Lovie Smith didn’t slip into hibernation once the University of Illinois football season ended.
It only seemed that way.
Smith seemed to vanish as soon as Illinois lost its 10th consecutive game on Nov. 25. Actually, he held exit interviews with all of his players and, as it turned out, 10 of them did exit the program.
The Illini head coach didn’t seem fazed by the players who will be leaving, though linebacker Tre Watson and safety Patrick Nelson were productive starters on a defense that appears to be thin on experience.
The transfers have been players recruited by the previous coaching staff.
“I think it’s pretty normal,” Smith said. “When you are new to a program, some guys will leave and move on. After two years you know exactly how we do things and you know whether you are a fit or not here.”
After exit interviews were completed Smith immersed himself in recruiting and last Friday announced 18 new players who will join the program for the 2018 season. He hopes to add five or six more by February, he said.
A day later, word trickled out that Smith had fired his offensive coordinator, Garrrick McGee, and his cornerbacks coach, Paul Williams. The university confirmed those changes on Tuesday.
Smith’s first two seasons have produced a 5-19 record. He has overseen a massive makeover of the roster with a decided emphasis on youth. And as he moves toward his third spring practice in early March, here are five matters that must get his attention.
1. Revamp the coaching staff: Smith is clearly bent on trying to jump-start an offense that slogged along with three different quarterbacks, a line that used four freshman starters and freshmen at every skill position.
A new coordinator should be hired quickly and will be tasked with coaching sophomore-to-be Cam Thomas into a game-ready quarterback. That’s assuming the new coordinator likes Thomas as much as McGee did.
It’s time for the offense to start carrying its weight and the new coordinator will have to lead the way.
Also, the NCAA is allowing schools to hire a 10th full-time assistant coach who will be able to recruit off campus. That appointment will be made in January and the favorite to land the job is former Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase, who is now an offensive analyst.
It will be interesting to see what responsibilities Smith gives Scheelhaase and whether he’ll have hands-on duties with the quarterback position.
2. Tighten up the offensive line: Illinois’ offensive line was sketchy at best last season and for good reason. Guard Nick Allegretti was the only player with experience and he was generally surrounded by three true freshmen and a redshirt freshman.
The offensive line play must improve markedly. That includes run blocking and pass protection.
Illinois was last in the Big Ten in rushing offense and allowed more sacks than any conference team. That’s a result of investing in the freshmen last season. Some return on that investment needs to come in 2018.
3. Find play-makers on defense: Illinois invested in freshmen on defense, too, and some of those youngsters showed real promise.
Safety Bennett Williams, defensive linemen Bobby Roundtree, Isaiah Gay and Jamal Woods, and cornerbacks Nate Hobbs and Tony Adams, all demonstrated they have the skill to play at this level. Now, with added experience, they should make a bigger difference.
It will be interesting to see how Smith compensates for the loss of linebackers Watson and Julian Jones (transfers) and how quickly he can incorporate two of his highest-rated recruits, defensive linemen Verdis Brown and Calvin Avery.
And, believe it or not, Smith didn’t play every freshman last season. He redshirted two freshmen defensive linemen and will add them to the mix this season: Kendrick Green of Peoria and Lere Oladipo of Huntley.
4. Time to produce: Some fans have been patient while others have tuned out Smith’s rebuild until the results on the field improve. Well, it’s time to start winning those fans back.
The rebuild isn’t complete, but in Year Three of the Lovie Smith Experience, it’s time to start playing with more competence and better results. With a more favorable schedule, winning five or six games is a reasonable goal.
Just as important, it’s time for a Lovie Smith Illini football team to gain an identity.
He’d like forcing turnovers to be the calling card on defense. A new offensive coordinator will need to become known for running the ball, passing the ball or some kind of effective play-calling. So far the offensive identity is three-and-out ineffectiveness.
5. Make people believe this is going to work: Smith doesn’t show much enthusiasm for communicating his program’s progress with the public. With a little more effort, he could convince people there’s more going on than a 5-19 record would suggest.
Crowds are dwindling. Belief is in short supply. Only one thing is going to change that and that’s winning more games with a team fans enjoy watching.
Spring practice begins the first week of March. In his third year, Smith needs to show fans that Josh Whitman was pretty smart when he hired him.