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It's Lovie Smith's turn to attempt stability at Illinois

A former NFL coach gets a crack at leveling out the Fighting Illini. This is Bill C.'s 128-team run through college football.

Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Check out the advanced-stats glossary here. Below, a unique review of last year's team, a unit-by-unit breakdown of this year's roster, the full 2016 schedule with win projections for each game, and more.

1. The seductive draw of stability

In Tuesday's Maryland preview, we discussed sleeping giants. Typically, the premise behind that label is that a school has potentially solid cash flow and lots of recruits nearby and that it just hasn't put all the pieces together (or kept them together). There tends to be a reason these programs haven't put the pieces together -- support from administration (or fans), politics, nearby national powers taking most of those recruits, etc.

On paper, Illinois seems to have quite a bit going for it, just like Maryland. It's got Big Ten money, there are plenty of recruits nearby and the facilities certainly aren't awful. And unlike Maryland, the Fighting Illini are in the right division for making a move. (Divisions are an outdated concept anyway.) And it boasts a couple of college football's greatest players ever in Red Grange and Dick Butkus.

Illinois has been to more Rose Bowls (five) than most of the teams in the Big Ten's lower tiers and has been to both the Rose and Sugar Bowls in this century. Again, these are accomplishments much of the Big Ten cannot boast. But something always holds Illinois back.

The Fighting Illini went to the Rose Bowl in 2007; the four years before this run, they went 8-38, and the two years after, they went 8-16. They won the Big Ten and went to the Sugar Bowl in 2001; the year before, they went 5-6, and the year after they went 5-7. Everything comes together, then everything falls apart.

Five different coaches have led them to an AP ranking of 12th at least once; only one has done it more than once. That's crazy. When John Mackovic was taking the Illini to four straight bowls in the late-1980s, and when Lou Tepper succeeded Mackovic and took them to two more in three years, it represented the greatest level of sustained success since Robert Zuppke was dominating in Grange's wake in the 1920s.

The instability has continued in recent years. In 2006, Illinois ranked 78th in S&P+. In 2007, 19th. In 2009, 80th. In 2011, 33rd. Illinois was all over the map in the Ron Zook years, but they did at least put together a handful of truly solid teams. In the Tim Beckman era (which bleed into the one-year Bill Cubit era), we actually saw some semblance of stability. It was mediocrity, but it was stable.

Illinois has ranked 74th, 65th, and 61st in S&P+ the last three years. Technically the Illini have improved for three straight yeasr now, but only by inches. There was no long-term vision for the program; while looking for a new athletic director, the school basically decided to punt and give Cubit -- named the interim coach when Beckman was suddenly fired in August -- an extended interim stay.

But when new athletic director Josh Whitman, a former UI tight end, took over in February, he clearly had someone in mind to lead the program toward a present that is both stable and potentially decent. In his first official day on the job, he fired Cubit. On his third official day, he hired Lovie Smith. (Here's a timeline of Illinois' weird year.)

Coaching in the pros is not the same as coaching in college. You don't get as much practice time, you don't have as much control over your roster, you have to simplify things a little bit more in college, etc. We've seen the transition (in both directions) backfire plenty of times, and it could trip Smith up as well.

Still, the draw of Smith should be obvious. He has 11 years of NFL head coaching experience, and that can't hurt when it comes to recruiting. Plus, he spent 13 years as a college assistant before making the sojourn to the NFL in 1996. Plenty has changed since he was John Cooper's defensive backs coach at Ohio State in 1995 (Cooper was also his head coach at Tulsa in the late-1970s), but he at least has a reference point for the differences between college and pro.

Smith hadn't been on the recruiting trail for 20 years when Whitman brought him aboard. Maybe his hire isn't one with the highest of ceilings. But if he can establish a higher floor and help Illinois move past what was a pretty ugly off-the-field end to the Beckman era, then his hire could end up successful even if he's not winning divisional titles.

