Smith's tempo offense still work in progress

Smith's tempo offense still work in progress

URBANA — No clever nickname is attached to the new Illinois offense.

Hot Rod? Air Smith? Prairie Punch? Maybe later.

For now, first-year coordinator Rod Smith simply wants to see progress.

He wasn't happy with his guys during Wednesday's morning practice at the Campus Rec Fields.

"We took a step back," Smith said. "Too many missed assignments. Too many misreads."

During the two-hour workout, Smith was as animated as he had been in the first week of training camp.

We've got to push through mentally," Smith said.

Smith is trying to repair an offense that ranked near the bottom of the nation in 2017. Not Smith's doing. Or his problem. He prefers to look ahead.

Smith is working with five scholarship quarterbacks, including three freshmen. Mistakes are bound to happen.

None of the quarterbacks have run Smith's offense in a game. Sophomore Cam Thomas came closest, working in the spring as the lone scholarship quarterback.

Virginia Tech transfer AJ Bush has joined Thomas along with freshmen M.J. Rivers, Matt Robinson and Coran Taylor.

Origin story

A longtime disciple of former West Virginia/Michigan/Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, Smith said the Illinois offense will include some familiar pieces. And some twists.

"The base philosophy has always been the same," Smith said. "How it looks, we always catered that to our personnel.

"You evolve every year if you're a good football coach."

Smith describes his offense as "multiple spread."

The basic idea is to get players in space and create mismatches against the defense.

"When we get the opportunity, we have to make plays," Smith said.

If it works the way the Illini want, they will move the ball up and down the field and score points in bunches.

"If this thing is clicking on all cylinders," Thomas said, "it's going to be fast and high-scoring."

Smith wants the offense to be efficient.

"We're moving the chains and we're establishing tempo," Smith said.

The players need to be in great shape to run it right. They worked hard on their conditioning during the summer.

The quarterbacks also need to be accurate. Hitting 50 percent of your passes won't cut it.

"If you can't complete a pass, you have a one-dimensional offense," Thomas said. "Coach Smith makes sure that's an emphasis every day."

The holdover

Thomas joined the team in 2017 and played four games with Garrick McGee as his offensive coordinator.

Fired after his second season, McGee is now on the Missouri staff as an analyst.

Thomas is quick to thank McGee, who recruited him to Illinois and gave him his first college start.

"He explained the ins and outs of defenses, strengths and weaknesses, let me know on-the-field keys and things to look at to know where they're going or who to watch," Thomas said.

Thomas is a big fan of the new offense. And thinks it suits the current players.

"I know we have the talent to make it work this year," Thomas said.

With three weeks to go before the opener against Kent State, Thomas said plenty of work remains. For all the players.

"The biggest thing to take away is every day there is always room for improvement," Thomas said.

It is football all day right now during training camp as it nears the completion of its first week today when the Illini practice from 9-11 a.m. The intensity never lets up.

"Everybody wants to get on the field," Thomas said.

Thomas said he has a "great relationship" with Smith.

"From the day he got here, he welcomed me with open arms and let me know he loved parts of my game and he feels like some needs improvement," Thomas said. "I appreciated the realness of it, him being just upfront."

Blending together

Smith joins an offensive staff with two news guys. Tight ends coach Cory Patterson is the other. Luke Butkus (line), Andrew Hayes-Stoker (receivers) and Thad Ward (running backs) are in their third seasons with Lovie Smith.

"We've got great people here on our staff," Rod Smith said. "They are the ones that took me in."

Hayes-Stoker said the transition has been smooth, but obvious changes have materialized.

"Night and day, Hayes-Stoker said. "From the terminology to the tempo of it to the attitude of the players. The change has been very good for everybody. The kids are having fun again."