2018 Season Preview: Illinois Fighting Illini

By Craig Fritz on August 9, 2018 at 10:00 am
Illinois Quarterback Cam Thomas

© Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

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Good gracious, get Lovie Smith some talent in Champaign. The former NFL head coach's tenure at Illinois can only be defined as disastrous. The Illini were bad before he even got there, but it's been a complete nose dive over the last two years. Let's be clear, there are zero expectations for a team with eight conference wins over the last six seasons, but this horrific spiral cannot be allowed to continue much longer.

2017 saw Illinois open the year 2-0 with squeakers against Ball State and Western Kentucky, followed by 10 consecutive losses. They didn't score more than 24 points in a single game (24 twice) and allowed 24 or more 10 times. It was a painful, brutal, no-good, very bad year for Smith's team. 


Illinois at a glance
Head Coach Lovie Smith (3rd Season; 5-19)
2017 Record 2-10, 0-9 (7th B1G West)
2017 Postseason None
Biggest Losses QB Jeff George, QB Chayce Crouch, RB Kendrick Foster, WR Malik Turner, LB Tre Watson
Biggest Returnees QB Cam Thomas, RB Mike Epstein, WR Ricky Smalling, WR Mike Dudek, LB Del'Shawn Phillips, DL Robbie Roundtree, S Bennett Williams
Summary Barring a complete miracle, the Illini will get to enjoy the holidays at home for the sixth time in seven years.
Matchup With PSU Penn State will experience its first Friday night game with a 9 p.m. kick on 9/21 in Champagne. James Franklin hates the Friday games, but it will give the Lions an extra day before Ohio State comes to Beaver Stadium the next week for a White Out.

offense

Jeff George bounced via transfer and Chayce Crouch retired. That leaves the reigns of the offense in the hands of dual-threat sophomore Cam Thomas. It's not the worst thing in the world. Thomas flashed a bit in two starts against Purdue and Northwestern in 2017, compiling 375 yards on 28 completions, albeit with zero TDs and five INTs. He was more comfortable running the ball in the mold of Khalil Tate, picking up 233 yards on 52 carries and one score. Speaking of Tate, Illinois' new offensive coordinator is Rod Smith, who was the co-coordinator at Arizona last year. So presumably, he knows how to use Thomas' skill set.

Joining Thomas will be 2017's leading rusher, Mike Epstein. The sophomore was off to a solid start a year ago before a lower-body injury ended his season after just four-plus games. Epstein racked up 346 yards on 57 carries for a respectable 6.1 yds/carry average. 

Illinois' leading receiver from a year ago it back as well. Sophomore Ricky Smalling snagged 31 receptions for 510 yards and two TDs. Somehow Mike Dudek is still roaming the sidelines in Champaign, too. 

defense

Just like the offense, there's a glimmer of progress on the defensive side of the ball. The question remains if it will be enough to stop anyone when it matters. Sophomore sack leader Bobby Roundtree returns, as does ESPN Freshman All-American safety Bennett Williams. Leading tackler Del'Shawn Phillips is back for his senior year, and will look to improve last year's 89th-ranked S&P+ defense.

The 2017 defense got pounded up and down the field. They were good at stopping explosive plays, but no one needed explosive plays to beat them because they gave up 5.7 yards per play. They were especially atrocious against the run, and couldn't get to the opposing QB at all, totaling just 20 sacks, less than two per game.

special teams

Specialists are perhaps the Illini's most effective area. Junior punter Blake Hayes is a legitimate weapon, who averaged an impressive 42 yards per punt in 2017. He punted more than any poor soul should (77), but he really made them count. Senior Chase McLaughlin is back for place-kicking duties. McLaughlin was 12-for-17 on field goals and perfect on extra points. He also cranked 31 touchbacks on 42 kickoff attempts.

Both returners are back with Nate Hobbs (22.3 yards/return) handling kickoffs and Dudek (10.8 yards/return) taking care of punts. 

2018 outlook

Pain. According to S&P+, the Illini are expected to be favored in just two games (Kent State & Western Illinois). They have to travel to Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Northwestern, and they get the privilege of being nuked at home by the Lions. Even though the Big Ten West stinks, Illinois will have to get a bunch of bounces to win a couple conference games. A post-season trip is basically out of the question barring a massive turnaround.

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