With schedule up in the air, Illini prepare like normal

By Gavin Good

Update: Illinois will take on South Florida as scheduled on Friday night at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. Kickoff will remain at the scheduled time of 6 p.m Central Standard Time and the game will air on ESPN. South Florida athletic director Mark Harland released the following statement on Tuesday morning: “After consulting with university leadership and the Tampa Sports Authority, we are confident that Friday’s game can proceed safely as scheduled without impacting the recovery efforts. Our thoughts remain with all of those impacted by the hurricane in Florida and elsewhere, and we express sincere gratitude to all first-responders for their efforts.”


Hurricane Irma has worked its way through Florida, and the University of South Florida and the University of Illinois have yet to decide if the damage left in its wake is enough to postpone, move or even cancel the upcoming football game between the two schools.

But for the Illini, this week will go ahead as if nothing unusual is going on.

“Right now our mindset is to prepare for a game on Friday,” offensive lineman Christian DiLauro said. “We’ll keep going how our schedule is set up, that’s what we’re doing.”

With the series of strong hurricanes hitting the state of Florida this week, it remains to be seen if the Illini will play Friday’s game at USF in Tampa as scheduled, or if it will be moved to Champaign, or may be canceled altogether. For now, nothing has changed, and the Illini are preparing to play the Bulls on Friday night at Raymond James Stadium.

Six Degrees of Separation

If the game does play out as planned, this week will be a homecoming for many of Illinois’ players and coaches.

The Illini have a legion of players from Florida – 14 in total – as a result of heavy recruitment up and down The Sunshine State. And while most of those players are from the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area, three Illini, freshman DE Bobby Roundtree, sophomore LB Jake Hansen and junior LB Tré Watson, all hail from in and around Tampa.

“I think it’s always fun when you get the chance to go back home and play,” head coach Lovie Smith said. “We do have a lot of players from Florida, so we are excited to go and to be a good football team you have to go on the road and win.”

But any connections the team’s players have to Tampa pale in comparison to the coaching staff, which has deep roots in the city.

Smith was the linebackers coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for four seasons between 1996 and 2000, and then returned as the team’s head coach for the 2014 and 2015 seasons.

During his first stint with the Bucs, Smith was a part of the staff that implemented the “Tampa 2” defensive scheme that eventually helped the team win Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2003. A major player in Smith’s group of linebackers at the time was Hardy Nickerson, who earned Pro Bowl berths in each of the four seasons he spent under Smith. Nickerson went on to the announcers’ booth in Tampa after retiring, only to be reunited with Smith when he took over as head coach with the Bucs. When Smith joined the Illini, he brought Nickerson on as the team’s defensive coordinator.

Lining up alongside Nickerson during those years was then-cornerback and current Illini defensive backs and safeties coach Donnie Abraham. Abraham stayed in the Tampa area following his NFL career as a high school coach, and his son currently plays for USF as a safety.

Abraham stayed with the Buccaneers after Smith left in 2000, and the team added a college scout by the name of Mike Phair, who had played under Smith at Arizona State nine years earlier. Phair stayed with the Bucs for two seasons before spending time with the Seattle Seahawks. He reunited with Smith while he was the coach of the Chicago Bears, and has been a part of Smith’s staff ever since, following him to Tampa again and now with the Illini as a defensive line coach.

The final dot connecting the Illini and Tampa Bay is wide receivers coach Andrew Hayes-Stoker, who first coached under Smith in Chicago, before following him to Tampa Bay and now to the Illini.

But despite all the connections Smith and his staff have to the city, the former NFL coach downplayed the idea that it would be a sentimental trip for him.

“I’m just not one of those, touchy-feely guys like that,” Smith said. “I don’t have a whole lot of feelings like that. From my first time living in Tampa, we’ve kept a relationship with the community. This week it’s about us going on the road against a South Florida team, and trying to get a win.”

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