Was 2016 year zero or year negative-one for Lovie Smith at Illinois? First year coaches typically get a free pass for year one, but considering that Smith wasn’t hired until a month after signing day, there’s an argument to be made that 2017 is really Smith’s year zero. (Certainly the Illini’s 3-9 record in 2016, with a loss to Purdue, is forgettable.)
One reason why Illinois struggled last season had to be quarterback issues. Wes Lunt started the first five games before being sidelined with a back injury. Chayce Crouch (6’4” 225 lbs.) replaced Lunt only to suffer a season-ending shoulder injury the next week. Former walkon Jeff George Jr. (6’3” 205 lbs.) started the next four games until a four-interception first half sent him to the bench for Lunt, who finished out his senior season. Many expected junior college transfer Dwayne Lawson to arrive this summer and claim the starting position, but now it looks like he won’t finish his academic requirements until the fall. So that would seem to leave Crouch and George as the quarterbacks this fall. Crouch is a dual-threat quarterback who averaged 6.1 yards per carry last season on 29 carries, and completed 56% of his passes. George is a prototypical pro-style passer who completed just 40% of his passes with four touchdowns and five interceptions.
Ke’Shawn Vaughn went into the season as the starting running back, but ended up getting benched after three games; he’s since transferred to Vanderbilt. Senior Kendrick Foster (5’9” 200 lbs.) started the last seven games, rushing for 720 yards and seven touchdowns, averaging 5.7 yards per carry. Sophomore Reggie Corbin (5’10” 185 lbs.) was elusive, rushing for 523 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 6.1 yards per carry. The weird thing with those numbers is that, according to SB Nation stats guru Bill Connelly, Illinois’ stuff rate (percentage of rushing plays that didn’t gain any yards) was 24%. (Do the math, and you figure that the rest of the rushes had to be pretty darn good.)
Senior Malik Turner (6’3” 205 lbs.) returns after a decent 48 catch, 712 yard, six touchdown season. His 50% catch rate in Bill Connelly’s advanced stats along with a 14.8 yards per catch average shows him to be a feast-or-famine option. Could junior Mike Dudek (5’11” 185 lbs.) finally be healthy? In 2014, Dudek burst into the Big Ten with a 1,038 yard freshman season, earning him second team all-Big Ten and freshman all-American honors. But then Dudek tore his ACL the next spring. Then tore the same ACL in April 2016. He was back running this spring, but won’t see any contact until preseason practice starts. If healthy, Dudek will provide a second experienced receiver; junior Sam Mays (6’3” 200 lbs.) is the only other receiver on the roster who’s caught more than a couple of passes in his career (13 catches for 158 yards and a touchdown in 2016.)
Three starters return on the Illini offensive line, which will be led by senior right tackle Christian DiLauro (6’5” 300 lbs.), who’s started every game since midway through his freshman season in 2014. Junior Nick Allegretti (6’4” 315 lbs.) started all 12 games last season, mostly at guard, but this year is projected to be the starting center; he’s on the Rimington Award watch list. Sophomore Gabe Megginson (6’6” 300 lbs.) started seven games last year and is projected at right guard. The depth on the line is rather limited, which means that true freshman Vederian Lowe (6’5” 340 lbs.) might just get the call to start immediately.
Last year’s Illini defense featured an experienced front four with youth in the back seven, but in 2017, that experienced defensive line needs to be replaced. Only sophomore defensive tackle Jamal Milan (6’2” 300 lbs.) returns as a starter. Junior college transfer defensive end Sean Adesanya (6’3” 250 lbs.) redshirted in 2015 and sat out last season with an Achilles injury; he was a JuCo all-conference selection in 2014.
Junior linebacker Tre’ Watson (6’2” 235 lbs.) is Illinois’ leading returning tackler; he’ll slide over to the middle to replace Hardy Nickerson Jr. That should open a spot for junior college transfer Del’Shawn Phillips (6’1” 230 lbs.), one of the top five junior college prospects in the nation, who arrived in time for spring practice.
In the secondary, Illinois had to depend on two freshmen at safety...which usually isn’t a good sign. Strong safety Patrick Nelson (6’0” 210 lbs.) and free safety Stanley Green (5’11” 195 lbs.) totaled 75 and 62 tackles respectively. Senior cornerback Jaylen Dunlap (6’1” 190 lbs.) led the Illini last year in both pass breakups (11) and tackles for loss (4.5). A two year starter for Illinois, Dunlap should be the anchor in the secondary.
Last season, Illinois went 3-9 in Lovie Smith’s first season in Champaign. After blowing a 16-10 fourth quarter lead over the Huskers, the Illini lost to Purdue in overtime thanks to missing a 41 yard field goal attempt at the end of regulation. It might only take a few better bounces of luck this season with a slightly easier schedule (swapping Western Kentucky for Western Michigan and Indiana for Michigan State) to get the Illini in contention for a bowl bid in 2017.
What's your prediction when the Huskers visit Illinois for a Friday Night special?
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It’s a repeat of 2015 as Illinois finds a way to beat the Big Red.
It’s a close game, but Nebraska’s defense is ready this time to shut down Illinois.
Lovie’s got more work ahead of him. The Huskers break out the Champagne and celebrate a big victory.