2018 ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI FOOTBALL PREVIEW
HEAD COACH: Lovie Smith
RECORD AT ILLINOIS: 5 – 19
CAREER RECORD: 5 – 19
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Rod Smith
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Hardy Nickerson
STADIUM: Memorial Stadium (60, 670)
September 1 Kent State
September 8 Western Illinois
September 15 South Florida
September 21 Penn State
October 6 at Rutgers
October 13 Purdue
October 20 at Wisconsin
October 27 at Maryland
November 3 Minnesota
November 10 at Nebraska
November 17 Iowa
November 24 at Northwestern
Ball State 24 – 21
Western Kentucky 20 – 7
South Florida 23 – 47
Nebraska 6 – 28
Iowa 16 – 45
Rutgers 24 – 35
Minnesota 17 – 24
Wisconsin 10 – 24
Purdue 10 – 29
Indiana 14 – 24
Ohio State 14 – 52
Northwestern 7 – 42
2017 OFFENSIVE STATS
TOTAL OFFENSE: 280.4
2017 DEFENSIVE STATS
FIVE YEAR WINNING TREND
2013: 4 – 8
2014: 6 – 7
2015: 5 – 7
2016: 3 – 9
2017: 2 – 10
RETURNING STARTERS OFFENSE: 7
RETURNING STARTERS DEFENSE: 7
PASSING: Cam Thomas, 28 – 66 – 375 – 0TD – 5INT
RUSHING: Mike Epstein, 57 – 346 – 3TD
RECEIVING: Ricky Smalling, 31 – 510 – 2TD
TACKLES: Del’Shawn Phillips, 85
SACKS: Bobby Roundtree, 4.0
INTERCEPTIONS: Bennett Williams, 3
2018 TOP 10 RECRUITS
Calvin Avery, DT Dallas, Texas
Verdis Brown, C Chicago, Illinois
Reuben Unije, OT Bradenton, Florida
Coran Taylor, QB Peoria, Illinois
Khalan Tolson, LB St. Petersburg, Florida
Kordyn Slaughter, OT Belleville, Illinois
MJ Rivers, QB Frisco, Texas
Kievan Myers, OG Dallas, Texas
Julian Pearl, OT Danville, Illinois
Carlos Sandy, WR Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Illinois suffered through a 2 – 10 season with the youngest team in the country in 2017. They finished 0 – 9 in the conference and now Lovie Smith must find a way to make the turn toward success in his fourth season.
Smith made several changes in the off-season including hiring Rod Smith as his OC. The goal in hiring Smith is to spread the field with as many formations as this team can handle. It all starts at quarterback with sophomore Cam Thomas. Thomas was the only scholarship player at that position in the spring. Other possibilities include Virginia Tech transfer AJ Bush, freshman Coran Taylor, MJ Rivers and Matt Robinson.
Running the football is a huge concern for Illinois. They haven’t had a 1,000 yard rusher since 2010. Four players return including Mike Epstein, Ra’Von Bonner, Dre Brown and Reggie Corbin. All combined for less than 800 yards in 2017. All four battled injuries last season but appear ready for the upcoming campaign.
Ricky Smalling will be joined by Mike Dudek as the top two receivers in this offense. Smalling missed spring football because of an undisclosed injury. Dudek returns after missing two seasons with a torn ACL.
The offensive line was young in 2017 starting four freshman. Right guard Nick Allegretti is the lone senior on this team and the unquestionable leader. The other four starters will be sophomores.
DC Hardy Nickerson wants improvement up front. Bobby Roundtree and Isaiah Gay saw extensive playing time as true freshman in 2017. DT Tymir Oliver may be the most consistent of the front four. Jamal Milan steps in at DT.
At linebacker, Nickerson will count on Senior Del’Shawn Phillips, who led the team in tackles last season with 85. Jake Hansen is expected to return from a torn ACL last season. Sophomore James Knight will step in at the other outside linebacker position.
The secondary returns all four starters, but Nickerson wants to see improvement on just 9 interceptions. Bennett Williams led the team with three and he is set at safety along with Stanley Green. Nate Hobbs and Cameron Watkins will be the corners. Illinois ranked 12th in the Big Ten in total defense last season, 14th against the rush. In order for Illinois to get better this defense must improve.
As a freshman, Blake Hayes averaged 42 yards per punt. Coach Smith believes Hayes will be one of the best in the Big Ten as a sophomore. Kicker Chase McLaughlin went 12 – 17 in field-goal attempts and was perfect inside 40 yards. The return game needs more production.
