Vashoune Russell is a hunter. He loves cold weather.
He and his fancy camera were on hand for a morning football game that some people might want to forget. But let’s say you’re reading this page in 2024, have no idea who won, and merely want to know where Hardy Nackerson’s son Hardy Nickerson played college ball.
This page could misinform you on many levels.
You’ll also be looking for more info on 2021 Pro-Bowl QB Wes Lunt. And here it is.
Yeah, Illini football got walloped by a basketball school. Let it pass. Saturday was magical.
A lot of the attendees had never before seen a full Memorial Stadium. They weren’t alive when Mike White and John Mackovic’s teams were forced to build temporary bleachers to accommodate 76,000+ fans.
No Illinois undergrad was alive the last time a packed Tailgreat (look it up) celebrated perfect weather buttressed by unfettered optimism for the program’s future. The 80s Belonged to the Illini (look it up).
You might even blame excitement for the team’s mistake-prone performance. They were just that hyped up. Thirteen penalties and six fumbles might, if we’re lucky, stand as all-time records for the Lovie Administration.
Scroll down a bit and you’ll find Vashoune Russell’s pictures from the evening. This one captures Center Joe Spencer’s once in a lifetime 9 yard rush. It would have been the play of the game except that Gabe Megginson severely twisted his ankle just as Spencer was scooping the ball from the turf.
But let’s stick to happy thoughts.
It wasn’t just a vibrant atmosphere among long-suffering tailgaters. The north end zone was packed with unofficial visitors, potential football recruits who’ve taken note of the NFL pedigree now running the Champaign show.
Garrick McGee continued to look like a 1940s leading man as he introduced priority target student-athletes to one-another. It’s the mustache, but it’s also the demeanor.
At the northeast corner of Zuppke Field, John Groce entertained FOUR Official Visitors and their families. Yes, three of these Visitors have already verballed to Illinois. But that doesn’t answer the question: Has any D-1 basketball program ever hosted FOUR Official Visitors on the same weekend?
Maybe this is the year John Groce turns things around. Even Jalen Coleman-Lands looked pumped as the team convened in the north end zone, and he’d had hand surgery just a day earlier.
So, yeah. Larry Fedora’s Flash In The Pan put a hurt on your orange for the second time in as many seasons.
Next year, he’ll be coaching somewhere else. UNC will be on probation. Lovie et al will have signed the most widely discussed recruiting class since Dwight Beverly (look it up).
T.J. Logan eludes Illini Chris James (Vashoune Russell)
You already know Big Ten Media Days took place Monday and Tuesday in Chicago, and that Illinois was part of the Tuesday grouping. Maybe you’ve read and seen enough of the columns and videos chronicling the event.
I watched the videos I recorded, to remind myself of the most interesting things I learned. For people who like to read about sports at work, and can’t get away with watching videos, here’s a summary.
LOVIE HAS YET TO RAISE HIS VOICE
Wes Lunt didn’t come right out and say it, but he doesn’t expect to hear Lovie Smith yell at anyone, ever. Yelling doesn’t seem like Lovie’s style, so that shouldn’t surprise anyone. We already knew the staff doesn’t employ four-letter words.
On Tuesday, a reporter tried to conjure a situation in which Lovie might lose his cool. Lunt couldn’t fathom such a situation.
ALMOST ALL THE COACHES CAN PRONOUNCE “DAWUANE SMOOT”
If there’s a surefire NFL draft pick on the roster, the experts think it’s Dawaune Smoot, who oesn’t mind when people mispronounce his name. It’s Dah-WAHN. “I don’t know why my father put an E on the end,” he mused.
To this point, Smoot says he’s learned the most from Mike Phair, which makes sense. Phair is his position coach, and a carryover from the Cubit administration. Phair, and every other assistant coach knows how to pronounce Smoot’s name. Love calls him Dwayne. Or maybe it’s Dwyane.
YEAR ONE EXPECTATIONS: THEY DON’T EXIST
In various phrasings, reporters asked Lovie about Y1 goals. He downplayed every time.
Lovie said Illinois has good players at every position, but not much depth. He said he hopes his team will b eat every team it should beat, based on roster quality and experience. If you choose to read between the lines, you might infer that he expects a final record equaling the low expectations of pre-season prognosticators.
He inferred, strongly, that recruiting is going MUCH better in the Chicago area than anyone seems to believe. He said he plans to sign 25 guys in the class of 2017.
PURPOSE OF DEFENSE: YOU’LL BE SHOCKED BY NUMBER 1
Couldn’t resist the clickbait phrasing, but there’s no arrow to click here. Lovie quizzed the media on the purpose of defense, the single goal.
One guy got it right: to score.
So it appears that active hands will be ripping at untucked balls in the coming years. Also, Lovie dislikes the recommendation that NCAA football rid itself of kick-offs, for safety reasons. He noted that Bears fans came to Soldier Field hoping to see Devin Hester return a punt for touchdown. “Fans like seeing Devin Hester run the ball back.”
