Lovie Smith’s Illinois Fighting Illini went ahead and allowed 63 points and 712 yards to a Maryland offense that came into the game ranked 100th in the nation in S&P+ and had just been shut out and held to 115 yards by Iowa. In the three weeks since Illini fans were granted a brief respite from constant misery by a victory over Rutgers, they’ve had to watch the team surrender 46, 49 and 63 points in 4+ touchdown blowouts, and the team is in the process of removing any and all doubt as to whether or not this year’s defense is the worst ever fielded by a Fighting Illini team.
For all the talk about youth and rebuilding a culture, however, there are indicators that something is fundamentally wrong with the relationships between the coaches and the players at Illinois. Transfers are to be expected when a coaching regime changes, but the amount of attrition at Illinois has been unreal. More than ten players left the program with eligibility remaining after each of Lovie’s first two seasons at Illinois, many of whom had been starters. Three players have left so far during the 2018 season, with a fourth being kicked off the team.
Asked for comment two weeks ago on the attrition, Coach Smith said this:
Lou Dorsey, Cam Thomas and Reuben Unije have all left the #Illini, while Bennett Williams was kicked off the team. Lovie Smith addressed the departures today.— Isaac Trotter (@isaac_trotter2) October 16, 2018
“Divorce is good sometimes.”
“Those are players that did not need to be in our program, and they’re not here anymore.” pic.twitter.com/gH2tpJkmlZ
This seemed like a needlessly harsh response to what happened in light of the fact that none of the players had anything but gratitude for the opportunity to play at Illinois. I’ve been saying since last year that the plan was to completely gut this roster and replace it with a higher level of talent. Not only has Lovie failed to elevate the level of talent, but he’s lost his two most promising 2017 freshmen and one of his highest-rated 2018 freshmen.
Again, transfers happen all the time with new coaching staffs, but I’ve rarely seen a transfer player as intent on dunking all over his former team as Tre Watson. After the way he’s played this year, it can’t be said that he left the team due to an influx of superior talent.
As things got ugly during the course of the game, Twitter came alive again. Here’s former Illini defensive tackle Rob Bain cutting straight to the heart of the matter:
Maybe, it’s not all on the players. Seems that other schools & the NFL has found value in those players that were once the scapegoats of the Illini’s woes. Maybe a mass exodus of players, both young & old, says something. Maybe quit reading between the lines & just read the story— Rob Bain (@RobBain_) October 27, 2018
Bain played under Smith during the 2016 season, and he’s referring not only to players like Watson and Vanderbilt’s KeShaun Vaughn, but also to the likes of Cleveland Browns rookie offensive lineman Christian DiLauro, who rode the bench in favor of several true freshmen last year. Another player in this category is Miami defensive tackle Tito Odenigbo:
I know one thing, this Ilinois team definitely has talent. https://t.co/56cnl6jF2T— Tito Odenigbo (@Odenigbro) October 27, 2018
One thing to note in looking through interactions here is that these former Illini players have nothing but respect for the current Illini players and recruits, and that respect is seemingly returned. Of course, it’s not even just former players that said concerning things during Saturday’s game...
You know I’m ready like spaghetti...— Coran A. Taylor ひ (@coran_taylor) October 27, 2018
Yep, there’s true freshman quarterback Coran Taylor, the pride of Peoria and the highest-rated quarterback recruit in Illinois’ 2018 class. His conspicuous geotag puts him in Illinois, suggesting he didn’t travel with the team. He has yet to appear in a game, a fact that will become more inexcusable if it continues with four games left to play.
As though Illinois needed to show any more signs of dysfunction, though:
Oladipo joins sophomore Larry Boyd in being indefinitely suspended. Linebackers Jimmy Marchese and Drew Murtaugh were arrested and charged with a crime, but neither had missed a game until an injury prevented Marchese from demonstrating his considerable skill at missing tackles and finding the wrong place to be against Maryland.
These are the kind of red flags that make you look to a strong leader for some reassurance. Let’s see what the leader of the Fighting Illini has to say:
Illinois' downtrodden defense sinks to a new low in a 63-33 loss at Maryland.— ChicagoSports (@ChicagoSports) October 28, 2018
Says Lovie Smith: "I thought our preparation was good, but as you can see it was not.” https://t.co/lIWiZ7Ep2t pic.twitter.com/RAubuMOlxR
OH, DISREGARD THIS POST. I WANT TO STRAP ON A HELMET AND RUN THROUGH A BRICK WALL FOR THAT MAN.
UPDATE (11:58 AM): I didn’t even finish this post before defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson resigned
Big news out of Champaign: Defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson has resigned from the #Illini staff.— Shannon Ryan (@sryantribune) October 29, 2018
Nickerson, of course, was essentially Lovie’s apprentice as the defensive coordinator, so this doesn’t really change anything. In fact, the only reason I can think of for someone to do this is if they absolutely couldn’t stand working in that environment anymore.