Perhaps it is the season-is-near adrenalin flowing, but …
Really think the University of Illinois football will not suck this fall. In fact, the overwhelming vibes right now are that it will be pretty good. Like, way better than predictions good. From the opening snap of the opener against Murray State in two weeks.
Why? Good question.
Here’s four pretty good reasons in response to it.
DEEP AND TALENTED DEFENSIVE LINE
Not for nothing, but the Fighting Illini will boast one of the nation’s better fronts, headed by one of its top players in Dawaune Smoot. The senior already is being discussed as a potential first-round pick in next April’s NFL Draft and rightly so. He’s strong, cat-quick and productive. Last year’s 15 tackles for loss by him were the most by an Illinois player since All-American Whitney Mercilus had 22.5 in 2011. Smoot ain’t alone, though. Carroll Phillips has shown flashes as a playmaker coming off the edge, Chunky Clements and Rob Bain each provide lane-clogging, 300-pound beef inside and Auburn transfer Gimel President offers quality depth.
ADDITION AFTER SUBTRACTIONS
As much as there was to admire Mason Monheim’s effort and T.J. Neal’s confidence, the reality is the Illini are better at linebacker now that they’re gone (Monheim to graduation and Neal to Auburn) … especially since the arrival of Cal transfer Hardy Nickerson, who opted to join his legendary father by the same name once the elder took a position on Lovie Smith’s staff. Like President, he is a graduate-eligible transfer. Unlike President, he is a proven star, having recorded 246 tackles in 35 career games with the Golden Bears, earning team MVP honors last season. Like Smoot, he is on most preseason Watch Lists for national awards, and projected to be drafted next April.
QUALITY OFFENSIVE BACKFIELD
In senior quarterback Wes Lunt and sophomore running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, the Illini are blessed with a legit 1-2 punch that, given decent offensive-line play, will do some serious damage, even in the Big Ten Conference. Lunt, without question, has an NFL arm. He may not be the most nimble guy out there, but, wow, can he make throws. All of them. On target and on time. Vaughn merely did the impossible as a freshman, he made the eventual loss of since-departed Josh Ferguson’s all-purpose talents a non-issue. The best signee of Tim Beck’s tenure before the former head coach got the boot, he is a physical, dependable game-changer.
With all the upheaval in the coaching staff and athletic administration that hung over the program, the Illini seem to have hit back-to-back homers with hiring Josh Whitman as AD, and then him turning around and luring Smith back to the college ranks after two decades away. The latter’s arrival gives the school instant cachet with, well, everyone from recruits to the national media. Plus, that pipeline to Chicago talent that never seems to have truly materialized? Well, it might just happen now, considering Smith is the last coach to lead the city’s beloved Bears to a Super Bowl.
Yeah, the Illini ain’t gonna suck. In fact, they might be pretty good … pretty fast. Perhaps “even this season” fast.
Senior QB Wes Lunt is the cover boy for the Illini's season-ticket plan.