The Daily Illini

Big Ten Media Day: Smith looks for improvement in year three at Illinois

By Gavin Good, Staff writer

Illinois football head coach Lovie Smith spoke of developing talent and making competitive strides at the Big Ten conference’s annual media days event Tuesday.

In his first two years with the program, Smith’s Illini are 5-19 and have only two Big Ten wins. He believes that’s a symptom of youth, and the experience many of his players gained through last year’s 2-10 season will show on the field come this September.

“When you start (16) true freshmen and one redshirt freshman, it kind of tells you a little bit about where you are and what you’re doing with your program,” Smith said. “That’s where we are. Those players got a lot of valuable experience last year. We’ve seen them get bigger, stronger, faster. Their football knowledge has grown quite a bit. Year three will produce results from some of the things we’ve done.”

One primary question for Illinois this season is the quarterback position.

Last year, Cam Thomas became the third Illini quarterback to make multiple starts as a true freshman, playing in four games and starting two. He struggled to pass consistently, completing 28 of 66 passes for 375 yards, one touchdown and five interceptions.

Thomas is the only scholarship quarterback returning from the FBS’s 126th-rated offense after the departures of Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr., and he took nearly all of the starter reps in the spring.

Now, Smith and new offensive coordinator Rod Smith have graduate transfer A.J. Bush, along with freshman Matt Robinson, M.J. Rivers II and Coran Taylor to battle with Thomas for the starting job.

“Cam got a lot of reps, which he of course needed and wanted,” Smith said. “We saw a lot of progress with him. We also knew that come training camp, there will be more competition coming on campus. We are competitive and we want that. We want the quarterback to prove to the rest of the team that ‘I’m the guy.'”

Smith also spoke on the staff additions of former Trinity Catholic High School’s head coach Cory Patterson (tight ends coach), former USC man Austin Clark (defensive line coach) and former Buffalo Bills defensive backs coach Gill Byrd (passing game coordinator and safeties coach).

“We lost a good defensive line coach (Mike Phair) and we needed one to come in,” Smith said. “I really didn’t know an awful lot about him until I started talking with him. I knew early on that he was a guy I wanted on the staff. Gill Byrd is a guy that I have a long history with, as a man, one of the best men I’ve met in my life. He’ll do a great job coordinating the passing part of our defense along with coaching our safeties.”

A familiar topic over the last few seasons for the Illini has been the health of talented wide receiver Mike Dudek, who has gone down with knee injuries in the 2015, 2016 and 2017 seasons. He played in seven games — starting six — last year and tallied 24 receptions for 262 yards and one touchdown.

Smith noted that Dudek wasn’t at full health for much of last season, but that he is 100 percent healthy ahead of training camp, which is set to begin on Aug. 3.

Illinois won its first two games in 2017 against Ball State and Western Kentucky, then lost its last ten. Despite struggling so far during his tenure, Smith is confident that his program will make strides and progress this season.

“We realize we haven’t won enough football games, but they come if you continue to do the right things,” Smith said. “We’ve changed the culture of our program, we know the look we would like to have on the football field.”

Smith’s second recruiting class is set to join the team in camp, and after the abnormally high number of freshmen that saw time in last year’s No. 46-rated class (247 Sports), the No. 52-ranked 2018 class will likely be relied on for significant contributions.

With just over a month until the season opener against Kent State on Sept. 1, Smith and his staff have no time to dwell on factors like inexperience and unproven prospects.

“We needed to raise the talent level and we’re doing that,” Smith said. “Considering where we are, the facilities we have right now, people kind of see what’s coming. In an ideal world, we wanted to have more wins right now, but I like where we are. Now that that’s behind us, I like how we’re sitting in year three and this is when we expect to see results.”

Catch the entire press conference through the link below:

 

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