Asmussen | Riddle me this, Illini

Asmussen | Riddle me this, Illini

After a 10-day spring break, the Illinois football team resumes spring practice early Tuesday morning.

Lovie Smith and his 10 assistants have five more workouts before the final spring session on April 7.

Then, that's it. We won't see the entire team together again until late July. More than three months away.

There are oodles of questions to answer between now and then. When a team wins just five games in two years, there are plenty of issues. Here are the ones at the top of my list:

1. Who starts at quarterback?

And maybe just as important: Will he work all 12/13 games?

In the first two years of Lovie Smith's tenure, three different quarterbacks started each season. In 2016, Wes Lunt, Jeff George Jr. and Chayce Crouch each took a turn. In '17, it was Crouch, George and Cam Thomas.

Didn't work.

Three wins the first year and two the second — just two in the Big Ten.

The ineffectiveness cost offensive coordinator Garrick McGee his job. Remember, he took a pay cut to come to Illinois from Louisville. He could have stayed in the ACC, coached a Heisman Trophy winner and still be employed.

New offensive guru Rod Smith doesn't want to change quarterbacks every four games. If he can help it. His dual-threat system works best with a consistent playmaker in charge.

Right now, the best and only answer is Cam Thomas, who has a chance to jump way in front of four incoming quarterbacks, three freshmen and a graduate transfer. A.J. Bush, M.J. Rivers, Matt Robinson and Coran Taylor will all be new to Smith's offense.

Sure, they can study the playbook and look at film. But it isn't the same as going live with a defense trying to stop them.

2. Will the offensive line improve?

It doesn't matter who plays quarterback if he is running for his life.

Illinois finished 125th (out of 129 schools) in sacks allowed (42) during the 2017 season. That's a whole lot of fannies hitting the turf, 3.5 per game.

It is part of the reason the Illini struggled to keep drives alive. Only four schools nationally had fewer than Illinois' 174 first downs.

Senior Nick Allegretti will be back to anchor the young group. The other four starters will be sophomores Larry Boyd, Doug Kramer, Vederian Lowe and Alex Palczewski. There is plenty of upside. But there needs to be a significant bump in quarterback protection and the ability to create lanes for the running backs.

The Big Ten opener provides a great test. Penn State was seventh in the nation last season in sacks.

3. Will Mikey Dudek fit into the offense?

A guy who had 1,038 receiving yards (on 76 grabs) as a freshman caught 24 passes in seven games in 2017. His season was shortened because of injuries not related to two torn ACLs. He has been active in the spring and figures to get back more of his athleticism and quickness moving forward. Nobody on the team works harder and Dudek will do everything he can to help his team win.

The key for Dudek might be the rest of the receivers and tight ends. Louis Dorsey is out for the spring because of off-the-field issues. His return is important for Dudek, who will be helped if the Illini have more threats. Ricky Smalling is another important player.

With adequate quarterback protection and a guy capable of getting him the ball, Dudek could have a 50-catch season. Not quite the Dudek of 2014, but closer.

4. What's going on with the other players missing in the spring?

Running back Mike Epstein, who got off to a great start in 2017, is expected back for training camp. His season ended because of a foot injury.

Incoming defensive linemen Verdis Brown, one of the top players in the class, isn't participating in the spring for unspecified reasons.

Linebacker Jake Hansen, a projected starter, continues to recover from a torn ACL. Hansen is on pace to be ready for the start of the season.

Like Dorsey, defensive lineman Isaiah Gay is being help out for unspecified reasons. Smith said in both cases, it is not because of anything criminal. Good to know.

When Illinois had breakout seasons under previous coaches, those coincided with few injuries to players in the two deep. The margin for error at Illinois is oh-so-thin. Staying healthy makes a move up possible.

5. How important are the new coaches?

In the early days of 2019 recruiting, they have been huge. Already, the school has commitments from a top-100 quarterback — Isaiah (not Juice) Williams — and top-100 receiver/defensive back Marquez Beason.

Cory Patterson, who coached Williams at St. Louis Trinity Catholic, deserves a bunch of credit for the commit. Trinity has more recruitable players for '19 and Illinois is in on many of them.

Rod Smith has his own contacts, especially in the West. Look for him to help bring a high profile recruit or two. New defensive line coach Austin Clark will win over players with his enthusiasm and safeties coach Gill Byrd has a wealth of knowledge and experience.

No disrespect to the coaches who they replaced, but the new assistants are an upgrade.

 

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

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PortlandIllini wrote on March 26, 2018 at 11:03 am

Games are won or lost in the off-season: especially in the weight room.

Can you please give us a story about the strength&conditioning program for the linemen?  And how does it compare versus Ohio State , Michigan and Penn State's programs?

Moonpie wrote on March 26, 2018 at 12:03 pm

It's nice for a change to have the football program get a dose of the third degree -- somewhat, anyway -- instead of just the blind cheerleading that usually passes for Gazoo reporting.

I don't have faith in Lovie Dovie going back to his time with the Bears. He can craft a solid defense, but he's not really head coach material and his last two firings support that. Not a dynamic guy at all.

I just don't see the Illini becoming a program much better than it is short of hiring a Nick Saban or an Urban Meyer, and neither of those guys would ever take the job, of course, at a football backwater.

Keep hoping, of course, but...

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