Tate: Early returns give Lovie a good look

Tate: Early returns give Lovie a good look

“It’s really him. It gives us an advantage to have Lovie Smith as head coach.”
— UI football assistant coach Garrick McGee

It is barely more than one month since Smith signed a shocking six-year, $21 million deal to coach Illini football.

The initial perception was that Illinois landed an NFL coach with otherworldly NFL ideas, disliked by some members of the Chicago media, and given to brief responses after Bears losses.

Was Illinois taking on a grumbling Bill Belichick type, who would hold secretive practices and clam up at the sight of reporters?

No. The reality is different. He couldn’t be more open. He seems to enjoy the interchanges.


Open atmosphere
Monday’s practice was open for more than an hour. And while players, their parents and many fans view Smith with awe, and his own coaches put him on a pedestal — McGee took a $200,000 pay cut to join him — he is more accessible and collegial than anticipated.

He appears at home before, during and after practices. He is open to quick adjustments, switching from previously planned 6 a.m. weekday practices to late-afternoon workouts.

Smith mixed with high school coaches during a clinic that brought some 800 to campus the first weekend in April. After drills, he has to work his way off the field, especially Saturday when a large group of prospects surrounded him following the fifth of 15 sessions.

“It’s good to have them here at practice,” Smith said. “Talking on the telephone is one thing, but getting them here is a big step. We are always looking for opportunities to sell the university and a great education, which may be contrary to the public opinion about an NFL coach here.

“Who wouldn’t want to earn a degree and play football for coaches who know about the process it takes to reach the next level? We can sell it when we get them here. We’ve evaluated talent at the highest level, so we should be able to evaluate it here.”


Questions still remain
In the “win now” generation, many will form conclusions on the Smith regime in early 2016 games against North Carolina, Western Michigan and Nebraska.

Others, like some of us in the media, will keep an eye on recruiting in the belief the staff’s ability to upgrade the talent level will ultimately determine Smith’s success or failure.

There have been too many recent backfires to realistically expect an immediate turnaround on the field.

There are too many question marks to be resolved, too many holes to fill.

That said, the Big Ten West is probably the most vulnerable in the Power 5 conferences, as Iowa demonstrated last season. So if Smith is synonymous with swagger, that’s OK as long as it’s understood that if it doesn’t click immediately, long-term development is more important.

We should expect bumps in the road every time a new system is installed, and these changes are major both offensively and defensively. The push for a stronger run game is laudable, but is it attainable? Can a defense reliant on strong linebacking be successful with so little experience there?


Staying even keel
“There is a learning curve involved with what we’re doing,” Smith said. “We are in a teaching mode, and we want to minimize injuries. We are not going to be too high or too low on anyone at this stage.”

Acknowledging the team isn’t “game ready,” he pointed out: “We don’t need to be. Our expectations haven’t changed. We are finding out about our team.”

Both Smith and offensive coordinator McGee lauded the work of veteran Wes Lunt at quarterback.

McGee noted: “Wes is a tall, accurate passer with the arm to deliver the ball from one side to the other. He can throw from one hash all the way to the deep third on the other side of the field.”

“We feel good about him,” Smith added. “He can lead us to a lot of wins.”
Asked about his interest in the upcoming NFL draft, Smith replied: “I am out of that arena.”

SIDE NOTE: Good weather in the lower 70s is predicted for Saturday’s 1 p.m. public practice at Memorial Stadium, which is the only opportunity for fans to attend.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

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Moonpie wrote on April 12, 2016 at 9:04 am

Hilarious bullpucky from the Ancient Scribe!

Let's see--after about only five minutes on the job, Lovie Dovie,who has already badly misunderstood when to actually hold spring pratice, has already won a title and bowl game for the Illini. Guess you can't close your eyes, even for a second, with the legendary coach and legendary scribe working miracles.

Keep that fluffy PR rolling!!!

Doug Lascounty wrote on April 12, 2016 at 11:04 am

Oh look who has "thoughts," the lonesome twerp cowpie with nothing better to do than moan and complain about a nice piece on Illini FB in mid April.