Illinois football preview for 2016, including keys to success for the Fighting Illini, best players and season prediction.
What You Need To Know About The Illinois Offense
New offensive coordinator Garrick McGee knows how to run a high-powered offense serving as Bobby Petrino’s OC at Louisville and Arkansas – and working as the UAB head coach for two seasons – and he’s got a terrific passing quarterback in Wes Lunt to help the attack bomb away from the start. What he doesn’t have is the receivers.
The team’s best target – Mike Dudek – is out for the year again with a knee injury, but if Lunt gets time, he should be able to make everyone around him better. The receiving corps should be just good enough to get by, and the line that allowed just 20 sacks last season should give Lunt enough time to operate.
The ground attack isn’t going to barrel over anyone, and Lunt isn’t going to run for any yards, but there are a few decent young backs to do what Lovie Smith wants, starting with last year’s leading rusher, Ke’Shawn Vaughn.
Biggest Key To The Illinois Offense
There has to be a more consistent ground attack. The Illinois bread will be buttered by the passing game, the new coaching staff wants a more balanced offense overall and needs to control games a bit better. The Illini only ran for more than 200 yards twice last year – losing to North Carolina and beating Purdue – and only came up with more than 80 yards in five of the last seven games. Last season, Illinois went 5-2 when hitting the 100-yard mark, and was 0-5 when under.
What You Need To Know About The Illinois Defense
Lovie Smith is a defensive coach by nature, and he’s got the right defensive coordinator in Hardy Nickerson to create the attacking, Tampa 2 defensive style – at least at times – that made him so great for so long with the Chicago Bears. Does he have the players to do what he needs?
The defense was terrific last season, finishing 30th in the nation and 15th against the pass, but there’s some rebuilding to be done, especially in the secondary losing three key parts. It should be a good group in time around safety Taylor Barton, but it’ll need a little work.
Thanks to the addition of Nickerson’s son – Hardy Jr. – the linebacking corps should be a major positive if the underclassmen can fly around on the outside. Nickerson – a grad transfer from Cal – will be a star to build everything around.
The line might lose Jihad Ward to the NFL, but Jarrod Clements inside and Dawuane Smoot on the outside should give Lovie the building blocks for a solid defensive front.
Biggest Key To The Illinois Defense
Find a pass rush. Dawuane Smoot is back after coming up with eight sacks, but no other Illini defender came up with more than two sacks and the team as a whole generated just 19. It didn’t matter all that much overall considering the pass defense was so terrific, and the D came up with three sacks in four of the last six games, but in the style of defense Illinois is going to play, the pressure has to be amped up.
Illinois Will Be Far Better If …
It hits its third down plays. Control the game, control the clock, keep the defense off the field – that starts with third down conversions. This goes hand-in-hand to having a mediocre ground game. The Illini struggled way too much to keep the chains moving converting just 36% of the time and only hitting 40% of its chances in seven of the last eight games.
Best Illinois Offensive Player
QB Wes Lunt, Sr. – The Illini has a nice backup in Chayce Crouch who can step in and produce when needed, and the hope is for RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn to grow into a start, but Illinois goes as Lunt does. The pro-style passer might not have a lot of mobility, and he’s had injury issues, but he’s got the ability to do exactly what the new coaching staff wants to look the part. If he’s protected, he’ll come up with a massive season.
Best Illinois Defensive Player
LB Hardy Nickerson, Sr. – In a major coup for the Illini, the program not only got Hardy Nickerson Sr. as the defensive coordinator, but also brought in the son to anchor the defense. The tackling machine led Cal last season with 111 tackles is a guided missile who should be a superstar with the style of D his dad will run. He’ll be in the middle of the linebacking corps and should be a double-digit stop machine.
Key Player To A Successful Season
SS Taylor Barton, Sr. – If you’re a safety, you want to be a big part of the Lovie Smith Tampa 2 defense. The secondary that was so good and so strong last season loses most of its key parts, but Barton is a veteran with NFL size and good enough ball skills to be a playmaker on the ball whenever it’s in the air. He has to be an All-Big Ten star for the pass defense to do what it needs to.
The Illinois Season Will Be A Success If …
It wins six games. The team isn’t good enough to go bowling, and the schedule is going to be a big enough problem to keep this from being a winning campaign, but under trying circumstances, last year’s Illini got to five wins. Lovie Smith and his staff are a big upgrade over the previous coaching regime, and it needs to be at least two wins above replacement better. This is a rebuilding/reloading season, but getting to six wins would be a great step.
Sept. 10 vs. North Carolina – This will show just how far the Illini have to go. Last year Illinois started out 2-0 winning by a combined score of 96-3, and then came the trip to Chapel Hill and a 48-14 pasting. The Western Michigan game to follow is going to be dangerous, and starting out the Big Ten season at Nebraska is going to be a giant test, but if Lovie and crew can somehow beat UNC at home, all of a sudden the hopes for the season quickly change.
2015 Illinois Fun Stats
– Field Goals: Opponents 14-of-17 – Illinois 16-of-25
– Fourth Down Conversions: Opponents 11-of-21 (52%) – Illinois 11-of-25 (44%)
– Fourth Quarter Scoring: Opponents 89 – Illinois 62