After a long, headline-filled offseason, Fighting Illini football will return to Champaign on Thursday morning for the start of Fall training camp. The Orange and Blue will participate in 16 practices from August 4-20, and all sessions will be open to the public. Putting fanfare aside, though, Lovie Smith and his new coaching staff have inherited a program and roster full of question marks.
1. Will Lovie Smith make an impact during his first season?
Let me preface this section with a big, blinding disclaimer: I believe that Lovie Smith is a huge upgrade over Tim Beckman and Bill Cubit as a football coach. That being said, it is unrealistic for him to turn the program around overnight. Remember these are all Beckman/Cubit recruits, and it will be for multiple years to come.
Culturally, Lovie is known for his stingy defenses that force turnovers, his commitment to running the ball, and unflinching loyalty to Rex Grossman. The good news is that the Illini already have pieces in place to fit with what Lovie brings to the table. Illinois was fourth in the Big Ten last season in turnover margin, and second in the conference in interceptions with 13. It’ll be up to Taylor Barton (led the team with four picks last year) and Jaylen Dunlap to continue to turn over other teams and give the offense a short field. The Illini also return sophomore Ke’Shawn Vaughn as their feature back, and he expects to carry a heavy load. He led the squad last year with 723 yards while splitting carries with Josh Ferguson, but his carries will increase as his role expands and the offense shifts away from Cubit’s spread to new offensive coordinator Garrick McGee’s pro-style approach. I’m putting the over/under on Vaughn’s yards this season at 1,100. That’d be the most Illinois has had since Mikel Leshoure ripped off 1,697 yards in 2010.
2. Will Wes Lunt emerge as one of the Big Ten’s best passers?
This is the number one non-Lovie Smith question surrounding the Illinois football team. Wes Lunt, while the arm talent has had NFL scouts drooling for years, hasn’t been particularly dominant in his first two seasons as a starter. There have been some reasons why (injuries derailed his sophomore campaign, along with Reilly O’Toole getting hot down the stretch; his wideouts did him no favors last season — more on that in a bit) but Lunt hasn’t really even had that breakout game where he’s put it all together. Yes, he threw for 456 yards against Western Kentucky in his second career start in Champaign, but he’s topped the 300-yard threshold just three times in 18 appearances since. One of the more frustrating parts was that Nathan Scheelhaase (an incredible competitor, very mobile, and extremely smart quarterback, however he had a below average arm) threw for 3,272 yards the year prior to Lunt under Cubit’s tutelage. That offense was so rare because it featured Scheelhaase, a four-year starter, and four senior wide receivers in Steve Hull, Spencer Harris, Miles Osei and Ryan Lankford, who all worked together to create a product that was greater than the sum of its parts. Lunt hasn’t had that kind of supporting cast, and there have been many instances in the past two seasons where the Illini tried to ramp up the tempo and get rolling, only to be bogged down by confusion at the line of scrimmage, resulting in panic timeouts and/or red-face-yelling-Bill Cubit.
Perhaps putting less on Lunt’s plate will be the best thing for him, and establishing a rushing game is absolutely critical because Lunt is one of the most immobile quarterbacks I’ve ever seen. Seriously, he has -239 yards rushing in his three collegiate seasons and he has a total of zero career games with positive rushing yards. When defenses can pin their ears back and rush him, there’s nowhere for Lunt to go. Lunt has the talent — now it’s time for the production.
3. Who will be Illinois’ backup quarterback?
So Jeff George Jr. killed it at the spring practice. He was slinging pinpoint passes left and right, throwing touchdowns with ease and grace. The legend grows and grows, right? Beware the offseason effect. Given such a tiny sample size, it’s impossible to draw any conclusions for the backup quarterback battle. All we know is that George can make those plays, with no idea whether he can do so consistently or with a defense who’s spent a week watching him on film. The ultimate hope here is that this question is moot, that Wes Lunt can stay healthy, yada yada yada. But Lunt’s body has given Illini fans plenty of reason to pay attention to the backup QB battle as camp unfolds. As it stands, that battle seems to favor Chayce Crouch. The only QB on the roster with playing experience whose name is longer than seven letters, Crouch should begin with the backup nod and brings size and running ability. George and Fitzgerald can’t match his mobility, and Crouch would have to struggle in camp (or in a game as a backup) for either of the other two to get a shot.