Illinois football fans want to see improvement in 2018. There was little to be excited about last season after going 0 – 9 in conference play and 2 – 16 in the Big Ten over the last two years. Needless to say Lovie Smith could be on the hot seat this year. His six-year deal could be cut short if Illinois doesn’t show vast improvement in 2018. The first three games against can’t state, Western Illinois and South Florida will set the tone for the conference season. How Rod Smith impacts the offense will be a huge key, but will it be enough to get six wins and a possible bowl game?
PROJECTED RECORD: 3 – 9, 1 – 8 Big Ten
COACH SMITH TALKS AT BIG 10 MEDIA DAY
THE MODERATOR: We’re joined by Illinois head coach Lovie Smith.
LOVIE SMITH: First off, it’s an honor and a privilege to represent our flagship university, University of Illinois, here today.
It’s also an honor and privilege for the three players that we brought up representing our team: Nick Allegretti, offensive lineman; Mike Dudek, a wide receiver; and Jamal Milan, a defensive lineman. All three of those players played their high school football right here in the Chicago area. So this is pretty big for them.
Year three, the overhaul for us, is underway. When we initially got here, we kind of established some things that we needed to take care of. One being facilities. We’re really excited about our state-of-the-art facility that we’ll be moving into this time next year. Should really get us up to par with the rest of the teams and really kind of go past them.
So this is an exciting time, something that our current players need and deserve, and also should give us a boost with recruiting as guys come on our campus down in Champaign.
A lot of exciting things, of course, are happening. We talk about year three of the rebuild. When you start 15 true freshman and one redshirt freshman, it tells you where you are and what you’re doing with your program. And that’s where we are. Those players got a lot of valuable experience last year. We’ve seen them get bigger, stronger, faster off the field and just their football knowledge has grown quite a bit.
We really like that. And year three will produce results from some of the things that we’ve done with it. Also excited about some new additions to our staff. Rod Smith on the offensive side, coordinating offense, along with Cory Patterson, high school coach from the St. Louis area.
And on the defensive side, Austin Clark, needed a — we lost a good defensive line coach and needed one to come in and didn’t really know an awful lot about him until I started talking to him and knew early on he was a guy I wouldn’t the staff.
And Gill Byrd, a guy I have a long history with, as a man, one of the best men I’ve met in my life, and he’ll do a great job coordinating the passing part of our defense, along with coaching our safeties.
So, we’re excited about that. We realize we haven’t won enough football games. But they come, if you continue to do the right things. We’ve changed the culture of our program. We know the look that we would like to have on the football field.
And, again, we’re anxious to get to year three. We’re excited about our schedule, too. When you only leave the state of Illinois only one time until late October, you have to be excited about that. We need to get off to a good start. Excited about playing a Friday night game in open Big Ten play.
There’s a lot of good things going on down in Champaign, and for us just to get to training camp, we have some training camp, legitimate training camp battles, starting with who would be our quarterback.
So that will be a great competition with, of course, Cam Thomas, who finished up in that role, along with incoming guys, whether it be a graduate transfer quarterback or incoming freshman.
Q. Whether you played all these freshmen last year, now there’s a new redshirt rule, I’m wondering how that maybe would have changed things last year or how you approach with the four games and you can keep them redshirted?
LOVIE SMITH: Last year, I don’t think it would have changed much. We felt like we needed to play those freshmen that gave us the best chance to win. It was kind as simple as that. How I look at the rule, how we look at the rule going forward, I think it’s a good thing. Even though we played a lot of young guys last year, odds are we’ll play more this year, but you have options.
If we feel like those are the best guys we have early on, we’ll play them, but have that option of going through a season and knowing for sure what you have in some of the freshmen if it be later in the year.
This past year, you know, maybe the two highest recruited rated players that we recruited this past year, Kendrick Green and Lere Oladipo, we didn’t actually get them on the football field. Today we’ll have a chance to see all the freshmen. It’s pretty important.
Q. You mentioned the three guys you have here today, all Chicagoland natives. How does Chicago factor into your recruiting game plan now, and how has that evolved since your first class you recruited to Champaign?
LOVIE SMITH: With our first class, of course, as you identified, the recruiting areas we need to be strong in, of course, Chicago is right at the top of that. We will put a lot of time and effort into trying to keep our best players in the state. Of course, the guys from Chicago. How that has changed, that’s still the case right now. Of course, other schools know what type of talent we have in our high school program. And that’s a chore.
