Make no mistake about it: Lovie Smith is the center of attention in Illinois — and that's a good thing. As the Fighting Illini prepare to start spring football, their new head coach will serve as a bit of a lightning rod in terms of attention to the program.
Smith's presence means that his players will likely deal with less attention and scrutiny — both locally and nationally from the press. It's not like Illinois football is a media magnet to begin with, but Smith — at least for a season — makes it just that, and all eyes will be on him, his staff and the schemes instead of the individual players.
5 Storylines to Watch in Illinois' Spring Practice
1. Wes Lunt's interaction with Smith
A new coach’s best friend can be a veteran quarterback. The Illini have one in Lunt, a senior who has spent his entire collegiate career dealing with change at the head coaching position. His experience with change should help ease the transition. His skill set — as one of the better passers in the Big Ten — should help him adapt to the new offensive scheme. Keep an eye on any conversations between Smith and Lunt. Lunt's body language will tell us everything we need to know about the chemistry between the team's leader on the field and their new coach.
2. The complexity of the defensive scheme
Smith is a defensive guru, which has its obvious benefits. One drawback may be that his scheme is a bit too complex for his players to digest immediately, not to mention difficult to execute based on talent. Look for sound bites from the players about Smith keeping things simple on the defensive side of the ball. If you are still seeing confusion about assignments at the end of spring, it's a sign that Smith's system is too complicated for his new squad, and that could bleed over to the fall.
3. Replacing the home-run hitters
The Illini return a strong core of players from a squad that won five games a season ago. What they do not return are their two most dangerous offensive weapons: running back Josh Ferguson and wide receiver Geronimo Allison. Replacing Ferguson will be a little easier due to the carries Ke'Shawn Vaughn got went Ferguson was injured last season. Vaughn is a more traditional, three-down, between the tackles back than Ferguson was, but lacks the same versatility. Allison was one of the more explosive playmakers in the conference last season — far and away Lunt's favorite target. Look for Malik Turner to assume the traditional No. 1 receiver role in Allison’s absence. Additionally, Mike Dudek - a standout freshman performer from 2014 - is back from injury, adding another valuable weapon for Lunt in 2016. If Vaughn and Turner can lock down their new roles early, the Illini offense has a chance to be special under new coordinator Garrick McGee.
4. Getting more pressure on the quarterback
Back to the defensive scheme, the Illini must find a way to get to the quarterback and disrupt the opponent's passing game more often. They had only 19 total sacks a season ago. That won't cut it in a division full of dual-threat quarterbacks who thrive on comfort and mobility in the pocket.
5. Can the morale stay high?
It's probably going to be a tough year in Champaign. Between the circumstances of Smith's arrival/hiring, the talent returning in the division and the fact that nobody is familiar with the new offense or defense, it could be a long season. A sloppy spring could set the stage for a disastrous fall if the players are not comfortable and the coaching staff cannot earn their trust quickly.
Pre-Spring Illinois Outlook in the Big Ten
The Illini are in a division that returns most of the talent on every team. They'll be the wild card in the Big Ten West, as nobody really knows what to expect from a Lovie Smith-coached squad at the college level. Illinois has the talent to win, it's just a matter of everyone buying into and adapting to the schemes installed on both sides of the ball as quickly as possible.
Most outlets and pundits are going to have the Illini either pulling up the rear or finishing sixth in their division. That said, these things rarely go as planned, and I would not be shocked one bit to see veteran quarterback Wes Lunt and Smith lead this group to a seven- or eight-win season and a top-three finish in a wide open Big Ten West. Road games at Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan and Northwestern certainly won't make that an easy task.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Scott is the owner of KnowItAllFootball.com and host of "Raising the Bar" on RadiOmaha.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.
(Top photo: Lovie Smith with Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman by Mark Jones/Illinois Athletics, courtesy of www.fightingillini.com)