Top 3 Lessons Learned in 2016
1. Lovie is going to play freshmen. The 2016 recruiting class wasn’t generally thought of as the foundation Lovie Smith would need to jumpstart the Illinois program. In fact, most recruiting services ranked the class near the bottom of the conference, and experts with extensive knowledge of Illinois prospects weren’t overly enthused (which they are about the 2017 class). But there the Illini were, in the Big Ten season throwing true freshmen to the wolves at multiple positions. Were they ready? Probably not. There was plenty of effort thrown around, but watching Stanley Green come downhill and launch his 175 pounds into a senior running back was scary. Kenyon Jackson plugging into 23-year-olds along the offensive line offered glimmers of hope, but mostly big holes.
Regardless, Lovie wasn’t playing for 2016, he was playing the long game and he is going to play freshmen in 2017. In a perfect world Lovie doesn’t have to play true freshmen because the program is built up to a point that they have a redshirt year to develop the strength and conditioning they’ll need to be impactful Big Ten contributors. In their redshirt years, players will get their feet wet on special teams and against the Ball States of the world. But, this is Illinois football, and it hasn’t been a perfect world for nearly 50 years. Freshmen are going to play.
2. Lovie needs to recruit. We’ve established that ready-or-not freshmen are going to have a big role over the next few years, and that’s a heck of a recruiting pitch. “Sure, you can go to Penn State and assuredly win a good number of games in the next couple of years. But, you’ll be watching...Oh, what’s that? You’d rather play right away? Well, check out this Illini depth chart and tell me why you can’t come in and get starters’ minutes from day one!” That pitch worked like a charm in 2017, and it will need to continue to lure talented prospects away from other Power-5 schools if Lovie is going to get the players he needs to win.
As currently constructed, there just isn’t enough high-level depth on the roster to consistently make bowl games -- I’m not talking the Rose or even Outback Bowl, just bowl games in general. It’s going to take a few years of recruiting 2017-type talent to get to that level, and that was screaming through the TV in 2016.
3. Lovie never planned on altering his scheme. He won’t admit it, but when reports broke that Lovie wasn’t happy in Champaign they weren’t about his living situation or the opportunity to build the University of Illinois football program; they stemmed from the sheer frustration of jamming a square peg into a round hole for five months and realizing it’ll be a couple years before the edges start to fit. Some coaches are willing to alter their scheme to fit the talent they inherited, but Lovie saw the bigger picture and had the support from Josh Whitman to think long haul. He has the long contract, he has the administrative support with the renovation, and it doesn’t make sense to try and squeak out a couple wins if that means sacrificing system experience.
Illinois went 3-9 a year ago, including a 2-7 record in the Big Ten, but frustratingly there isn’t too much on-field data to analyze and confidently say what the future holds for 2017. Season no. 2 of Lovie should tell us a lot more but still leave some questions unanswered, most importantly, “Is this Lovie Smith experiment going to ultimately work?”