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Illinois still trying to reclaim Chicago on recruiting trail

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Northwestern made an audacious statement when it declared itself “Chicago’s Big Ten Team.”

It was a naked marketing ploy to get attention for the suburban university just outside the city limits. A jab at the rival down south that clearly had a larger fan presence in the Windy City.

That first year Northwestern made that push, Illinois defeated NU at Memorial Stadium, playing “Sweet Home Chicago” with the message “Our State, Our Team” on its jumbotron. The rivalry had reached a fevered pitch — Tim Beckman’s anti-Northwestern signage and reported use of purple jerseys for non-contact players aside — and the battle lines were drawn.

Illinois now had to fight for supremacy in its own state. But it needed to do that all along. It is not just a matter of marketing gimmicks and rivalries.

The Illini have tried to plant a flag in Chicago as more than the major city in their state. They have needed to make it a centerpiece to their recruiting plan in addition to marketing.

Illinois has just seven players on its roster from the Chicagoland area. The Illini though are recruiting Chicago hard. Five of their 11 commitments come from the Chicagoland area.

And Illinois continues to work to increase its presence in Chicago. The Illini played their annual rivalry game against the Wildcats at Soldier Field and will do so again next season. They have played at Soldier Field plenty of time and they will do so again in the future for those games.

But Illinois has to do more to win the big battle on the field in the state. It has to attack the major city and gain a stronger foothold than just a large fan presence.

Hiring Lovie Smith, with his long history with the Chicago Bears, certainly helps with the optics. He is a coach with NFL experience that should help the team increase its recruiting — and he brought some NFL friends with him such as Illinois alum Hardy Nickerson.

Both of those moves should help Illinois get more attention in Chicago.

There should be no problem getting fans in Chicago. For all of Northwestern’s bluster, Illinois is still the state university and the most popular team. Ryan Field gets painted orange and blue, like it does with the opposing team’s color for many Big Ten home games, every time the Wildcats host the Illini.

Chicago though is a unique market. It is the hub for the Big Ten. There are large alumni bases for almost every Big Ten team in the city. Everyone has a footprint there.

Illinois is fighting everyone for a piece of the city in many ways. And the team is doing it coming off an embarrassing ordeal with former coach Tim Beckman.

Expectations are relatively low for Smith’s first year with the Illini. Even in the West Division, Illinois does not figure to compete for a bowl berth yet. The Illini though will have to start establishing a foothold at home to begin improving their fortunes in the conference.

Chicago is home to Illinois. The Illini want the biggest city to be their territory. Now they have to go out and claim it, even if it remains a multi-year project.

Philip Rossman-Reich is a Northwestern alumnus and former contributor Lake The Posts. He also writes for Orlando Magic Daily and The Step Back.

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Illini Football

Predicting the 2018 Illinois Fighting Illini season game-by-game

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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. 

Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and Facebook. Also don’t forget to join in the conversation below and let us know your thoughts on the season and your predictions too! 

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Illini Football

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.

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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.

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Illini Football

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.

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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.

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Illini Football

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.

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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.

Chayce Crouch then announced that he was retiring from football period after an injury-riddled career at Illinois.

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.

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