Spring Mailbag V
OK, this one really isn't even a mailbag post. I'll just be answering one question. But I've been thinking a lot about this question since it was tweeted to me the night I asked for some mailbag questions, and tonight I think I settled on my answer. Here goes.
@ALionEye Make my warm fuzzy feeling about illini football come back (please)
-- Aaron Tuttle (@Illiniwek15) May 10, 2017
I seem to be living a different experience right now. Nothing has really changed for me all that much over the past 9 months. I'm still on the same "we're finally investing in football!" high. But most everyone around me has begun to fade from that high (including @Illiniwek15, apparently). Maybe it's the current recruiting class only having two commits. Maybe it was the player arrests. Maybe it was the full weight of a 3-9 season sinking in. But so much of the high seems to have faded for most of you.
Here's my experience. I've made two major adjustments over the past year, but once those adjustments were made, I really haven't wavered. One was in September, one was in December.
Last summer, I felt pretty good about the upcoming season. I'm a "seniors are college football" guy, and after spring ball I had put together a depth chart with 15 senior starters. Looking over the schedule got me excited, and I went into the season with bowl expectations.
As it turned out, we weren't good. And we quickly turned to the freshmen. And the schedule proved to be much harder than we expected.
(Can we talk about that schedule for a moment? Looking forward I saw 7 wins on the schedule. Looking back I think I see four: Murray State, Purdue, Rutgers, Michigan State. We weren't beating 10-win Wisconsin, or 8-win Minnesota, or 8-win Iowa, or even 12-win Western Michigan. Really, the disappointment in last season rests on the doink off the upright which would have beaten Purdue.)
So I flipped a switch after the Purdue game. The rebuild was here, and my hopes for a nice little season before the rebuild began were just fantasy. It's time to dig in and be patient.
At the same time, I was in a full panic about the all-important 2017 recruiting class. We found ourselves ranked something like 70th nationally on December 1st, and I had spent most of the summer and fall biting my fingernails and wondering when the blue chippers would verbal. My goal had been a class ranked somewhere around 40th and we were nowhere close to that.
In the end, the class finished at #43, which was perfectly respectable. It was also our best class in years (in my view, the best class this decade) and met many of the glaring needs which revealed themselves on the field last fall.
So in the first year of Lovie I made two adjustments. 1) He went young (crazy young) after the Purdue loss and we're in full rebuild mode. 2) With recruiting, he likes to take his time, using senior film and December/January to finish it out.
With that knowledge, I approached 2017 a bit differently. I expected a slow start to the recruiting class and a complete youth movement on the field (like, we might go CRAZY young this fall). And we've seen... a slow start to the recruiting class and a complete youth movement on the field during spring practice.
The spring practices I attended really cemented the infancy of this whole thing. There's no depth to speak of at all yet, but the first reinforcements arrive this summer and then this thing starts to build from the ground up. There are eight seniors on the team this fall and, if you count last year's redshirts and the incoming class, 40 freshmen. FORTY! 4-0. Forty.
So if I were to describe my current feelings towards Illini football, I would say "strapped-in". It's going to be a bumpy ride, but the rough part is over (at least for me). We accomplished so much of the "out with the old, in with the new" this past fall, and now we're pretty much just completely focused on the new.
Which can put me in this weird "OK, I don't really have to pay as close of attention as I normally do" place. Meaning, we saw nothing in J Leman when he was playing linebacker as a freshman in 2004. Several players on the 1997 team looked so lost as underclassmen, and then those same players led us to the Micron PC bowl two years later. We're in the player/scheme development stage now, which, to me, means that wins don't really matter but progress does.
This fall, I'm watching for signs of progress. To me, it will be much like the 2006 season (where things looked better but the wins still didn't come). The whole idea is to get as many of these freshmen on the field as possible so that the resurgence of Illinois Football can begin immediately. Or, perhaps more accurately, the first steps can begin.
There's comfort (for me) in knowing that things are underway. That there's a plan. Many have seemingly lost their warm fuzzy feelings, but I haven't really changed much since my two adjustments. I'm fully strapped in for the roller coaster of the next few seasons.
I love roller coasters.