It's hard to believe, but the Fighting Illini football team will kick off the season in a little over a week, and with that, the Lovie Smith era will begin when Illinois takes to the field to welcome Murray State on Saturday, September 3rd.
A lot has happened in between the time that last season ended and Smith was hired. After a firestorm of off-the-field controversy, a new athletic director was hired, and when Josh Whitman took the job, his first order of business was to remove then head coach Bill Cubit from the coaching spot and insert Lovie into the position, a move that Whitman had in his back pocket all along.
A breath of fresh air has been breathed into the program with the hiring of Whitman and Smith, and Smith, who hasn't coached at the collegiate level. The Illini are returning quite a few starters on both the offense and defensive lines, and the experience of these players will hopefully garner the Illini a few wins this season, and hopefully, a bowl invitation.
Wes Lunt returns for his senior season to lead the Illini on offense, and while he is a little thin for targets to throw to, the main recipients, Justin Hardee and Malik Turner, will lead the receiving corps.
With Mikey Dudek still out with a torn ACL, his second consecutive injury of that nature, Turner and Hardee will need to shoulder the load, and with Sam Mays and Desmond Cain returning from decent freshmen seasons, Lunt should have plenty of options. Two true freshmen, M. J. McGriff and Dominic Thieman opening eyes in pre-season workouts, the offense should be one that can score points.
On the ground, Ke'Shawn Vaughn returns following a great freshman season, and will be flanked by Reggie Corhin, who sat out last season with an injury, and Kendrick Foster, who almost left Illinois due to lack of playing time. While Foster is small in stature, he can hit the holes needed to get big yardage gains, something the offensive line will need to create for both he and Vaughn.
Speaking of the offensive line, they return virtually intact from a season ago, with Christian DiLauro, Joe Spencer, Austin Schmidt, Nick Allegretti and either Connor Brennan or Gabe Megginson to lead the offensive charge from the line of scrimmage.
Lovie, who is a defensive mind, has brought on Hardy Nickerson, who had a very successful NFL career with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, will be the defensive coordinator, and with Mike Phair returning to the staff as defensive line coordinator, as well as the run game guru, the defense should be in fairly good shape.
Leading the charge on the defensive side of the ball is Dawuane Smoot, who will be flanked by Rob Bain, Chunky Clements and Carroll Phillips as the front four. Gimel President, who gets the vote as the all-name player on the Illinois roster this season, transferred in from Auburn, and will get plenty of playing time in Nickerson's defensive scheme.
Linebacker, a position that has been a strong point for the Illini for the past two decades, will remain strong, with James Crawford, Mike Svetina, and Justice Williams, who was a redshirt candidate last season. Hardy Nickerson, who is the son of the defensive coordinator with the same name, followed his father to Illinois from California, where he played for the Bears in the Pac-12 last season. The addition of Nickerson will not only benefit the Illini in talent, but in experience as well.
The secondary should be strong as well, as Taylor Barton returns for his senior season to anchor the defensive backs. Jaylen Dunlap, who is a potential star in the making, will also see a lot of time in the secondary, as will Dillan Cazley, who also has quite a bit of experience. Darwyn Kelly and Darius Mosley should also see ample time as well.
The "Lovie Effect" has begun to produce results on the recruiting front, as the Illini begin to fill their Class of 2017 roster. On Thursday, Carmoni Green, a wide receiver from Florida, and Olalere Oladipo, a defensive lineman from Huntley. Word is slowly getting out about what Lovie plans to do at Illinois, and the recruits will soon follow that trail to Champaign.
Lovie Smith is not the only coach that is landing huge commitments, as Illinois basketball coach John Groce has been getting some good news of his own the past couple months. Even though the season is still a few months away from beginning, Groce has received verbals from big man Jeremiah Tilmon and point guard Trent Frazier, Even though Groce wasn't able to land guard Jordan Goodwin, who ended up choosing St. Louis University over the Illini, the future continues to look bright for Groce as he tries to shake the negative tone that has befallen the program over the past several months, culminating with the dismissal of Kendrick Nunn from the team.
Next week will focus on the official preview of the Murray State game, as well as reports on Illinois volleyball and women's soccer. Fall is definitely in full swing!