The Fighting Illini finished the 2016 season capturing only three wins paired with both an uninspiring offense and lackluster defense, and it didn’t get better as the season went on. The final five losses of 2016 for the Illini came by an average of almost 30 points. As head coach Lovie Smith prepares for year two with Illinois, he’ll also have to deal with a group of inexperienced youngsters as the team is returning only eight starters.
ILLINOIS AT A GLANCE
|Head Coach||Lovie Smith (3-9)|
|Biggest Losses||QB Wes Lunt, WR Justin Hardee, OT Austin Schimidt, C Joe Spencer, DE Dawaune Smoot, DT Chunky Clements, DT Robert Bain, DE Carroll Phillips|
|Biggest Returnees||OT Christian DiLauro, WR Mike Dudek, WR Malik Turner, RB Kendrick Foster, QB Chayce Crouch, QB Jeff George Jr., C/G Nick Allegretti, LB Tré Watson, DT Jamal Milan, S Patrick Nelson, S Stanley Green, CB Jaylen Dunlap|
|Summary||It's up to the youngsters.|
|Matchup with PSU||None|
The Illini offense wasn’t wasn’t able to generate much of anything last season, and the team failed to improve as the season progressed. With the departure of Wes Lunt, look to Jeff George Jr. or Chayce Couch to take the reigns at quarterback. The x-factor in the race to start under center is former Virgina Tech QB Dwayne Lawson. After spending the 2016 season at Garden City Community College, Lawson will look to take the reigns in Champaign.
The return of dynamic receiver Mikey Dudek from yet another knee injury figures to help whoever is taking the snaps. In his absence, Malik Turner stepped up with 48 receptions in 2016.
The Illini also return last year's top two rushers, Kendrick Foster, and Reggie Corbin. They will be running behind an offensive line that returns two key pieces in tackle Christian DiLauro, and guard Nick Allegretti.
If the team wants to go bowling this year, the offense needs to be better at converting third down opportunities. Illinois had the second-worst offense in the country last year when it came to converting third down conversions, and without improvement, the offense will continue to struggle.
Defense will be an area of concern this season for the Illini. The team had a mediocre defense last season, and the team will be without four starters this year. However, the departure of the veterans means that the youngsters on the team will have time to shine.
In 2016, the Illini featured a veteran defensive front, and inexperienced secondary. With four significant players along the line lost to graduation, they will look to the youth up front, while relying on a secondary that gained experience a year ago.
Look for sophomore Jamal Milan and incoming freshman Kendrick Green to make a difference early on, and for sophomore linebacker Tré Watson to lead the defensive unit. In the backfield, safeties Patrick Nelson and Stanley Green will look to take the reigns.
It all comes down to the punter. With the departure of first-string punter and holder Ryan Frain, who kicked a season-long 67-yard punt when the team faced Michigan last year, the Illini will need to find a replacement. Options include junior Ryan Tucker or incoming freshman Tony Adam.
There’s only one way to go, and that’s up. Although Smith’s first year at the helm was somewhat of a rocky one, there’s a chance for the team to get back on their feet with the help of a few underclassmen. Although the team will face South Florida and Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan are not on the schedule, which makes the 2017 season that much easier and bowl bid could very much be a reality.