Dienhart: What I will be looking for at Illinois practice

Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Dienhart: What I will be looking for at Illinois practice

Hopes are high in Champaign, as Illinois takes the wraps off the Lovie Smith era. Will he be the coach to deliver a consistent winner to the Illini Nation? Smith arrives from the NFL with a big reputation, but he will be Illinois’ fifth coach since 1997 following Ron Turner, Ron Zook, Tim Beckman and Bill Cubit.

The defensive line looks strong, and Dave Revsine believes running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn is going to be one of the top breakthrough players in the conference this season.

Here is what I’ll be looking for at Illinois practice.

1. How is offensive line playing? 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. Much is expected of Gabe Megginson, a four-star recruit that redshirted in 2015. The loss of top back Josh Ferguson exasperates the situation. Ke’Shawn Vaughn flashed potential as a true freshman when he got the chance to carry the ball.

2. Is the linebacking corps developing? This unit is thin, especially after two-year starter T.J. Neal opted to transfer. He was the team’s No. 2 tackler in 2015 and his loss means the Fighting Illini will be without six of their top seven tacklers from last season. Two backup linebackers also have transferred. It was a big bonus when Hardy Nickerson, Jr., opted to transfer from Cal to play as a grad transfer for his father, Illini DC Hardy Nickerson.

3. How does the secondary look? Two yawning holes must be filled with cornerbacks V’Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence gone. Darius Mosely and Caleb Day bring some experience to the table as nickel and dime defenders and are the first men up at the corner spots. JC transfer Ahmari Hayes also figures in somewhere. The secondary also needs a new free safety with Clayton Fejedelem gone. Strong safety Taylor Barton is the lone starter back in the secondary.

4. Are any receivers stepping up? This attack needs some explosiveness down field. And it doesn’t help that Mikey Dudek is still out with injury. Can Justin Hardee, Desmond Cain and Malik Turner, among others, step up? And are there any tight ends in the house?

5. Is the defensive line as good as I think it can be? This could be one of the more underrated fronts in the Big Ten, even with end Jihad Ward gone. I am eager to see end Dawuane Smoot, who could be one of the conference’s top pass rushers.

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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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