Asmussen | Lovie enjoys early chance to see team in gameday scenarios

Asmussen | Lovie enjoys early chance to see team in gameday scenarios

CHAMPAIGN — Before Saturday, it had been a while since Lovie Smith last coached in a spring game. By my calculations — 24 years, back to his time at Ohio State.

Consider that box checked.

Entering his fourth season, Smith worked his first spring game at Illinois on Saturday afternoon.

What did he think?

"We wanted to see exactly where we were," Smith said. "Let the guys get in some situational football. I thought some of the guys did some good things."

Gameday intensity existed at Memorial Stadium. Even though the opponent wore the same jersey.

"Absolutely," Smith said. "When you keep score and have people in the stands, it's a different vibe that you have. That was definitely the case."

Smith enjoyed it.

"I get pumped up," Smith said. "I'm on a natural high every practice, every game. I can't believe I do this for a living and get paid for it. I'm high as a kite."

The defense, which deservedly took a bulk of the blame for a 4-8 finish in 2018, scored a pair of early touchdowns on returns by linebacker Sean Coghlan and cornerback Nate Hobbs. It was a sure way to impress the new defensive coordinator (Smith).

"Defensively, it's always about taking the ball away," Smith said. "When you can take the ball away and score, that's good.

"We played good offense last year. We have to improve on the defensive side of the football. Everyone understands that."

Smith wants the spring success to carry into the season.

"When you're as bad as we were last year, guys need to see we can be good on that side of the football," Smith said. "In order for us to be a good team, we have to play better (on defense). I'm going to continue to say that. That's how they've been practicing."

At the start of spring drills, Smith's primary goal was individual improvement. And to see older players step into their expected roles. From backup to starter. From follower to leader.

"You want to establish some of that, but improve our ballclub in all areas," Smith said.

Overall, the coach likes what he sees.

"I feel good about where we are right now," Smith said. "We're not game ready or anything like that."

He won't set a win total for 2019. Certainly, more than four.

Six will put Illinois back into the postseason for the first time since 2014.

"It's a different day, I feel like, with Illinois football," Smith said. "We know what we're capable of doing."

The big question ...

At Illinois and most everywhere else: Who's the starting quarterback?

Redshirt freshman Matt Robinson took the first snap Saturday.

Don't read too much into that. The plays were divided between Robinson, M.J. Rivers II, Coran Taylor and Cam Miller.

"You've got to protect the football," Smith said, "As we talk about DBs, corners getting interceptions that's not good (for the quarterbacks). We've got to protect the football. We feel good about our quarterbacks."

The position is far from being settled. Beyond the battle with the current players, incoming freshman Isaiah Williams will challenge for early playing time.

"He's going to get a chance to play when he gets on campus and we'll see how it goes," Smith said.

There is also a chance the Illini will add a graduate transfer at quarterback. Last summer, AJ Bush Jr., transferred from Virginia Tech and became the starter.

Future plans

In previous years, the roster was too thin to have an Orange-Blue scrimmage at the end of spring drills.

Smith said he wanted to have spring games, but the numbers didn't allow it.

Going forward, if there are enough players ready to go, Smith said he will have a spring game.

"(Saturday), we were right at the border," Smith said. "I've kind of heard I don't like spring (games). No, that's not the case. The numbers said this year we could do it and we did."

The weekend went beyond the game. Former players returned for a Friday night barbecue at Memorial Stadium. They also had a chance to tour the new training facility that's set to open in July.

"They're in the family," Smith said. "They've gone through everything our current players are going through right now.

"You want to show them what good a player you are and, as a football team, how far we've come. We're trying to do that."

In a perfect world, the two-hour workout would have ended with nobody getting hurt. But it's football and even with rules that attempted to limit contact, defensive lineman Calvin Avery got banged up.

"We don't know exactly how serious it is," Smith said. "Hopefully, not that serious and we'll get him back out there."

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

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