On paper, not much is expected from Lovie Smith’s second University of Illinois football team.
Losses are heavy on the defensive line. The Illini are thin on the offensive front. The appointed starting quarterback, Chayce Crouch, is unproven and coming off shoulder surgery.
Wide receiver Mike Dudek, nothing short of thrilling as a freshman, missed his sophomore season with an ACL tear, then did it again and sat out last season. Hopes are high for him, but even his most ardent supporters will be holding their breath.
For every season in college football, though, teams emerge that outperform modest expectations. Surprises happen. Players rise up. And head coaches grab attention for doing a remarkable job cooking up a winner with what appeared to be a thin pantry of ingredients.
We’ll soon find out just how little is expected from an Illini program that went 3-9 in Lovie’s first season. Monday and Tuesday is when the 14 head coaches and a couple hundred media will assemble in Chicago for the Big Ten Conference football media day event.
Last year was Lovie’s maiden voyage and, to be fair, he was hired very late, got a late start organizing practice and was forced to recruit so late it was a scramble from the beginning.
He inherited a roster filled with holes and was often learning on the fly as he adjusted from a 19-year career in the National Football League to a college game that had changed since he last coached football on campus, in 1995 at Ohio State.
Last season was his honeymoon and the record Illinois posted was not unexpected, especially when he had to deal with two quarterback injuries.
The expectation is that those who follow the Big Ten will pick Illinois to finish sixth or seventh in the seven-team Big Ten West Division.
Wisconsin will be the pick to win the division and challenges will be expected from Northwestern and Nebraska with an eye on Iowa and whatever newcomer P.J. Fleck can do at Minnesota.
Ohio State will be the favorite in the East with Penn State to follow and we’ll all write many words on Michigan and Jim Harbaugh’s crafty mission to unseat the hated Buckeyes.
I won’t need to wait until Monday and Tuesday to say how I feel about the Illini. I think the time is right for Smith and his staff to confound the experts, to be better than whatever it says “on paper.”
I think if Lovie is a shrewd hire, a guy whose NFL pedigree matters, and a coach who seems to have assembled a difference-making staff of coordinators and assistants, Illinois should get ahead of the rebuilding curve this season.
I’m not talking about contending for a division title. But I’m talking about being one of the teams in the league that grabs attention in a positive way.
Offensively, I think this team should sustain drives, make more big plays and put points on the board, assuming the offensive line isn’t decimated by injuries.
It’s true, the depth still isn’t there and the offseason dismissal of three players can’t be underestimated. Darta Lee would have given a boost to the offensive line. Howard Watkins, a freshman who enrolled early, could have won some playing time. And Zarrian Holcombe was an intriguing athlete who could have joined the rotation on the defensive line.
But they’re gone, so others must step up.
This is the season defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson needs to show he can “coach ‘em up” and field a front line that can hold its own. This is the season the Illini defense needs to start generating more turnovers.
It won’t be a surprise if Illinois takes only a baby step this season. The roster still isn’t anywhere near where it needs to be. By working hard to win over recruits in Florida, Texas, Illinois, Missouri and California, some athletes are starting to arrive. If Lovie could get some big 2018 commitments late next week and into August, the situation would feel much better.
But based solely on the roster as it stands now, Lovie and his staff need to make a statement. Don’t wait. Do something now.
Every season there’s a team that surprises and does more than expected, more than what seemed reasonable in the summer before the season began.
I challenge Lovie Smith to be that coach, to lead that team this season.
On paper, not much is expected. The goal is simple: Be better than what’s on paper.