Final word: 'It's my last first game'

Final word: 'It's my last first game'

CHAMPAIGN — No need for any fake beards at Friday's Illini Quarterback Club luncheon. The guy with the real one was the featured speaker.

Fake beards will given out at today's game as an ode to the third-year coach. Lovie Smith saw his players wearing them earlier in the week.

He laughed. Anything, he said, to bring smiles to their faces.

Smith, athletic director Josh Whitman and senior offensive lineman Nick Allegretti talked to a group of 200 at Champaign's Hawthorn Suites.

The Quarterback Club members saw the fruits of their fundraising efforts. The group bought sports jackets for players and Allegretti wore his. Size 56 long.

Allegretti appreciates the support from the Club, which was established in 1942.

"It's exciting for me to be up here," the co-captain said. "I've heard about the Quarterback Club for five years now."

He is looking forward to the start of his senior season.

"In 22 hours, it's my last first game," Allegretti said.

 

★ ★ ★

After a short talk to open his part of the program, Smith took questions from the audience. A fan asked him about the new redshirt rule, which allows players to play in up to four games and still be eligible for an extra year.

"That rule is great for college football," Smith said. "To have those four games to play with gives us a lot of flexibility.

"We're going to play all the freshmen we feel can help us win football games. If the opportunity presents itself, we would like to get a look at as many of our freshmen as possible. We're going to keep that option on the table."

 

★ ★ ★

Illinois freshman offensive lineman Kievan Myers is now with the team. The Texan cleared academic hurdles and joined the Illini in practice during the week after missing most of the month.

 

★ ★ ★

The Illini followed their typical pregame routine Friday. That meant a workout at home followed by dinner at the Champaign Country Club. On Friday night, the team went to see the film "Kin" before heading to their headquarters at Champaign's Hyatt Place.

 

★ ★ ★

Miles Smith, Lovie's youngest son, takes on a new role today. He was elevated from a graduate assistant position to a member of the full-time staff.

He fills in for cornerbacks coach Donnie Abraham, who recently resigned.

Miles Smith will work with the defensive backs. He is being paid $80,000 this season and will be under consideration for a permanent position. Illinois will conduct a nationwide search after the season.

 

★ ★ ★

Kent State's Sean Lewis makes his head coaching debut today at Memorial Stadium. He knows the building well.

As a sophomore at Oak Lawn Richards High School, Lewis played in a state title game on the Illinois campus. And as a tight end/quarterback at Wisconsin, his first time on a Big Ten field came at Illinois.

"It's funny how life comes full circle," Lewis said. "It's amazing that so many firsts in my football life will occur on that field. I'll probably take a minute and soak all that up."

 

★ ★ ★

At 32, Lewis is the youngest head coach in the FBS. He understands why there is interest in his age.

But ...

"When the game starts, it's going to be about our kids," Lewis said. "Hopefully, after that we can stop talking about my age and the story being about me because it's about the kids and the hard work they've put in."

Lewis got his coaching start at Richards. After college coaching stops at Eastern Illinois, Bowling Green and Syracuse, he got the call from the MAC. It has been a quick climb in a short time,

"I pinch myself each morning when I walk in," Lewis said. "Ten years ago, I was on the south side of Chicago at Oak Lawn Richards, leading in-school suspension."

 

★ ★ ★

The Golden Flashes worked out at home Friday before taking a flight to Champaign-Urbana in the afternoon.

The plan for Friday night?

"Make sure they're fed well, that they're confident with the plan," Lewis said. "We get them off their feet, let them relax and enjoy some family time together."

His game-week routine came from his mentors, Barry Alvarez and Dino Babers.

"Blending their schools of thought, their ideas," Lewis said, "and some of my own feelings to mold our plan in the way that we've done things since we've been here and doing things the Flash Fast way."

Like all other Illinois visitors, Kent State stayed at Champaign's Hawthorn Suites.

 

★ ★ ★

Lewis isn't the only new coach in the game. Rod Smith will run the Illinois offense for the first time.

To try to figure out Smith's attack, Lewis looked at Arizona game film. Smith was on Rich Rodriguez's productive staff in Tucson.

"It was tremendous, the success he had last year with the Wildcats," Lewis said. "He's going to bring some of that same plan and that same philosophy to the Illini."

 

★ ★ ★

Lewis didn't announce a starting quarterback before today's game. Sophomores Woody Barrett and Dustin Crum are competing for the job. Crum played in 10 games last season. Barrett started his career at Auburn before transferring to a junior college.

"It's something we're going to keep in house as a family matter," Lewis said, "and everyone will find out (today)."

 

★ ★ ★

The Kent State strength coach Jeff Sobol didn't need directions to Memorial Stadium. He used to play there.

Sobol was a Ron Turner recruit in 2004, who redshirted his first year. The defensive lineman played two games in 2005 for Ron Zook. He transferred to Eastern Illinois and was a three-year starter for the Panthers.