The Illini's rapid changes early in 2016 were bewildering to witness. In a short period, new AD Josh Whitman fired head coach Bill Cubit, who'd just had the interim tag removed, and then stunningly replaced him with former NFL coach Lovie Smith.
Smith brings quite the resume, including a decade as a positional coach in college, an 81-63 record with the Chicago Bears before his Buccaneers rebuild was stopped short, a Super Bowl appearance, and being a standard bearer of the Tampa 2 defense that dominated the league for about a decade.
Now Illinois is hoping Lovie's pro credentials will translate to the Big Ten.
To achieve those ends, Smith is bringing aboard coordinators Hardy Nickerson, a longtime Tampa 2 LB in the NFL and a LB coach under Smith at (naturally) Tampa, and Bobby Petrino disciple Garrick McGee from Louisville. Nickerson figures to bring Lovie's defense, along with California connections that include coaching an Oakland high school team. McGee will bring Petrino's college-tested pro-style offense.
If Lovie can leverage his name brand with Chicago recruits, that alone could make a massive difference.
If you look at the last six years of Illinois recruiting, as gauged by 247 Sports' Composite, you'll notice Illinois hasn't exactly been a destination for top players, even the ones from within the state.
|Big Ten rank
|Top-50 Illinois recruits
Of the 300 players ranked in Illinois' in-state top 50 by 247 over the last six years, 30 signed with the Illini. That's 10 percent, for my fellow liberal arts majors. The rest have mostly gone elsewhere in the Big Ten, particularly the players in the Chicago suburbs, where much of the talent is concentrated.
The hiring of a successful coach who's attached to the Bears brand that dominates the state, perhaps offers as much hope as anyone Illinois could have hired. And while the rest of his coaching staff is NFL-heavy, it includes a mix of younger coaches and players Illinois recruits will recognize, like Nickerson and Dick Butkus' former All-Big Ten nephew, Luke.
Smith is mostly known for his role in developing of the Tampa 2 defense with Tony Dungy.
It's a defense known primarily for the middle linebacker dropping deep in coverage ... and for supposedly being out of style.
However, thanks in part to teams like North Dakota State, the Tampa 2 is making something of a comeback in the college game. You can probably expect Illinois to somewhat resemble the approach at Texas Tech under David Gibbs*, who mixes Tampa 2 with cover 3 and teaches a major emphasis on ball-hawking in the backfield.
* TTU was still challenged on defense in Gibbs' first year, but his scheme has worked well before, like at Houston.
Smith's expertise in teaching linebackers how to read QBs and get to the ball is one of his greatest skills as a coach. You can see Tampa Bay weakside linebacker Lavonte David demonstrating it in this clip against Chip Kelly's Eagles.
Successful installation will require time. Having a defense full of upperclassmen who know how to study film and recognize plays will be invaluable.
This defense works by quickly plugging interior gaps with defensive linemen. Often the outside linebackers (since the middle linebacker is frequently dropping deep) spill runners outside to the zone defenders. In today's run/pass option era, that's increasingly tricky.
North Dakota State and other programs demonstrate it can be done. The conservative, two-deep safety shell can still shut down the run.
The safeties and middle linebacker are typically in position to help if the runner is successfully spilled outside. If the interior defenders are good, this can be an effective run defense despite it's conservative nature.
Smith has also been mixing in single-safety deep coverage with his Tampa 2 schemes, which is a favorite way at both levels to handle spread offenses and run/pass conflicts. At Illinois, this may look more like cover 3, with the corners allowed to play deep while the linebackers and down safety cover underneath.
Finding athletic linebackers who can run sideline to sideline and are smart will be the biggest priority. As it happens, the 2016 class included four LB recruits. Smith might have to make this work with someone else's recruits.
Fortunately, some of these guys seem to fit the mold. Though Ayo Shogbonyo is the lowest-rated incoming LB, he could be a great fit thanks to his athleticism (4.68 40 and 4.22 shuttle time in a Nike Sparq event), and Christion Abercrombie has a highlight film replete with examples of him making plays in coverage.
McGee will have some interesting choices to make on offense.
Will he carry on the spread-to-run philosophy of his predecessor or insist on a pro-style attack in year one?
In 2015, Illinois ran a great deal of three/four-wide formations that included TEs like Andrew Davis, who at 6'6, 230 is more of a flex/receiving TE than a punishing blocker. Like most teams lacking blocking firepower, Illinois used run/pass options. QB Wes Lunt was fairly good at it.
McGee was branching out into the spread-option game at Louisville, but that was in order to make the most of quarterback Lamar Jackson's athleticism, which is far superior to Lunt's. McGee has usually put quarterbacks like Lunt under center and used motion at the line, to give his QB a clear picture of the coverage.
It's a "run to set up the throw" system, with a few key passing concepts to punish defenses for how they respond to the run. Finding a TE who can base block in addition to running routes will be key.
A sampling of how McGee may set up the defense would be in a scheme like G-lead, designed to give the RB lead blocking on the perimeter:
Then, McGee can attack the defense's response with curl-flat combos to either side:
Besides the question of how well Lunt masters the checks, motions, and hot routes, a major point of interest should be how well the tight ends take to blocking DEs at the point of attack. If McGee can find a fullback, he could lessen the blocking load, but to execute the typical Petrino offense, they'll need a good blocker to step up at one of the two classical positions of the pro-style offense.
Illinois has hired some good coaches who know how to teach. On offense, they know how to teach pro-style systems to college players. They've also hired a head coach who's as likely as anyone to bring in-state recruiting credibility.
Whether that will be enough to bring Illinois back into Big Ten contention will remain to be seen, but 2016 should be fascinating in Champaign for the first time in a while.