HARTFORD, Conn. — Corey Chavous can’t wait to get to work Saturday at Rentschler Field.
The former NFL Pro Bowl defensive back is serving as analyst on the CBS Sports Network telecast. Dave Ryan is handling play-by-play.
The Illini have to beat the Huskies if Lovie Smith's team has any hopes to reach a bowl game this season.
“I’m real excited,” Chavous said. “I’m excited because of the number of players that have kind of burst onto the scene. Not just for Illinois, but for UConn as well.”
One of those players is Huskies quarterback Mike Beaudry, who hit 14 of 21 passes for 158 yards in the season-opening 24-21 win against Wagner.
Beaudry started his career at Division II West Florida, where he led the program to the 2017 national title game.
“I want to see whether or not he can take the next step in his game,” Chavous said. “He’s had a lot of success at the Division II level. This will be his first really big challenge in terms of a Big Ten football team. He’s risen to the occasion in the past. How does he mesh with this UConn offense?”
Chavous expects UConn to try to run the ball. Early and often. Kevin Mensah had 36 carries for 144 yards against Wagner.
“He runs the ball very hard,” Chavous said. “He really does.”
★ ★ ★
UConn was 1-11 last season. There is plenty of work to do in Storrs.
“It’s a team that is still in a developmental stage,” Chavous said. “They are not quite as big as they were during the first time Randy Edsall was there.
“He’s making progress, though. Some of the athletes he’s gotten in the last couple years have helped to improve this football team.”
Chavous likes the look of the Illinois defense, which is being run this season by head coach Lovie Smith. The Ilini held Akron to just three points in the opener.
“They’ve got a lot of depth,” Chavous said.
So far, Chavous said, the Illinois defense is better than it was in 2018.
“They struggled to stop the run a year ago,” Chavous said. “They have other guys who have taken another step. Dele Harding is in a new role. (Oluwole) Betiku is a guy who wasn’t here. I think he mixes well with some of these other guys. Owen Carney, he might have a bigger impact. And I like Quan Martin at the cornerback position.”
When Illinois is on offense, Chavous wants to see how the Huskies handle the run game.
“I like Ra’Von Bonner,” Chavous said. “You can see the pace and the ferocity he runs with. Reggie Corbin is a guy with outstanding balance. Dre Brown, if he stays healthy, he can be a factor as well.”
★ ★ ★
Chavous got to know Smith while playing against his teams during stops with the Cardinals, Vikings and Rams.
Will Smith be able to turn the Illinois program?
Chavous said the 2018 team showed improvement early, but couldn’t keep it going.
“Patience has been an issue, I would imagine, for Illinois fans,” Chavous said. “There’s a lot of tradition in the program. You want to start to get back to some of that.”
Chavous, who last played in the NFL in 2008, has found a second career as a broadcaster.
“Football has a lot of minutiae,” Chavous said. “You have to take your time and respect the backup long snapper. I enjoy the minutiae. I enjoy the hard work. I enjoy the study.”
★ ★ ★
The Illinois travel party arrived in Hartford at about 3 p.m. Friday. The team went directly to its headquarters at the Hilton Hartford. The downtown hotel is less than four miles from Rentschler Field.
“We feel good about our schedule,” Smith said. “We leave about the same time each Friday whenever we go somewhere. All of the physical work is done here.”
As has been the case since he arrived on campus, the team doesn’t have a walkthrough at the opponent’s stadium.
“I haven’t done a walkthrough on the road for 20 years,” Smith said.
The Illini are on the road for the first time since closing 2018 with a loss at Northwestern.
“Eventually, it comes down to you being disciplined and mature enough to just know you take care of your business no matter where you are,” Smith said. “At the same time, it is different. When you start the season, there’s a first home game and there’s a first road game. In a way, we’re kind of starting our season over again.”
Illinois hasn’t won a nonconference road game since 2007 when Ron Zook’s Rose Bowl-bound team won at Syracuse.
“I’m not a guy that believes that has anything to do with what’s going on right now,” Smith said. “It doesn’t affect anything. But it’s a good talking point.”
Another box to check.
“When you have been a bad football team and you’re trying to become a good football team, there are hurdles along the way,” Smith said. “You acknowledge each one of them.”
★ ★ ★
Ian Swenson circled the Illinois game on the schedule long ago. The UConn sophomore linebacker gets to play against his home-state school.
“It’s exciting, honestly,” Swenson said. “I’ve been waiting for this game and now it’s finally here.”
Swenson played for former Illini linebacker John Holecek at Loyola Academy. He won a state title his junior year and finished runner-up as a senior.
Yes, Illinois recruited him.
“I visited,” Swenson said. “I committed (to UConn) before they made an offer.”
Swenson talked with Holecek about Illinois.
“He was a very good player there,” Swenson said. “I’ve seen pictures. He was a big dude. I heard he was unbelievable.”
In 2020, Swenson and UConn play at Illinois.
“I’m super excited,” he said. “A lot of my friends go to Illinois.”
★ ★ ★
Swenson is one of two players on the UConn roster from Illinois. The other is receiver Quayvon Skanes, who played at Chicago Phillips.
Seeing opponents from Illinois, even at faraway UConn, isn’t a surprise for Smith.
“Where we’re located, there’s someone that we play that will be from Illinois,” Smith said. “There’s just so many people. We have that each week. Guys nowadays are mobile. They’re going to be everywhere.”
★ ★ ★
The Huskies followed their typical Friday routine. That include a walkthrough in the morning, then classes, followed by a team dinner.
The team spent Friday night at a hotel in downtown Hartford.