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B1G 2016 // Illinois Fighting Illini Cocktail Party Preview

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Everything You Always Wanted To Know About The 2016 Illinois Fighting Illini Football Team, But Were Afraid To Ask.

Lovie's all you need.
Lovie's all you need.
Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

The B1G 2016 party bus now heads to East Central Illinois, home of the Illinois Fighting Illini. Coming off a bizarre season, the team will be led into battle by Lovie Smith, who is their third different head coach since last August. Three players were drafted by the NFL, including second-rounder Jihad Ward at defensive end, guard Teddy Karras and former walk-on Clayton Fedjelem at safety. The beginning of June marks the halfway point between Lovie's staff being assembled and the first game of the season.

About last season

The good news...

The Illini defeated Nebraska for the first time since they joined the B1G and notched a blowout against Purdue. The defense was stout, led by an experienced linebacking corps and a tough D-line. In fact, the defense managed to come up with turnovers and stop enough drives to keep the Fighting Illini right in most of their games. Best of all, Tim Beckman was finally fired!

The bad news...

Beckman's firing came after an investigation concluded that he was such a doofus he was actually endangering players through sheer stupidity. Bill Cubit took over as interim head coach and the offense, created over the years in his image, struggled mightily. An obscene number of dropped passes and an inability to create running lanes meant punter Ryan Frain got plenty of work. Sitting at 5-4, the Fighting Illini lost their last two games to a subpar Minnesota Golden Gophers squad and the most fraudulent 10-win team in recent memory in the Northwestern Wildcats. An interim athletic director named Cubit, owner of a 51-47 record in the MAC, the head coach for two years. He followed this up by signing a recruiting class ranking in the 70's nationally. Several linebackers, including our leading returning tackler T.J. Neal, transferred.

On the Offensive Side of the Ball

The good news...

Former Louisville offensive coordinator Garrick McGee is now in the fold and leading our offense. Senior quarterback Wes Lunt can make all the throws accurately. Receiver Justin Hardee returns from a foot injury and Malik Turner, Desmond Cain and Sam Mays all have potential to emerge as solid receivers this year. Ke'Shaun Vaughn will tote the rock and the sophomore showed a mix of speed, power and quickness last year that bodes well for him as a feature back. Perhaps most importantly, the offensive line consists of juniors, seniors and one redshirt sophomore. The talent and experience are there to run a solid if unspectacular offense, and Garrick McGee has experience creating offensive fireworks.

The bad news...

Illinois will be running a brand new scheme for the first time and that always involves growing pains. For instance, Wes Lunt hasn't huddled since before high school and will now be leading the huddle. Geronimo Allison has graduated and signed with the Packers, and 2014 All-B1G second teamer Mikey Dudek has torn his ACL again. Runningback Dre Brown, who would have been part of a 1-2 punch with Vaughn, tore his other ACL in spring ball, but the loss of a playmaker like Dudek is a crushing blow to this offense.

On the Defensive Side of the Ball

The good news...

The team is coached by Lovie Smith. We can start there. Smith was one of the architects of the Tampa 2 defense in Tampa Bay, and his chosen defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson is a protege of his. His son Hardy Nickerson Jr. transferred from California as a graduate transfer and will be starting at middle linebacker, adding much-needed experience. Nickerson will almost certainly be drafted in the early rounds of 2017. In addition, Chunky Clements, Rob Bain and Dawaune Smoot return on the defensive line. This should still be a difficult front 7 to run against.

The bad news...

The leading tacklers from last year will not return. Clayton Fedjelem graduated and T.J. Neal transferred. The depth chart is extremely thin at linebacker and none of last year's starters remain in that position. Just like the offense, there's a new scheme to implement and it might take a while to build the team to Nickerson's philosophy.

On Special Teams

The good news...

Smith hired Houston Texans assistant Bob Ligasheky as a special teams coordinator, so hopefully after suffering through the worst special teams in the country under Ron Zook a few years ago, Illini fans can watch special teams that add value. Kicker David Reizner returns; despite his inconsistency, he did win the 2014 game against Penn State to ensure James Franklin's record against Tim Beckman would forever be 0-1. Illinois actually signed a scholarship kicker! James McCourt reportedly has a huge leg and may be our kickoff specialist by the end of the year.

The bad news...

Mikey Dudek was slated to be our returner to replace V'Angelo Bentley, who graduated. I'm not sure who we'll have returning kicks now; speedy freshman M.J. McGriff could challenge for the job, but corner Caleb Day will likely handle these duties. Reizner and punter Ryan Frain have both been pulled from games for poor performance as recently as last year.

On the Schedule

Sept 3 Murray State
Sept 10 North Carolina
Sept 17 Western Michigan
Oct 1 @ Nebraska
Oct 8 Purdue
Oct 15 @ Rutgers
Oct 22 @ Michigan
Oct 29 Minnesota
Nov 5 Michigan State
Nov 12 @ Wisconsin
Nov 19 Iowa
Nov 26 @ Northwestern


The good news...

Purdue and Minnesota at home look winnable, as does a rebuilding Rutgers on the road (both with new coaching staffs, but Illinois has more experienced players).

The bad news...

Six of these teams won ten games last year. Starting 1-3 is a real possibility. North Carolina won't be as good as they were last year, but are still loaded with 5-star talent. Somehow, nobody hired PJ Fleck from Western Michigan last year and he's out-recruited Illinois 2 of the last 3 years. That game at Michigan is going to be ugly. I live less than an hour from Ann Arbor and I'm planning on being nearly 1,000 miles away from that one.

If you're talking to an Illini fan, don't mention:

Mascots, Bill Cubit, "It's not ideal, but it won't be a dagger to the heart of the program," Mikey Dudek's ACL, losing 3 of the last 5 to Northwestern, Arrelious Benn's NFL career, lasagna, the 2009 season, Tim Beckman, Cliff Alexander, Quentin Snider, the 2011 season, Chief Illiniwek, basketball.

Do mention:

Lovie Smith, Josh Whitman, Ricky Smalling, Lovie Smith, Nebraska's epic brainfart near the end of last year's game, the new Grange Grove tailgate area, Lovie Smith, Bill Belichick's inexplicable love of Ron Zook recruits, anybody named Hardy Nickerson, Lovie Smith, corn, those (relatively) new uniforms and Wes Lunt's breakout potential. Did I mention Lovie Smith? He'd be a good thing to talk about.

B1G 2016: Illinois Week

MONDAY | Cocktail Party Preview | Potluck I

TUESDAY | Personnel Files | Potluck II

WEDNESDAY | Traditions | Potluck III

THURSDAY | Wildcard | Potluck IV

FRIDAY | H8rade | Potluck V