Questions from the Other Side: Illinois football beat writer Joey Figueroa

by Jack White

For this weekly column, the Minnesota Daily will interview someone knowledgeable about Minnesota’s next opponent. Joey Figueroa, a sports writer for Illinois’ student newspaper, the Daily Illini, was interviewed this week. 

Figueroa is a senior at the University of Illinois. He covers Illinois football as a beat writer.

Q: What can we expect to see from this Illinois offense in terms of a scheme?

A: The question will be which quarterback is playing. The starter Wes Lunt has been out the last week and a half. Everything ran through him. He was kind of the focal point. [They] had to go with Chayce Crouch,  who was second string and a scheme changer … He was much more capable with his legs; much more capable than Lunt; Lunt can’t run at all. So Crouch came in the game, two weeks ago [and] it was very read option. He ran for over 100 yards, then he got hurt. This past week against Michigan, [the third-string quarterback] Jeff George Jr. had to unfortunately play his first game at the Big House. It did not go well for him. He went 4-15 [and] did not break over 100 yards. If it’s George playing, I would expect very run heavy. [They] have three different backs that can break off huge plays. They usually get 30-yard runs from each one of [their] backs. Ke’Shawn Vaughn, he’s supposed to be the starter and then give carries to Kendrick Foster and Ricky Corbin who are younger guys coming up …

Q: So it’s the expectation that George will start? Lunt will not be going?

A: Yeah, that’s kind of the word. [Head coach Lovie Smith] is very no nonsense about injuries. You can tell he almost gets irritated when you ask about it. He starts every press conference by saying, ‘I’m not gonna talk about injuries today.’ But someone asked, ‘Do you have a clear understanding of what the quarterback situation will be?’ And he said, ‘Yeah.’ But the general expectation is that Lunt won’t be playing Saturday.

Q: If George goes for Illinois, what can we expect in terms of a skill set?

A: Well obviously against Michigan you can’t really judge what he does against a team like Michigan, especially for a kid making his first-ever start. He came into Illinois having been known for his father, Jeff George, former gunslinger back in the day for the Illini, then he went to the NFL. Jeff George Jr. kind of plays with the same style. He made some waves during spring practice and training camp. He was pretty impressive with his arm, so I think that’s his biggest skill set … he’s not as much of a read option threat as Crouch is.

Q: How has Illinois looked different since Lovie Smith’s arrival?

A: Honestly it’s not as different as a lot of us expected it would be. It’s very undisciplined, at least more undisciplined than you would expect out of a Lovie Smith coached defense. Not just the defense but the team in general. Lot of penalties. I think in the nation, probably one of the bottom-10 teams in penalties per game. As far as differences, he’s changed a couple things. He’s using the full back, he likes to run it a lot … He really likes to spread it out to different running backs and give defenses different looks. At the beginning of the year, they kind of had their roster set with the older guys. But they transitioned and realized it’s not going to be that great. I think Lovie and the coaching staff realized that the younger guys are the way to go …

Q: Do you think the younger guys getting starts and Lovie Smith recruiting will give Illinois fans a greater sense of excitement for next season?

A: I think so. I think going with the younger guys is smart. It’s obviously not going to result in many wins in the near future. I think it’s definitely smart for him to see what he has here with the younger guys. When [Smith] got here, He barely even had people’s names down. I think guys like Patrick Nelson now playing safety and Stanley Green and Jamal Milan at [defensive] tackle, they look like promising guys that could end up starting for the next two or three years. I think he’s already got a decent amount of recruits locked up, a couple four-star receivers coming in in his first recruiting class. That’s definitely going to help. If you’re a recruit that’s looks at a program that’s winning a lot right now, that’s not going to help, but if you’re a recruit that understands this is a process and Lovie Smith and his staff seem to know what they’re doing, then I think that’s definitely going to help.

Q: Is the Western Michigan loss a testament to how good Western Michigan is or how inconsistent Illinois has looked?

A: I sort of think that’s a testament to how good Western Michigan can be. A general feeling going into that week-three game was that wasn’t an easy win … Illinois did not look good against them. I think Western Michigan is a legit team and Illinois was certainly outplayed in every asset of that game. I think they only scored ten points against Western Michigan. That’s just been the story for Illinois this season, honestly. I talked about the quarterback situation but it really doesn’t matter. This is a team that really can’t move the ball.

Q: Is there anything that Illinois has done particularly well this season?

Their biggest strength is definitely their defensive line. If you ask anyone they’ll tell you that. They’re top-10 in the nation for tackles for loss per game. They have two seniors on the outside: Carroll Phillips and Dawuane Smoot. Smoot is actually the one with the biggest chance of actually going in the first round. They cause problems. They get after the quarterback. Looking at it now, looking at sack numbers from the Big Ten and Illinois is right in the middle. What you would expect from a defense that talent wise really isn’t up there with the rest of the Big Ten… That’s really their bread and butter …

Q: What do you think Illinois would have to do to be able to make a bowl game?

At this point, a lot. Definitely win every single game for the rest of the season, I’d assume … At this point, I don’t think Lovie and the coaching staff are thinking about a bowl game. I think they just want to evaluate what they have. Even if Wes Lunt is cleared to play, I wouldn’t be shocked if they went with Crouch or George regardless just to see what they can do … 

Q: Where do you see this team heading after this season?

I think you have to look at it positively …They really made a point to get a lot of in-state recruits and focus on the Chicago area where there are a lot of good athletes. [Lovie Smith is] miles ahead of what Tim Beckman could have done or Bill Cubit could have done. It’s not only Lovie Smith, this whole coaching staff has NFL background. This is an NFL level coaching staff.

Speed Round Questions

Q: Number of wins Illinois gets this year?

A: Four.

Q: More than 300 yards for Illinois’ offense?

A: Yes.

Q: Grade Jeff George on a scale from 1-10 as a QB?

A: 5 1/2.

Q: Standout on offense?

A: Kendrick Foster.

Q: Standout on defense?

A: Hardy Nickerson.

Q: Big Ten Champion?

A: Michigan.

Q: Big Ten Player of the Year?

A: Jabrill Peppers.

Q: Heisman winner?

A: Christian McCaffrey.

Q: National Champion winner?

A: Alabama.

Q: Score prediction for the Minnesota-Illinois game?

A: 28-24 Illinois.