We’ve lost a few guys here in our state, but the University of Illinois is the right place for a lot of people. We’ll get our share. And in time we need to be able to keep the guys in our state here as much as anything.
But, again, we recognize what’s up here, and we’ll continue to recruit it hard.
Q. You said year three will produce results. How much higher should the bar be for your program? What are you expecting?
LOVIE SMITH: I don’t think you should ever say this is how many wins we have to have or we’re going to get. But for us, when we say improvement, when you talk about the young players, first time on the field, I just know behind the scenes they’ve gotten so much better.
You look at what happened during the course of the year. There were about three games where really we didn’t have a chance to win last year. The rest of the time we played competitive ball.
So this year, taking another step, as I talk about our home schedule, we have great fans. They’ve been (indiscernible) fans through some tough times. But getting out of the gate early on, getting momentum. And then we’ll see.
I just know that we’re a better football team right now. And normally, with my history, it’s said that that shows results during the course of the year.
Q. Mike Dudek got back on the field last year after back-to-back ACL injuries. What do you expect from Dudek this year, and how is he leading your receiving corps?
LOVIE SMITH: It was good to get Mike back on the field last year. He wasn’t completely healthy and he didn’t finish the season healthy, but he is now.
And it’s been a while, but Mike Dudek is an excellent football player. And as we talk about all the young players we have on our roster, we do have guys like Mike, like Nick, like Jamal, that have played a lot of football and we need them to be who they should be.
And that’s what we’ve seen. Mike’s had an excellent offseason. Completely healthy now. And our new offense that we’ll be running, he’ll have an opportunity to be the featured guy and be able to — we should see a lot of production from him. Again, he’s in excellent shape, and he’s going to have an outstanding year.
Q. With depth on the offensive line being a concern heading into this season, how important was it for these now sophomore offensive linemen to get experience on the field, and what steps do they need to take just to improve upon this year?
LOVIE SMITH: I think, first off, just experience. I know it’s coach talk, but there’s no substitute for it. So for those guys to get a lot — I’m talking about Bobby Roundtree, Jamal Woods, Isaiah Gay, those players got a lot of time. That has to help you an awful lot.
But we will be in that situation. Those guys are older. But depth is a problem a little bit. But there’s good, young depth coming.
I mentioned some of the guys like Lere Oladipo, another guy from the Chicago area, he’s a good football player. I know these young guys can play and that experience will come. Again, Coach Austin Clark does an awesome job. He’s an excellent teacher. That’s exactly what our players need right now. We like the position we’re in defensively with those guys stepping up.
Another player I should mention, too, that went down with a serious knee injury in training camp last year, Jake Hansen, really excited about what he’ll bring to our defense, too. He’s healthy. He should have an outstanding year.
Q. Spring ball really had Cam Thomas taking reps as quarterback. What’s it going to be like heading into the fall camp with the rest of the quarterbacks on campus?
LOVIE SMITH: Well, going back to spring practice, we had really one scholarship quarterback that went through spring practice with us. So Cam got a lot of reps, which he needed, and of course wanted, and we saw a lot of progress with him.
He also knew that come training camp, there would be more competition coming on campus. When you’re a competitor, you want that. You want to prove to the rest of the team that I’m the guy.
As I mentioned, it’s legitimate quarterback competition we have in training camp. We as coaches will put the guys in position and let it play out. And the guy we end up with we’ll feel really good about.
Cam brings an awful lot. I described him as a developmental passer, but he has a strong arm. Of course he did a lot of things with his feet last year, but we’ve seen him — just like we talk about with the rest of the freshmen, he’s grown an awful lot this past year.
Q. Record aside, is this kind of how you expected or envisioned year three of the program overhaul as you called it would be like?
LOVIE SMITH: Thanks for saying “record aside.” A lot easier answering it now.
Yes. You know, as we came into our program, we evaluated it. We thought, of course, we needed to do a lot better job, we as a coaching staff needed to do a good job, but we needed to upgrade the talent level. We’re doing that. Considering where we are, the facilities we have right now, people kind of see what’s coming, you know, with the facilities and everything else.
In an ideal world, we wanted to have more wins right now. But I like where we are. Now that’s behind us, I like how we’re sitting year three. And this is when we expect to see results.