2015 Schedule & Results

Record: 5-7 | Adj. Record: 6-6 | Final F/+ Rk: 65 | Final S&P+ Rk: 61
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Win
Expectancy
vs. S&P+ Performance
vs. Vegas
5-Sep Kent State 109 52-3 W 99% 100% +43.3 +34.5
12-Sep Western Illinois N/A 44-0 W 96% 100% +24.8
19-Sep at North Carolina 24 14-48 L 33% 3% -26.3 -24.5
26-Sep Middle Tennessee 82 27-25 W 58% 48% -13.6 -4.0
3-Oct Nebraska 36 14-13 W 69% 68% -8.9 -6.0
10-Oct at Iowa 38 20-29 L 36% 7% -7.4 +2.0
24-Oct Wisconsin 32 13-24 L 60% 32% -12.2 -4.5
31-Oct at Penn State 47 0-39 L 5% 0% -37.5 -33.5
7-Nov at Purdue 93 48-14 W 95% 100% +29.0 +31.5
14-Nov Ohio State 3 3-28 L 14% 0% -15.6 -9.0
21-Nov at Minnesota 55 23-32 L 35% 14% -4.6 -4.5
28-Nov vs. Northwestern 52 14-24 L 33% 12% -8.4 -6.5

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 24.0 98 20.3 19
Points Per Game 22.7 103 23.3 37

2. Beating up the nerds

Say this much for Illinois in 2015: The Illini took advantage of their opportunities. When they faced a team that was clearly inferior, they threw haymakers. Their offense was decent, and aside from a late glitch against MTSU (the Blue Raiders only gained 368 yards against Illinois, but 153 came in two late touchdowns drives), the defense was impenetrable.

And then they played teams with pulses. The defense was merely solid, and the offense didn't exist.

  • Illinois vs. top-60 teams:
    Record: 1-7 | Average percentile performance: 36% (~top 85) | Average score: Opp 30, ILL 13 | Yards per play: Opp 5.6, UI 4.6 (-1.0)
  • Illinois vs. everyone else:
    Record: 4-0 | Average percentile performance: 87% (~top 15) | Average score: ILL 43, Opp 11 | Yards per play: UI 5.6, Opp 3.5 (+2.1)

Only once did Illinois score more than 20 points against a top-60 team -- the Illini scored all of 23 against Minnesota. In a college football universe in which teams average about 28-29 points per game, that doesn't cut it.

In the last two years, Illinois' offense has fallen from 35th to 60th to 98th in Off. S&P+, while the defense has risen from 103rd to 72nd to 19th in Def. S&P+. That pretty clearly lays out the challenges ahead for Smith and his staff, but there's another variable here: experience. Illinois returns quite a bit on offense and has to replace quite a bit on D.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.21 95 IsoPPP+ 100.3 63
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 38.2% 104 Succ. Rt. + 100.2 72
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 30.3 78 Def. FP+ 30.5 86
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity 3.5 117 Redzone S&P+ 96.7 92
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 16.9 ACTUAL 17 +0.1
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 88 71 72 63
RUSHING 111 74 94 59
PASSING 47 69 46 76
Standard Downs 56 66 62
Passing Downs 90 77 86
Q1 Rk 74 1st Down Rk 77
Q2 Rk 93 2nd Down Rk 61
Q3 Rk 49 3rd Down Rk 80
Q4 Rk 97

3. A Garrick McGee offense

To put it politely, Smith's Chicago and Tampa Bay teams were not known for their dynamic offenses. In 12 seasons, he fielded an offense that ranked better than 22nd out of 32 teams in the NFL in Offensive DVOA just twice and never ranked better than 17th.

The upside to this is that he only needed a mediocre offense to win some games. His 2006 Bears offense ranked 20th, and he made the Super Bowl. And he won divisons in 2005 and 2010 with offenses ranked 28th. The guy knows how to organize a defense.

Still, Illinois' offense desperately needed help last year, and Smith's reputation doesn't automatically build confidence.

