Illinois Preview 2016: The Illini have their head coach in Lovie Smith. It’s possible to win right away.
It’s going to be an interesting ride.
If you’re an Illinois fan, you now have a football program with an identity. You have a head coach who took a team to a Super Bowl, and came within an injured quarterback of probably going to another.
You have a head coach who could have just about any one of the 32 NFL gigs without anyone being shocked in any way. And now, the pressure is on to see if Lovie Smith’s talent and ability can translate to the college level.
It doesn’t always work out so hot when a pro coach takes the step back from movies to TV – it requires a different skill set and a different approach – but Smith appears to be well-motivated, fired up, and with fire to prove he can matchup with the Urbans and Harbaughs just as well as the Belichicks and Tomlins.
If nothing else, Smith is bringing a dignified presence to the position. After the Tim Beckman experience, and with the Ron Zook era still fresh, Smith is what you want as a representative at your school and your program. But Zook got Illinois to a Rose Bowl, and Beckman – for all his faults – did improve in each of his seasons before getting boosted.
Smith will get a little bit of a grace period considering Illinois football might need a little while before it rises up and becomes a player in any way, but last year’s team – even after all the drama – went 5-7 with three shot in mid-to-late November to get that sixth win and go bowling. Smith has to be a good enough head coach to be one win better than Bill Cubit.
The offense will be an interesting blend of styles with a pro-style passer in Wes Lunt to wing the ball around, but with a coaching staff looking to utilize the young backs to work around the ground game as much as possible. The line should be fine, and even with top WR Mike Dudek out for another year, the receiving corps should be great.
Defense is Lovie’s specialty, and he, along with coordinator Hardy Nickerson, should put together a killer. It’ll take a rebuilding job, but the linebacking corps will be anchored by Hardy Nickerson Jr. and the line should be solid. The secondary needs the most work, especially considering the changes and styles Smith will want to implement. Give it time, and this group should be fine.
So set the bar high, Illinois. You finally have a next-level talent at coach, and while he’s going to need a recruiting class or two to do everything right, you’re in the game now.