“A lot of us, including me, need to do a better job.”
These were among the words Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Lovie Smith had for the media following a 34-31 defeat at the hands of the Eastern Michigan Eagles in which the Illini surrendered 480 yards and 23 first downs.
“We shouldn’t give up big plays like that,” said Smith. “We should feel bad tonight and we will. We’ll correct those things for next week.”
That cleanup started today, as Smith fired defensive coordinator Lovie Smith after just seven games together. Smith had been an associate linebackers coach since Smith took over as the head coach at Illinois in 2016.
“I’d like to first thank Lovie Smith for all his contributions to this program, as well as his family for making sacrifices on behalf of this football team. Lovie and I have worked together for many years and I consider him a close friend,” said Smith in a press conference today.
“Being the head coach though, sometimes that means you got to make a difficult decision, and when we look at how we can have success in the future, I feel we need to change the direction of this unit.”
Smith was named the interim defensive coordinator in the wake of Hardy Nickerson’s resignation following a 63-33 drubbing by the Maryland Terrapins in which Nickerson’s defense gave up over 700 yards to an offense that had been shut out the prior week. In Smith’s first game as defensive coordinator, the Illini did enough on defense to upset the Minnesota Golden Gophers 55-31, but his defense would allow 117 points over the two games that followed.
Nevertheless, Smith was promoted by head coach Lovie Smith to the full-time defensive coordinator position in February. As a defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams, Smith shored up that side of the ball enough that the team returned to its second Super Bowl in three years in his first season.
Nevertheless, after a good showing against Akron but a shaky performance against UConn, the Illini defense’s showing against the Eagles was poor enough to drive organizational change.
“We have talented players on this defense, and we have a fundamentally sound defensive gameplan,” said Smith today, “but where we need to improve is execution. Very disappointed with the linebackers and secondary, we as a coaching staff need to find a way to teach assignment-sound defense. Our opponent was more successful in executing our defensive gameplan, and that’s all on coaching.”
Smith announced today that linebackers coach Miles Smith would be named the acting defensive coordinator.
“Miles proved himself on the practice field and in the meeting room last fall and has earned the opportunity for this permanent position. I saw tremendous growth in his coaching ability as the year went along,” said Smith.
Illini pundit James Staley was excited about the potential this change could have.
“I’ve never seen linebackers look so lost in coverage,” said Staley. “Hopefully [Miles] can finally be the one to start teaching these backers, as well as the defensive backs, the basic principles of a cover 2 with 5 underneath zones. Maybe he’ll even teach the safeties to tackle without being ejected for targeting. The possibilities are endless; Miles has a different coaching style than [former DC] Lovie that in my opinion lends itself well to explaining what a read option is, since Lovie was never able to articulate that.”
The first test of Miles Smith’s defensive coordinator acumen will come Saturday night as the explosive Nebraska Cornhuskers offense pays a visit. Miles has a chance to prove himself here, as Nebraska put up 54 points against Lovie’s defense last November.
“I’m excited for MIles to have this opportunity,” said Coach Smith. “I wish nothing but the best for Lovie Smith in the future.”
Asked if he was concerned about morale on the defense being affected by Smith’s departure, Smith replied that he is “not at all” concerned.
“Coaches leave. We want coaches who want to be here, our focus is on that. We had coaches who don’t need to be in our program and they’re not here anymore. Sometimes divorce is good.”