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What to expect from Illinois’ offense under Rod Smith

Rod Smith will be bringing a unique style of offense to Champaign. Here’s how it could look.

Lovie surprised many when he announced that offensive coordinator Garrick McGee would not be returning to the staff for the 2018 season. It’s not that he didn’t deserve to be fired — good god, let’s never talk about the 2017 Illinois offense again — but there was a case to be made that many of the struggles were due to a lack of talent. It seemed likely that Lovie Smith would keep McGee for continuity's sake.

But Smith decided to pull the trigger and dismiss McGee and bring in another Smith to lead the offense. Rod Smith was the co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for Arizona since 2012, and he was part of Rich Rodriguez’s staff with three different schools since 2007.

In 2017, Arizona’s offense was fourth in the nation in scoring at 41 points per game and 12th in the nation in yards per game with 489 per contest. It’s worth noting that Rod Smith didn’t have play calling duties with the Wildcats, but did play a key role in the fantastic season that quarterback Khalil Tate enjoyed in 2017.

Smith has actually been the QBs coach for several high-profile players over the last decade in college football including Pat White, Denard Robinson, and the aforementioned Tate.

With Cam Thomas as the only returning scholarship QB, it is a certainty that Rod Smith will continue to utilize the QB heavily in the running game, but what else should fans be on the look for Rod Smith’s offense.

1. Run the dang ball

Since 2012 — when Rod Smith started as the Wildcats’ QB Coach/OC — Arizona has been a very run-heavy team. Arizona averaged 43.7 runs per game compared to only 32.5 passes. That number became ever more exaggerated in the last couple of years — 2017 (46.9/22.7), 2016 (42.4/25.5).

With Cam Thomas being much more suited to running than passing at this point in his career, and Illinois recruiting to build a huge, power blocking offensive line, expect a similar run heavy split from Rod Smith in 2018 and beyond.

If Cam Thomas does indeed win the job, I would expect him to be the leading ball carrier for Illinois and more than likely be the leading rusher.

The Rich Rod running spread offense is all based off running the zone read play out of the shotgun with either two wide receivers on each side or going into “11” personnel with three wideouts and a tight end. Rod Smith will look to install this same scheme as the basis of what Illinois will be looking to do.

2. Speed. Hot, nasty, bad-ass speed.

Offenses usually have the advantage when it comes to speed against the defense. A great way to take advantage of that is use all 53 yards available to you on offense, and force the defense to chase down ball carriers from side to side. If defenses don’t have enough speed to keep up, they may counter by putting in more defensive backs, which can just open up simple runs up the middle even more.

Arizona used its speed to devastating effect in 2017, as did Michigan with Denard Robinson. Illinois has some speedsters that Rod Smith can use to his advantage.

Cam Thomas is exceptionally fast for a QB, and Mike Epstein, while not having the most eye-catching athleticism, has great burst and speed. Louis Dorsey with his great athleticism at tight end can be a huge threat on simple short dump offs in the flat for huge gains.

What can counteract an offense’s speed is penetration by a defensive line, especially up the middle. Illinois will need its offensive line to improve in order to take advantage of some speed matchups that Illinois will have the upper hand on in 2018.

The depth behind the potential starters isn’t nearly as quick, and health will be a key concern for the offense in the first year for Rod Smith.

3. Win the numbers game

All things being equal, Smith would almost certainly like to run the ball with multiple options off the QB. However, if there are matchup options to the outside, he won’t hesitate to take advantage of them.

As with most spread offenses, the goal for Rod Smith is to create numbers mismatches, where the offense has more blockers than the defense has tacklers. It sounds simple, but it takes time and patience to set up these opportunities.

Expect to see a lot of bubble screens and shots down the field when teams are lined up in one on one coverage. These plays may not always work, but they will give the defensive something to think about other than the bread of butter zone option runs.

Often a bubble screen or a simple pass in the flat off of play action will lead to a marginal gain, but once or twice a game these simple plays can turn into huge plays because of the numbers advantage.

It will be very interesting to watch how much of the Rich Rodriguez system Rod Smith leans on with Illinois, and how many new wrinkles and ideas of his own he will try to incorporate. This is a big risk of a hire for Illinois with Smith’s lack of experience with calling plays on game day, but there is also some upside with how the run-based spread scheme fits the current personnel of the roster and the direction that Lovie Smith would like to take the team.