Of course, he's not going to be running the Illinois offense. That's Garrick McGee's job.

The 43-year old McGee comes to Champaign-Urbana with a diverse résumé. He was Pat Fitzgerald's offensive coordinator at Northwestern, then landed on Bobby Petrino's Arkansas staff at 2008, first as quarterbacks coach, then as offensive coordinator. He struggled mightily for two years as UAB's head coach, then ended up back with Petrino in Louisville in 2014.

It's easy to see what Smith sees in McGee. He blends together what we generally refer to as a pro-style offense with college concepts. His two Arkansas offenses were both loaded and dominant, and despite youth and constant turnover at quarterback, he helped Louisville twice rank 49th in Off. S&P+. Could be better, could be worse.

McGee and Petrino dabbled with mobile quarterbacks at UL, but in his first year at UI, he might have to shelve those concepts -- incumbent quarterback Wes Lunt is one of the least mobile quarterbacks in the country, at least from a "running forward with the ball" perspective.

Lunt gets the ball out of his hands quickly and doesn't take sacks, but he carried the ball just six times for 13 yards last year. A mobile quarterback offers one more weapon for a defense to account for (one extra variable here: Lunt's backup, Chayce Crouch, seems like far more of a dual-threat option), but if Illinois struggles again in 2016, it won't be because Lunt won't run. It will be because he doesn't have enough weapons around him. Or a reliable offensive line.

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2016 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Wes Lunt 6'5, 225 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8892 270 481 2761 14 6 56.1% 18 3.6% 5.2
Chayce Crouch 6'4, 225 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8578 15 34 160 2 1 44.1% 2 5.6% 4.1
Jimmy Fitzgerald 6'3, 220 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8485
Jeff George, Jr. 6'3, 205 RSFr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7875

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
Ke'Shawn Vaughn RB 5'10, 210 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8953 157 723 6 4.6 6.5 29.3% 2 2
Josh Ferguson RB 129 708 3 5.5 6.3 37.2% 1 1
Chayce Crouch QB 6'4, 225 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8578 23 110 1 4.8 4.8 34.8% 0 0
Henry Enyenihi RB 20 58 1 2.9 2.0 20.0% 0 0
Kendrick Foster RB 5'9, 200 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8059 15 78 1 5.2 3.0 46.7% 0 0
Cameron Tucker RB 7 33 0 4.7 6.8 28.6% 0 0
Wes Lunt QB 6'5, 225 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8892 6 13 1 2.2 4.8 33.3% 1 0
Nathan Echard FB/TE 6'2, 245 Jr. NR NR
Dre Brown RB 5'11, 205 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8744
Reggie Corbin RB 5'10, 185 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8245
Tre Nation FB/TE 5'11, 220 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8422







Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
Yds/
Target
%SD Success
Rate
IsoPPP
Geronimo Allison WR 129 65 882 50.4% 25.9% 6.8 50.4% 38.0% 1.61
Desmond Cain WR 5'11, 185 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8426 79 53 492 67.1% 15.8% 6.2 67.1% 46.8% 1.20
Malik Turner WR 6'3, 205 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8006 71 39 510 54.9% 14.2% 7.2 53.5% 42.3% 1.56
Josh Ferguson RB 51 37 280 72.5% 10.2% 5.5 58.8% 31.4% 1.59
Dionte Taylor WR 6'0, 190 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8221 44 22 216 50.0% 8.8% 4.9 52.3% 40.9% 0.99
Marchie Murdock WR 38 20 194 52.6% 7.6% 5.1 68.4% 36.8% 1.37
Justin Hardee
(2014)
WR 6'1, 200 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8141 34 19 240 55.9% 7.4% 7.1 32.4% N/A N/A
Ke'Shawn Vaughn RB 5'10, 210 So. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8953 29 16 119 55.2% 5.8% 4.1 65.5% 27.6% 1.30
Andrew Davis TE 6'6, 230 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8141 13 5 26 38.5% 2.6% 2.0 69.2% 30.8% 0.65
Sam Mays WR 6'3, 200 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8588 12 7 78 58.3% 2.4% 6.5 58.3% 50.0% 1.19
Tyler White TE 6'5, 255 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8205 8 5 46 62.5% 1.6% 5.8 75.0% 62.5% 0.45
Nathan Echard FB/TE 6'2, 235 Jr. NR NR 7 4 4 57.1% 1.4% 0.6 85.7% 14.3% 0.14
Henry Enyenihi RB 6 4 15 66.7% 1.2% 2.5 50.0% 33.3% 0.65
Zach Grant WR 6'0, 195 Sr. NR NR 2 1 7 50.0% 0.4% 3.5 50.0% 0.0% 0.00
Caleb Reams TE 6'3, 240 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8332
Zarrian Holcombe TE 6'6, 220 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8559
Andrew Trainer TE 6'8, 245 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8240
M.J. McGriff WR 5'9, 190 Fr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7850

