In terms of personality and style, there aren’t many similarities between Lovie Smith and Illinois’ most recent permanent head coach, Tim Beckman. As someone who watched the entirety of the Beckman era during undergrad, I’m largely pleased with the direction that Lovie has taken the program, but whether or not his trajectory can avoid that of his predecessor remains to be seen.
The performance of Tim Beckman’s first team in 2012 was painfully similar to that of Lovie’s first squad with his own recruits last season. Both teams featured somewhat manageable defenses paired with offenses that could not consistently move the ball. And not surprisingly, both offensive coordinators found themselves looking for work the following season. On paper the results were identical: 2-10 (0-8).
It can be tempting to conclude that Lovie is bound to follow the same trajectory: modest improvement following the two-win campaign until 5-6 wins per year becomes the ceiling once his first class of recruits enter their upperclassmen years. Such an assumption would ignore some key differences in Lovie’s tenure so far.
That 2012 roster featured a junior quarterback who would become the current record holder for total career yards at Illinois (10,634, Nathan Scheelhaase), along with other upperclassmen who are still some of the most recent NFL draft picks to come from the Illini (Terry Hawthorne, Hugh Thornton, Akeem Spence, Michael Buchanan). This was a team that grossly underperformed its talent level, largely because the dysfunctional Beatty-Gonzalez offense would consistently leave the exhausted Illini defense to be overwhelmed in the second half.
Lovie’s 2017 team was totally different. His roster was lacking in experienced talent, and many upperclassmen watched from the sidelines as a historic number of freshmen starters took the field. The revolving door at quarterback was an added liability to an offense that was crippled by Garrick McGee’s schemes and play calling, but eventually freshman Cam Thomas took the reigns of the starting job and showed flashes (read: flashes) of athleticism:
As I compare both seasons, I recall that a sense of purpose was an under-riding theme in the background of the 2017 season. The struggles were obvious, but identities were developing on both sides of the ball as the young defense prioritized generating takeaways and the offense’s rushing attack began to coalesce early on around Mike Epstein. Furthermore, talented recruits are paying attention to Lovie Smith, as the recent verbal commitments from Marquez Beason and Isaiah Williams attest.
As for 2012, the sense of dread and hopelessness was almost tangible. Beckman’s gaffes and unimpressive communication skills did little to distract from the results on the field and inspire confidence in a brighter future. What success he did experience in 2014 was squandered by poor recruiting before he was ultimately cut loose following the player abuse scandal.
With this in mind, I have much more optimism about the future of Illini football today than I did entering the 2013 season. I actually expect the still-crazy young 2018 Illini to not match the 4-8 record of the 2013 team, but I’m confident that the ceiling for the 2019 season and beyond will be much higher than it was for the previous staff.