Lovie Smith confident Illinois can play winning football
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — A year’s worth of experience, intensive strength training and an emerging leader at quarterback could combine to give Illinois a realistic shot at winning some games.
At least that’s what coach Lovie Smith is hoping for.
“I’ve got some good vibes,” Smith said after a practice session that again saw senior transfer quarterback AJ Bush continue to impress. “Right now, I think we have the best chance since I’ve been here of playing some winning football.”
It can’t get much worse. The Illini finished last season, Smith’s second, on a 10-game losing streak and at the bottom of the Big Ten West. Statistically, Illinois is still the youngest team in Division I. The Illini return 16 starters from 2017 — nine sophomores, four juniors and just three seniors.
Quarterbacks Bush, Cam Thomas and Matt Robinson have had their share of field time in camp. Thomas was last year’s starter, and freshman Robinson is a three-star recruit with tons of potential who may emerge as a dark horse in the three-man race. For now, Bush appears to be in the lead for the starting job.
“Clearly, AJ is getting the majority of reps,” Lovie Smith said. “But everyone else is mixing in nicely.”
BOTH SIDES OF THE BALL
Under offensive coordinator Rod Smith, the team has shaken things up on the practice field. The offense has lined up several running backs in the slot as receivers, and utilized receivers in a variety of ways.
“We have a lot of different options and our offense is flexible to do a lot of things,” Rod Smith said. “Everybody is a threat. Every eligible person on offense is a threat to have the ball in his hands. That causes problems.”
The defense, under coordinator Hardy Nickerson Sr., is also a bright spot on the young team. Eight starters on last year’s team return this year, adding needed experience. Injuries, especially at linebacker, were a major issue last season.
“Thankfully, we have been lucky so far with injuries,” Lovie Smith said. “We’re going into the season healthy.”
Cornerbacks coach Donnie Abraham resigned less than three weeks before the season opener. A statement by the athletic department said Abraham left for “personal reasons,” and Lovie Smith said Abraham’s position won’t be filled this season. Abraham coached safeties last season and moved to cornerbacks when Illinois hired Gill Byrd as passing game coordinator and safeties coach.
Abraham said in a statement he resigned to return home to Florida and spend time with his son, who is a senior in high school.
If Lovie Smith is on a hot seat, he’s not showing it. He was hired before spring practice in 2016, meaning he just signed his second recruiting class. And he was forced to use players who were barely out of high school. With more experience and some emerging talent this year, and by overseeing some winning football as he hopes, Smith could easily solidify his job.
“Our guys have a lot of confidence,” Lovie Smith said. “And that creates a culture of winning.”
The first test comes when Illinois kicks off the season at home against Kent State on Sept. 1. The Golden Flashes were one of the few teams worse than Illinois last season in points scored per game. Kent State ended up last in the nation in scoring, averaging only 10.5 points per game. Illinois should be able to run against Kent State and get some much-needed confidence.
The Illini should be 2-0 when they travel to Chicago in week three for a game against South Florida ahead of a Sept. 21 home game against Penn State. Those two weeks will tell Smith a lot about where his program is. Road games include visits to Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern, too.