It was not a great debut for Illinois head coach Lovie Smith, as the Fighting Illini saw their win total drop from five in 2015 to just two while the offense and defense both took steps backwards. To add to the challenge facing Smith, he has a total of eight starters returning so this will be a young and inexperienced team. The schedule includes a visit to Tampa to face South Florida, which could be the top Group of 5 team this season, as well as a Big Ten crossover game against Ohio State. Once again wins could be few and far between for the Illini.
Previewing Illinois Football’s Offense for 2017
If the Illini hope to go bowling this season, improvement will need to start on offense. The 2016 Illini finished 127th in the country in first downs123rd in total offense and 122nd in scoring offense. Two quarterbacks with starting experience — Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr. — are in line to replace departed Wes Lunt. In four games, Crouch threw for 249 yards and a touchdown. He ran for another 176 and two more scores. George is the son of Illini great and former No. 1 NFL draft pick Jeff George Sr. In five games, George threw for 470 yards and four TDs.
The coaches are hoping to have another option in 2017. Former Virginia Tech quarterback Dwayne Lawson spent 2016 at Garden City (Kan.) Community College. He made a commitment to Lovie Smith’s program but didn’t sign while completing his academic work. He hopes to join the Illini during the summer.
The leading returning rusher, Kendrick Foster, enters his senior season looking to build on his 2016 success. Reggie Corbin gained 523 yards in 2016, starting two games.
Two years ago, Mikey Dudek became the first Illini freshman to have more than 1,000 receiving yards. But Dudek hasn’t been on the field since, suffering a pair of torn ACLs. He didn’t participate in spring drills but is projected to return. With Dudek out, Malik Turner stepped in and led the team with 48 catches. At tight end, redshirt freshman Griffin Palmer is coming off a solid spring. Incoming freshman Louis Dorsey will have a chance to play early.
Tackle Christian DiLauro has made 31 consecutive starts and is one of the leaders of the unit. Center/guard Nick Allegretti adds a vocal component. His ability to play multiple positions has been a plus.
Previewing Illinois Football’s Defense for 2017
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The top four sackmasters graduated. That means an opportunity for the underclassmen. Sophomores Jamal Milan and Kenyon Jackson work inside. Incoming freshman Kendrick Green will have a chance to make an immediate impact. James Crawford, who has played multiple spots, starts at end.
Linebacker Tré Watson is the leading returning tackler and the leader of the unit. JC transfer Del’Shawn Phillips and sophomore Jake Hansen hold down the outside positions.
Because the coaches were forced to use younger players in 2016, the secondary experience is improved, especially at safety. Patrick Nelson and Stanley Green finished third and fifth on the team in tackles, respectively. Senior Jaylen Dunlap returns at cornerback.
Previewing Illinois Football’s Specialists for 2017
Illinois needs to replace steady punter Ryan Frain. Junior Ryan Tucker was the only spring option. Former walk-on Chase McLaughlin was 12-of-17 on field goals and perfect on 26 extra points. Looking for an improved return game, the Illini will try incoming freshmen Ricky Smalling and Tony Adams.
Illinois regressed across the board in Year 1 under Smith: The Illini won two fewer games, averaged 57.6 fewer yards per game and allowed 54.3 more yards per game. More troubling: Their final five losses came by an average of 30 points.
This team needs significant improvement across the board. “We’re trying to take it to that next level,” Smith says. “Winning three games, of course, isn’t good enough.”
Smith will rely heavily on underclassmen in 2017. There are just six seniors on the projected two-deep depth chart. The schedule includes an early trip to AAC favorite South Florida but isn’t overly daunting. The Illini travel to Ohio State but don’t play Michigan or Penn State. Still, getting to six wins in Year 2 will be a challenge.