The Fighting Illini rank No. 92 in Athlon's Top 130 for 2019
There hasn't been a bowl bid for Illinois in five seasons. The last winning record came in 2011. The players have had enough.
"I'm sick of losing," says starting center Doug Kramer, who joined the team in 2016.
He looks forward to better days. To a time when Illinois is relevant in the Big Ten West. "What's happened in the past stays in the past," Kramer says. "It's time to move on. We're ready to get going in this next season and win a lot of games."
In his third campaign, Lovie Smith won the most games (four) of his tenure. But he still fell short of a postseason berth.
Going into Year 4, it's the best Kramer has felt about the team's prospects. "Absolutely," he says.
Previewing Illinois' Offense for 2019
The biggest question: Who plays quarterback? Sophomore M.J. Rivers II gained starting experience as a freshman and seemed to take control of the job during spring practice. However, Rivers decided to transfer in early May, leaving Matt Robinson - one of three quarterback signees in 2018 - and incoming freshman Isaiah Williams, who has the skill set offensive coordinator Rod Smith craves. A speedy playmaker with a strong arm, Williams presents a two-dimensional quandary for opponents. A graduate transfer could be added.
Good news for whoever wins the job: Tailback Reggie Corbin returns after a big junior season. He became the first Illini since Mikel Leshoure in 2010 to top 1,000 yards. Corbin, who considered an early move to the NFL, enters the season in the best shape of his life.
He will work behind an offensive line that returns four starters. The best of the bunch is tackle Alex Palczewski, an All-Big Ten candidate. The lone vacancy in the line is expected to be filled by Alabama transfer Richie Petitbon, who joined impressed the coaches in the spring.
Receiver remains a concern. Leading returnee Ricky Smalling caught only 33 passes. One option will be to use incoming freshman Marquez Beason on both offense and defense. A skilled defender, Beason also has the attention of Rod Smith, who is looking for more game-breakers in his offense. The Illini will be looking for an immediate contribution from grad transfer Trevon Sidney, a former four-star recruit who arrives from USC.
The Illini suffered a setback in late April when tight end Luke Ford, a transfer from Georgia, was denied immediate eligibility. His appeal was also denied in June.
Previewing Illinois' Defense for 2019
A year after changing his offensive coordinator, Lovie Smith made a move on defense. What hotshot coach did Smith pick as his new coordinator? Well, himself. "As a head football coach, I have always been involved," Smith says. "I like the coaching part. I don' think that has to stop when you become head football coach."
He added two new assistants to the defensive side, including his son Miles, who will work with the linebackers.
The Illini have major work to do in all facets after ranking near the bottom nationally in several statistical categories. They were 122nd against the run, 124th in points allowed and 128th in yards allowed. Not good numbers for a coach who built his reputation on defense.
"We played about as bad a defense as you could play in college football," Smith says. "Guys realize that. We bring that up daily. We are embracing what happened last year to make us better."
The strength of the unit is up front. The Illini expect an immediate contribution from grad transfer Oluwole Betiku, a former five-star recruit who began his career at USC. Tackles Tymir Oliver and Jamal Milan anchor the inside. End Bobby Roundtree was projected to be a contender for all-conference honors this fall, but he suffered a spinal injury in May.
Linebackers Milo Eifler and Jake Hansen should lead the team in tackles. The secondary is long on experience, led by safeties Tony Adams and Stanley Green and cornerback Nate Hobbs.
Overall talent on the defense has improved, which is encouraging to Smith.
"We've had too big a drop-off with injuries around here," he says. "Now, we're getting to the point where that depth can really help us go through some of those times."
Previewing Illinois' Specialists for 2019
The Illini will miss All-Big Ten kicker Chase McLaughlin. Caleb Griffin, from nearby Danville, Ill., is the likely replacement. Australian punter Blake Hayes has been one of the team's top weapons his first two seasons. Backup running back Dre Brown will work again as kick returner.
Despite winning only nine games in his first three years, Smith's job is not in danger. After the 2018 season, the school added two years to the end of his original six-year deal. Still, Smith is growing impatient with the lack of success. Most of the staff has turned over, with just two remaining from his original hires.
With a soft nonconference schedule, the team will need to win one-third of its nine conference games to reach a bowl. Doable? Definitely. Guaranteed? Hardly. Smith remains optimistic, due in part to changes he made on his staff. "We've been around ball long enough to know when something good is getting ready to happen," he says. "The coaching staff is part of that and why I know it's a different day for Illinois football."