2018 ILLINOIS ROSTER
2 Reggie Corbin RB 5-10 190 Jr. Upper Marlboro, Md. Gonzaga College HS
3 Jakari Norwood RB 5-10 175 Fr. Deerfield Beach, Fla. Deerfield Beach
3 Del’Shawn Phillips LB 6-2 220 Sr. Highland Park, Mich. Cass Tech Garden City C.C.
4 Ricky Smalling WR 6-1 205 So. Chicago, Ill. Brother Rice
4 Bennett Williams DB 6-0 200 So. Campbell, Calif. St. Francis
5 Verdis Brown DL 6-3 295 Fr. Chicago, Ill. IMG Academy (Fla.)
5 Carmoni Green WR 6-1 190 So. Miami, Fla. Miami Central
6 Tony Adams DB 6-0 190 So. Belleville, Ill. St. Louis University HS
6 Shaedon Meadors WR 6-2 180 Sr. Duncan, S.C. Byrnes Appalachian State
7 Stanley Green DB 5-11 195 Jr. East St. Louis, Ill. East St. Louis Senior
8 Nate Hobbs DB 6-0 180 So. Louisville, Ky. Louisville Male
9 Dele Harding LB 6-1 235 Jr. Elkton, Md. Eastern Christian
9 Sam Mays WR 6-3 200 Sr. Missouri City, Texas The Kinkaid School
10 James Knight LB 5-10 205 So. East St. Louis, Ill. East St. Louis
10 Cam Thomas QB 6-2 190 So. Chicago Heights, Ill. Marian Catholic
12 Charlie Reinkemeyer QB 5-11 175 R-Fr. Lake Forest, Ill. Lake Forest
13 Caleb Reams WR 6-2 250 Jr. Gurnee, Ill. Warren Township
14 Blake Hayes P 6-6 230 So. Melbourne, Australia Brighton
15 Trenard Davis WR 6-0 190 Jr. Boynton Beach, Fla. American Heritage School
16 Cam Miller QB 6-1 215 So. Evergreen Park, Ill. Brother Rice
17 James McCourt PK/P 6-1 220 So. Parkland, Fla. St. Thomas Aquinas
17 Kendall Smith DB 6-1 185 So. Bolingbrook, Ill. Bolingbrook
18 Mike Dudek WR 5-11 185 Sr. Naperville, Ill. Neuqua Valley
19 Louis Dorsey TE 6-6 225 So. Jacksonville, Fla. Jean Ribault
20 Nick Walker DB 5-10 185 So. St. Louis, Mo. Miller Career Academy (Mo.) Cisco College (Texas)
21 Ra’Von Bonner RB 5-11 210 So. Cincinnati, Ohio Sycamore
22 Kyle Keuch DB 6-1 170 Jr. Frankfort, Ill. Lincoln Way East
24 Dawson DeGroot DB 6-1 190 So. Fort Myers, Fla. Fort Myers
25 Dre Brown RB 5-11 215 Jr. DeKalb, Ill. DeKalb
26 Mike Epstein RB 6-0 195 So. Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. St. Thomas Aquinas
26 Evan Jones DB 6-2 190 So. Atlanta, Ga. Salem
28 Nolan Bernat DB 5-10 190 Jr. Bartlett, Ill. Bartlett HS College of DuPage
29 Christian Bobak RB 6-0 200 So. Hinsdale, Ill. Hinsdale Central
31 Cameron Watkins DB 6-0 190 Jr. Nashville, Tenn. Pearl-Cohn
32 Justice Williams WR 6-3 220 Jr. Frisco, Texas Wakeland
34 PC Daniel II DB 6-1 205 Fr. Bradenton, Fla. IMG Academy
35 Jake Hansen LB 6-2 230 So. Tarpon Springs, Fla. East Lake
36 Austin Roberts RB 6-2 245 Sr. Rice Lake, Wis. Rice Lake
37 Zac Holman WR 6-1 190 Sr. Cronulla, Australia De La Salle Cronulla
41 Jimmy Marchese LB 6-2 220 Jr. Vernon Hills, Ill. Stevenson
42 Michael Marchese DB 6-3 190 So. Vernon Hills, Ill. Stevenson
43 Chase McLaughlin PK 6-1 180 Sr. Cypress, Texas Cypress Woods
44 Drew Murtaugh LB 6-3 225 So. Crystal Lake, Ill. Crystal Lake South
46 Alec McEachern LB 6-1 215 R-Fr. Plainfield, Ill. Benet Academy
48 Kevin Hinders DL 6-5 235 R-Fr. Champaign, Ill. St. Thomas More
