Spring ball marks new era for Illinois football

By Joey Figueroa, Staff reporter

It’s not often that spring practices overshadow the football season that precedes them. But for Illinois football this year, such was the case.

The hiring of Lovie Smith as the third head football coach within two years has been the big story on campus, and the star-studded coaching staff Smith brought along with him has given the football program a much needed breath of fresh air.

“We have high goals,” Smith said at the coaching staff’s introductory press conference. “When people leave the stadium, we’d just like for them to talk about how hard we play, the discipline we have as a football team and talk about that win.”

Former head coach Tim Beckman’s firing left a cloud over the team, and his incumbent, Bill Cubit, led a forgettable, non-bowl 2015 season.

On the field, Illinois looked like a better team than years past early last season, but we failed to maintain that look throughout the year. The Illini finished with a 5-7 overall record and a 2-6 mark in the Big Ten, with wins against Nebraska and Purdue.

Illinois notched its first win against the Cornhuskers since 1924 in a last-minute drive that was capped off by a Geronimo Allison touchdown grab with just 10 seconds remaining. The 14-13 victory was the highlight of a down season.

Although Cubit signed a deal to stay on as the permanent head coach, it was clear that keeping remnants of Beckman’s coaching staff wouldn’t allow for the program to move forward.

Illinois needed a change.

New athletic director Josh Whitman realized this and made that change, agreeing to terms with Smith before the new AD barely had a chance to settle into his office.

The excitement was high from the outset.

“This brings a level of stability and enthusiasm to a football team that needs it,” Whitman said before formally introducing Smith. “For our team to respond to seeing Lovie Smith walk through the door for the first time — as long as I do this, I’ll never forget the feeling in that room, the excitement in the air, the smiles on those guys’ faces.”

Smith brought with him a hand-picked coaching staff full of experience at both the pro and collegiate level, highlighted by offensive coordinator Garrick McGee and defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson.

With all the new pieces in place, spring practices had an entirely new feel to them despite the roster being relatively the same.

Thousands of fans piled into Memorial Stadium on April 18 for the only open-to-public practice. Although the majority of the practice featured second- and third-stringers playing a simulated game, a steady buzz remained throughout the stands.

At the conclusion of the practice, fans mobbed Smith near the goal line for photos and autographs — the newest face of Illinois football had certainly arrived.

But the news isn’t all good for the Illini.

Illinois suffered two major injuries on the offensive end during spring ball. After just one practice, former all-Big Ten receiver Mike Dudek tore his ACL once again and will miss his second consecutive full season.

Projected backup running back Dre Brown also suffered his second straight ACL tear, leaving the backfield depth chart wide open after Ke’Shawn Vaughn.

Without Dudek and Brown, the Illini offense will be missing two key playmakers. However, senior receiver Justin Hardee returns to the action after missing all of last season and quarterback Wes Lunt will head into his final season with a new, dynamic offense.

McGee said he’s been spoon-feeding the playbook to the offensive players and has been impressed with how quickly they’re picking up the new system.

“Everything seems like it’s falling into place,” senior tight end Andrew Davis said. “At first, it was pretty overwhelming with everything that happened, but it’s just football. Everyone’s coming together really well.”

On the defensive side, Nickerson has proved his worth without even calling a play. At the end of April, Nickerson’s son, Hardy Nickerson, Jr. decided to transfer to Illinois from Cal for his final season. Last season’s third-leading tackler in the PAC 12 will be immediately eligible and bring stability as the leader of an otherwise inexperienced linebacking crew.

With the Illini defensive line and secondary boasting experience, Smith could very well be at the helm of another solid defensive unit.

With the late start to spring practices, Smith and his staff also had a late start to recruiting. The focus has shifted to adding future talent, though, and began with two in-state receiver recruits, Ricky Smalling and Kendall Smith.

From name recognition alone, Smith is likely to have made a big impact in recruiting talent to rebuild Illinois’ reputation in the Big Ten.

“They’re all watching and listening to what’s going on here with Illinois football,” Smith said. “Now it’s left to us to keep that momentum going.”

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