Spring Mailbag IV

May 20, 2017

I'm going to just keep going back to the well on these mailbag questions. Sometimes I think I should just crowdsource every post topic. You people come up with some really interesting things to write about.

This first question was doubled-up. Someone sent me an email asking about future pros on the basketball court and on the football field, and someone tweeted this question:

@ALionEye Who has the best chance of being the next 1st round pick out of Illinois?

-- Justin Houch (@HouchJ) May 10, 2017

I think this Twitter question was about football, but I know the email question was about both, so I'm going to answer both.

For basketball, I don't see an NBA player on the roster. Which isn't all that odd because we haven't had an NBA player since Meyers Leonard went off to the Trailblazers after the 2012 season five years ago. The 1980's: 20 NBA draft picks. The 2010's: 1.

OK, yes, that's a little misleading. There used to be eight rounds to the NBA Draft and now there are two. But if we go simply by 1st and 2nd round picks, and we break it down by the coach who recruited them, here's the list since Henson arrived:

Lou Henson: 10 in 21 years
Lon Kruger: 3 in 4 years
Bill Self: 4 in 3 years
Bruce Weber: 1 in 9 years
John Groce: 0 in 5 years

Call me crazy but I think the decline of that number has contributed to the decline of the program.

Who is next? Not sure we know his name yet. JCL could be primed for a major scoring leap but he doesn't have the handles to play in the pros. I'm not sure anyone else has the measurables. So I guess I'll go with.. Mark Smith? He's the only player on next year's roster who had Kentucky and Duke in his living room, and that generally means you have that potential. I don't think he's that level of athlete (which is probably good for us - he'll be a fantastic four-year player), so I guess my answer is really "we don't know yet".

On the gridiron, it's always so hard to say. I used to go to Camp Rantoul expecting to see the NFL scouts following the 1,000 yard receiver or the 1,000 yard rusher but they'd be watching a backup tight end simply because of his size/speed ratio. For the most part, you have to be a successful college basketball player to get a shot at the NBA. For college football, sometimes a second-stringer can end up on an NFL roster just because they want to develop his size and speed. (Or sometimes NFL teams will draft you and move you to a new position, like Brandon Moore, Illini defensive tackle who was a long-time starter at offensive guard for the Jets.)

So who are those players on the Illini roster? Malik Turner is the first who comes to mind - I think he will catch passes in the NFL. I think Christian DiLauro could get there if he takes a big step forward with the move to left tackle this season. On defense, I'd say Jamal Milan is the first player who jumps out as a possible future pro, with Jaylen Dunlap being another player who could get there with a strong senior season.

But it certainly doesn't look like it did back during the Zook days. Really, when I think NFL potential, my brain drifts to this 2017 class that arrives next month more than it does the current roster. At first peek, someone like Carmoni Green looks to be a tremendous athlete. I was expecting a bigger, more physical receiver and after the first practice I was thinking "is he our starting punt returner the first game?"

@ALionEye We are young. But, didn't we play young in the last portion of last year? Is 2017 all doom and gloom?

-- Andrew J Cluck (@aj_cluck) May 10, 2017

I think we played young at the end of last year. There were a few games where I think we started six freshmen on defense (Kenyon Jackson and Jamal Milan at defensive tackle, Stanley Green and Pat Nelson at safety, a mix of Cameron Watkins and Frank Sumpter at cornerback both freshmen and a mix of Dele Harding and Jake Hanson at linebacker next to Nickerson and Watson). And on offense we worked in several freshmen (Megginson and Lee on the line, George Jr and Corbin in the offensive backfield).

As for "is 2017 all doom and gloom?", I don't think so. I'm not expecting a bowl season or anything like that, but I think it can be like 2006 where we see progress all over the field. As an Illini fan, we're seemingly always watching this season in anticipation of what next season might look like, and that's certainly the case this fall. More or less, the team you see trot out on the field against Ball State on Labor Day weekend is the team you'll see 24 games later against Northwestern in November of 2018.

Maybe I'm weird, but I like watching the first few games of what is essentially a 24-game season. I like watching the progress. Doom and gloom? Yes, maybe, if you're just purely wanting wins. But there's a whole bunch of good stuff to observe as this rebuild takes shape. Like what? Let's end this one with a list of five things (YOU WON'T BELIEVE NUMBER 4).

1. The 10-14 true freshmen who will almost certainly get on the field immediately.
2. Getting to observe what the Garrick McGee offense looks like with a running quarterback under center.
3. Five teams on the schedule with first-year head coaches who might still be in the clownshoes stage when we play them.
4. The return of Dude K.
5. A Lovie Smith football team leaning how to play Lovie Smith football.


Groundhogday on May 22 @ 04:24 AM CDT

  • Lou Henson: 10 in 21 years
  • Lon Kruger: 3 in 4 years
  • Bill Self: 4 in 3 years
  • Bruce Weber: 1 in 9 years
  • John Groce: 0 in 5 years

Yep, this captures the current state of the program. And I'd bet that Lou Henson had those NBA players during the middle part of his tenure when Illinois had so much success.

How do you get back: recruit one future NBA player at a time. Mark Smith is the first of the Underwood era. Is Ayo the second?

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