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.
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.
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.
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.
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.