No coach in the Big Ten understands the adage that “defense wins championships” more than new Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Lovie Smith. He got the Chicago Bears of the NFL to the Super Bowl on the strength of outstanding defense.
His challenge in year one in Champaign is going to be finding a way to turn a mediocre-at-best defense in to a championship one.
Should he get this group of Tim Beckman recruits to flip a switch and change old bad habits, this team could be the surprise of the Big Ten in 2016. But, will that happen in such a short period of time?
Let’s take a look at the Illini defense for 2016.
One of the best-kept secrets of the 2015 Big Ten season was just how much the Illinois Fighting Illini defense improved. A lot of that improvement can be attributed to the work done up front and the emergence of arguably the best defensive lineman in the B1G for 2016 — Dawuane Smoot.
Last season, Smoot burst on to the scene with 15.0 tackles for loss and 8.0 sacks last season and was ranked No. 21 in our preseason Top 25 Big Ten players list. He isn’t the only player worth noting up front heading in to the 2016 season, that’s because there is a nice edge rusher on the other side of him in Carroll Phillips.
A senior-laden defensive line continues in the middle, as two seniors — Jarrod Clements and Rob Bain — are back to make life difficult for opposing run games. Clement, whose nickname is Chunky, had 11.5 tackles for loss in 12 games played (10 starts) and is on the Senior Bowl watch list heading in to this season. Bain had 6.0 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks, while also being a special teams standout with two blocked kicks in 11 starts.
Overall, this group is long on experience in the starting group but there is nothing in terms of proven talent behind them. Not a single defensive lineman who is a senior in 2016 recorded a single sack in 2015 and only nine total players did that last season alone.
That has to be improved and the coaching staff is hoping to have depth with sophomore end Henry McGrew and tackles Jamal Milan and Tito Odenigbo, a redshirt freshman and sophomore respectively.
Things begin and end with a graduate transfer for the Illini linebacker group. With Smith’s hire of his old Tampa Bay Buccaneer player, Hardy Nickerson, as his linebackers coach a perfect opportunity to reunite father and son existed. That’s exactly what happened with Hardy Nickerson Jr. joining the Illini as a graduate transfer after a good career at Cal previously.
Nickerson will not only be the leader of this group, but of the defense as a whole. It may be a lot to put on someone brand new to the team, but Nickerson’s had a good career on the field. He comes to the Illini having racked up.
Joining him as likely starters to open the season are junior James Crawford and sophomore Tre Watson. Both of them appeared in 12 games, with Crawford recording 4.0 tackles for loss and Watson making 1.0 sacks in his first year in the program.
Given the youth at this position, having a player like Nickerson in the fold is only going to help this younger players grow quicker.
What was once a glaring weakness of the Illini defense became a strength in 2015, with the team finishing fifth in the Big Ten in passing defense. Add in a coach who specializes in making secondaries great and Illinois could have a very difficult secondary to play against in 2016.
A large part of the reason for that is the return of free safety Taylor Barton for his final season in Champaign. He led the team in interceptions last season with four of them. It also didn’t hurt that he finished fourth on the team in tackles as well.
Opposite of him at safety will be sophomore Julian Hylton, who saw limited action in 11 games last season and could be a star with this new system. Hylton winning the starting job surprised a lot of outsiders, but clearly took the coaching staff by storm in fall camp thanks to his unreal athletic ability.
The other half of the equation in the secondary — cornerback — will be occupied by senior Darius Mosely and junior Jalen Dunlap. Ironically, neither of these two were expected to be starters coming in to the offseason but earned their way up the depth chart. They also didn’t record a single interception last season, but beat out the likes of Cameron Watkins and Chris James for the first start of the season.
Our Projected Starters
DE: Dawaune Smoot, Sr.
DT: Rob Bain, Sr.
DT: Chunky Clements, Sr.
DE: Carroll Phillips, Sr.
OLB: James Crawford, Jr.
MLB: Hardy Nickerson Jr., Sr.
OLB: Tre Watson, So.
CB: Darius Mosley, Sr.
SS: Julian Hylton, So.
FS: Taylor Barton, Sr.
CB: Jalen Dunlap, Jr.
Predicting the 2018 Illinois Fighting Illini season game-by-game
We’re nearing game week and that means it is time to gather all the intel possible and make the best decisions possible…because it’s time to put our money where our mouths are.
Yes, the annual tradition of Illinois Fighting Illini season predictions is back. Yes, we’re also going to break down the season in game-by-game fashion.
No, you won’t see it in the written form. Instead, we’re going 21st century and giving you our publisher, Andrew Coppens, thoughts in video format.
The Illini went first (no coincidence to alphabetical order), so you can follow along by subscribing to our YouTube channel as well.
Illini look to fresh jerseys to help reboot football program
Illinois reaches to its successful past in hopes of sparking interest in struggling football program of today. It means new uniforms for the football program.
Nothing says trying to shed a bad image like rebooting your jersey and helmet looks. When you’re the Illinois Fighting Illini and you’ve compiled a whopping 5-19 overall record and just two Big Ten wins in the last two years, a reboot is probably a good idea.