4. One big-play guy

Ke'Shawn Vaughn's got potential. As a freshman, he led Illinois in rushing and showed some flashes. Against MTSU, Purdue, and Northwestern (two bad defenses and one strong one), he carried 41 times for 322 yards (7.9 per carry) and three touchdowns. You can do some damage with that. When he found open field, he proved explosive with a solid 6.5 highlight yards per opportunity.

Of course, in his other eight games, he carried 116 times for 401 yards (3.5). He went games without seeing open field. Freshman backs tend to be rather inefficient while figuring out what they can and cannot get away with, but it does appear that Vaughn, the only four-star skill guy on the roster, could live up to his recruiting billing in his career.

So that makes ... one explosive weapon, two if you count receiver Malik Turner, who averaged a decent 13.1 yards per catch for the season (14.5 after September). The rest of the skill corps is either unproven or proven in the wrong way. Desmond Cain has potential as a possession receiver; he caught 67 percent of his passes last year, though he averaged only 9.3 yards per catch. And Justin Hardee's return offers another option. But the dominant weapons don't really exist, and if McGee and Smith want to work fullbacks and tight ends into the mix, they'll have to do it with either newcomers or guys who have changed positions.

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 96.3 2.8 2.53 33.1% 64.3% 19.6% 179.6 3.0% 3.8%
Rank 89 75 112 118 77 74 16 24 10
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. 2015 Starts Career Starts Honors/Notes
Ted Karras RG 12 43
Joe Spencer C 6'4, 300 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8739 12 26
Christian DiLauro RT 6'5, 300 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8323 12 19
Austin Schmidt LT 6'6, 300 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8051 12 16
Chris Boles LG 12 12
Pat Flavin LT 0 0
Chris O'Connor LG 0 0
Nick Allegretti RG 6'4, 315 So. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8481 0 0
Connor Brennan LG 6'5, 300 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7885 0 0
Jordan Fagan LT 6'6, 300 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8156 0 0
Zach Heath RG 6'4, 300 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7898 0 0
Gabe Megginson LG 6'5, 300 RSFr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.9182

Adam Solomon RT 6'5, 315 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8563

Zeke Martin C 6'5, 290 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8295

Kurt Gavin LG 6'4, 295 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8391

Eddy Fish RT 6'6, 310 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8171

Jake Cerny OL 6'5, 300 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8292

5. Not a lot of confidence up front

Only three of the top seven names on the offensive line two-deep return from a line that wasn't particularly strong last year. The sack rates were good, but that had a lot to do with Lunt's quick release. (On the flipside, you could pin some of the mediocre run stats on the freshman running back.)

In theory, there's a decent mix of experience and upside here. Joe Spencer, Christian DiLauro, and Austin Schmidt have combined for 61 career starts; meanwhile, four-star guard Gabe Megginson joins the mix, as could mid-three-star sophomore Nick Allegretti. Depth is a clear and obvious concern, but perhaps if this quintet remains intact, the line could produce.

