The Daily Illini

Illinois gears up for a new beginning

Illinois+head+coach+Lovie+Smith+talks+with+linebacker+Dele+Harding+%289%29+before+the+spring+scrimmage+at+Memorial+Stadium+on+Saturday%2C+April+7%2C+2018.
Illinois head coach Lovie Smith talks with linebacker Dele Harding (9) before the spring scrimmage at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, April 7, 2018.

Illinois head coach Lovie Smith talks with linebacker Dele Harding (9) before the spring scrimmage at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, April 7, 2018.

Austin Yattoni

Austin Yattoni

Illinois head coach Lovie Smith talks with linebacker Dele Harding (9) before the spring scrimmage at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, April 7, 2018.

By Tatiania Perry, Staff writer

Illinois begins its third Lovie Smith-led season Saturday against Kent State: A team that, in their last meeting in 2015, the Illini defeated 52-3.

After winning the last 20 consecutive season openers, the Illini expect to do the same this year against the Golden Flashes.

Throughout the offseason, the team has worked hard to disband the doubt coming off last year’s 2-10 performance. Illinois was plagued with youthful inexperience, quarterback inconsistencies and a spattering of injuries. The season concluded with a plethora of transfers, leaving more responsibility to those who remained.

“Everyone was just embarrassed about the season,” said Bobby Roundtree, defensive lineman.

At Monday’s press conference, grad transfer AJ Bush was named starting quarterback for this weekend’s opening game after joining the team in early August.

“Quarterback-wise, we knew that there was going to be great competition, and there was, but it’s kind of obvious who our guy is,” Smith said. “AJ hadn’t played an awful lot, but people that we trusted put their stamp of approval behind him.”

In his junior year at Virginia Tech, the left-handed quarterback completed seven passes for 99 yards and one touchdown, along with 19 rush attempts for 129 total yards.

After losing the starting position at Virginia Tech and Nebraska a couple years prior to that, Bush finally found his home at Illinois.

Knowing the team history and the weight on his back to perform well, the QB is looking forward to his new role.

“This is the pressure that I wanted for my whole career,” Bush said. “I’m excited; I want the pressure.”

Smith has praised Bush’s natural-born leadership ability and believes he easily falls into the role of someone to look up to, something a young team can take advantage of. For the second straight year, Illinois will put one of the youngest teams in the nation on the field.

Only five players enter 2018 with more than 10 career starts: Nick Allegretti, 24; Mike Dudek, 15; Stanley Green, 14; and Jamal Milan, 11.

Some returners did not have the season they desired last year and are eager to change the narrative.

“We have to truly dominate,” said Tymir Oliver, defensive lineman. “Last season against Ball State it was a close game. That is not acceptable, honestly.”

Players like Roundtree and Isaiah Gay had used the offseason to gain the size needed to compete with more experienced players.

“We have established how we want to play our front, our defenses, our goal to take the ball away and all the things we think are important. The players realize that and now it’s time to take that next step as much as anything,” Smith said.

The few upperclassmen such as Mike Dudek, Dre Brown and Allegretti are guys the team looks up to.

Dudek, though only playing seven games over the last three years due to various injuries, will come into this weekend healthy.

The wide receiver is ranked third on the team in catches with 24 and fourth in receiving yards with 262 in 2017, despite missing five full games. Dudek also averaged a team-high 10.8 yards per punt return last season.

As game day nears Smith and company are confident that the team is ready to put all of what they have practiced into play.

“This year we are holding each other to a high standard,” Roundtree said. “We are competing with each other, competing for the starting position, but no matter what, we have each other’s back.”

@tati_perry14

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Correction note: The name “Golden Eagles” originally appeared in the article incorrectly and has been changed to “Golden Flashes.” The Daily Illini regrets the error. 

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