Asmussen: Smith in for a big challenge

Asmussen: Smith in for a big challenge

In my 30 years covering Illinois football I have seen plenty of offensive coordinators come and go.

Some worked well: Greg Landry, Mike Locksley, Paul Petrino, Bill Cubit. Some were mistakes: Tom Beck, Paul Schudel, Mike Schultz.

None of the previous coordinators faced the challenges that are in front of Rod Smith, whom Illinois officially hired on Friday. He inherits the worst offense in the Power 5.

Last year's team finished near the bottom nationally in scoring and total offense. There is one scholarship quarterback who has played in a game. The offensive line is still young. It needs a serious upgrade before it can protect and create running lanes in the "we don't care about your problems" Big Ten. The top running back is coming back from a serious injury. The top returning receiver caught just 31 passes.

When past coordinators had success, it was in large part because of the talent on hand. And their ability to go get more.

Petrino's highly successful 2010 season coincided with Mikel Leshoure's rushing record.

When Leshoure left early for the NFL, the offense fell off.

On the way to the 2008 Rose Bowl, Locksley got a boost from freshman receiver Arrelious Benn, whom he helped recruit from the Washington, D.C., area. And Rashard Mendenhall turned into a first-round NFL draft pick.

To be a winning offense in the Big Ten, you need guys who will throw, run, block and catch. You need disciplined players who won't take a swing at an opposing defender.

The production will fall on Smith. For most of his career, he worked for his college coach, Rich Rodriguez. They were together at Michigan and Arizona.

The only time Smith has been the solo play caller was at South Florida in 2005-06. Working for Jim Leavitt, Smith's offenses ranked 71st in total yards in 2005. It improved to 40th in 2006. The win total also went up, from six to nine.

Garrick McGee's play calling the past two years frustrated Illini fans. Smith needs a thick skin or very good earmuffs.

There is something to learn from the history of the program, which has been at its best when passing was an important part of the offense. Mike White instantly won over the place by throwing a long pass — incomplete — on his very first play.

In the past two years, the offense was short on creativity. It is OK to run reverses, flea flickers and Statues of Liberty. Not every down, but once in a while. It shows effort and that the coordinator cares about the outcome.

More advice for the coach: Get out and meet people. This is a friendly place. Cubit and Locksley understood that and learned to love it.

Bob Asmussen writes for the News-Gazette. He can be reached at

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jjohnson wrote on January 20, 2018 at 8:01 am

This appears to have been a really good hire. Bob is right about talent's being important -- Denard had it, but it is not clear that Thomas lacks it, -- but at worst the jury is out on Illinois' offensive line precisely because there were at times five freshmen or sophomores in the starting line-up. Play-calling was frustrating the last two years even as execution was generally lacking. But Smalling, Dorsey, Epstein, not to mention Dudek, these guys to provide something at skill positions, so this could be much more exciting than we have seen Lovie's first two years.

Moonpie wrote on January 20, 2018 at 3:01 pm

More likely it's just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Lovie Dovie Debacle Man isn't a head coach.