Dienhart: Illinois Fighting Illini's offseason to-do list

Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Dienhart: Illinois Fighting Illini's offseason to-do list

The arrival of Lovie Smith has given Illinois a megadose of hope that better days are ahead after the tumult of the Tim Beckman era. Smith brings instant credibility to the program after being a head coach in the NFL with the Bears and Buccaneers. Smith hasn’t coached in the college game since 1995, but he has built a staff that should soften the transition.

Here is Illinois’ offseason to-do list.

1. Secondary. The unit lost three starters in cornerbacks V’Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence along with safety Clayton Fejedelem, who led the team with 140 tackles before being drafted. Safety Taylor Barton is a building block. Guys like Jaylen Dunlap, Caleb Day and Darius Mosley need to keep progressing. JC transfer Ahmari Hayes also is coming in. Youngsters Chris James, Frank Sumpter and Cameron Watkins are also in the mix.

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2. Linebacker. This unit lacks much depth and talent. Hardy Nickerson, Jr., the son of the Illini defensive coordinator, is transfering from Cal for his final season of eligibility which should help a unit that saw T.J. Neal—the team’s second leading tackler– transfer to Auburn and Mason Monheim graduate. Two backup linebackers also have transferred. James Crawford and Tre’ Watson are the only players with a modicum of experience from last year who are back. Mike Svetina was a starter in 2013 but missed all of 2014 and most of 2015 with injury. He returned the last few games and played special teams. Outside of those players, the staff is looking at Julian Jones and newcomers.

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3. Buy in. Are all of the players rowing in the same direction? It’s important to have everyone on board when a new regime is hired. But, there typically is some pushback from some players.

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4. Offensive line. This unit needs to get a better push after the Illini ranked last in the Big Ten in rushing (129.3 ypg) and had a league-low 13 rushing TDs in 2015. Three starters are back in left tackle Austin Schmidt, center Joe Spencer and right tackle Christian DiLauro. Star guard Ted Karras is gone. Much is expected of Gabe Megginson, a four-star recruit that redshirted in 2015. New line coach Luke Butkus should impact.

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5. Building an offense around Wes Lunt. He is the most seasoned quarterback on the roster. Is he athletic? No. But Lunt has good traits, including savvy in the pocket and a good arm. New offensive coordinator Garrick McGee needs to play to the strengths of Lunt to make this offense go.

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6. Finding a go-to wideout. Mikey Dudek will miss yet another season with a knee injury. This after Geronimo Allison has departed. Desmond Cain and Malik Turner provide some nice options. Turner could be the man. He had 39 receptions for 510 yards and three touchdowns last season. Cain, a true freshman last year, nabbed 53 passes for 492 yards and a TD in 2015. He could develop into that deep threat that Wes Lunt lacked last season.

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7. Backup running back. Ke’Shawn Vaughn is the man with Josh Ferguson gone. He led the team with 729 yards rushing last year as a freshman. But what’s after him now that Dre Brown is out for the year with a knee injury? There are only 78 career rushing yards behind Vaughn. Reggie Corbin is back after missing 2015 with injury. He is a scat back type. Kendrick Foster is back after contemplating a transfer. He is short and powerful but lacks quickness. Tre Nation is a true freshman built along the lines of Foster who will arrive over the summer.

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Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

About Tom Dienhart: BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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