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Illinois Spring Football 2017 Preview: Can Smith Build the Foundation

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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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Whitman dips in to his past in hiring Nancy Fahey to lead Illini women’s basketball program

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Josh Whitman came to the University of Illinois from Washington University in St. Louis. It was a massive step up the collegiate ladder, going from Division III to Division I. 

So if anyone knows what it takes to make that kind of a jump it is Whitman. On Wednesday, Whitman dipped in to that past in order to re-build the Illinois Fighting Illini as he hired Hall of Fame coach Nancy Fahey.

Fahey comes with plenty of experience, coaching at Washington University for 31 years. That includes five national championships and over 740 wins in her career.

“It gives me great pride to welcome my friend and former colleague Nancy Fahey to the Fighting Illini family as the new head coach of our women’s basketball program,” Whitman said. “With a record highlighted by five national championships, 10 Final Fours, nearly 740 wins, and a winning percentage of almost 85%, Nancy’s Hall of Fame coaching career stands among the most accomplished in the history of women’s basketball.” 

The Illini program was desperate for a culture change after scandal and multiple transfers rocked the program over the last few years. Whitman’s knowledge of exactly how Fahey runs a program appears to have played a key role in making this hire.

“What is more compelling to me, however, is her ability to connect with the women on her team, to push them to be better than they ever thought possible, and to help them develop as players, students, and people.  Nancy Fahey is a born leader, and she is the among the best basketball coaches I have ever seen.  I could not be more excited for her to lead our Fighting Illini program to championship heights.”

She has a long line of success outside of those five national championships, making the NCAA DIII tournament in 29 of 31 years. The last title at Washington University came in 2010 as well. Fahey is also the fastest coach in NCAA history to 600 wins, coming in 704 games.

“It is such an exciting time in Illinois athletics since Josh has taken the helm,” Fahey said in the press release. “Having worked with Josh, I know he believes in doing things with integrity and the right way; I believe in the same things. I want to be a part of helping his vision become a reality.

“The cornerstone for the success I have experienced in the past has always revolved around the players. Knowing them as people and understanding their dreams and goals both on and off the court are important to me. I truly believe the players who are here and those who have committed to Illinois for next year have the ability to propel us to great heights. They want to be that team that we talk about five years from now. I want to help make that happen for them and for Illinois. Ultimately, we want every little girl, when she is growing up, to dream about Illinois as a place they want to play their college basketball.”

Illinois finished this last season 9-22 overall and just 3-13 in Big Ten play.

No doubt the hire of Fahey is going to be interesting, as the jump in talent and level of play is so drastic from D3 to D1 basketball, let alone to the level that is expected out of the Big Ten.

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WATCH: Brad Underwood speaks for 1st time as Illini head coach

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The University of Illinois took less than one day to get their man, as Brad Underwood bolted from Oklahoma State a day after his now-ex team was ousted from the NCAA tournament.

Underwood won’t formally be introduced until a noon CT press conference on Monday, but he was already in Champaign on Saturday. That meant his first official interview took place as well.

It was all caught on camera and here is what Underwood and Josh Whitman had to say regarding the hire.

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Whitman wastes little time, picks Brad Underwood to head Illini basketball program

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Brad Underwood was coaching the Oklahoma State Cowboys just about this time yesterday. Fast forward 24 hours and Josh Whitman got his next head coach thanks to the Pokes loss to Michigan.

According to reports, Underwood has agreed to terms to become the next head coach at the University of Illinois.

“I am excited to welcome Brad Underwood, his wife Susan, and their three children to the Fighting Illini family,” Whitman said in a press release. “In searching for a new coach, we were looking for a proven winner who would build upon our proud tradition while developing an unmistakable identity for Illinois Basketball.

“Brad’s teams play a fast, aggressive style and show unyielding toughness. They have a tremendous energy that I believe will ignite the Orange Krush and our fans to once again make State Farm Center one of the most intimidating venues in all of college basketball.”

Underwood has a long reputation of building quality programs. He took Stephen F. Austin to three straight NCAA tournaments before taking the Oklahoma State job this past year.

So, why leave the Pokes after just one season? It appears his ties to the state of Illinois were a huge factor in this quick of a jump.

“Coaching basketball at the University of Illinois is a once-in-lifetime opportunity,” Underwood said. “The players, fans and administration at Oklahoma State have been absolutely incredible, and I want to thank them for the support they’ve given me and my family over the last year. However, during my time at Western Illinois, I always saw the Illinois coaching job as one of the truly best in the nation.”

Underwood was an assistant coach at Western Illinois from 1992-2003 before taking his second head coaching gig at Daytona Beach Community College.

There are also reports of a strained relationship between Underwood and Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder.

Underwood will be introduced to the media on Monday at noon CT and we will have live coverage.

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John Groce is actually out as Illini basketball coach

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What many have been calling for finally happened — the University of Illinois has relieved John Groce of his duties as men’s basketball head coach. 

Groce undoubtedly turned around the program academically and socially, something that made this decision difficult to make for athletic director Josh Whitman.

“I want to thank John Groce and his staff for their tireless efforts over these past five years,” Whitman said in a press release announcing Groce’s firing. “In many ways, John is a model leader. He exudes optimism and tackles every day with unbelievable energy. He has the highest integrity. He has been an active presence in our community and a strong public ambassador for Illinois Basketball.”

Ultimately it was the record on the court that did Groce in. After all, coaches are hired to ensure their teams win games. All the other stuff  is just part of the equation that gets weighed against a win-loss record.

“Under his leadership, regrettably, we were not able to sustain the level of competitive excellence that we expect at the University of Illinois,” Whitman continued. “But that should do nothing to detract from the many wonderful things John has done on behalf of Illinois Basketball during his tenure. We wish John, Allison, and their three children nothing but the best, and we thank his staff and their families as well for their many contributions to our program. All will be missed.”

Groce failed in that win-loss category in a big way, becoming the first head coach since Gene Bartow in the mid 1970’s to have a losing record in the Big Ten during his career at Illinois.

As for what is next, Whitman has a plan in place for the immediate and long term future of the program.

According to the release, a national search for the next head coach will begin immediately. In the meantime, assistant coach Jamall Walker has been elevated to the role of interim head coach.

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