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Illinois Fighting Illini 2018 Spring Football Preview

Dele Harding

Dele Harding

Lovie Smith's tenure at Illinois has been a bumpy ride through two seasons. He's had to deal with a lot youth and inexperience since he arrived on campus. Heading into the 2018 season, those youth and inexperience challenges have evolved into concerns about depth.

Illinois Fighting Illini RB Mike Epstein

The spring football season in Champaign will be focused on reps and getting everyone comfortable in what looks to be a brand-new offense before the teams heads into the fall.

5 Storylines to Watch During Illinois' Spring Practice

1. What will the new offense look like?

Lovie Smith fired offensive coordinator Garrick McGee and brought in Rod Smith — Arizona's former offensive coordinator under Rich Rodriguez. That should mean a new scheme and offensive philosophy. It also could mean more growing pains for a squad the struggled mightily on offense last season. Keep an eye on whether or not Smith starts from scratch with the new offense or attempts a hybrid of what the players already know and the system he ran in Arizona.

2. Who plays quarterback?

Cam Thomas is the only scholarship quarterback currently living on campus. Fortunately, he appears to have the skill set required to run Smith's offense. He'll likely get most of the snaps in the spring, which will obviously give him a leg up on the starting job heading into the fall. If he picks up the system early on, the job will be his. If he struggles during the spring, you may see a heated competition in the fall between Thomas, a couple of freshmen and potentially a graduate transfer — possibly former Arizona quarterback Brandon Dawkins.

3. Has this team grown?

The Illini played 22 total freshmen in 2017, and the results were about what you thought they'd be. Illinois was winless in the Big Ten and struggled to score or stop anyone from scoring. You'd like to think — regardless of scheme or coaching changes — that the experience gained by being thrown into the fire so early will result in a more mature, prepared team in 2018. Body language and chaos (or lack thereof) in the spring may be enough evidence to answer that question.

4. Who plays linebacker?

Defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson's defense is predicated on sound linebacker play. That may be a problem if Illinois doesn't know who their linebackers will be heading into the fall. You'll see a lot of guys getting reps at every linebacker position this spring. At the very least, Illini faithful will want to see Del'Shawn Phillips and Dele Harding step up and become the unit's leaders this spring.

5. Mike Epstein's health

The highly touted recruit out of Florida stormed out of the gates as a freshman, rushing for nearly 350 yards in just five games before missing the rest of the season due to an injury. He is versatile enough to play and excel in pretty much any offense you plug him into. That said, a foot injury, which is what Epstein (above, right) suffered, has a tendency to linger. Between that and the ACL tear he sustained in high school, Epstein's long-term health and availability are both now questionable. If he looks like he's at 100 percent, then depth would be the only concern. If he looks like a shell of the player we saw last season, the hunt for a new bell-cow back is on.

— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on,, Yahoo!, SBNation and Bleacher Report. He has covered the Big Ten Conference extensively throughout his career. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.