Illinois football 2018 preview: Lovie Smith’s race against time

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

There’s an obvious shift when going from coaching college football to pro football, or vice versa.

When you go from college to pro, you find that while offensive success rates are about the same — passing success rates are a little higher, rushing success rates a little lower — the big plays and turnovers dissipate as you get fewer lopsided matchups and mistakes. So the margins matter more; getting five yards instead of four can make even more of a difference than it does in college.

When you go from pro to college, you find limited practice hours force you to simplify a lot. You also find how important raw talent differences are. The talent differential between the best and worst NFL teams — the Super Bowl champion Eagles and 0-16 Browns — isn’t all that vast; in college, the talent differential between Alabama and UTEP is absurd.

Smith came to UI after 11 years as an NFL head coach. He went 89-87 there, winning double-digit games four times with the Bears and making a Super Bowl and two NFC championship games. He wasn’t the most accomplished coach, but he was above .500 in a league with the 32 most talented football teams in the world.

And through two years in Champaign, he’s gone 5-19 while navigating schedules in which his team has few edges.

His second Illini squad did a good job of preventing big plays but had to take bend-don’t-break principles to illogical extremes. And while they were average at running and moving the chains in short yardage, they had not a single good matchup in the passing game. They ranked 117th in Passing S&P+, with two QBs combining for a 49 percent completion rate and seven touchdowns to 15 interceptions. The result: a 2-0 start, followed by 10 consecutive losses, seven by at least 19 points.

They were young as hell, sure. The QBs were a freshman and sophomore, two of the top three receivers were freshmen, and more than half the offensive line starts went to freshmen, as well. And it continued on defense: the top two linemen and four of the top five defensive backs were freshmen or sophomores, and the linebacking corps was a M*A*S*H unit.

Enough of these pieces are returning that you can assume UI will improve. But if you’ve got less athleticism than your opponent, that improvement’s not going to get you very far — they’re probably improving, too.

To jumpstart recruiting, Smith brought in up-and-coming St. Louis high school coach Cory Patterson as his tight ends coach. As a result, the Illini have scored a commitment from five-star athlete Isaiah Williams, plus a three-star teammate. Two commits from a given area isn’t exactly a renaissance, but it’s a start. And it’s more than he signed in the 2018 class.

Can Illinois show enough improvement in the fall to keep the talented commitments they have, much less add more? And can Smith survive long enough for an influx to take root? Williams, for instance, is probably still a couple of years away from being a true difference maker.

How many 3-9 seasons can Smith afford? S&P+ projects the Illini to win early games over Kent State and WIU but then projects them as at least a six-point underdog in every remaining game. It’s a race against time.

Offense


2017 Illinois offensive radar

Smith did shake up his offensive staff. Former coordinator Garrick McGee is now an analyst at Missouri, replaced by former Arizona co-coordinator Rod Smith. Smith has a lot of Rich Rodriguez on his résumé, from playing for him at Glenville State to coaching for him at Clemson, Michigan, and Zona.

It’s easy to assume Smith will want to establish the quarterback as part of the run game, and it’s easy to see that working, since leading returning QB Cam Thomas was infinitely better at running than passing last year — including sacks as pass attempts, he averaged 6.5 yards per carry and 4.4 yards per pass. He completed 42 percent of his passes with zero TDs and five picks. And now, with Jeff George Jr.’s transfer, he’s the incumbent.


NCAA Football: Illinois at Purdue

Cam Thomas (10)
Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

Former Nebraska and Virginia Tech quarterback AJ Bush is also coming to Champaign this summer, and Smith brought in three freshmen (Coran Taylor, MJ Rivers, and Matt Robinson) to vie for early playing time.

Thomas will be surrounded by fellow sophomores, as Illinois played just about as many true freshmen as anyone in the country — a shaky proposition considering that most of those freshmen were low- to mid-three-star recruits who could have perhaps used a redshirt year. The two leading returning rushers (Ra’Von Bonner and Mike Epstein), leading returning wideout (Ricky Smalling), leading returning tight end (Louis Dorsey), and four linemen with starting experience are all second-year guys.

Of this bunch, Epstein, Smalling, and Dorsey did show some potential.

  • Epstein had 346 rushing yards at 6.1 yards per carry in just five games before suffering a season-ending foot injury. He had seven carries for 83 yards against Iowa in his last game.
  • Smalling had all the ups and downs you would expect from a freshman No. 1 receiver, but he did get hot for a bit midseason, catching 19 balls for 327 yards and two scores over a five-game span. (The other seven games: 12 catches.)
  • Dorsey averaged only 1.8 catches per game but 18 yards per reception. That’ll go down with more usage, but it still shows some athleticism.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Minnesota

Ricky Smalling
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

There are some seniors worth mentioning. Receiver Mike Dudek caught 24 passes after missing two consecutive seasons with knee injuries, and right guard Nick Allegretti was the anchor of the not-awful run game, earning second-team all-conference honors. And the Illini added an exciting grad transfer in former Appalachian State receiver Shaedon Meadors, who averaged 17.8 yards per catch from 2014-16 before missing 2017 with injury.

