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.
Illinois Fighting Illini 2018 Season Review: The good, the bad and the ugly
Once again it is December and the Illinois Fighting Illini football team is at home resting without a bowl game to prepare for. Such is the case for a team that went 4-8.
It was the third straight year that Lovie Smith’s team didn’t make a bowl game and the fourth season in a row overall without a bowl game.
But, that didn’t deter AD Josh Whitman from investing more in Smith’s future. After the season finale, Whitman announced a two-year extension to Smith’s contract.
So, how did Whitman get to that decision without being laughed out of the room? What was the good, the bad and the ugly?
Let’s look back at the season that was.
Hiring Rod Smith as offensive coordinator was a good, if not great move by Smith. His offense fit the players who were in the system like a glove and the offense sprung on to the scene as a dangerous group for opponents to worry about.
Illinois’ scoring averaged just 11 points, they were second in the Big Ten in rushing yards behind only Wisconsin and senior quarterback A.J. Bush finally showcased what many thought he would out of high school.
Junior running back Reggie Corbin was scary good this season, averaging 90.4 yards per game and rushing for over 1,000 yards on the season. Add in Mike Epstein’s 411 yards in just 7 games and Bush’s 733 yards and 8 touchdowns on the ground and you have a blueprint for future success for Smith’s offense.
Of course, Bush leaving after this season will change things a bit, but the overall blueprint was successful in its first year and that can really help transform a program.
For all the success the offense had on the stat sheet, one piece of news wasn’t good and that was Illinois inability to extend drives consistently on offense.
The Illini ranked 12th in the Big Ten in third down conversion rate. On the season they converted at just a 34.5 percent rate.
Amazingly, it is the best mark of any team under Lovie Smith, but still far below an acceptable rate if you want to win more football games than you lose.
Given Illinois overall offensive improvement this may seem like nitpicking, but this is the next step this team needs to take on the field to be even more successful and to help that defense.
How do you make the massive offensive jump Illinois did and still miss a bowl game? You have one of the worst defenses in the country, that’s how.
Illinois gave up an average of 39.4 points per game, which was dead last in the Big Ten and 124th out of 130 in the country. Further down the numbers showed a defense that was last in the B1G in rushing, total defense (508.3) and 13th in passing defense.
It was brutal watching this defense in 2018, so much so that Hardy Nickerson decided to resign for health reasons after allowing 63 points and 465 yards rushing in a 30-point loss to Maryland.
The defense gave up 30-plus points in seven of 12 games on the year, leading to losses in six of those games.
Smith took over the play calling for this defense after Nickerson’s departure, but things didn’t get much better. That indicates there’s a problem with the scheme, the players being recruited or both.
Clearly this offseason must be focused on finding a coach and set of players ready to step up to the plate. After all, it will be year three in the defense for a lot of players who got major reps in 2017, let alone this past season.
Whitman doubles down on Lovie Smith as Illini HC
A 4-8 season for the Illinois Fighting Illini was capped off by a disappointing loss to in-state rival Northwestern. For many people it signaled what could be the end of the Lovie Smith era in Champaign.
On Sunday the speculation came to a quick end, as AD Josh Whitman did the unexpected. Rather than announcing Smith would be let go just three years in to his tenure, Whitman doubled down on him with a two-year contract extension.
Smith will remain in Champaign through the 2023 season, extending the original six-year deal by another two years.
“This extension demonstrates my belief in Lovie Smith, his staff, and the plan they have for the future success of Illinois Football,” said Whitman. “I have studied our program extensively, and I see steady progress, both in the development of our current players and the talent we are adding to our roster. To date, we have remained one of the youngest teams in college football, with only nine seniors and nearly 80 freshmen and sophomores. As our players grow in strength, skill, and experience, more wins will follow.”
It was a surprising decision from the outside, because the numbers over the last three years have been brutal.
Whitman is aware that 4-8 seasons are not what anyone is hoping for. He also pointed out correctly that the youth movement simply needs more time to work itself through the system.
In a college football era that is increasingly impatient, Whitman is doing the rare thing and allowing a coach to rebuild the program from the bottom up before judging it.
“We recognize that our work is far from finished, with improvement needed in every phase of our program’s development, but our plan is sound and our resolve is stronger than ever,” Whitman continued in his press release. “As I have said on many occasions, stability and continuity are key to building a foundation that will yield long-term success.
“With the opening of our new facility next summer, and the continued efforts of our staff and student-athletes, the success we all covet is within reach. I applaud Coach Smith, his staff, and our team for their commitment and steady progress, and I stand ready, as we all should, to help them in whatever way possible to continue building upon their momentum.”
For Smith and his Illini program, that watershed mark will be in year five, not year three.
So, how will Lovie Smith repay this loyalty? It starts by identifying the good and bad. We’ll start with the bad.
Chief amongst the problems for the Illini? Try the defensive side of the ball.
During the nearly three-year tenure of defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson, the Illini defense never turned a positive corner.
Year one was understandable, given the crazy offseason that led to Lovie Smith’s late hire and thus late installation of anything and everything.
Year two saw the Illini basically say “screw it” on both sides of the ball and a youth movement was afoot.
Year three? Well, it was the final straw as Nickerson left the program following a dreadful performance against Maryland in a 63-33 loss in College Park. He sited health concerns in the abrupt leave he took, while Smith had made it clear following the loss that Nickerson wasn’t going to be fired and no decisions on any staff would be made until the offseason.
Smith must find a way to get more out of this group, because even Nickerson’s absence did little to turn things around in-season. He took over the play-calling duties over the final four games and Illinois still gave up an average of 43.0 points per game.
What then saved Smith’s job? It could have been his hire of offensive coordinator Rod Smith.
Illinois offensive output was amazing considering where this team was just one year ago.
They even survived issues at quarterback and injuries around the pass and run game throughout the year. After averaging 15.4 points per game in 2017, the Illini upped their scoring over 10 points per game to 26.0.
It was only good enough for 11th in the league, but it was a vast improvement in just one season’s time. Illinois scored fewer than 20 points in just four games this season, while it managed to top 20 points in just four games in 2017.
Senior A.J. Bush gave the Illini their best look at QB, while also allowing freshman M.J. Rivers to get major experience in Smith’s offense going forward.
Junior running back Reggie Corbin was a breath of fresh air in Smith’s attack. He topped the 1,000-yard mark on just 128 carries, averaging a sick 8.5 yards per carry. It was the first 1,000-yard rushing season by an Illini running back in eight years.
Add in a healthy Mike Epstein and the Illini had the pieces it needed to be productive on offense.
It showed as the run game improved by nearly 140 yards per game and averaged a healthy 243 yards per game — a mark that was only topped by Wisconsin within the Big Ten.
Whitman clearly saw the offensive improvement and believed there was more where that came from. He penned a letter to fans alluding to as much.
“No one is satisfied with our season, least of all those of us directly involved in the day-to-day work of Illinois Football,” said Whitman. “We endured several lopsided losses and expected to win more games. After studying the season, however, there were undoubtedly signs of progress.”
Now it is on Smith to make his boss look smart in the face of three years of losing.
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.