Assuming Lunt starts the year healthy, this battle could very feasibly last into the regular season, with the hope being that a couple season-opening romps provide for some garbage-time reps. All three should have their eye on the starting job for next season when prized recruit Cam Thomas enters the fray.
4. Will we see improvement from the wide receiver corps?
To put it mildly, the Fighting Illini receivers struggled last year. OK — maybe "struggled" isn’t the best way to put it. Robert compiled actual statistics over at Illini Board, and they were stunningly terrible. Through the first 8 games last year (I couldn’t find end of season tallies), the unit dropped 50 passes. It gets worse, believe it or not, when you realize how the mistakes impacted the offense. Those 50 drops took away at least 512 yards, 23 first downs, and 6 touchdowns. Not a single offense in America can overcome such a deficiency.
So will we see any improvement this Fall? It’s hard to say at the moment. I’m optimistic that the players can improve under their new coaches, but the depth chart makes it really hard to say for certain. Deep-ball threat Geronimo Allison has graduated and, though that isn’t a huge loss, his departure is compounded by the fact that Mike Dudek will likely miss a second-straight season due to injury. That means we’re looking at junior Malik Turner, sophomore Desmond Cain, and senior Justin Hardee — who missed 2015 with a foot injury — as the starters heading into camp; they combined for 92 receptions and 1,000 yards last year.
Is Turner ready to be the No. 1 option in the passing game? Who will step up as a playmaking threat? Can sophomore Sam Mays become a reliable target? Hopefully the Illini can answer these questions in the coming weeks.
5. Can the Fighting Illini secondary evolve under new guidance?
At each level of the defense, you want someone who you can point to as the leader of that group. Last year, Jihad Ward, Mason Monheim, and Clayton Fejedelem filled those roles for Illinois, and all three are gone. Dawuane Smoot is the heir apparent on the Illinois defensive line, and Hardy Nickerson transferring from Cal saves a lackluster linebacking corps, but the secondary is one of the most interesting position groups to watch as camp opens.
Lovie has made his career coaching defensive backs into attackers, and after losing three of the roster’s four best defensive backs, Lovie has a tall task. Taylor Barton jumps out as the leader of the third level, but he’ll be tasked with being THE playmaker behind Nickerson unless his cohorts show improvement. There’s reason to be optimistic that Lovie can be something of a revelation for guys like Caleb Day, Jaylen Dunlap, and Darius Mosely, who have been inconsistent at best in their time in orange and blue. If those guys can pick up on the fundamentals (which under Lovie includes creating turnovers) and be more confident in trying to make big plays, the dividends could be huge for the Illini. Turnovers lead to short fields, which lead to offensive rhythm, points, and victories.
6. Can Hardy Nickerson Jr. and Dawuane Smoot be dominant?
According to CBSSports, Nickerson is the fourth-best inside linebacker draft prospect, while Smoot is the second-best defensive end. In order for its defense to be good, these guys have to live up to the hype. Smoot showed flashes of being unblockable with eight sacks last season — he’s trimmed down to 255 lb. for 2016, and could have a Whitney Mercilus-type season. Paired with fellow speed rusher Carroll Phillips on the other side, and the Illini figure to have a formidable assault on opposing passers. Nickerson increased his production last season at Cal as the year wore on, ending with double-digit tackles in six of the final eight contests of the season, including a 16-stop effort in the regular season finale against Arizona State. Illinois lost a lot of experience on defense — especially in the linebacking corps — so it will be up to Nickerson to assert himself not only as a sure tackler, but as a leader and mentor to guys like James Crawford and Julian Jones.