CHAMPAIGN — It had been two weeks since Lovie Smith last spoke to the Illini Quarterback Club. For Friday’s luncheon at the Holiday Inn, he brought two guests (tight end Justice Williams and strength coach Lou Hernandez) and talked about two wins.
“Seems like a lot has happened in a couple weeks,” Smith told the crowd of 125. “We started off the right way against Akron. We left a lot of plays out there. As a coaching staff, we liked the total team effort we saw in all three phases.”
The second game, at UConn, didn’t go as well for Smith’s team. The Huskies jumped to a 13-0 lead before the Illini rallied for a 31-23 win.
Smith reminded the crowd that Saturday’s opponent, Eastern Michigan, has won as many games against the Big Ten the past two seasons — two — as the Illini.
“With them coming in here really thinking they’re ready to play here,” Smith said, “we’re excited about meeting that challenge as much as anything.”
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Hernandez is in his second stint at Illinois. He worked on Ron Zook’s staff from 2005-11, helping the team earn three bowl bids.
Smith likes what he has seen from Hernandez.
“He has done so much with our ballclub,” Smith said. “The gains we have made strength-wise says an awful lot.”
Hernandez is working in a new weight room at the Smith Center.
“It’s been absolutely great,” Hernandez said. “It’s got everything we need to get bigger and better and faster and stronger.”
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Williams came to Illinois as linebacker, then moved to receiver and now tight end.
“As we have our athletes go out and represent our university, you want a guy like Justice Williams doing that,” Smith said.
Williams scored a touchdown in the opener against Akron, his first in college.
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Running back Ra’Von Bonner is looking to reach 3-0 for the first time in his Illinois career. The junior has big goals.
“These last two years, it’s been heartbreaking because I have a lot of buddies that play on other teams,” Bonner said. “Seeing them on Snapchat with all their bowl games rings, it’s like ‘Dang, I want that too.’ Now, it is time, but it’s not the time to talk about it. It’s time to do good.”
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Illinois radio analyst Martin O’Donnell is missing the Nebraska and Minnesota games as his wife Emily is due to give birth to their third child. The network has lined up his replacements.
Former analyst and Illini quarterback Kurt Kittner is working the Nebraska game on Sept. 21. And former Illini quarterback Wes Lunt is making the trip to Minnesota on Oct. 5.
O’Donnell is set to resume his duties when Illinois plays Michigan on Oct. 12 in Champaign.
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Eastern Michigan offensive lineman Marcellus Johnson will have his own cheering section Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
The redshirt freshman, who gets most of his action on special teams, is a Normal Community graduate. He played for Wes Temples with the Ironmen.
“It’s just great for me to come back home and play in front of my family,” Johnson said.
Johnson needed 25 tickets for Saturday’s game. Fortunately, his teammates came through, giving him enough of their passes to cover the requests.
“I don’t know where they’re sitting exactly,” Johnson said.
It will be the second time Johnson has been to Memorial Stadium for a game. He also came to the building during a camp during his recruitment.
“They were interested in my teammate (Peter Bussone),” Johnson said.
Bussone is at Illinois State.
As a kid, Johnson rooted for both Illinois and Illinois State, where his dad Eric played.
“I was a big fan of the Illinois teams,” Johnson said.
Johnson will see a familiar face on the other sideline Saturday. Former high school teammate Preston Engel is a redshirt freshman offensive lineman with the Illini.
“I talked to him this week,” Johnson said. “It was, ‘How have you been?’ It was really just catching up.”
Why did Johnson pick Eastern Michigan? The two-star recruit chose the Eagles over Central Michigan and Missouri State, where his brother played.
“What really did it for me at Eastern was Coach (Luke) Meadows was the O-line coach when I was getting recruited,” Johnson said. “I liked his coaching style. He’s very technical. He broke things down for me.
“Coach (Chris) Creighton was also a big recruiting point because of the energy he would always bring.”
Meadows left Eastern after the 2018 season to join Les Miles’ staff at Kansas.
Johnson’s decision looked even better when the team earned a bid to the Camellia Bowl his rookie season. The Eagles played Georgia Southern at Montgomery, Ala.
“That was a great experience,” he said. “We had so much fun.”
Long term, Johnson wants to work his way into the starting lineup at left tackle. Currently, he is backup to senior Steven Nielsen, a two-year starter.
“I’ve been working, trying to get better,” Johnson said. “Hopefully, my time is coming and I’m ready to go.”
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Johnson is one of four Illinois natives on the Eastern Michigan roster, along with freshman defensive backs Kempton Shine (Chicago St. Rita) and Kendric Nowling (Chicago Marist) and freshman kicker Tony Trabold (Joliet Catholic).
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On Friday morning, Eastern Michigan had meetings and quick walkthrough at their home facility.
The team took four busses on the six-hour drive to Champaign.The Eagles arrived early in the evening at Champaign’s Holiday Inn, had dinner at the hotel, more meetings , then off to their rooms.
There will be a 6 a.m. wakeup call Saturday morning, followed by meetings, a walkthrough and breakfast at the hotel.
The players first take field about 90 minutes before kickoff.