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Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.20 35 IsoPPP+ 111.4 35
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 38.8% 41 Succ. Rt. + 106.3 46
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 29.8 68 Off. FP+ 29.3 81
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity 4.2 48 Redzone S&P+ 104.8 47
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 17.6 ACTUAL 21.0 +3.4
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 30 36 46 35
RUSHING 62 58 68 55
PASSING 15 16 14 24
Standard Downs 23 41 14
Passing Downs 69 42 79
Q1 Rk 35 1st Down Rk 29
Q2 Rk 38 2nd Down Rk 10
Q3 Rk 31 3rd Down Rk 71
Q4 Rk 55

6. A Smith-Nickerson defense

Hardy Nickerson and Lovie Smith have crossed paths a few times through the years. Smith was linebackers coach at Tampa Bay from 1996-00, and in Nickerson's four years of playing LB for Smith, he made the Pro Bowl all four years. When Nickerson entered coaching in 2007, his first full-time gig was as Smith's LBs coach at Chicago. And after a few years in the high school ranks, he once again became Smith's LBs coach at Tampa Bay in 2014-15.

We don't actually know what Nickerson might bring to the table as a defensive coordinator because he's never been one. He's also never been a college assistant. So he's a bit of a blank slate.

Here's what we know about Smith and his NFL defenses, though:

  • He loves the 4-3 and the Tampa-2. It allows for simplicity and specialization, which, if you have the right personnel, can allow for playing fast and suffering minimal breakdowns. (We also know that Monte Kiffin, legendary inventor of the Tampa-2, struggled to implement the same principles at the college level, with less instruction time and more spread offenses.)
  • In Smith's last five years in the NFL, his defenses ranked ninth or better in Rushing Defense (per Defensive DVOA) every year. The pass defense was sporadic and more personnel-based (so, good at Chicago and bad at Tampa), but the run defense was always there.

2016 will be an interesting experiment. First of all, we'll get to see how adaptable Smith, Nickerson and company are to dealing with college offenses, which are both more simple and more diverse. Kiffin, one of the pros' best ever defensive coaches, struggled with this for a while. In his three years as USC's defensive coordinator, his defenses ranked 50th, 45th, and 29th in Def. S&P+.

Beyond that, though, we'll see how Illinois' personnel plays into this. The Illini were iffy against the run and excellent against the pass; the secondary was magnificent considering it wasn't getting a ton of help from the pass rush. (Of course, that could have been by design; the secondary was good enough to remain conservative with the pass rush.) But while the defensive line returns just about everybody, the linebacking corps and secondary are rebuilding.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 104.6 2.78 3.31 38.2% 66.7% 22.8% 95.2 2.4% 8.3%
Rank 44 45 72 67 69 31 73 120 45
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Jihad Ward DT 12 38.5 5.7% 3.5 1.5 0 2 1 1
Dawuane Smoot DE 6'3, 255 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8140 12 31.0 4.6% 15.0 8.0 0 2 3 1
Chunky Clements DT 6'3, 295 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8590 12 25.5 3.8% 11.5 0.5 0 1 2 0
Rob Bain DT 6'3, 295 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8253 12 24.5 3.6% 6.0 2.0 0 1 0 0
Gimel President
(Auburn)
DE 6'4, 275 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8656 12 24.0 3.4% 5.0 1.0 0 1 0 0
Carroll Phillips DE 6'3, 240 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7793 12 19.5 2.9% 4.5 2.0 0 2 0 0
Henry McGrew DE 6'3, 245 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8016 11 5.0 0.7% 2.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Kenny Nelson DE 7 4.0 0.6% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Joe Fotu DT 7 3.5 0.5% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Brandon Roberts DE 6'3, 265 Jr. NR NR 3 2.0 0.3% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Tito Odenigbo DT 6'3, 290 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8389 6 2.0 0.3% 1.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Sean Adesanya DE 6'3, 250 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8500
Jamal Milan DT 6'2, 300 RSFr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8494
Kenyon Jackson DT 6'0, 290 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8335
Tymir Oliver DE 6'4, 275 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8321








Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Hardy Nickerson
(California)
MLB 6'0, 230 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8120 13 82.5 10.7% 2.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
T.J. Neal MLB 12 76.0 11.2% 14.0 2.0 0 1 0 0
Mason Monheim WLB 12 66.0 9.7% 5.5 1.0 2 6 0 0
James Crawford WLB 6'2, 220 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8500 12 26.5 3.9% 4.0 0.0 0 2 1 0
Eric Finney SLB 11 24.0 3.5% 7.5 0.0 0 3 0 0
Tre Watson MLB 6'2, 235 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8007 12 15.0 2.2% 1.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
LaKeith Walls WLB 11 11.5 1.7% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Cedric Doxy LB
12 7.0 1.0% 1.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
B.J. Bello MLB 8 3.5 0.5% 0.0 0.0 0 1 0 0
Julian Jones SLB 6'2, 215 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8205 8 2.5 0.4% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Mike Svetina MLB 6'2, 235 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7500
Austin Roberts SLB 6'2, 230 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8026
Justice Williams WLB 6'3, 215 RSFr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8339
Dele Harding SLB 6'1, 230 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8549
Christian Abercrombie WLB 6'1, 220 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8113
Jake Hansen SLB 6'2, 220 Fr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.8035
Ayo Shogbonyo WLB 6'2, 215 Fr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7750








7. A one-man pass rush

That Illinois ranked 73rd in Adj. Sack Rate was pretty impressive considering it had one pass rusher. End Dawuane Smoot was the only defender with more than two sacks -- he had eight with three forced fumbles, and he was a strong force on passing downs.

Smoot's return, along with that of senior tackle Chunky Clements (11 non-sack tackles for loss) means that Illinois has a couple of nice weapons up front. And in Carroll Phillips, Henry McGrew, and Auburn transfer Gimel President, Illinois might have pretty good depth at end. But tackle depth is questionable, and there will be pressure on the line to hold up because the Illini will be fielding a drastically different linebacking corps.

Six of last year's top eight linebackers are gone, and the rotation will be filled by some combination of Cal transfer Hardy Nickerson Jr., junior James Crawford, little-used sophomores Tre Watson and Julian Jones, and newcomers. Smith signed four freshman linebackers, and we should probably assume at least one fits into the rotation.

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Clayton Fejedelem FS 12 107.0 15.7% 4.5 0 2 7 1 0
V'Angelo Bentley CB 12 44.0 6.5% 3 1 0 6 0 0
Taylor Barton SS 6'1, 215 Sr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8025 12 42.5 6.3% 3 0 4 3 0 0
Eaton Spence CB 12 34.0 5.0% 0.5 0 3 4 0 0
Dillan Cazley FS 5'10, 190 Sr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8360 12 9.5 1.4% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Caleb Day FS 6'1, 205 Sr. 4 stars (5.8) 0.8722 9 7.0 1.0% 0 0 1 0 1 0
Jevaris Little FS 10 7.0 1.0% 0 0 1 0 0 0
Jaylen Dunlap CB 6'1, 190 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7951 12 5.5 0.8% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Julian Hylton FS 6'0, 205 So. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8067 10 5.5 0.8% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Chris James CB 5'11, 190 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7894 10 5.5 0.8% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Darius Mosely CB 5'11, 190 Sr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8703 11 2.0 0.3% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Darwyn Kelly SS 6'1, 210 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8306
Patrick Nelson SS 6'0, 210 RSFr. 3 stars (5.7) 0.8459
Frank Sumpter CB 5'10, 180 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8182
Cameron Watkins CB 6'0, 190 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7906
Ahmari Hayes CB 6'3, 200 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7700
Trenard Davis CB 6'0, 195 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8440








8. Rebuilding a great secondary

The Illinois secondary allowed just a 112.2 passer rating for the season -- 163.9 against UNC, MTSU, and Penn State (an odd sample) and 101.0 against everybody else. This was a dynamic, exciting unit with Clayton Fejedelem deployed both near to and far from the line of scrimmage and corners V'Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence playing tough and physical ball on the outside.

