Lovie Smith’s first year in Champaign was a sedate venture.
The Fighting Illini finished 3-8 in the former Chicago Bears head coach’s inaugural season. The wins came against Murray State, Rutgers and Michigan State. Those three programs went 9-26 last year.
This is as good of a place for Smith to start as any.
Since Ron Zook guided the Illini to a 9-4 record and a berth in the Rose Bowl, the program has gone 5-7, 3-9, 7-6, 7-6, 2-10, 4-8, 6-7, 5-7 and 3-8. Since Zook was dismissed in 2011, Vic Koenning (interim), Tim Beckman (fired after charges of player abuse surfaced) and Bill Cubit (fired after 5-6 in 2015) have coached Illinois football.
The aim of Smith’s hire for Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman has to be stability. Has to be. Beckman was unfit. Cubit was unexciting. Smith has to be an anchor or ... the treadmill will continue. Fired head coach, interim and yet another new do-over.
Illinois is selling rebuild right now. It’s a word Smith isn’t afraid to use.
“It’s Year 2 for (fans) also,” Smith said. “They knew it’s not just about, ‘Hey, we’re going to the Rose Bowl right away.’ It’s going to take a little bit. Those same fans are excited about Year 2 and this rebuild.”
That’s a tougher sell. But when a coach says this, the next sentence usually includes something positive about the program’s physical plant. Illinois has that.
Construction on a new $80 million football facilities project is scheduled to begin in early 2018 and be completed in the summer of 2019. Illinois administrators know Memorial Stadium needs an upgrade (specifically the south horseshoe), but decided in June that the program needed basically what Iowa has in the Hansen Performance Complex.
“It will be incredible,” Whitman said.
Illinois has that coming. On the field? Probably another 5-7 is coming.
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The new QB: Chayce Crouch likely will be a much better fit for what offensive coordinator Garrick McGee wants out of his offense.
McGee spent two seasons as offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach at Louisville. In 2015, he was on the ground floor of building Lamar Jackson into the future Heisman Trophy winner that he is. Jackson had more than 5,000 yards of total offense last season.
The plus side with Crouch: He’s 6-4, 230 pounds and he’s a true dual-threat. In limited time last year, Crouch rushed for 176 yards and two TDs. Crouch should have a strong read option element to his game.
Crouch, a junior, has been in the program for four years, but doesn’t have a ton of experience, appearing in 14 games with just a few games as the starter. He also missed the final six games of 2016 because of shoulder surgery, which also kept him out this spring.
Crouch could potentially have wide receiver Mike Dudek back. Dudek has missed back-to-back seasons with knee injuries after leading FBS freshmen with 79.8 receiving yards per game in 2014. Wide receiver Malik Turner (6-3, 205) also returns after catching 48 passes for 712 yards and six TDs last year.
Your moment of defense: You might even remember the names of Illinois’ recent D-linemen. There was Chunky Clements and Carroll Phillips and Dawuane Smoot. They’re all in the NFL now and so, yeah, the Illini will be looking for D-linemen.
Sophomore Tymir Oliver (6-4, 285) has turned heads in camp. Illinois will be young at defensive tackle with sophomores Jamal Milan (6-2, 300) and Kenyon Jackson (6-0, 290) as the front-runners.
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When you lose three D-linemen to the NFL, it’s a rebuild and that is the mode for Illinois football right now.
Hawkeyes Look Ahead
Oct. 7 vs. Illinois (Kinnick Stadium), 11 a.m.
Time, TV: TBA
Week before: at Michigan State
Week after: Bye week
On the horizon: at Northwestern, Oct. 21
Illinois Fighting Illini
Coach: Lovie Smith (3-9, 2nd season at Illinois)
2016 record: 3-9, 2-7 in the Big Ten West Division (6th)
Scoring offense: 19.7 points per game (13th in B1G, 122nd nationally)
Total offense: 315.1 yards per game (13th B1G, 123rd nationally)
Scoring defense: 31.9 points allowed per game (12th B1G, 94th nationally)
Total defense: 405.1 yards allowed per game (11th B1G, 61st nationally)
Series: Illinois leads series, 38-32-2
Last meeting: Iowa’s defense produced its first shutout since 2010 with a 28-0 punch out at Memorial Stadium. After being held to 80 rushing yards in the first half, the Hawkeyes rushed for 182 yards in the second. The game’s biggest note might’ve been the fact that Illinois didn’t kick off. According to ESPN, that hadn’t happened in a game since North Texas didn’t kick off in a 35-0 loss to Middle Tennessee State in 2006. Iowa might rush for another 262 yards against Illinois, and the Illini might not kick off again when the teams meet this year.
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