Illinois Fighting Illini 2016 Preview and Prediction


#74 Illinois Fighting Illini





HEAD COACH: Lovie Smith, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Garrick McGee | DEF. COORDINATOR: Hardy Nickerson

Previewing Illinois’ Offense for 2016

The guy pulling the trigger for the Illini offense knows his way around the Big Ten. Wes Lunt, who started his career at Oklahoma State before transferring, enters his third year as a starter. At Illinois, Lunt has thrown only nine interceptions. His new head coach wants him to keep it up.

“The easiest way to lose football games is if you don’t protect the football,” Lovie Smith says. “Nobody harps on the turnover ratio as much as we do.”

Lunt has a talented playmaker behind him at tailback in Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who led the team with 723 yards — including 180 on 16 carries in a win at Purdue — in 2015.

On the second day of spring practice, the Illini suffered a blow — for the second consecutive year. Mike Dudek, who broke the freshman receiving record at Illinois in 2014 with 1,038 yards, tore the ACL in his right knee. It was the same injury he suffered in April 2015, which cost him his sophomore season. Dudek had surgery on April 12. It’s a serious loss, although there are players who are ready to fill the resulting void. Desmond Cain is coming off a 53-catch freshman season. Malik Turner enters his third season and was third on the team with 39 catches. Justin Hardee returns after missing the 2015 season because of injury.

The Illini line is set at tackle, where starters Christian DiLauro and Austin Schmidt return.

Previewing Illinois’ Defense for 2016

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The strength of Hardy Nickerson’s crew will be up front. Three starters return, led by end Dawuane Smoot, who had a team-best eight sacks last season. Other than Lunt, no player is as important to the team as Smoot. Rob Bain and Chunky Clements are back to fill the tackle spots.

Nickerson’s son — also named Hardy — will provide an immediate boost to the Illini defense as a graduate transfer. Last year, Nickerson led California with 112 tackles. 

Opposing quarterbacks are going to have to keep an eye out for safety Taylor Barton. He led the Illini with four interceptions in 2015 and is back for more. The Illini lost three starters in the secondary. Jaylen Dunlap will fill one of the spots. The cornerbacks will be new, with Darius Mosely a good bet to start.

Previewing Illinois’ Specialists for 2016

Punter Ryan Frain averaged 40 yards in his first year as a starter. Just 12 of his 70 boots ended up inside the 20, a number he wants to improve. Kicker David Reisner hit 6-of-11 field goals in 2014, including a game-winner against Penn State, but did not attempt a kick last season. He will be pushed in preseason drills by incoming freshman James McCourt. The return game lost V’Angelo Bentley to graduation. He ranked as one of the best in school history. No replacement was picked in the spring, meaning it could be a training camp decision.  

Final Analysis

Smith has gone back to school. After 21 years away from the college game, the former Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Bucs head coach is in charge at Illinois.

“I think that’s a [misconception], that you’re in the NFL, so you’re in a different country,” Smith says. But he hasn’t coached in college since the 1995 season, when he worked with the defensive backs at Ohio State.
Smith is the ninth head coach at Illinois since 1979. Only one (John Mackovic) left on his own terms.

Smith will be tested early and often in his rookie season with games against North Carolina, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan, Michigan State and Iowa. Nine of this season’s opponents went to bowls last season. To get to the postseason against that schedule, the Illini are going to have to pull some upsets.