If you are a particularly optimistic Illinois fan, you can point out just how much progress Arizona’s great QB Khalil Tate made between his freshman and sophomore seasons — he completed just 40 percent of his passes with 237 rushing yards in 2016, then not only exploded in the ground game but also raised his completion rate to 62 percent last fall. Assuming that type of leap is, shall we say, unrealistic. But Smith does seem like a great coach for coaxing Thomas toward his ceiling.

Defense


2017 Illinois defensive radar

First, let me list the seniors that will probably be key contributors to this defense:

  • Linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips

End of list. So keep in mind that there will be plenty of time for this unit to grow.

In comparison to the offense, the defense had its act together. Big-play prevention was a legitimate, top-20 strength.

Unfortunately, it came at the cost of massive inefficiency. And the D still fell by 30 spots in the Def. S&P+ rankings: after ranking 15th in 2015, the Illini were 59th in 2016 and 89th last year.

Smith didn’t fire coordinator Hardy Nickerson, but he did bring in a new line coach (Austin Clark) and safeties coach (Gill Byrd). Those two units were particularly young last year. And it’s probably a good sign that, even though the safeties were young, Illinois still prevented huge gashes.

Illinois had few play-makers in 2017. That doesn’t automatically change with experience. Illinois ranked 113th in havoc rate (tackles for loss, passes defensed, and forced fumbles divided by total plays) — 52nd on the line, 118th at linebacker, and 102nd in the secondary. Six of the top eight linemen return, but one who doesn’t is end James Crawford, who led the team in havoc plays while playing just nine games.


NCAA Football: Northwestern at Illinois

Bobby Roundtree
Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Your returning havoc leaders:

  1. Junior nickel back Cameron Watkins: 8.5 havoc plays (3.5 TFLs, four passes defensed, one forced fumble).
  2. Sophomore end Bobby Roundtree: 8 (four TFLs, three PDs, one FF). All his TFLs were sacks.
  3. Sophomore free safety Bennett Williams: 7.5 (1.5 TFLs, five passes defensed, one FF).
  4. Junior tackle Tymir Oliver: 6.5 (4.5 TFLs, two PDs).
  5. Phillips: 6 (four TFLs, two PDs).

That’s … not a lot of disruption.

Along with the linemen, four of the top six tacklers at linebacker and four of the top five in the secondary return. Plus, players like sophomore safety Dawson DeGroot and corners Tony Adams and Evan Jones (who combined to miss 22 games) will be back. And while redshirts weren’t common overall in 2017, a trio of redshirt freshman linemen, including high-three-star tackle Kendrick Green, could play a role. And once again, quite a few of this year’s incoming freshmen will likely see the field. That’s especially true up front — the two biggest stars of the 2018 class are four-star freshman tackles Calvin Avery and Verdis Brown.

There’s plenty of quantity here. Competition could unearth some play-makers, even if it didn’t last year.


NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern

Cameron Watkins (31)
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Special teams was a legitimate strength. The Illini ranked 14th in kickoff efficiency, 30th in punt efficiency, and top-60 in both return games. That helped dramatically from a field position perspective, and all of the key pieces there — sophomore Blake Hayes, senior kickoffs guy Chase McLaughlin, kick returner Nate Hobbs, and punt returner Mike Dudek — are back. McLaughlin was also automatic on field goals under 40 yards (and scattershot over 40, but we’re being positive).

Now just imagine the field position damage UI could do with any efficiency assistance from the offense or defense.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Kent State 127 10.3 72%
8-Sep Western Illinois NR 9.6 71%
15-Sep vs. USF 56 -10.1 28%
21-Sep Penn State 8 -25.3 7%
6-Oct at Rutgers 84 -7.0 34%
13-Oct Purdue 54 -8.2 32%
20-Oct at Wisconsin 12 -27.8 5%
27-Oct at Maryland 80 -8.4 31%
3-Nov Minnesota 67 -5.9 37%
10-Nov at Nebraska 60 -12.0 24%
17-Nov Iowa 36 -12.3 24%
24-Nov at Northwestern 38 -16.6 17%

To paraphrase Steve Addazio, Smith needs more dudes. He’s trying to create some by getting young guys lots of experience — and early playing time could pay off for Thomas, Smalling, Dorsey, Roundtree, and Williams — and now he’s trying desperately to raise his recruiting game, too.

This is a tough job and always has been; the Illini are capable of success — Ron Zook won nine games in 2007, Ron Turner won 10 in 2001, etc. — but consistently convincing top Big Ten dudes to wear the navy and orange is difficult.

After two likely wins to start the season, the highest win probability UI has the rest of the season, per S&P+, is 37 percent against Minnesota. This is what happens when you have no recent track record, only decent returning production numbers, and unacceptable recent recruiting rankings (59th in five-year recruiting, barely ahead of AAC teams USF and Cincinnati).

There’s always a chance that a youth movement bears fruit. But unless Thomas pulls a Khalil Tate, we’re probably still a year or two away at best.

Team preview stats

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