Illinois will become the final Big Ten team to hit the spring practice field on Friday afternoon. And there will be as much interest in the Illini spring drills than there has been for a long time.
That's because new Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman made the bold decision to hire former NFL coach Lovie Smith on March 7, two days after firing Bill Cubit. That pushed the start of spring practice back a couple of weeks and condensed the time period for workouts. Smith had to assemble a staff and begin learning his players' names in a rush.
There's little doubt that Smith and the Illini have ground to make up after the surprise coaching change. It will be fascinating to see how he shapes this team in his first go-round as a college head coach.
Spring schedule: The Illini practice for the first time at 5:30 p.m. CT Friday. But almost all of their other practices will be near when the rooster crows, at 6 a.m. Because of the condensed time frame (15 practices in just 26 days), the team will not hold a spring game. There will be a practice that is open to the public at 1 p.m. CT April 16.
What's new? Oh, just about everything, in case you didn't read the intro. Mike Phair remains on staff as defensive line coach, but otherwise the assistants are new (though offensive line coach Luke Butkus, a former Illini player, held the same role in 2012). Key players who must be replaced include defensive end Jihad Ward, running back Josh Ferguson and safety Clayton Fejedelem.
Three things we want to see:
1. What does the offense look like? One thing you could say about Illinois the past few years is that it had an offensive identity. Under Cubit, the Illini ran a spread offense and pitched it around a lot. One thing that hardly ever has been said about Lovie Smith is that he is an offensive guy. Smith did say at his introductory news conference that he believed in doing more read-option stuff at the college level. Still, that's not a strength of senior quarterback Wes Lunt, who's more of a pure pocket guy. New offensive coordinator Garrick McGee has a strong track record and a good nucleus in Lunt and receiver Mikey Dudek, who's back after missing all of last season with a knee injury. What will this new staff emphasize?
2. Defensive ferocity: Smith is widely known as a defensive mastermind, and he'll certainly work closely with coordinator Hardy Nickerson to shape that side of the ball. After a few years of struggling to stop anybody, Illinois did make strides defensively last year and has veteran players to lean on, like defensive linemen Chunky Clements, Teko Powell and Dawuane Smoot. The back end will need attention, however, as three of the four starters in the secondary are gone from last year. Mostly, we just want to see how the players respond to Smith's teaching and whether they can take on the intensity that he and Nickerson will no doubt demand.
3. A revamped running game: Since Smith has a defensive and NFL background, it's pretty clear he will want to run the ball. When Ferguson missed time last year because of injuries, Illinois became far too reliant on the pass and finished with the lowest rushing total in the Big Ten. Ke'Shawn Vaughn showed promise at tailback last season, running for 723 yards as a freshman. That's a place to start. But it's also imperative that the offensive line, so used to pass-blocking in the former scheme, becomes more physical up front.