1-on-1 with Illini's Lovie Smith: 'Bigger, stronger, faster'

1-on-1 with Illini's Lovie Smith: 'Bigger, stronger, faster'

CHAMPAIGN — His first two teams went 5-19 overall and lost 12 consecutive Big Ten games. It is not the start Lovie Smith had in mind when he took over the Illinois program.

Smith is following the recent pattern for Illinois football coaches. Tim Beckman was 6-18, Ron Zook 4-19 and Ron Turner 3-19.

And in their third years? They all went to bowls.

Will it happen again?

"The program needed to be overhauled and we've overhauled the program," Smith said. "Our record in unacceptable. But when you are playing a lot of young players, you have to crawl before you can walk."

With limited talent in the upper classes, Illinois turned to its freshmen in 2017. Early and often. Sixteen first-year players started.

"Where we were, it's just tough duty in the Big Ten," Smith said. "Are we going to be better this year? Yes, we are.

"Do we plan to win a whole lot more games? Yes, we do. Would I be surprised if we don't? Yes, I would. We plan on winning football games this year."

The roster remains in transition. Since the end of the 2017 season, 15 scholarship players have left the program. A sign of trouble? Smith says no.

"You have guys who have graduated and moved on," Smith said. "You have players in there that feel like they can't play here that moved on. There are a lot of reasons why players (leave).

"You should look at programs when new coaches come in. Most times there's a coaching change, you have a lot of turnover."

Smith said he OKs every transfer request.

"I have signed immediately," Smith said. "We want people who want to be here and people we want here. A few players have moved on because I wanted them to move on. The guys we have here right now, we're pumped up about."


Young hopefuls

The spring roster lists just nine seniors.

"Eventually, these freshmen are going to be seniors and most of them are going to be playing," Smith said. "Then you're going to come back to me (and say) 'Hey, Lovie, do you like to play any young guys?' It's just a process."

The 2018 team is short on age, but getting longer on experience.

"We have a lot of guys who have started games," Smith said. "We're in a little bit different place right now. All those young guys who played last year, they didn't go through the offseason with us. All those young kids have a chance to get bigger, stronger, faster and become more of a student of the game. That's what we're pumped up about."

There are other challenges for Smith. He plays in a league that just went 7-1 in bowls. There are no gimmes.

"We've got to find a way to win football games," Smith said. "You find a way to win football games in the offseason with all the work that you do."

Smith just added to his coaching staff last week, picking former Arizona assistant Rod Smith as his offensive coordinator and Cory Patterson to work with tight ends.

The goal for the offensive staff is simple:

"We need to score more points," the Illinois coach said. "Everything started with that. Let's look at where Rod is coming from, Arizona. Where were they in scoring last year? Top five. You start with that. We want to have a balanced attack that scores points and protects the football."

Illinois will have another assistant coach in 2018 after the NCAA passed legislation to give programs 10 assistant coaches.

When will Smith announce the hire? And what position will the coach occupy?

"We'll have somebody hired before (spring practice)," Smith said.

Smith has an idea of who he wants to pick.

"This 10th position, there's no hurry," Smith said. "Things are still moving. I'm looking at guys. I have a list. I'm going to take my time and get the right guy."


Looking for help

There is plenty for the staff to do before the opener on Sept 1 against Kent State. First, there is the second signing date. Illinois has six openings, but Smith plans to hold a couple back to add graduate transfers.

"I did not want to use all our scholarships in the early signing period," Smith said.

Illinois has one scholarship quarterback, Cam Thomas, with freshman M.J. Rivers on the way. The team lost Chayce Crouch (retiring from football) and Jeff George Jr. (transfer).

"We have a chance to sign a few more," Smith said.

Illinois added 19 players during the early signing period, which was new for football. Smith is a big fan.

"Love it," Smith said. "I'm in favor of it being even earlier. Most of these young people are visiting in the spring and summer. They've been on campus and talked to the coach and now you know this is where you want to go. Why not let them do that? I think most of them want to get the process over with. Look at how many chose to sign early."

Spring football starts in early March. It will be a chance for the players on offense to learn the new system and get to know Rod Smith.

"We don't have to make any major decisions," Lovie Smith said. "We're not going to name a starting lineup or anything like that. We're just playing football and getting everybody individual improvement."

Smith also sees progress on his facilities. Work has already started on the new training center.

"It's not a pipe dream," Smith said. "We're digging. The hole is there. The facility is being built right now. I see it daily.

"It was needed. In the worst way. With the stadium here, we're going to have a pretty good setup."

Since he first arrived at Illinois, Smith has talked about building the walk-on program. FBS teams are allowed up to 85 scholarship players. Schools can bring up to 105 to training camp.

"We want No. 86 to feel like he should be a scholarship player," Smith said. "We want No. 90 to feel that way. And No. 100.

"When we're looking out on the field, those players that are walk-ons look like the scholarship players."

Smith rewards walk-ons. This year, linebacker Jimmy Marchese and tight end Bobby Walker were put on scholarship.

"We've given out four in two years," Smith said. "Guys have to take different roads to get where they want to go sometimes. If you feel like you were overlooked and 'Hey, I can play at that level,' well, come to the university and prove it."

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.
Moonpie wrote on January 28, 2018 at 3:01 pm

Coach Beard now owns it: He says they will win. If they don't, time to buy him out and ship him back to the NFL, where he failed the last two times. 

What is winning for next year? Six wins and the Toilet Bowl somewhere obscure against an equally bad program? Really? Six wins is the new standard, with perhap half of them coming early against The Little Sisters of the Poor?  

The beard doesn't hide that Lovie Dovie just isn't a head coach.

Maybe next time the inexperienced AD will avoid getting suckered by a mythical reputation and hire an establshed coach.