The Daily Illini

Football set to open 2017 season against Ball State

Illinois+quarterback+Jeff+George+Jr.+%283%29+passes+the+ball+during+the+first+half+of+game+against+Michigan+State+at+Memorial+Stadium+on+Saturday%2C+November+5.+The+Illini+won+31-27.
Illinois quarterback Jeff George Jr. (3) passes the ball during the first half of game against Michigan State at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, November 5. The Illini won 31-27.

Illinois quarterback Jeff George Jr. (3) passes the ball during the first half of game against Michigan State at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, November 5. The Illini won 31-27.

Austin Yattoni

Austin Yattoni

Illinois quarterback Jeff George Jr. (3) passes the ball during the first half of game against Michigan State at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, November 5. The Illini won 31-27.

By Jacob Diaz, Staff writer

This Saturday’s game against Ball State begins year two of the Lovie Smith era for the Illinois football program.

Gone is the buzz of having a brand new, NFL-proven head coach that reached a fever pitch during the North Carolina game when an absolutely packed Memorial Stadium chanted his name before kickoff. Without that excitement taking up so much media attention, the focus has returned to the team.

Smith’s excitement about the season is not misplaced. There are plenty of players to watch this season.

Wide receiver Mike Dudek will make his long-awaited return to Zuppke Field on Saturday after missing the last two seasons with ACL injuries. Dudek will line up with last season’s leading receiver for the Illini, senior Malik Turner, and try to match the production that made him a Freshman All-American three years ago.

Senior running back Kendrick Foster will look to improve on his breakout 2016 campaign that saw him average over five yards per carry en route to scoring nine touchdowns. Foster impressed many last season, winning the starting job after starting the season on the bench, but evidently one person he failed to impress was himself.

“Even though I had an OK season last year, I haven’t really shown what I can do,” Foster said. “That’s the exciting thing, that’s what gets my nerves going, gets the tingle going in my body. I’m ready to lead these boys to victory.”

Foster says that part of a successful first week for him will be leading an offense with a lot of young, inexperienced players. In fact, on both sides of the ball, many young players will have a chance to prove themselves on the field in front of Smith this season. And while some people see inexperience in the new players, Smith chooses to look at their hunger and the room they have to grow.

“We’ve seen improvement from day one,” Smith said. “All the way up until the last mock game getting ready for the football season. It’s been fun to watch.”

Those young players will get their first chance against the Ball State Cardinals, a team that finished at 4-8 in the Mid-American Conference last season. The Cardinals are coached by Mike Neu, who left a position as Drew Brees’ quarterback coach in New Orleans to take the head spot at his alma mater before last season.

Neu is looking to use his expertise to help junior Riley Neal build off of a strong campaign where he ranked third in the conference in passing yards per game. A dual-threat quarterback standing at 6’5”, Neal also ran for 540 yards and eight touchdowns. Neal threw only one fewer interception than touchdown last season, but with senior cornerback Jaylen Dunlap potentially missing from an already weak secondary, the Illini may not be able to take advantage of Neal’s inconsistency.

The Illini will also have to watch out for Cardinals running back James Gilbert, who made all-conference first team last season after leading the conference with 12 rushing touchdowns. The junior out of Indianapolis racked up 1,332 rushing yards last season, including five-straight 100-yard games, the fourth-most in a single season in Ball St.’s history.

It will be up to Illinois’ largely-untested defense to slow down the Cardinals’ dynamic one-two punch on the ground, and to try and force turnovers out of Neal.

As Smith said in his first Monday afternoon press conference of the season this week, the focus won’t be on Ball State.

“You never know for sure what Ball State will do,” Smith said. “But as you get to the first game of the season, it’s more about you.”

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@Jacob_Diaz31

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