Lovie Smith seems to be getting acclimated to the college atmosphere at the University of Illinois quite nicely after a long stay in the NFL.
Season Opener: What2Watch
ILLINOIS (0-0) vs. MURRAY STATE (0-0) | TODAY, 3, MEMORIAL STADIUM, BTN
1. Yeah, he has some limitations, but that arm ... Frankly, it’s time for an Illini coaching staff to drop its guard and let QB Wes Lunt turn it loose through the air. The kid can make every throw, with zip and touch, and have it look picture-perfect pretty, too. No doubt, he isn’t about to bust out of the pocket, shed a few tackles and run for many first downs. But he clearly has the physical tools to carry a passing-heavy offense and the mental wherewithal to make good decisions in any offense. An improved OL, pretty deep receiving corps and high-quality RB in Ke’Shawn Vaughn should provide the senior signal-caller the opportunity to have a special season his final fall sporting the Orange & Blue. In his first two years as the Illini starter, Lunt has 4,500 yards, 28 TDs and 9 INTs passing. It would not be shocking to see him post numbers close to that in 2016 alone, beginning with a big afternoon today.
2. Defense needs to keep improving Believe it or not, the Illini will be tested on D right out of the gate by the Racers, particularly through the air. Senior QB KD Humphries has been an FCS freak show for a couple years already, racking up all kinds of passing numbers, and returns fellow All-American in TE Jesse Blackburn as a target. Considering all the aerials Murray State should attempt, this could be a nice starting point for Illinois DE Dawuane Smoot to kick off his own All-America candidacy. Unless his crash-the-pocket partner Carroll Phillips does so instead. FS Taylor Barton figures to get a lot of action as well and has proven he can handle it. Might be a little more difficult to see how the Illini cope with the departures of LBs T.J. Neal and Mason Monheim, although Cal transfer/son of defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson could shadow Humphries from his spot in the middle.
3. More legit already It’s a different vibe at Illinois … even before the first snap of the season. With the inspiring choice of former Illini TE Josh Whitman as AD that predicated his first-day-on-the-job revelation of releasing Bill Cubit as head coach and hiring Lovie Smith for that role, Illinois administrators amazingly erased years, if not decades, of futility, drudgery and apathy linked with its football program. Smith, a respected household name thanks to his time as Bears head coach, immediately gave the Orange & Blue some serious cachet – with recruits, media and Illini everywhere. He and his staff bring 56 years combined of NFL experience to campus. It has been a welcome change and prompted a rebirth of interest and support. Even a “warmup” game such as this one should draw plenty of attention, from those attending to those viewing on television. Of course, getting the Smith Era off to a 1-0 start is kinda critical to things remaining on the positive upswing.
The current Illini coach staff has a whopping total of 56 years NFL experience, to lead all of college football. Behind it are UCLA (44), Michigan (41), Nebraska (32) and USC (30). Here is the breakdown:
Lovie Smith, 19 years Bob Ligashesky, 12 Luke Butkus, 8 Mike Phair, 7 Andrew Hayes-Stocker, 5 Hardy Nickerson, 3 Garrett McGhee, 2 Note: Group also has 9 additional years of NFL staff/non-coaching experience, 18 seasons NFL playing experience, 3 Super Bowl appearances, 1 Super Bowl title and 1 NFL Coach of the Year.
Today, vs. Murray State Sept. 10, vs. North Carolina Sept. 17 vs. W. Michigan Oct. 1 at Nebraska Oct. 8 vs. Purdue Oct. 15 at Rutgers Oct. 22 at Michigan Oct. 29 vs. Minnesota Nov. 5 vs. Michigan State Nov. 12 at Wisconsin Nov. 19 vs. Iowa Nov. 26 at Northwestern