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Illinois Spring Football 2017 Preview: Can Smith Build the Foundation

What a difference one spring can make…at least that is the hope in Champaign, Ill. this year. 

Last year’s spring football was more a “getting to know you” situation, as Lovie Smith was hired just before normal spring practices were going to get underway and had little time to prep for his actual spring.

That isn’t the case in 2017, as Smith and his staff will get things kicked off in the Big Ten. Yes, this group will start spring ball on Valentine’s Day and the sped up timeframe is all about getting on the recruiting trail quicker.

Last season felt like a team behind the eight-ball all season long, so this spring is going to be all about building a real foundation for future success. Can that happen? Let’s take a look at what Smith and Co. are dealing with for this season’s Illini.

Spring Football Starting Date: Feb. 14
Spring Football Game: March 10

Key Returning Players: Jeff George Jr., QB; Kendrick Foster, RB; Malik Turner, WR; Nick Allegretti, RG; Patrick Nelson, FS; Jamal Milan, DT
Key Losses: Hardy Nickerson, MLB; Dawaune Smoot, DE; Carroll Phillips, DE; Wes Lunt, QB; Justin Hardee, WR

Offensive To-Do List:

— Find a Quarterback: This may not happen fully in the spring, as it is expected that Chayce Crouch won’t be a full-go. However, that is a massive chance for the likes of Jeff George Jr. to take control of the position.

Outside of that, it is names like Cam Miller and Trenard Davis taking snaps this spring. Given all that won’t be around this competition may last well in to the fall camp. However, should George Jr. showcase a much-improved passing game there’s a chance he wrangles the starting position and doesn’t let go in the fall.

It certainly wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, but don’t expect that to happen with a JUCO player (Dwayne Lawson) and incoming freshman Cameron Thomas also arriving this fall.

— Get Offensive Line Play Up: Some are going to point to finding a running back, especially with Kendrick Foster deciding to transfer. For me, the running back comes secondary to finding an offensive line that can open up holes. Illinois ranked 13th in the Big Ten in rushing last season, but had a glimmer of hope in averaging 4.8 yards per carry. It just shows that this offense likely needs to run the ball more and spread it out in the passing game less, as it ranked last in rushing attempts.

The offensive line gave up just 20 sacks last season in pass protection, which is also a good bit of news. However, this offensive line will look very different heading in to 2017 thanks to three graduates. Can newcomers become part of a quality offensive line or will this be a season of transition?

Smith knows winning starts up front on both sides of the ball. It is why Nick Allegretti is moving to center to make way for the talented Gabe Megginson at guard. It is also why left tackle is also a wide open competition.

Watching how this group develops is going to be a key part of spring football.

— Find a Dynamic Receiver: Mikey Dudek is coming off his second devastating knee injury and it appears the Illini will take this recovery very slowly. That means his reps will be limited if they happen at all. However, with Justin Hardee graduated there is a massive hole to be filled in an offense that often had to abandon the run game due to large deficits.

Who will be that person to step up? Some hope that early-enrollee Carmoni Green from Miami Central (Miami, Fla.) will be that player, while names like Desmond Cain and Sam Mays are hoping to make a good jump forward as upperclassmen this year.

Outside of Malike Turner, this group lacks a name that can jump off the page at you and given all the passing that this offense likes to do, finding another big option in spring is going to be crucial.

Defensive To-Do List:

— Find Edge Rushers: All one needs to know is that Illinois is losing its top five players in tackles for loss last season. That means 47.5 of 95 total tackles for loss as a team…or 50 percent are gone.

Where is that kind of production going to come from in 2017? While injuries have ravaged Illinois roster heading in to spring, the two areas that aren’t as affected as others happen to be the offensive and defensive lines. That’s good news, as both clearly need the most work and reps.

Henry McGrew is the only returning player at defensive end from Illinois two-deep last season. Meanwhile, strongside linebacker Tre Watson takes the mantle as the top returning player in tackles for loss (4.5). Julian Jones started opposite of him, but racked up just 2.5 tackles for loss himself.

There clearly needs to be a show of force off the edge in spring ball, but where it comes from is going to be the real story.

— Get Leadership: Illinois is losing nine seniors for the two-deep last year, and given production on the field maybe that isn’t the worst thing in the world. However, no one can deny that middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson was the heart and soul of the team…and he arrived in the fall as a graduate transfer.

That fact should tell you all you need to know about where the leadership was on this side of the ball. Luckily there is an influx of youthful players on the defensive side of the ball and that means they have a chance to shape things the way they want.

As much as we’re all going to concentrate on the production, it will be equally important to see which players others gravitate to and who emerges as a player others follow heading in to the 2017 season. If it is the likes of Jamal Milan, Kenyon Jackson or Patrick Nelson that could be a really good thing.

All three of those players were key contributors as freshman last season. If they can parlay the experience on the field to leadership off of it, Illinois may be getting somewhere in Lovie Smith’s second season in Champaign.

— Find Quality Depth: One thing was abundantly clear about the Illini defense last year — it simply was paper thin. An injury here or there and this defense went from mediocre to terrible really quick.

Filling starting roles will be the focal point of the media attention this spring, but if those so-called battles end with one clear winner and it is because another person couldn’t hack it…there is a major problem for depth going forward.

Illinois coaching staff would certainly like to see starters emerge at key positions coming out of spring, but they’d much rather it happen because competition was strong and someone just simply beat another person out on the merits of the competition.

Should the Illini find itself searching for true freshman to fill key roles on the two-deep this season it could be a major issue for depth in 2017.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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