By Nick Halford
Coming off of a 2-10 season where the team went 0-9 in Big Ten play, the only way to go for the Fighting Illini is up. Head coach Lovie Smith came in with enormous expectations in 2016 due to his success coaching the Chicago Bears. Unfortunately, Smith is just 5-19 in two seasons in Champaign.
Illinois has been a young football team the past two years, but this year they come in with some higher expectations. The offensive line started four freshmen last year, all of which return along with senior leader RG Nick Allegretti. An experienced offensive line with talented running back Mike Epstein running behind them is the key to a rejuvenated offensive attack.
The passing game looks to be the weaker part of the Illini offense this year. There aren’t any Quarterbacks with starting experience and there will be a competition to determine who will take the reigns. Cam Thomas looks to be in the driver’s seat simply because he is a sophomore who was in the program last year. The receiving core is led by Ricky Smalling, who led the team in receiving as a freshman last year. Another threat should be Mike Dudek who had a great freshman season in 2015 only to miss the last two years with ACL injuries.
The defense is led by senior middle linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips who led the team in tackles last year. He will need to step up if he wants to turn this defense around from its atrocious 2017 season. Illinois gave up 32 points per game, third worst in the big ten. Defensive Coordinator Hardy Nickerson said he wants to improve on intercepting passes this year, something they only did 9 times last year. This should be easy to accomplish due to the Fighting Illini returning all four starters in the secondary including sophomore safety Bennett Williams who intercepted 3 passes last year.
Illinois isn’t expected to contend in the Big Ten West but don’t count them out of collecting 6 wins and making it to a bowl game. They have plenty of talented sophomores who have had another offseason to improve. For Lovie Smith, this looks like a make or break type of year. The athletic department will be looking for a substantial improvement to try and energize a football program that hasn’t seen success in a very long time.