Illini have work to do before opening new football facility

Illini have work to do before opening new football facility

Facility upgrades? Check. New uniforms? Check. Butkus statue? Check. Landing a five-star recruit? Check.

Lovie Smith and the Illini have all accomplished those tasks since the end of the 2017 season. But when the new Football Performance Center opens in 14 months, what will the program look like? Beat writer Scott Richey looks at four items Illinois needs to address before the above venue is completed by August 2019:


Illinois has made multiple cosmetic improvements since Lovie Smith was hired in March 2016 — the football performance center easily the biggest. Now the play on the field has to match the multimillion-dollar investment. The Illini dipped to 2-10 in Smith's second season and went winless in the Big Ten to put his two-year career record at 5-19 overall. Even if 2018 only represents Smith's second recruiting class, positive results in the win column have to happen. Most projections have the Illini at four wins this fall. That would be "progress," but not a big enough step.


Some programs are simply synonymous with college football. Illinois isn't, and may never be, but that doesn't mean the brand can't be built in a number of ways. Following up Dana Howard's College Football Hall of Fame berth with more — think Simeon Rice and Moe Gardner just to start — is a good step. Developing players to have more regular representation in the NFL draft after getting shut out in April is another. The Illini have made inroads with "Littyville" thanks primarily to running backs coach Thad Ward, but they need to make sure their "lit" program doesn't fizzle.


Ron Zook stopped landing top 100 recruits, and his Illinois career ended after seven seasons. Tim Beckman and Bill Cubit never landed one of those elite prospects. So Smith is already ahead on the recruiting front thanks to commitments from Isaiah Williams (who dropped from five to four stars shortly after) and Marquez Beason. The Illini take the long game when it comes to recruiting under Smith and have just six total commitments in the 2019 class, but they have to capitalize on landing the top two prospects since Arrelious Benn and Martez Wilson in 2007.


Illinois will enter the 2018 season with a murky quarterback situation. Just one returning signal caller with limited experience and four newcomers means training camp will be all quarterback competition, all the time. Even that might not settle things, with Williams set to arrive in 2019. But after four years of quarterback uncertainty and a fifth likely this fall, the Illini could only benefit from the stability of finding their true No. 1 quarterback. The youth of that group, which will extend into the 2019 season, means that player will be the quarterback of the present and future.