CHAMPAIGN — Lovie Smith expects his Illinois assistant football coaches to move onward and upward. During his first four seasons, they have followed orders.
Luke Butkus left for the NFL. So did Mike Phair. And Joey Boese.
“It’s saying a lot about the type of guys we are hiring,” Smith said.
Defensive line coach Austin Clark is the latest to get a promotion, joining the Miami Dolphins staff as outside linebackers coach.
“About two years ago, you guys were really hitting about, ‘Who’s this freaking Austin Clark guy, young grad assistant?’ We kind of knew what we had. Felt real good about him then,” Smith said.
“When we lose guys, just like when we lose good football players, you want to replace them with good guys, too. I feel like we’ve done that.”
Al Davis (tackles) and Jimmy Lindsey (ends) filled the hole on the defensive staff. They were picked from what Smith considered a strong pool of candidates.
Smith has a few advantatages when it comes to luring coaches. First, his background in the NFL is appealing to those who want to work at the pro level. Second, Big Ten jobs are precious. The league is a destination for most college coaches. There are 140 Big Ten assistants jobs. When a position opens, there is high interest.
Illinois lost two assistants after the 2019 season, with Gill Byrd stepping away from coaching.
Smith is changing the makeup of his defensive staff, putting secondary responsibilities in the hands of returning assistant Keynodo Hudson and using two guys up front. Miles Smith remains with the linebackers.
“You have a lot of options with your coaching staff on how you arrange it,” Smith said. “I think you start over each year.
“Where we are, we’re going to have a lot of young defensive linemen. I thought it made sense, in order to get our team better, to have two guys and split up the defensive line.”
College staffs are now allowed 10 full-time assistants coaches.
The head coach decides how to divvy them up.
Smith, who also serves as the Illini’s defensive coordinator, has five on offense, four on defense and special teams coordinator Bob Ligashesky.
“In the past, coach Clark had four (positions) and that was a big group,” Smith said. “Now, we can get more individual instruction. That’s how we’ll do it.”
Like Clark when he was hired at Illinois, Davis is under 30. Age wasn’t a part of Smith’s consideration.
“Older, younger, it’s just kind of the right fit,” Smith said.
When he took over at Illinois, Smith leaned on his NFL contacts when it came to hiring his first staff in the spring of 2016.
“That’s who I kind of knew at the time,” Smith said. “Now that I’m a college coach, I know a lot more guys that are in college football.”
Once the coach joins the program, Smith expects a one-year commitment. Smith thinks there will be more movement in the future. Especially if the program climbs the Big Ten West.
“We’re trending in the right direction,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of excitement around here. We took a big step this year (reaching the postseason), but it was just a step. We see bright days ahead for our football program. We’re not the only one that’s going to say that.
“When you taste something, you want to do it again. That’s where we are. We can’t wait.”
Slow news day
The bulk of the 2020 recruiting class signed during the Decemeber period. Illinois added one more on Wednesday when Jacksonville (Fla.) defensive back Tahveon “Taz” Nicholson said “Yes.”
FBS programs are allowed 85 players on scholarship. Smith has a few openings going into the season. Not that he is going to tell us the number.
“We have a few,” Smith said. “Will we fill all of those scholarships filled before we start playing football? Absolutely. I think it’s a different day on how recruiting goes. There’s a lot of ways you can add to your program.”
Before the 2019 season, Smith brought in five graduate transfers with good results.
Quarterback Brandon Peters, receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe, defensive end Oluwole Betiku and offensive lineman Richie Petitbon made significant contributions, along with receiver Trevon Sidney before he suffered a season-ending injury.
Betiku could have returned to Illinois for 2020, but opted to enter the NFL draft instead.
“For all of the guys that feel they are ready to take that next step, I’m excited for them,” Smith said. “(Betiku) had a strong desire to take that next step. In Wole’s case, it’s about getting healthy and preparing for the most important interview you’ve had in your life.”
Count on Illinois to return to the transfer portal.
“Whenever you try something different and you like it, you lean on it a little bit more,” Smith said. “Is divorce a part of our life? Yeah, it is. Sometimes, divorce is a good thing. Both parties can benefit from it.
“These guys have demonstrated that they are serious students and they are looking for something we think we can give them.”
A big fan
Smith has been busy with his football duties, so he hasn’t been able to watch Illinois basketball as much as he wants.
Brad Underwood’s team had a seven-game winning streak end last Sunday at Iowa before Friday night’s home game against Maryland. Smith planned to be there. And figures to take in many more.
“I’m a huge basketball guy,” Smith said. “I’m pumped up for Brad.”
Smith encourages the football players to attend basketball games.
“We want our guys to be there supporting all the different sports,” Smith said. “Coach (Nancy) Fahey’s team, too. I haven’t seen one of our women’s basketball games yet. I cannot wait to get there.”