of time at tight end.
I know I keep talking about that, but it's the one thing I'll remember when I think back on this camp. I thought it would look like 2013 - lots of true freshmen playing big roles in Tim Beckman's second year. Instead, it's at least twice as youthful. In 2013, eight true freshmen played. This year I think it might be more than double that? It would be an interesting stat in the future. The following season (2014) we played two true freshmen (Malik Turner and Mikey Dudek). In 2017, maybe 17 true freshmen?
+ The best of the true freshmen (for me) in this scrimmage: Ricky Smalling. They went to him a lot (and he caught everything). The first time I watched him in a scrimmage situation (on Thursday) he looked a little lost. In this scrimmage, he looked like the man. Really impressed with how he catches the ball.
Which makes me say again: I think the position on the field that looks the most ready is the wide receivers. "Ready" as in "ready to compete against every Big Ten opponent". If we were to go four-wide with Turner, Dudek, Smalling, and Green, it would look like a Big Ten corps. You can't say that about many other positions (yet).
+ Chayce Crouch had a much better day than last Saturday's scrimmage. He scraped some of the rust off in the last week. He had one particularly bad throw. Dude K was open - when isn't Dude K open - but Crouch sailed it high over his head right into the arms of free safety Bennett Williams.
That's the entire thing for Crouch. He'll make a great play with his feet and then hit Smalling on a slant for a first down and you're thinking "THIS is what this offense is supposed to look like". And then he sails one for an INT. Those mistakes will kill a young offense (duh).
But solid improvement over the last week. He was better on Thursday when I watched as well. Keep it up.
+ I'm not sure the kicking battle is settled? Once again, at a practice I watched, redshirt freshman James McCourt made more field goals than returning starter Chase McLaughlin. And at the end of practice, during the two minute drill, when the second string offense got into field goal range with ten seconds left, it was McCourt who made the 40-yarder to "win" the "game". (The first string didn't get into field goal range, so McLaughlin didn't get an attempt.)
As good as he was last year, I still think McLaughlin wins the job. It seems fairly set that we know our kicker for the next four seasons - McLaughlin in 2017 and 2018 and then McCourt in 2019 and 2020. But the more kicks McCourt makes, the more I wonder if this isn't an open competition still.
+ I should talk about some of that situational stuff. For the second half of the scrimmage, for the first time I've seen this camp, the ran drives. Every other 11 on 11 session they re-set the ball for the very next play - 2nd and 9, they get 7 yards, the next play is a 1st and 15 (and so-on). For this part of this scrimmage, they played "react to the down and distance and try to sustain a drive".
And they did this in several situations. Offense gets the ball at the 40, we need a touchdown. Red zone drill - offense gets the ball at the 20, we need to score. Or the two minute drill I described above - offense gets the ball at the 30 (which is actually the 10 since they're only playing on an 80 yard field) and you have two minutes to get into field goal range with one timeout.
This was the part of the scrimmage that felt extremely balanced. If I were handing out grades, both units would get a B - the defense an 84 and the offense an 83. There wasn't one unit dominating the other one.
Obviously, for the fans attending, they want to see the offense score in all of those situations, especially in the red zone. But you really don't want to see the offense score in all of those situations. You want to see the defense step-up and get a stop.
Both of those things happened, which was nice to see. Some standout plays:
- Crouch hitting Smalling twice on third down to drive down inside the 20 where he then hit Nate Echard in the endzone for the touchdown.
- Jake Hansen making two big stops at the line of scrimmage on running plays leading to a third and long which fell incomplete (good coverage by Adams).
- Kendrick Green making a mess of things for the second string offensive line, shutting down one series from the 40 and never allowing the offense to get into field goal range.
- The bad (a Jeff George Jr-led offense getting two holding penalties and a sack to set up third and 36 when they had been in field goal range at the 28), followed by some good (a 26-yard pass from George to Dominic Thieman bringing them back to the 38 or so where I'm guessing they would have either gone for it or attempted the 55 yard FG (McLaughlin can hit from that range) had this been that kind of scrimmage. But that was the last play for the twos and they sent the ones back out.
- A couple nice catches for freshman TE Louis Dorsey. I saw both good (those catches) and bad (blocking drills) from Dorsey on Saturday. The bad is to be expected - here's a high school WR playing tight end for the first time, being asked to shove a blocking sled for the first time in his life. You watch him do that and think he'll redshirt. You watch him make leaping grabs on seam routes and want him on the field immediately.
- This was the best play I've seen from juco linebacker Del'Shawn Phillips. He was running with the first string at SLB and flying around making plays. "Making plays" should probably be in quotes because it's two hand touch and not tackle, so it's impossible to know if he would have made these tackles, but he was making great reads and getting to the ballcarrier.
+ I could probably make a list just that long for the mistakes. There are so many underclassmen out there, and underclassmen make mistakes. Penalties killed several drives. Several bad throws led to two interceptions (and could have been more - Bennett Williams had another one go right through his fingers). Freshmen defensive linemen run themselves out of a play on a running play and there's a giant hole for the tailback to get 12 yards before he's even touched. So, so much to learn.
Which means that my impression leaving camp is similar to my impression arriving at camp. It's this weird combination of "wow, these underclassmen are really talented" and "wow, these underclassmen have no idea what they're doing". It's why I might feel better about the Purdue, Indiana, and Northwestern games in November than I do about the Ball State, Western Kentucky, and South Florida games in September. "Ragged" is the word I keep using. The coaches are walking these kids through a giant learning curve in five weeks.
For the future, I feel pretty good. This is clearly the best freshman class since the first camp I covered for the blog (2009). Clearly. Head and shoulders above any other freshman class since then. But the whole team is so young that they're going to appear lost at times. Which means that yes, we'll probably see a third and 36 in the Ball State game.
But I go back to my "25 game season" thing. I see Ball State as game one and the end of the "season" as the end of the 2018 season. We return more or less the exact same team in 2018, just a year older, so the progress I'm expecting will be seen as those 25 games progress. Why 25? Because I want to see a bowl tagged on to that in 2018.
If we were to somehow make a bowl in 2017? Don't read my articles next summer. I'll be gushing about silly things like winning the Big Ten West.