On Friday morning, the Illini announced exactly that, keeping the school colors and even the Gray Ghost uniforms they have worn to pay homage to the Galloping Ghost himself, Harold “Red” Grange. The new uniforms feature a much simpler look and a more defined block “I” on the v of the neck.
For you old-timers out there, these uniforms are likely to look very familiar to you. That’s because they harken back to the Illini glory days of the Dick Butkus era in the 1960’s.
One of the biggest additions to the uniform combinations is that of a re-designed orange helmet. Gone is the metallic look, replaced by a matted finish and a color that more accurately fits the uniform color as well.
Illinois will begin wearing the new gear for the home opener on Sept. 1 against Kent State and of course will begin to be available for purchase (blue only apparently) this fall as well.
As for the design, I like the simplified look and feel of the jersey. Illinois has a color scheme that stands out in the Big Ten, so why try to hide it. Instead, they are embracing history and moving forward to hopefully more success.
With all the momentum off the field, hopefully Love Smith and crew can deliver some of that same momentum on the field. We’ll have an idea about that when the Illini hold an open practice tomorrow, April 7.
Lovie Smith hits home run with Rod Smith’s hire as OC
Lovie Smith hires prolific spread offensive coordinator Rod Smith in hopes of jump-starting a stagnant Illinois Fighting Illini offense.
Just one day after two former starting quarterbacks announced their departure from the Illinois Fighting Illini program, the Illini went out and announced a huge hire.
On Friday afternoon, head coach Lovie Smith announced the hire of former Arizona offensive coordinator to the same position for the Illini.
“Rod Smith brings terrific and exciting offensive experience to our staff at Illinois,” Lovie Smith said. “His background and development of dual-threat quarterbacks and multiple-threat offenses is the direction we are going here. Rod has developed explosive quarterback play and offensive performance at each of his coaching stops.”
It was huge get for the head coach because Cam Thomas, who is a true dual threat quarterback is literally the only scholarship quarterback on the roster until the fall.
Smith comes to Illinois after leading one of the most explosive offenses in the country at Arizona. Smith helped lead an offense that averaged 41.3 points (5th nationally), 309.3 rushing yards, 180.2 passing yards and 489.5 total yards (12th nationally) per game. Wildcat quarterback Khalil Tate rushed for 1,411 yards (9.2 yards per carry), while completing 62 percent of his passes for 1,591 passing yards with 14 touchdowns.
Most importantly, Smith has an extensive background as a quarterbacks coach, and that background will be tested by the rawness of Cam Thomas’ game and two incoming recruits this fall.
He’s had success not just with one quarterback in the fold at Arizona as well, working with Anu Solomon for three seasons prior to Tate taking over at quarterback. Solomon completed his three-year playing career with the third-most passing touchdowns and fourth-most passing yards in UA history. In 2014, Solomon threw for 2,793 yards and 28 touchdowns, with only nine interceptions.
That kind of production and long-term output at quarterback is sorely needed for the Illini to turn things around. Just how fast can Smith mold Thomas? He’ll get a really good opportunity with a cleared quarterback room this spring.
Illini have no choice but Cam Thomas at QB now
Two quarterbacks announce transfers within a matter of hours on Wednesday, leaving the Illini with only Cam Thomas on scholarship.
The Illinois Fighting Illini went in to this offseason with three quarterbacks who started games in 2017. It took just one day for that to completely change though.
On Wednesday night, redshirt junior quarterback Jeff George Jr. announced he would be graduating in the spring with a degree in Management and will transfer from the program as a graduate transfer. He will have two seasons of eligibility left wherever she goes.
“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future” – Jeremiah 29:11 pic.twitter.com/of61WXyUtK
— Jeff George Jr (@jgeorgeqb) January 17, 2018
Chayce Crouch then announced that he was retiring from football period after an injury-riddled career at Illinois.
Thank you Illini Nation! I will always bleed Orange and Blue 🔶🔷 pic.twitter.com/Gl78tfH46Q
— Chayce Crouch (@teccrouch7) January 17, 2018
So, what was once a potentially three-man race for the starting quarterback job just became a one-man race and the winner by default is sophomore quarterback Cam Thomas.
He’ll have a lot of work to do this offseason though, because his opening campaign was a rough one on the stat sheet. Thomas completed just 42.4 percent of his passes (28 of 66) for 375 yards and zero touchdowns to five interceptions.
In four games he also rushed for 233 yards and a touchdown. Thomas was clearly much more comfortable as a runner than a thrower in the Big Ten.
The question is, will the lessons learned in those four games as a starter be enough to push him in to being the guy that turns things around for the stagnant Illini offense.
Thomas is easily the leader in the clubhouse given he’s the only quarterback on the roster with any experience, but he will be joined in the fall by 2018 signee M.J. Rivers. He is a 6-4, 213-pound dual threat quarterback that was ranked as the No. 26 dual threat QB in the country.
It means the Illini will go in to spring ball with just one scholarship quarterback on the roster and in to the 2018 season with just two scholarship quarterbacks at all.
Lovie Smith now has to trust in Thomas and pray he’s the answer they’ve been looking for or it may be curtains for his time at the helm of the Illini program.