Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer, February 12, 2018
Illinois remains a work in progress under Lovie Smith, as the first two seasons with Smith haven't brought much success. In fact, things got worse last season. Smith debuted with a 3-9 record (2-7 Big Ten) in 2016. Last season, the Fighting Illini went 2-10 (0-9).
Smith made a huge commitment to youth in 2017 for a program that has missed a bowl each of the last three seasons. The Illini had 31 first-time starters in 2017, the second-most in the nation. Illinois' offensive true freshman cumulative starts (51) and defensive true freshman cumulative starts (36) surpassed the previous program record for total true freshman cumulative starts (34 in 1977).
That baptism by fire resulted in some struggles. How bad was it? The Fighting Illini ranked last in the Big Ten in scoring (15.3 ppg) and 12th in scoring defense (31.5 ppg). The team also was 13th in total offense (280.4 ypg) and 12th in total defense (418.4 ypg). The Illini couldn't run (105.6 ypg) or stop the run (218.5 ypg), ranking last in the conference in each category.
After the season, Smith made a big change by firing offensive coordinator Garrick McGee and hiring Rod Smith, who had been the OC at Arizona under Rich Rodriguez. Lovie Smith also canned defensive back coach Paul Williams. Cory Patterson was hired from a St. Louis high school (Trinity) to coach tight ends, while Donnie Abraham was tabbed from IMG Academy to coach the secondary. Smith also named Austin Clark the defensive line coach after Mike Phair left for the NFL.
Here are three areas to watch this spring.
1. Linebacker. There isn't depth, so it hurt when Tre Watson transferred. Who steps up? Staffers like redshirt freshman Jake Hansen, who was lost for the season in 2017 with an injury in camp. He likely would have started had he not gotten hurt. Junior Dele Harding could be a force in the middle. Former JC transfer Del'Shawn Phillips is back for his final season. He impressed in his debut in 2017. Others to watch: Jimmy Marchese, Ago Shogbonyo and James Knight.
2. Running back. Mike Epstein showed a lot of promise as a true freshman last season. Despite playing in just five games before injury ended his season, Epstein led the Fighting Illini in rushing with 346 yards. Depth is a concern. Ra'Von Bonner, Reggie Corbin and Dre Brown are back. Bonner made three starts as a true freshman last year, running for 202 yards before injury ended his season. As a sophomore last season, Corbin ran for 78 yards. Brown made one start in 2017 as a sophomore and finished the year with 138 yards rushing. Jakari Norwood is an early enrollee to watch.
3. Quarterback. This has been a problem spot for a number of years. Cam Thomas is the only scholarship player on campus this spring, as Jeff George Jr. transferred and Chayce Crouch gave up football. Thomas saw action as a true freshman last season, playing in four games with two starts. He hit 28-of-66 passes (42 percent) for 375 yards with no TDs and five picks while running for 233 yards. He has a chance to impress new offensive coordinator Rod Smith this spring. Then, competition will arrive. Keep an eye on incoming freshman MJ Rivers, who has some excited. Illinois also inked Matthew Robinson and Coran Taylor, the highest rated of the three QB signees. Perhaps the Illini could add a grad transfer signal-caller. Stay tuned.
ILLINOIS SPRING INFO
Record: 2-10 overall; 0-9 Big Ten/7th West
Spring ball starts: March 5
Spring game: April 7 (open practice)
Key players back: G Nick Allegretti; OT Larry Boyd; TE Louis Dorsey; WR Mike Dudek; RB Mike Epstein; WR Carmoni Green; SS Stanley Green; LB Dele Harding; P Blake Hayes; CB Nate Hobbs; C Doug Kramer; OT Vederian Lowe; K Chase McLaughlin; DT Jamal Milan; DT Tymir Oliver; G Alex Palczewski; LB Del'Shawn Phillips; DE Bobby Roundtree; WR Ricky Smalling; QB Cam Thomas; CB Cameron Watkins; FS Bennett Williams
Key players gone: DE James Crawford; CB Jaylen Dunlap; QB Jeff George Jr. (transfer); LB Julian Jones (transfer); OL Gabe Megginson (transfer); SS Patrick Nelson (transfer); DT Tito Odenigbo (transfer); WR Malik Turner; LB Tre Watson (transfer)