51 Sean Coghlan LB 6-0 215 R-Fr. Chicago, Ill. St. Rita
52 Ayo Shogbonyo DL 6-2 230 So. Arlington, Texas Mansfield Summitt
52 Adam Solomon OL 6-6 310 Jr. Indianapolis, Ind. Bishop Chatard
53 Nick Allegretti OL 6-4 320 Sr. Frankfort, Ill. Lincoln-Way East
53 Kendrick Green DL 6-4 300 R-Fr. Peoria, Ill. Peoria
54 Marc Mondesir LB 6-2 220 So. Chicago, Ill. St. Rita
55 Jamal Milan DL 6-3 300 Jr. Chicago, Ill. Al Raby
56 Ethan Tabel LS 6-0 220 So. Barrington, Ill. Barrington
58 Sean Mills LS 6-3 215 So. Metuchen, N.J. St. Joseph
63 Alex Palczewski OL 6-6 290 So. Mount Prospect, Ill. Prospect
65 Doug Kramer OL 6-2 295 So. Hinsdale, Ill. Hinsdale Central
68 Jake Stover OL 6-3 295 R-Fr. Chicago, Ill. St. Rita
70 Reuben Unije OL 6-6 300 Fr. Bradenton, Fla. IMG Academy
71 Zeke Martin OL 6-5 300 Jr. Medina, Ohio Medina
73 Jake Cerny OL 6-5 305 So. Traverse City, Mich. Traverse City West
74 Andrew Trainer OL 6-7 280 So. Alexandria, Va. St. Stephen’s and St. Agnes School
75 Kurt Gavin OL 6-4 300 So. Mokena, Ill. Lincoln-Way East
76 Larry Boyd OL 6-6 340 So. St. Louis, Mo. Trinity Catholic
79 Vederian Lowe OL 6-5 340 So. Rockford, Ill. Auburn
80 Keith Jones WR 6-0 160 So. Chicago, Ill. Hansberry College Prep
81 Griffin Palmer TE 6-5 225 So. St. Charles, Mo. De Smet Jesuit
83 Bobby Walker TE 6-4 230 Jr. Golf, Ill. Loyola Academy
86 Jordan Roberts WR 6-4 180 Sr. Chicago, Ill. Wayland Academy
88 Brandon Jones TE 6-5 240 So. Columbia, Mo. Hickman
89 Alex Pihlstrom TE 6-6 235 R-Fr. Glen Ellyn, Ill. Glenbard West
90 Lere Oladipo DL 6-3 265 R-Fr. Huntley, Ill. Huntley
91 Jamal Woods DL 6-2 265 So. Hueytown, Ala. Hueytown
92 Isaiah Gay DL 6-3 215 So. Nashville, N.C. Northern Nash
95 Kenyon Jackson DL 6-0 290 Jr. Little Rock, Ark.Parkview Arts & Science Magnet
96 Tymir Oliver DL 6-4 285 Jr. Sharon Hill, Pa. West Philadelphia Catholic
97 Bobby Roundtree DL 6-5 245 So. Largo, Fla. Largo
98 Deon Pate DL 6-3 280 R-Fr. Jacksonville, Fla. Trinity Christian Academy
99 Owen Carney Jr. DL 6-3 240 So. Miami, Fla. Miami Central
Lovie Smith Head Coach
Hardy Nickerson Assistant Head Coach/Defensive Coordinator/LB
Rod Smith Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach
Gill Byrd Passing Game Coordinator/Safeties Coach
Bob Ligashesky Special Teams Coordinator
Donnie Abraham Defensive Backs/Safeties Coach
Luke Butkus Offensive Line Coach
Austin Clark Defensive Line Coach
Andrew Hayes-Stoker Wide Receivers Coach
Cory Patterson Tight Ends Coach
Thad Ward Running Backs Coach
Rob Delaney Graduate Assistant Coach, Offense
Zach Grant Graduate Assistant Coach, Offense
Miles Smith Graduate Assistant Coach, Defense
Peter Collins Defensive Analyst
Joe Fotu Defensive Analyst
Cody Gibson Offensive Analyst
Kingsley Osei-Asibey Analyst
Robert Wright Defensive Analyst
Jake Zweig Special Teams Analyst
Jake Ellsworth Defensive Assistant
Joey Boese Head Football Strength and Conditioning Coach
Tim Knox Director of Football Operations