Smith, Illini ready to show finished product against Murray State
September 1, 2016
It’s been a long time coming for Illinois football.
Those words have been spoken by various team players and coaches this past week as they prepare to finally get on the field this Saturday against Murray State.
Like last season, Memorial Stadium will see another coach make his Illini head coaching debut.
Except this year, that man will be Lovie Smith. And although he’s been coaching for more than 30 years, Saturday won’t just be another day on the football field for Smith.
“I have a pretty good memory,” Smith said. “I can tell you what happened in my first seventh grade game, sophomore year, college as a coach, first year coordinator, first year assistant — you remember them all. And really its the same tone: butterflies, excitement, anticipation for that week. There’s nothing like it, and each one is different.”
Since the coaching staff overhaul in March, fans have been waiting to see what a Smith-coached Illini team will look like on the field, and Saturday will provide the first look.
To avoid any disappointments, Smith and his staff has enforced a strict preparation regiment that has gotten the players used to a weekly routine of team meetings, film sessions and on-the-field drills. The summer-long process has included learning entirely new playbooks and schemes. Senior quarterback Wes Lunt has noticed the shift being to a more intellectual preparation method.
“We have a lot more mental work than physical,” Lunt said. “That’s just kind of the Coach Smith mentality that he brings. We’re going to get our work done and we’re going to do it efficiently. With his scheduling, there’s no time wasting. Everything is structured to be successful and that’s a credit to Coach Smith and his many years as a head coach. He’s kind of got a formula figured out.”
Smith emphasized that the Illini will follow a strict routine every week, no matter their opponent. That may be due in part to the fact that Smith admitted he doesn’t know much about his upcoming opponents — particularly Murray State.
“For me in my first time around, I don’t know a lot about many of our opponents,” Smith said. “It’s more about what we do.”
The Racers are led by redshirt-sophomore quarterback KD Humphries, who led the FCS in passing yards last season. Humphries will challenge the Illinois secondary and can also sprinkle in some running plays from the pocket.
Defensively, Murray State could be a good team for Lunt and company to start the year strong against. The Racers were second-to-last in the FCS against the pass and allowed nearly 200 yards per game on the ground.
The Illini haven’t lost a season opener at Memorial Stadium since 1997 and are 15-0 all-time against FCS opponents.
After a summer full of headlines and heightened expectations, the Illini are finally ready to show the fans the results of the Lovie Effect.
“We hope the stadium’s packed and everyone’s there because we play for the fans,” Lunt said. “We’re excited to see who comes out. We’ve been preparing hard and we’re excited for Murray State.”