TURMOIL IN IOWA CITY
Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta positioned himself against a sturdy table as the Hawkeye media pool surrounded him, ready to pounce. Barta’s revenue sports are doing okay, but he’s under scrutiny for firing of administrator Jane Meyer because she’s a lesbian. Monday saw a major development in the case.
Barta reassigned Meyer outside athletics in 2014, noting that her partner, former field hockey coach Tracey Griesbaum, was planning to sue Barta over her firing. Griesbaum was fired for Tim Beckmanesque reasons. The athletic department was able to drum up a tale of player abuse.
In Beckman’s case, sufficient evidence allowed the DIA to invoke a termination-for-cause paragraph in Beckman’s contract. The DIA was delighted, naturally, because the underlying motivation for his firing was Beckman’s fecklessness & embarrassing stupidity. Griesbaum led her Hawkeye team for 14 seasons. Incompetence was not an issue in her case.
The funny thing about Barta’s moment with the media was the way it began. As you’ve seen from my videos of Athletic Availabilities, the cameras and microphones crowd around the interviewee, positioning themselves so microphones are near the correct mouth, and cameras point to the desired face. Then there’s a quiet, sometimes awkward period, when everyone wonders who’ll ask the first question.
The guy who spoke first in the Barta interview surveyed the cameras, noted that everyone was in place, and then said something like “okay, go ahead.” Barta responded “hi, how are you?”
I thought that was funny, and humanizing. But Barta’s seen enough of these situations to know that the guy was performing a service on behalf of everyone involved.
LOVIE HAS NO SLOGAN
Illini fans will be delighted to learn that catch-phrase wristbands will not be a part of Lovie’s program. Rather than relying on contrived clichés to motivate his players, Lovie plans to teach them how to play football. They might be tough, and they might be together, but they’re not developing any mantras about it.
When asked about a slogan for the team, Ke’Shawn Vaughn drew a blank.
Lovie figures that, since his hiring in March, he’s spent the majority of his nights in Champaign. Apart from some round-the-state meet-n-greets with boosters and fans, he’s been here. To fans who thought he might take the Blagojevich approach to downstate Illinois (Lovie and MaryAnne maintain a home in Chicago) that’s probably a relief.
Lovie didn’t know that September’s home game versus Western Michigan was originally scheduled for Kalamazoo. He’s glad the site was changed. Would a road game at a MAC team prepare the Illini for road games versus B1G foes? Lovie demurred. He’s glad to play at home.
He doesn’t see a reason to pull up roots for Camp Rantoul either, noting that Champaign’s facilities are world class, so why wouldn’t the team utilize them? The guy who does laundry, he mused, had to drive back to Champaign every night.
WES LUNT, PRO QB
Lovie didn’t flinch when asked about Lunt’s NFL potential. Neither did Lunt.
Lovie asked whether any media had attended the Kickoff Banquet earlier in the day. We all got free box lunches, across the street from the $100/plate affair. So … no.
Lovie told of a raffle in which the winner receives a football. Lovie intimated that ball was heaved to the winner from the dais, that Lunt was the guy who heaved it, and that the recipient sat toward the back of the banquet hall. Lovie suggested the Lunt hit his target in the hands, but not necessarily that the ball was caught. So the dropped pass problem continues for Lunt. But Lovie said that’s not Lunt’s fault.
Wes said he has an idea of his plans for the future, and where he’ll prepare for the NFL Draft. He didn’t give a stock answer like “I’m just thinking about this season.” There’s a refreshing lack of cliché to this team.
Lovie did say that a successful senior season will be the most significant factor in burnishing Lunt’s draft status. It’s hard to argue with that logic. Lunt agreed that his offensive line is the most important ingredient in that success, and added that nothing’s changed in the depth chart, where six (maybe seven) guys are competing for five spots. Lovie is high on (redshirt) sophomore guard Nick Allegretti, and referenced his heavyweight wrestling championship. (Allegretti finished third in state, so Lovie was probably referencing his Illini Classic title, five months later.)
Christian DiLauro and Austin Schmidt are regarded as solid, experienced tackles. At center, Joe Spencer started every game of the last two seasons. Lunt regards them as cemented in the starting spots.
The other guard is Gabe Megginson, arguably Illinois’ highest-rated recruit of the past five years. But along with him and Allegretti, Lunt said Zach Heath and Connor Brennan will be competing for the starting guard spots.
Lovie’s quiet confidence and no-nonsense demeanor is a 180° departure from Beckman’s continual Deer-in-Headlights routine. Where Mr. Lasagna always seemed as if he’d just been stunned by a fastball to the forehead, Lovie exudes the impression that he’s seen it all before, that nothing will surprise him.
It’s the last go-round for Smoot, Lunt, DiLauro, Spencer and Schmidt. Lovie seems unconcerned about getting them to a bowl game. But that’s completely different from saying that he won’t do everything he can to lead them there.