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Illinois Fighting Illini Football Preview: A look at the 2016 offense

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While the cliche says that defense wins championships, offense can also be the catalyst for change. One needs to look no further than the University of Illinois for proof of that. One change, bringing in former Western Michigan head coach Bill Cubit, did the trick for the Illini offense during the Tim Beckman era.

However, Beckman was gone before the 2015 season (in large part due to the lack of defensive prowess and his mistreatment of players) and Cubit was also replaced in a bit of a surprise move in March of this offseason. That means transition for the offense, but just how much of one is the bigger question at hand.

New head coach Lovie Smith sent a message that he was serious about the offensive side of the football by going out and hiring Garrick McGee away from Louisville where he was the assistant head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the past two seasons.

It means that Illinois offense is going to look and function much the same as before, but with a few different tweaks and a lot more emphasis on the run game. Can all of that add up to better overall results for the team in 2016?

Let’s look at what the Illini are working with on offense this season.

 

Quarterback

There isn’t a single quarterback in the Big Ten with more potential to be successful in the passing game than Wes Lunt. However, last season proved to be a let down after Lunt went crazy in his sophomore season before a knee injury knocked him out after eight games.

In 2014, Lunt completed 63.5 percent of his passes for 1,763 yards and 14 touchdowns to three interceptions. After coming back in 2015, something just didn’t seem right and his completion rate dropped to 56.1 percent (partly on him and partly on a shaky offensive line), while he threw for 2,761 yards and 14 touchdowns to six interceptions.

With McGee around and Lunt another year removed from his nasty injury, it is expected that he return to the numbers that made him so intriguing heading in to last season. If his offensive line can hold up better and the run game come along for the ride, look for Lunt to be a dynamic quarterback once again.

Should anything happen to Lunt, look for sophomore Chayce Couch to be his primary backup especially with Jimmy Fitzgerald announcing his transfer plans before camp even got underway. Arguably, there are just a handful of quarterback situations better than Illinois’ in the Big Ten this season.

However, it may not be long until a real Illini name from the past becomes the starter, as Jeff George Jr. has been a highlight of both spring and fall camp and is likely the QB of the future in Champaign.

Running Back

This group begins and ends with sophomore Ke’Shawn Vaughn, and if for no other reason than he is literally the only proven option in the run game. It also so happens that new OC Garrett McGee likes to run the football A LOT more than Cubit ever did while at the U of I.

Vaughn should be up to the task after proving to be a nice option during his freshman season, rushing for a team-high 723 yards with six rushing touchdowns on just 157 attempts. Don’t be surprised to see him top the 1,200-yard mark this season.

Finding a backup to Vaughn has been the big question of fall camp, especially with the loss of redshirt freshman Dre Brown to another ACL tear. It leaves a competition between freshman Tre Nation and redshirt freshman Reggie Corbin for the backup role. Whomever wins this job likely won’t matter much because they’ll both need to gain experience quickly for this team to really have a chance to build any depth in the running game.

Wide Receiver/Tight End

A return for Mike Dudek was going to ease the pain of the loss of leading receiver Geronimo Allison, but Dudek won’t be on the field in 2016 after suffering a second ACL tear to the same knee. That’s not good news for a group that was awful, like really, really awful last season.

Just how bad? Try a combined 50 dropped passes in just the first eight games alone. With Dudek out and Allison gone this group has a lot of making up to do in order to help Lunt take things to the next level.

The good news is that there is talent in the group, especially with the likes of junior Malik Turner and senior Justin Hardee. While Hardee is returning from a season lost due to a foot injury, Turner has to step his overall game up.

Perhaps the biggest question mark is whom amongst this group is going to be the deep ball threat. Allison was that last season, and is proving to be a dangerous option as a un-drafted free agent with the Green Bay Packers in the NFL.

Some hope is placed on sophomores Sam Mays and Desmond Cain, who flashed at times last season, but that may be asking a lot of the youngsters given all that transpired last season. The hope has to be a new lease on life under this coaching staff will do wonders for this entire group.

As long as the case of the drops doesn’t return in 2016, this group has the athletic talent to be very good even without Dudek in the mix.

One thing most fans will notice as a change in this offense right off the bat is the actual use for a tight end. That bodes well for the likes of seniors Tyler White and Andrew Davis, who are likely to smash career highs this season just by the sheer use of their position for a change.

Offensive Line

This is the real scary part for the Illini in 2016, as the offensive line wasn’t exactly a great help last season and most of that line returns for another go-round.

Can the duo of senior left tackle Austin Schmidt and and junior Christian DiLauro anchor this line and help keep their quarterback upright more this season? That will be a big question heading in to the season, but with a year of experience under their belts it should all start to come together.

Perhaps the most intriguing of the offensive linemen in 2016 will be redshirt freshman right guard Gabe Megginson. He was one of the most sought-after recruits in the country during the 2015 recruiting cycle and Illinois keeping him in state was a major win. Now it’s all on him to show the hype was for real.

Joining him in the middle of the line is senior center Joe Spencer and sophomore left guard Nick Allegretti. Spencer is one of the most experienced offensive linemen in the Big Ten, coming in to his final season with 24 career starts and being named to the Rimington Award watch list.

Illinois also doesn’t have a lot of proven depth with all five starters making it through the season intact last season.

Our Projected Starting Lineup

WR: Desmond Cain, So.
WR: Justin Hardee, Sr.
WR: Malik Turner, Jr.
LT: Austin Schmidt, Sr.
LG: Nick Allegretti, So.
C: Joe Spencer, Sr.
RG: Gabe Megginson, Fr.
RT: Christian DiLauro, Jr.
TE: Tyler White, Sr.
RB: Ke’Shawn Vaughn, So.
QB: Wes Lunt, Sr.

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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Illini Football

Illinois Fighting Illini 2018 Season Review: The good, the bad and the ugly

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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. 

The Good

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. 

The Bad

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.

The Ugly

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. 

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Illini Football

Whitman doubles down on Lovie Smith as Illini HC

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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. 

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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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