All three are gone. The rest of the safety two-deep (Taylor Barton, Dillan Cazley, Caleb Day) returns, but the cornerback position is starting over. Jaylen Dunlap and Chris James are the leading returning tacklers at the position; they had 5.5 tackles each. Darius Mosely made just two tackles in 2015 but played a much heavier role in 2013-14, while redshirt freshman Frank Sumpter seemed to have a nice spring. Throw in JUCO transfer Ahmari Hayes, and you've got options. Now you just need some standouts. Otherwise last year's strength will become this year's weakness.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Ryan Frain 6'2, 220 Sr. 70 40.2 9 15 8 32.9%
David Reisner 6'0, 205 Sr. 3 45.3 0 1 1 66.7%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Taylor Zalewski 58 59.9 20 3 34.5%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2016
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Taylor Zalewski 31-31 10-12 83.3% 6-13 46.2%
David Reisner 6'0, 205 Sr. 1-1 0-0 N/A 0-0 N/A
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2016
Year
Returns Avg. TD
V'Angelo Bentley KR 23 22.0 0
Caleb Day KR 6'1, 205 Sr. 6 15.2 0
V'Angelo Bentley PR 26 9.2 0
Category Rk
Special Teams S&P+ 105
Field Goal Efficiency 83
Punt Return Success Rate 43
Kick Return Success Rate 65
Punt Success Rate 107
Kickoff Success Rate 92

9. A reset

If you're going to lose your placekicker, your kickoffs guy and both return men, you might as well lose them from a pretty poor special teams unit. V'Angelo Bentley was a strong punt returner, but Illinois was between mediocre and bad in most categories. Turnover can sometimes do you good.

2016 Schedule & Projection Factors

2016 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
3-Sep Murray State NR 33.7 97%
10-Sep North Carolina 27 -7.4 34%
17-Sep Western Michigan 65 1.4 53%
1-Oct at Nebraska 26 -14.7 20%
8-Oct Purdue 88 7.0 66%
15-Oct at Rutgers 87 0.0 50%
22-Oct at Michigan 6 -22.4 10%
29-Oct Minnesota 42 -3.1 43%
5-Nov Michigan State 22 -9.6 29%
12-Nov at Wisconsin 37 -11.4 26%
19-Nov Iowa 38 -4.2 40%
26-Nov at Northwestern 46 -8.2 32%
Projected wins: 5.0
Five-Year F/+ Rk -9.1% (79)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 67 / 60
2015 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 4 / 0.7
2015 TO Luck/Game +1.3
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 56% (74%, 38%)
2015 Second-order wins (difference) 4.8 (0.2)

10. A wide range of outcomes

S&P+ projects Illinois around five wins, which probably sounds about right considering the new coaching, the lack of offensive play-makers, and the turnover in the defensive back seven.

That said, the range of potential win totals is pretty broad. Illinois is given between a 34 and 66 percent chance of winning in six games; that means that if the Illini come in a little bit below their No. 76 S&P+ projection, they could end up in the 2-10 range. And if they rise into the 50s or so, an eight-win total isn't that far away.

Honestly, though, I'm not particularly interested in the short term here. I'm most curious about the long term: How is Smith recruiting over the next year or two? How well is he adapting his defensive principles to the college game? How well is McGee able to create an offensive identity around reasonably one-dimensional or mismatched pieces?

I liked the Smith hire more than some, but he obviously has a lot of questions to answer. We should start to figure out some of those answers this fall, even if the product on the field regresses.