You were genuinely interested to read this one until you saw the byline.
“Great,” you said, “time for yet another entry in the long series of defeated, bitter, hopeless, self-pitying, impressively monotonous rants by Thumpasaurus about the Illinois Fighting Illini. Wake me up when we have ORIGINAL content again.”
While Lovie Smith’s failure to assemble a competent and stable coaching staff right off the bat definitely increased the already-high degree of difficulty for his rebuild at Illinois, his failure is not yet a foregone conclusion, and in spite of some questionable decisions along the way, there’s evidence in support of a competitive Big Ten team emerging from the wreckage in Champaign as soon as this fall.
What Is There To Build On?
Though the 2018 season was disappointing, it was always going to be a building year, and it did indeed establish some foundations the 2019 team can work with. It’s the all-important second year in Rod Smith’s spread offense, and offenses usually struggle more in their first season of implementation before becoming more comfortable with a year of muscle memory in year two. This will be especially noticeable with the offensive line and the tailback group. Smith’s blocking scheme is much more straightforward than the strong-side-quick-side garbage preached by former OC Garrick McGee, and with four of five starters returning from a line that held its own in the run game by the time October rolled around, you can expect some running lanes to be there for returning tailbacks Reggie Corbin, Mike Epstein, Ra’Von Bonner and Dre Brown.
No amount of practice reps will make the receiving corps elite, but only Sam Mays departs among last year’s contributors. What practice reps WILL do is cut down on how often receivers are out of position on screen concepts. Screen passes are an important wrinkle in Smith’s offense, but proved ineffective last year due to poor execution and positioning.
On the defensive side, many horrors occurred, but one solid starter emerged in defensive end Bobby Roundtree. The defensive line will add more big bodies between the addition of graduate transfer Oluwole Betiku Jr and the return of Jamals Woods and Milan at defensive tackle. Woods in particular is a difference-maker, and the way Illinois continues to stockpile enormous men in the trenches bodes well for the team’s ability to hold their own against Big Ten run blocking into the fourth quarter.
Of last year’s major defensive contributors, only linebacker Del’Shawn Philips graduates. Considering that many of the defensive woes for the Illini, especially in the secondary, boiled down to inexperience, there should be an expectation of substantial improvement there.
Competent coaching is key to actually building on those foundations. The new linebackers coach notwithstanding, several positive changes were made.
The offensive line is now in the hands of Bob McClain, a longtime Rod Smith assistant. Lovie is clearly leaving the entire offense in the hands of his coordinator, which is a prudent approach after the dramatic improvement Rod created. While early reports indicate that he’s a more charismatic and eager recruiter than the departed Luke Butkus, that’s not all that important for 2019. What is important is that he’s fully aligned with Rod in schematic philosophy and by all accounts players are eager to work with him. He has an opportunity to make a name for himself with an up-and-coming OL unit that just added Verdis Brown from the defensive side.
Mike Bellamy replaces the departed Thad Ward as RB coach, though the former All-American receiver is expected to coach that group as well. The Tim Beckman assistant who discovered Mike Dudek ought to be an asset to recruiting.
The biggest impact of the new coaches on the 2019 team will be that of secondary coach Keynodo Hudson, whose role in landing Betiku and WR Trevon Sidney as transfers from USC was significant but who has also proven to be an uncharacteristically intense coach for this staff. All reports from spring ball indicate that Hudson is a truly in-your-face position coach who’s very demanding of his defensive backs. This directly addresses a criticism of Lovie Smith as a player’s coach (“not the emotional leader college kids need”) for the position group with the most to prove heading into 2019. Reports from practice are always to be taken with a grain of salt, but if you don’t believe me, google “Keynodo Hudson” right now and find one picture of his face that isn’t terrifyingly intense.
In fact, I’m gonna call him Keynodo Dragon. Dude even smiles hard.
His approach ought to mesh well with the increased emphasis on corners in man coverage shown by Defensive Coordinator Lovie last November to produce a more competitive pass defense.
The 2019 Fighting Illini might also feature as many as five starters who are new additions to the program. Betiku’s size and athleticism alone is enough for him to immediately earn a rotation spot, and a speedy, sure-handed prospect like Sidney, even after underachieving at USC, should have no problem cracking the starting lineup with a thin receiving corps. Fighting Illini lawyers are working on Georgia transfer tight end Luke Ford’s immediate-eligibility waiver as we speak; the Carterville, IL native was buried on the Bulldogs’ depth chart but proved to be a great pass-catching option in spring ball.
The other two are incoming freshmen who are two of the highest-rated recruits ever to sign with Illinois. Cornerback Marquez Beason was an elite sprinter and one of the best players in Texas high school football in 2018. If he’s not a starting corner, he should at least be returning punts and kicks.
As it stands, the quarterback depth chart consists of redshirt freshmen Matt Robinson, who is 3 for 6 for 11 yards and a pick with 24 yards on 8 rushing attempts, and Coran Taylor, who has never taken a game snap. They’ll immediately be pushed by Isaiah Williams from Trinity Catholic in St. Louis, who was recruited as a slot receiver/speed back by every program to ever make the College Football Playoff except Washington (Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Oregon, Florida State, Michigan State) among others. The main reason he wasn’t recruited as a quarterback by these schools is because of his 5’9” height; he doesn’t have a can’t-miss arm, but he already looks like a far superior passer to either player on the team. Comparisons to Pat White and Denard Robinson are relevant because he’ll run the same offense they did.
Trusting an NFL Head Coach to Develop Emerging Talent
It might not have been totally clear before he declared himself defensive coordinator, but it’s now written in stone: this program will live or die on the back of Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers Coach Lovie Smith. It’s difficult to know how much control his former protege Hardy Nickerson really had, but whether it’s a true transfer of ownership or merely a symbolic gesture, Lovie has now fully accepted responsibility for the defense producing results in 2019.
After Illinois produced its worst defense of all time last year, the team simply won’t succeed this fall if the defense doesn’t show indisputably substantial improvement. Lovie declined to bring in a new defensive coordinator, instead asking fans to trust him, the man with decades of experience coaching NFL defenses, the man who took the Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl with Ron Turner coaching Rex Grossman on offense, to produce one defensive unit worthy of his reputation this fall. His first recruiting class will be upperclassmen, and though the building process has been shaky to say the least, there’s all kinds of reasons Lovie Smith’s Fighting Illini might finally achieve the competence that’s been absent from Memorial Stadium for so long.
After all, Head Coach Lovie Smith has never before been justifiably fired.