While much has been discussed about the impact of hiring Lovie Smith in place of Bill Cubit, there might not be a more noticeable change between the two coaches than their offensive philosophies. Gone is Cubit and his affinity for spreading out defenses and throwing the ball, and in comes Lovie and new offensive coordinator Garrick McGee's commitment to running the ball, an area where Illinois has struggled in the past. Leading the Illini's group of ballcarriers is sophomore Ke'Shawn Vaughn, and he'll take on an even heavier load this season with the departure of Swiss Army Knife Josh Ferguson.
Returning starters: Vaughn (SO)
Key losses: Ferguson (graduation), Dre Brown (torn ACL), Henry Enyenihi (graduation)
Other returners: Kendrick Foster (JR), Jordan Hahn (JR)
Newcomers: Reggie Corbin (R-FR)
Illinois is razor thin at running back after Brown tore his ACL for the second consecutive season in April. Vaughn will be the feature back and looking to build off an impressive freshman campaign where he accumulated 723 yards on 157 attempts and six touchdowns. With Brown out for the season, that leaves just Vaughn, Reggie Corbin -- who is coming off an ACL injury of his own last season -- and Kendrick Foster as scholarship running backs. With how much attrition you have at the position, Illinois is in precarious waters for running back depth.
Trying to replace Ferguson will be an entirely different obstacle. What made him so difficult to defend against was his versatility in being able to line up in multiple spots on the field, as well as his elusiveness in the open field. At the Spring "don't call it a game" Scrimmage, Foster was in a Ferguson-type role, lining up in the slot at times and being moved around the field a little bit. Call me a little skeptical that Foster (generously listed at 5-foot-9) will be able to step in and fill the void of a pass catcher out of the backfield, seeing as the junior doesn't have any career receptions. The short passing game to tight ends and running backs is another pillar of what McGee will want to do offensively, so any production from Foster could be vital to opening things up for the Illinois offense.
Illinois simply hasn't been good at running the ball since the Ron Zook days, and entire games went by where Cubit simply abandoned the run (it's the chicken or the egg argument: he didn't run the ball because it wasn't working, or it wasn't working because Cubit didn't commit enough to it). Illinois was 110th nationally in rushing offense in 2015, 108th in 2014, 98th in 2013, and 104th in 2012. Expect at least 20 carries a game for Vaughn, with Corbin being the primary backup in terms of carries, while Foster can fill out the third down back, pass catcher role. McGee and Smith will have their work cut out for them if this offense will be successful as a run-first attack in 2016.