Lovie Smith's tenure as Illinois head coach has garnered fan reaction that's split right down the middle. Supporters on one side say it's a rebuild in progress, while skeptics on the other say that it's already a failure and that the school needs to move on. But consider that while overall his record may stand at 9-27 (4-23 in Big Ten play), the team has shown signs of improvement. Last year's 4-8 campaign was not only his best record so far, but it's the best that the team has posted since Bill Cubit's 5-7 season back in 2015.
His four total conference victories are more than those of Cubit (2), and there have been some offensive improvements with much of the credit going to coordinator Rod Smith. After averaging just 13 points per game in 2017, that average increased to 28 per game this past season. The offense averaged 395 total yards per game compared to just 280 the year before. The defense still has some issues to work out (allowed 30 ppg in 2018), but injuries on both sides of the ball also have played a role.
Recruiting has been a back-and-forth adventure for Smith and his staff, but their latest class includes six 3-star recruits and two 4-star players. Fans and alumni alike have been especially critical of the failed recent attempts to fully convince wide receivers A.D. Miller (Oklahoma), and Jeff Thomas (Miami) to transfer to Illinois. Both men opted to return to their respective institutions. But the Illini do have some building blocks to work with.
However, none of this changes the fact that this is a pivotal year for Smith and the Fighting Illini. He doesn't appear to be on the hot seat, not after signing a two-year contract extension in November. But his team must continue to show improvement in 2019. And that process continues this week with the beginning of spring practice.
5 Storylines to Watch During Illinois' Spring Practice
1. Coaching staff changes
Lovie Smith appointed himself defensive coordinator after long-time friend Hardy Nickerson (who also coached the linebackers) resigned due to health reasons. Smith is known for his defensive work and built his coaching career as an assistant on that side of the ball before becoming a head coach. By having full control over the defense now, he's putting his personal thumbprint on this side of the ball. And with Rod Smith handling the offense, the head coach can focus more on his defense.
Lovie Smith will have a solid talent base to work as well in the forms linebackers Jake Hansen (95 tackles last year) and Dele Harding (37 tackles), along with defensive lineman Bobby Roundtree (7.5 sacks), and defensive back Tony Adams (43 tackles, INT, 4 pass breakups) to name a few. Personally coaching Hansen, Harding, and the other linebackers now will be new position coach Miles Smith, Lovie's son. Additionally, Gill Byrd was promoted to safeties coach/passing game coordinator and Keynodo Hudson is now the cornerbacks coach. While these decisions were criticized in some fashion, these changes do give Illinois a fresh start to a degree.
2. It's the M.J. Rivers show now
While the Illini would love to have AJ Bush Jr. (2,146 total yards, 14 total TDs) back, he has unfortunately used up all of his eligibility. Thankfully, Rivers comes into this year with plenty of game experience under his belt as he filled in for Bush who missed some time with a hamstring injury last season. Upon Bush's return, Rivers continued to get playing time. He finished the 2018 season with 547 passing yards, three touchdowns, and three interceptions while completing 55.4 percent of his attempts. He added 65 yards on the ground. Now that he's getting a full offseason to prepare as the starter, he should take a step forward in 2019, provided he beats out the other quarterback on the roster (Cam Miller, Matt Robinson, and Coran Taylor) for the job.
3. Plenty of experience at running back
Not only does the backfield feature plenty of experience, but it also was quite productive for Illinois last season. As a team, the Illini finished 12th in the country in rushing at 243 yards per game. Leading rusher Reggie Corbin contemplated leaving early for the NFL, but he's back and his 1,085 yards are fourth among returning players in the Big Ten. Also back are senior Dre Brown, along with Ra'Von Bonner and Mike Epstein, who combined for 986 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground last season. There are others who could be a factor and Rivers himself is also capable of making things happen with his legs. Put it all together and Illinois should feature a potent running game once again.
4. Youth abounds
Out of the 87 players on the roster, 41 are freshman and sophomores. Not only does this spring give these players a chance to further develop and carve out roles for the fall, it also should help establish a solid foundation for 2020 as well. How many of these young players emerge as key contributors for 2019 remains to be seen, but this spring will give them a chance to showcase their talent and give the coaching staff a chance to assess how the roster is shaping up and what areas need to be a focus from a recruiting standpoint.
5. A new practice facility is on the way.
As the team begins its spring session, its future home is getting closer to completion. By the time Illinois opens training camp in August, the brand-new Henry Dale and Betty Smith Football Center is scheduled to open. This is part of a larger modernization of the school's athletic facilities that began in late 2017. Similar to Big Ten West rival Northwestern, the increased focus on improving facilities should only give the Illini a boost, not only with the fans, supporters and current players, but also as it relates to recruiting efforts.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.