Lovie Smith defied many expectations by making some unconventional moves following the 2017 Illinois football season. He fired offensive coordinator Garrick McGee and replaced him with Rod Smith, and strayed further from his NFL roots by bringing Cory Patterson and USC graduate assistant Austin Clark onto his staff. These moves compound the questions that already remained following the 2017 season, but let’s try to sift through the most pressing ones as they relate to each unit.
The main question on every Illini fan’s mind is pretty clear: “can we expect to see improvement from the offense next season?” The answer to this question will depend greatly on next season’s quarterback play.
Can the Illini find consistency at the quarterback position?
I fully expect to see all of the scholarship quarterbacks battle for playing time this fall. A case can be made for each of them, as AJ Bush is the oldest, Cam Thomas has the most experience with the Illini, MJ Rivers exploded in his high school senior season, Matthew Robinson is Rod Smith’s handpicked quarterback, and Coran Taylor is electric with the ball in his hands:
It’s difficult to rule any of these quarterbacks out, and I wouldn’t be shocked if they all see time this season. I’m hopeful that at least one of these quarterbacks can emerge as a clear-cut starter and produce on a consistent basis, but it is difficult to tell at this point if that will happen.
How effective is Rod Smith’s play calling ability?
Although Rod Smith has been heralded for developing a prolific offense at Arizona as the co-offensive coordinator and QB coach, he did not call plays for the Wildcats. Now that he will be doing so for the Illini, it’s an open question as to whether or not he will be able to succeed. His situation reminds me somewhat of the 2012 Illinois offense headed by Billy Gonzalez and Chris Beatty. Neither had called plays prior to their arrival in Champaign, but Beatty was James Franklin’s recruiting coordinator at Vanderbilt and Gonzalez had previously worked with Odell Beckham Jr. and Reuben Randle as LSU’s wide receiver coach before coming to Illinois. Both lasted only one season as the 2012 Illini offense sputtered much like the 2017 version. It’s certainly possible that Rod Smith could boost productivity on the offense, but it’s anyone’s guess as to whether or not he will be the answer.
Will the offensive line improve?
Inconsistency on the young offensive line was one of many problems plaguing the 2017 Illini offense. I expect that a year in the strength and conditioning program will help players like Larry Boyd, Alex Palczewski, Vederian Lowe, and others immensely. But sometimes it takes more than one year for young linemen to learn the intricacies of their positions, so improvement is by no means guaranteed.
The Illini defense played reasonably well last season, and in many cases their mistakes were a function of having to be on the field way too much due to the offense’s inability to move the ball. Regardless, questions swirl around the defense as well.
What will the linebacker rotation look like?
Tre Watson and Julian Jones left gaping holes in the defense when they decided to transfer after the 2017 season. Dele Harding spelled Tre Watson at the MLB position last season and finished sixth on the team in total tackles, but the linebackers are largely unknown beyond Harding and 2017 leading tackler Del’Shawn Phillips. Jake Hansen received rave reviews in camp last season, but he suffered a season-ending knee injury and had surgery last season. The other linebackers haven’t yet recorded much playing time, and the lack of experienced depth leaves little margin for injuries or error. Marc Mondesir is a Lovie recruit who played sparingly last year, but he has talent and could be poised for big minutes next season:
Will the incoming defensive linemen be able to contribute right away?
Calvin Avery and Verdis Brown are two of the best Illini recruits in recent memory, but they will arrive next season on a crowded defensive line. Both figure to be defensive tackles, and will need to fight for playing time against returning starter Tymir Oliver as well as Kenyon Jackson, in addition to former highly-touted recruits Kendrick Green and Lere Oladipo. I can see Avery and Brown playing next season, but considering the talented players they’re up against, I could also see one or both of them taking a redshirt.
Improvement from the offense would go a long way toward helping the Illini improve overall in 2018. However, given the sheer number of unknowns on that side of the ball, it’s hard to say with any amount of certainty that improvement will or will not occur. We’ll all find out soon enough this fall.