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Illinois Football: 2018 Illini Preview and Prediction

Mike Epstein, Illinois Football

Mike Epstein, Illinois Football

Improvement has been tough to find in Lovie Smith's two seasons at Illinois. The Fighting Illini have won just five games in that span and finished without a win in Big Ten play last year. Smith has played a ton of young players, and the hope is that the product on the field will improve as those players mature. However, marked improvement in 2018 won't be attainable without a solution at quarterback. New coordinator Rod Smith could turn to one of three incoming freshman quarterbacks or a graduate transfer to jump-start the offense. The defense also experienced its share of growing pains last year, but the return of seven starters should lead to some improvement. However, unless a quarterback emerges, Illinois is likely headed toward another last-place finish in the Big Ten West.

Previewing Illinois Football's Offense for 2018

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Indiana Football/Big Ten Magazine

Lovie Smith made drastic offseason changes, hiring former Arizona assistant Rod Smith as offensive coordinator with the goal of spreading the field with as many formations as possible. "We want the defense to defend [the entire] width of the field," Rod Smith says.

The quarterback competition starts and stops with sophomore Cam Thomas -- for now. He was the only scholarship quarterback with the team in the spring. Freshmen Coran Taylor, MJ Rivers and Matt Robinson will join the team during the summer. Former Nebraska and Virginia Tech quarterback A.J. Bush is coming in as a graduate transfer.

Illinois hasn't had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2010. The four returnees from 2017 -- Mike Epstein, Ra'Von Bonner, Dre Brown and Reggie Corbin -- combined for less than 800. All four dealt with injuries, but all four should be ready. Bonner and Corbin offer the change of pace Smith likes in his running backs, all of whom need to be able to catch passes. "It's a priority," Smith says.

Illinois fans were thrilled to see receiver Mike Dudek back on the field last fall after the former freshman sensation missed two seasons with torn ACLs. Sophomore Ricky Smalling was held out of the spring with an undisclosed injury but is expected back. He led the team in receiving yards as a freshman.

Four freshmen were in the starting O-line for the bulk of the 2017 season, including three first-year players. The lone senior, guard Nick Allegretti, is the unquestioned leader of the group.

Previewing Illinois Football's Defense for 2018

Coordinator Hardy Nickerson wants to see improvement in the first- and second-down run game. It starts up front.

Bobby Roundtree and Isaiah Gay saw extensive time at end as freshmen and provide outside pressure. Inside, Tymir Oliver is a consistent contributor.

At linebacker, Nickerson is looking for a big senior season from Del'Shawn Phillips, who led the team in tackles. The Illini lost Jake Hansen to a torn ACL last season. He is expected back in time for the opener.

Nickerson wants to see Illinois improve on last season's nine interceptions. Bennett Williams led the team as a freshman with three. He is set at the safety spot opposite Stanley Green, another ball hawk. There is star potential at cornerback, where Nate Hobbs is back.

Previewing Illinois Football's Specialists for 2018

As a freshman, Australian punter Blake Hayes averaged 42 yards on 77 boots. Special teams coach Bob Ligashesky believes Hayes will improve steadily in his final three seasons. Chase McLaughlin hit 12-of-17 field goal attempts and was perfect on tries of 40 yards or less. Ligashesky wants more production from the return game.

Final Analysis

Smith's teams are 5-19 overall and just 2-16 in the Big Ten, including an unprecedented 0-9 in 2017. He has a six-year deal, so the administration is giving him time. The fans want to see some progress and some excitement. The schedule is challenging, with an early game against South Florida in Chicago, visits from Penn State and Iowa and trips to Wisconsin, Nebraska and Northwestern.

College Football Rankings: Illinois

During the past two decades, the third year has been a charm for Illinois coaches. Ron Turner, Ron Zook and Tim Beckman earned bowl bids in their third seasons. If Rod Smith continues to have a golden touch with quarterbacks, like he did at Arizona, the offense will improve. Enough to bump the win total to six? Probably not.