Preview 2017: Illinois Fighting Illini

Preview 2017: Illinois Fighting Illini

Big Ten

Preview 2017: Illinois Fighting Illini


Preview 2017: Illinois Fighting Illini

Previewing and looking ahead at the Illinois season – and what you need to know.

Contact @PeteFiutak

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2017 Illinois Preview: Can Lovie Smith Rebuild This?
2017 Illinois Schedule Breakdown & Analysis
– Illinois Previews: 2016 | 2015

What You Need To Know About The Illinois Offense

Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee wasn’t able to get much of anything working, and worse yet, the offense got worse as the season went on. The Illini averaged fewer than 20 points per game with little ground game, no efficiency in the passing game, and little explosion with 21 points or fewer in seven of the last ten games – all losses.

So what’s changing? It starts with hoping for the skill guys to be far better – and that might happen in a hurry.

Kendrick Foster averaged 5.7 yards per carry, and now he’s back after leading the team with 720 yards and seven scores. Getting back 2014 leading receiver Mike Dudek from two years of injuries is big, and welcoming back Malik Turner and Desmond Cain should turn the receiving corps into a major plus – if the quarterback play is better.

The line should be okay – after allowing just 20 sacks and paving the way for 4.8 yards per carry – but JUCO superstar QB Dwayne Lawson has to be eligible and ready to go to save the day. Chayce Crouch is okay, and Jeff George Jr. is competent, but the quarterback play has to be better. That’s where Lawson has to come in.

Biggest Key To The Illinois Offense

Please, please, please, please … convert a third down opportunity. If you want to know the one key reason why the Illinois offense couldn’t score, this is it. The Illini had the second-worst offense in America at coming up with third down conversions, successful just 28% of the time going 0-for-9 against Wisconsin, 1-of-11 against Western Michigan, and failing to be better than 34% against anyone in the last ten games.

What You Need To Know About The Illinois Defense

The expression you might be looking for is, uh-oh.

Lovie Smith is a brilliant NFL defensive coach, and Hardy Nickerson is a former defensive star and a strong defensive coordinator. But those two couldn’t do enough with a defense that was loaded up front and had a great-tackling linebacker in Hardy Nickerson Jr. to clean everything up.

Now, all four starters up front are gone from an okay-not-great defense, including top NFL prospect Dawuane Smoot along with DT Chunky Clements. There are good young defensive tackles to work around, and Tre Watson will be an all-star linebacker, but there have to be more third down stops and the run defense has to somehow be stronger despite the loss of so many key parts.

The secondary should be the strength, starting with good-hitting corner Jaylen Dunlap around a pair of nice safeties in Stanley Green and Patrick Nelson.

Biggest Key To The Illinois Defense

The front four has to hold up better against the run. It was inexcusable that a defense with so much talent up front – and made so many big plays behind the line – was so completely and utterly useless against anyone who tried to pound the ball a bit.

Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern combined for 903 yards and 12 touchdowns in the final three games, but it was a full-season problem. The Illini allowed 200 yards or more in eight of the last ten games, and gave up 197 to North Carolina in the game before that. That can’t happen again.

Illinois Will Be Far Better If …

The coaching staff can find one thing this year’s team can do well. The defense was underwhelming, the offense was useless, the punting was awful, and the return game was nonexistent.

But other than that, Coach Smith, how was the play?

It got lost in the excitement of the Lovie Smith hire, but Illinois was 5-7 and close to getting to a bowl game in 2015 after going bowling in 2014. The cupboard wasn’t so bare that it should’ve been a 3-9 season that including a home loss to Purdue and eight double-digit blowout losses.

This year’s team needs an identity – and fast. Even if this is a rebuilding program that needs another year or two to get the talent in place, there has to be something positive to get excited about.

Best Illinois Offensive Player

WR Mike Dudek, Jr. – Really, the best player is going to be QB Dwayne Lawson, but first he has to get to the team and show what he can do.

Dudek blew up as a freshman in 2014, catching a team-leading 76 passes for 1,038 yards and six touchdowns. But just as he looked ready to do even more, he suffered a knee injury to miss all of 2015, and had no luck before last season with another knee injury costing him another year.

The 5-11, 185-pounder looked right again this offseason as the leader of a strong-looking receiving corps. Ultra-quick and with tremendous hands, he’s always open. Now he needs to stay healthy.

2. RB Kendrick Foster, Sr.
3. QB Dwayne Lawson, Jr.
4. WR Malik Turner, Sr.
5. WR Desmond Cain, Jr.

Best Illinois Defensive Player

LB Tre Watson, Jr. – The linebacking corps – and the entire front seven – needs star playmakers after losing so many star parts. The 6-2, 235-pound Watson did his part last year, coming up with 102 tackles with 4.5 tackles for loss, and three forced fumbles as a terrific running-mate for Hardy Nickerson.

An outstanding tackler and great get out of Tampa, he’s a smart, tough leader who came up with five double-digit tackle games, crushing Michigan State with 16 stops and standing out as one of the lone bright spots against Iowa with 15 tackles.

2. S Patrick Nelson, Soph.
3. CB Jaylen Dunlap, Sr.
4. SS Stanley Green, Soph.
5. DT Jamal MIlan, Soph.

Key Player To A Successful Season

QB Dwayne Lawson, Jr. – Forget for a moment that Lovie thinks Chayce Crouch is his starting quarterback, and blow off the idea that Jeff George Jr. will probably end up playing soon after Crouch gets that starting nod. If Illinois is going to turn into any sort of a player in the Big Ten, it needs its new star quarterback recruit to get his academic side of things cleared up and then take over this fall.

The 6-6, 230-pounder won a JUCO national title last season, and now, if everything is in order, the former Virginia Tech Hokie should be the type of star who can jumpstart the nation’s fifth-least efficient passing game.

The Illinois Season Will Be A Success If …

The Illini go bowling. There needs to be a big improvement on both sides of the ball, if nothing else, to prove that the new coaching staff knows what it’s doing. The schedule isn’t that bad, with winnable home games against Ball State, WKU, Rutgers and Indiana, and a road date at Purdue. If the Illini really have improved in Year Two of Lovieball, they should be able to win at least three of those, and come up with wins against some of the better teams, too.

Key Game To The Illinois Season

Sept. 9 vs. WKU – Losing to North Carolina early on last year was okay, but losing at home to Western Michigan stunk. Yeah, the Broncos ended up being special, but losing 34-10 in Memorial Stadium against a MAC team showed just how far the Illini had to go to be merely decent.

Western Kentucky is going to be dangerous, and it should be among the best teams in Conference USA again, but it’s a program undergoing an overhaul. It’s a home game against a Group of Five team. This is when Illinois has to show it’ll be better in a new year.

2016 Illinois Fun Stats

– Punt Return Average: Opponents 11.4 yards – Illinois 4.4 yards
– 1st Quarter Scoring: Opponents 118 – Illinois 41
– 3rd Down Conversions: Opponents 78-for-175 (45%) – Illinois 44-for-155 (28%)

– 2017 Illinois Preview: Can Lovie Smith Rebuild This?
– 2017 Illinois Schedule Breakdown & Analysis
– Illinois Previews: 2016 | 2015

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