Somebody had to be first. And it appears Lovie Smith just can’t wait to get his second season underway at Illinois.
In many ways, his first year was a scramble after being hired in March without getting the benefit of signing a recruiting class. And his late arrival also made the Illini the last to get on the practice field a year ago, with the first workout not kicking off until April.
But that obviously won’t be the case with Smith marking Valentine’s Day as the starting point for improving on the 3-9 record he posted in his return to college football. The Illini clearly have room to grow, and apparently Smith doesn’t want to waste any time getting to work.
Spring schedule: Starting on Tuesday afternoon, the Illini will be utilizing a compressed practice schedule that features four workouts in five days. Smith will use that Tuesday-Wednesday-Friday-Saturday routine three times before wrapping up with a three-session week culminating on March 10. There will be an open practice, but the Illini won’t have a formal spring game.
What’s new: There has been some roster attrition after Smith’s first season, which isn’t uncommon in any coaching transition. Most notably, running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn transferred to Vanderbilt, though the Illini are in solid shape in the backfield and should be fine moving forward into spring practice. Smith did lose linebackers coach Tim McGarigle to a job with the Green Bay Packers, though there’s even an opportunity for Smith in that move as it allows him to potentially make a hire to help revamp a defense that ranked No. 12 in the Big Ten in points allowed last season.
Three things we want to see:
1. A healthy Mike Dudek: There probably won’t be many glimpses at the talented receiver during spring ball after two seasons sidelined by knee injuries, so seeing him carve up defensive backs again like he did during his breakout freshman campaign will have to wait. But there seems to be growing optimism about Dudek and his recovery, even though he’ll be limited for most of the month -- if not all of it.
“With Mike, it’s about slowing down instead of speeding up,” Smith told reporters last week. “So we’re going to take our time with him and take every precaution with him that we possibly can. You won’t see Mike out there an awful lot in spring ball, he won’t be practicing right away or anything like that.
“But we have a plan in place for him."
2. A step forward in the passing game: Again, the absence of Dudek complicates improving an aerial attack that threw for fewer than 175 yards per game last season. Though that’s much less of a concern than not having Chayce Crouch healthy enough to fully take part in practice this month and lead the offense at quarterback, particularly since Smith gave him an endorsement as the team’s starter heading into the year. Losing Wes Lunt and having Crouch limited by the shoulder surgery that ended his sophomore season isn’t ideal for the Illini, though at least Smith will have a chance to evaluate what else he has in reserve.
“Knowing Chayce, he will take a lot of mental reps,” Smith said. “But he’s not at the point where we can risk [full-team reps]. Hopefully before the end of spring he might be able to do a few things, but he won’t be around in any position where he could even get a bump early on.
“But Chayce missing a few reps isn’t all bad. Chayce is our quarterback, but we need to see what we have behind him as much as anything else.”
3. An emphasis on forcing turnovers: Smith has built his reputation on defense, and no team with Hardy Nickerson on the staff should ever have a problem getting toughness out of its roster. But the Illini finished the season with a negative turnover margin after forcing just 18, and they were pushed around at times with a rush defense that finished No. 12 in the league by allowing nearly 220 yards per game. Those numbers simply won’t cut it in a Big Ten that is getting more competitive every season and will once again have a handful of contenders to make the College Football Playoff. Smith has a chance to set the tone heading into his second season, and by starting spring ball so early, it’s clear he wants that message delivered early in hopes it will resonate throughout the offseason.