Smith wipes slate clean with Illini

Smith wipes slate clean with Illini

CHAMPAIGN — The guy put in charge of the Illinois offense made some new friends Monday night.

Rod Smith, hired by Lovie Smith on Jan. 19, was the guest on "The News-Gazette Sports Page" at the Esquire Lounge in downtown Champaign.

The former co-offensive coordinator at Arizona and a longtime aide to Rich Rodriguez, Smith shared his philosophy — "I think you win championships by establishing the line of scrimmage" — and his disdain for a Big Ten rival — "went to Michigan, don't want to talk about that place."

After his turn on the radio, Smith was heading back to the Illinois campus to meet with some of his players, including quarterback Cam Thomas.

"We're going to sit down and visit a little bit," Smith said.

Soon enough — March 6th to be exact, —Smith will get quality time on the field with the Illinois offense. That's when spring football opens for the Illini, who are looking to improve on last season's 2-10 record.

"It's brand new for all of us," Smith said. "The first practice will probably be completely ugly. We'll keep digging at it, keep plugging."

The spring sessions ends on April 7 with the Orange and Blue scrimmage.

Smith seemed at ease with the crowd. He joked about the orange shorts he was wearing: "We had a 6 a.m. workout this morning." And his lack of concern for the cold: "I am a polar bear, so it doesn't affect me. I'll wear shorts every day if they'd let me."

Smith also took questions from the audience. One asked if he has seen the qualities he looks for in a player.

"I'm telling you what I haven't seen: I have not seen anyone who came in thinking they are above the program. I've seen nothing but humbleness. I've seen nothing but eagerness. Ready to win. Ready to learn."

He was also asked what he wants in a leader? "Someone who can be the face of our program," Smith said. "Who can represent our program not just on the field, but off the field as well. Someone who draws people to him. It's not someone who cares just about himself, but has the ability to influence people in a good way."

Smith inherits an offense that ranked near the bottom nationally in most statistical categories. What happened in 2017 isn't being held against the returning players.

"I wasn't here in the past, so I'm not concerned with that," Smith said. "I'm concerned with what we do today. Can we get better today than we were yesterday? Tomorrow, can we get better that we were today? If we keep building, keep recruiting, keep developing, we'll all get to where we want to be."

Thomas will be the only scholarship quarterback with the team in the spring.

"We're going to have the opportunity to get really close," Smith said. "He may not like that by the time it's done. But at the same time, it will be beneficial for both of us. It is a unique situation, but I had the same situation when I first went to Arizona."

His first quarterback at Arizona, Matt Scott, ended up being second-team All-Pac-12.

Thomas will be joined in the summer by incoming freshmen M.J. Rivers, Coran Taylor and Matt Robinson.

"The quarterback's job is to be the point guard," Smith said. "His job is to distribute the football."