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)

 

2018 SCHEDULE

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

 

2017 RESULTS

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

SCORING: 15.4

RUSHING: 105.6

PASSING: 174.8

TOTAL OFFENSE: 280.4

 

2017 DEFENSIVE STATS

SCORING: 31.5

Rushing: 218.5

PASSING: 199.9

TOTAL: 418.4

 

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

 

RETURNING LEADERS

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

 

OFFENSE PREVIEW

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.

 

DEFENSE PREVIEW

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.

 

SPECIAL TEAMS

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.

 

PREDICTION

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.

Questions?

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

Coaching Staff

Coaching Staff

NAME    TITLE

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