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All Eyes on the Offense for Illinois

For the whole team to take a step forward, Rod Smith must generate more points than his predecessor.

NCAA Football: Illinois at South Florida Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

“Offense wins games, but defense wins championships.”

This old football adage is often invoked to remind fans of the importance of a sound defense to a well-balanced team. But for a team like Illinois, it also demonstrates the primacy of a stable offense, since winning games aren’t possible without one — much less championships.

For the most part last season, the defense looked serviceable considering its youth. Bobby Roundtree, Isaiah Gay, and Bennett Williams all emerged as rising defensive stars last season, while a handful of capable veterans like Jamal Milan, Tymir Oliver, and Del’Shawn Phillips remain as leaders and mentors. Overall, the Illini defense found itself at #85 in total defense out of 129 in the nation with 418.4 yards per game.

On the other hand, the Illini offense languished at #126 in total offense during 2017, ahead of only Rutgers in the Big Ten.

Improvement of the offense is critical to winning more games in the 2018 season and beyond. The defense should take care of itself, as it has substantial amount of talent right now and looks to be gaining more in 2019. But without the offense scoring points and keeping the defense off the field for longer periods of time, the results will end up being more of the same that we saw in 2017.

Rod Smith has his work cut out for him, but he does have tools to work with. Obviously, a healthy Mike Dudek could work wonders for this offense, but Mike Epstein should figure to be a feature back with game experience and a complete offseason under his belt. If all goes well, we can expect to see more of this happen:

But that will require Rod Smith to provide answers to some of the major questions surrounding this offense. Who will be the starting quarterback? Will the offensive line take a step forward? Who is ready to step up right away when inevitable injuries knock out key players?

I can’t say with any level of certainty that we’ll get answers to those questions this year. I’m hopeful that the sophomores will show substantial improvement, and that one of the five scholarship quarterbacks on the roster will take the wide open starting job and run with it. At the same time, it wouldn’t shock me if we see revolving doors at quarterback and on the lines lead to a sputtering offense reminiscent of 2012 and 2017.

I’m much more confident in the defense, as the only serious question I have concerns the linebacker situation, and that could be at least partially nullified through the talent and depth Lovie is building on the line and in the secondary. But the offense was certainly the limiting factor for the team last season, and it has the potential to pull the entire team down again in 2018 unless major improvement is made. For that reason, I’ll be keeping my eyes fixed on the Illini offense this season.

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