CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — On March 7, 2016, the Illini hired former Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith to be the new leader of their football program.
Smith’s job was to turn the program around after four straight losing seasons and years of underachieving. It was a rocky start for the former Bears skipper, who won a total of nine games in his first three seasons, but the Illini finally started to flip the script with a six win season in 2019 and the program’s first bowl appearance in a half decade.
Smith earned an extension through the 2023 season, not only because of the fact that the play on the field has improved but also because of the way he treats his players.
“I’m approachable, my door is open. I try to stay up as much as I possibly can on things that really matter that first affect our program, of course our players, and that’s the case,” Smith said. “I’ve said it before, I’m in favor of the players getting everything that they deserve, all of us. Football has helped so many people, coaches, administrators, players and all. I think there’s a fine line and there’s a happy-medium where we can all be happy and I think that’s the case with our players. I’ll just say that we talk completely. And I know that the guys feel okay with what we’re doing around here.”
For Smith, the whole thought process is to not look too far ahead.
“First off, there’s no given that college football will be played,” Smith said. “Right now they’ve told us that we can start practicing and that’s what we’re doing. And until someone tells us differently, that’s what we’re going to do.”
Smith is excited about the roster this year, even mentioning that “our depth is as good right now as it has ever been.” The Illini have various new transfers that they expect to make an impact, confidence in their quarterback, strong leadership from their senior captains and one of the best offensive lines in the sport. But the main focus has been effectively and safely battling COVID-19.
“I think every year there’s something pressing you have to focus on a little bit. It’s bigger than football what we’re dealing with with COVID-19,” Smith said.
So far so good after two days of practice.
Hayes excited to add another Aussie:
The Australian punting project has worked out pretty well for Smith. Lovie, along with special teams coach Bob Ligashesky, gambled when they signed Blake Hayes to their first recruiting class. Hayes had never even attended an American football game before he arrived on campus.
Four years later, Hayes is in his senior year at Illinois and the top punting prospect in Mel Kiper’s 2021 draft projections. He was added to the Ray Guy Award watch list, given to the nation’s top collegiate punter, and named to Phil Steele’s Preseason All-American Third Team.
The gamble paid off.
With Hayes in his final season at Illinois, and the Illini needing a new punter, Ligashesky went back to Australia to find their new leg and Hayes couldn’t be happier.
“I’m very, very happy [Ligashesky] went the Australian route,” Hayes told reporters on Friday.
Hugh Robertson was Ligashesky’s latest discovery. Like Hayes, Robertson was a member of Prokick Australia, a punting academy that strives to get Australian athletic scholarships in the United States. Robertson even hails from the same town of Melbourne as Hayes.
“That was one thing that when I got here, one of the ultimate goals was to have an Australian replace me,” said Hayes. “The work that those guys do at Prokick is just unmatched.”
Robertson will start his Illini career on the bench as a blue shirt. With the extra year, Robertson will have another to learn more about American football from Hayes and Coach Ligashesky.