CHAMPAIGN — Losing in the short term in order to build long-term success is all the rage in sports. By shedding bad contracts and investing in young players through the draft, a professional team might have to take two steps back before charging forward.
The Cubs did it successfully and won a World Series. The Astros did the same thing. Now the Chicago White Sox are trying to duplicate that blueprint and have one of the more intriguing young rosters in baseball.
The Chicago Bulls are following suit by trading away their best player (Jimmy Butler) and getting rid of other costly assets in order to collect more affordable up-and-coming stars and to improve their position in the NBA Draft.
Losing without regret is an accepted strategy these days, but the mere mention of intentionally “tanking” seems to be a federal offense. The FBI would investigate if it wasn’t so wrapped up trying to determine if Mike Krzyzewski actually paid for a mother’s tuna fish sandwich.
When Dallas Mavericks’ owner Mark Cuban publicly explained that his team had been tanking, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver lost his mind. He was so angry he hit Cuban with a $600,000 fine.
Tanking implies purposely losing, and that riles commissioners who don’t want the practice confused with point shaving.
You don’t hear much about tanking on college campuses, but a few months ago, the University of Illinois completed a football season that was the college equivalent of tanking.
Although coach Lovie Smith says he hates to lose, and we believe him, he was willing to take an intentional step backward last season in order to position his program for some important steps forward beginning this fall.
The tanking came as Lovie made a full-scale investment in true freshmen, willing to accept the losses and growing pains that come from using players who are neither physically or mentally ready for life in the Big Ten.
I don’t blame him. Illinois is trying to dig out of a substantial hole, playing catchup with teams who have more talent, more experience and more history of success. These are no easy shortcuts when it comes to tracking down conference opponents who already have a big lead.
So Lovie Smith played 22 true freshmen, most in the nation. He started 16 true freshmen, most in the nation. No other Big Ten started more than five.
He also played 10 redshirt freshmen, meaning Illinois played 32 freshmen and redshirt freshmen last season. Of the 19 touchdowns Illinois scored, 14 were by true freshmen.
All of this matters because it’s time to move beyond the sweeping investment in youth. It’s time to win a few football games.
That effort resumes this week with the start of spring football practice. After a team meeting on Tuesday, the Illini will take the field Wednesday for the first of 12 spring practices and three additional “mental practices” that will be non-contact skill sessions and walkthroughs.
The whole business wraps up on Saturday, April 7 when Illinois conducts an open practice from noon to 2 p.m.
While the 2018 season opener isn’t until Sept. 1, there could be some telltale signs emerging this spring. The real payoff should show up in the fall when those freshmen are sophomores and when learning to block, tackle, run and catch should be second nature by now.
Not every question will be answered this spring, including who might be Illinois’ starting quarterback. Three true freshman candidates won’t arrive until this summer, and there’s talk that new offensive coordinator Rod Smith is trying to convince a former QB at Arizona to join the Illini as a fifth-year graduate transfer.
That player is Brandon Dawkins, and if he comes, it won’t be to backup sophomore Cam Thomas.
That said, here are five things that will deserve attention as Lovie Smith and the Illini dive into spring ball:
1. The interaction with new offensive coordinator Rod Smith and the only scholarship quarterback on campus, Cam Thomas.
Thomas will be completely off-limits to any contact during the spring. Now is the time for Rod Smith to determine how much faith he has in a quarterback who got two starts last season and who looked like a good athlete who needs to refine his passing game. Illinois simply must get more production from the QB position in 2018.
2. The defense digs in with a revamped coaching staff.
Time for defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson, who now adds the title of assistant head coach, to start generating turnovers and making the Illini defense into something of a force. The coaching staff is impressive at the back end with Nickerson (linebackers), Gil Byrd (cornerbacks) and Donnie Abraham (safeties) having each been honored as Pro Bowl players while in the NFL.
3. There are five early enrollees going through spring practice, and that gives them an edge.
But one who is on campus but won’t participate is highly touted freshman defensive lineman Verdis Brown. For the time being, Lovie Smith isn’t saying why Brown will be withheld. But he’s a talented freshman who could have taken advantage of these spring sessions. The other early enrollees are running back Jakari Norwood, offensive lineman Reuben Unije, defensive back Nick Walker and wide receiver Shaedon Meadors, a grad transfer from Appalachia State.
4. The youngest unit on the team last season – the offensive line – grows older. They also need to become better. Three true freshmen and a redshirt freshman started on the offensive line in 2017. Growing pains were evident. But they had an opportunity to learn and now, paired with senior guard Nick Allegretti, they have a chance to be a much more productive unit in 2018.
5. There’s a new leader running the defensive line and he’s Lovie Smith’s riskiest hire.
Austin Clark replaces Mike Phair (now with the Indianapolis Colts) and at age 27, Clark is young and unproven after serving as a graduate assistant at Southern California. But Lovie Smith was won over by Clark’s enthusiasm and attention to detail, and he’ll inherit one of Illinois’ most experienced units. Clark’s challenge will be to convince this group he has what it takes to lead and teach them.
Brad Underwood plans to add more size, but in the meantime, he has received a commitment from 6-5 wing player Alan Griffin.
Griffin is averaging 18.2 points, 10.1 rebounds, 4 assists, 2.4 steals and 1.8 blocks for his high school in White Plains, N.Y. He started his high school career in Illinois, at Oak Park-River Forest. His father, Adrian Griffin, played in the NBA and did a stint with the Chicago Bulls. He is currently an assistant coach with the Oklahoma City Thunder.