#69 Illinois Football 2016 Preview

Illinois Fighting Illini
Overall Rank: #69
#11 Big Ten
Illinois did not go about it the traditional way, but when the dust settled, they got a new head coach in Lovie Smith. The former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Chicago Bears head man has brought some attention to a program that desperately needed it. More importantly, the Fighting Illini need to win games. Over the last four years, they have reached a bowl game just one time. The Big Ten West had quite a bit of talent last year, but in the long term, Illinois can move towards the top of the conference. It remains to be seen if Coach Smith is the man to take them there.
2015 Record: 5-7, 2-6
2015 Bowl: None
Coach: Lovie Smith (0-0 at Michigan, 0-0 overall)
Offensive Coordinator: Garrick McGee
Defensive Coordinator: Hardy Nickerson
Returning Leaders:
Rushing: Ke’Shawn Vaughn, RB, 723 yards
Passing: Wes Lunt, QB, 2,761 yards
Receiving: Malik Turner, WR, 510 yards
Tackles: Taylor Barton, S, 56
Sacks: Dawuane Smoot, DE, 8.0
Interceptions: Taylor Barton, S, 4
Other Key Returnees: WR Desmond Cain, DL Chunky Clements
Key Losses: RB Josh Ferguson, WR Geronimo Allison, DB V’Angelo Bentley, S Clayton Fejedelem, LB T.J. Neal, LB Mason Monheim
The Illini have some potential on offense thanks to the potent passing ability of quarterback Wes Lunt. The senior signal caller threw for 2,761 yards and 14 touchdowns last year. If Lunt can stay healthy, the passing game will again rank among the best in the Big Ten. Lunt will need to find a new favorite target though with Geronimo Allison gone. Another injury to Mike Dudek and the transfer of Marchie Murdock has limited the wide receiver options for the Illini. However, Malik Turner is a proven big play receiver and Desmond Cain had a superb freshman campaign, catching 53 passes for 492 yards. Justin Hardee and Dionte Taylor are among the more experienced options to fill in the third wide receiver spot and the unit as a whole should be in good shape. The passing game does take a hit with the loss of running back Josh Ferguson. He was a great pass catcher out of the backfield and ranked fourth on the team in receptions despite missing some time with an injury. Ferguson also rushed for 708 yards and three touchdowns. Ke’Shawn Vaughn earned more carries than Ferguson during his freshman campaign and proved to be a fine between the tackles rusher. On the year he tallied 723 yards on the ground with six scores. The running back spot may not have much proven depth, but Vaughn looks like a solid running back who is poised for a breakout season.
Coach Smith is known for his defense, but it will take some time for the personnel to catch up with his scheme. The front four has the most experience with Dawuane Smoot, Chunky Clements and Rob Bain returning to their starting positions. Smoot recorded eight of the team’s 19 sacks in 2015 and he is the guy who will be asked to spearhead what the Illini hope is a more potent pass rush. Hardy Nickerson, Jr., son of the new defensive coordinator and former Tampa Bay Buccaneer great, will immediately help the group of linebackers that lost T.J. Neal and Mason Monheim. Nickerson, a graduate transfer, recorded 112 tackles at California in 2015. Sophomore Tre Watson could be an interesting option at linebacker. He showed some potential as a freshman, recording 21 tackles. The secondary has an obvious leader in free safety Taylor Barton. The pressure will be on players like Jaylen Dunlap and Darius Mosely to keep the pass defense on track.
The Bottom Line:
With a tough schedule, Illinois will not likely see an increase in wins this year. It is quite possible that their non-conference home games against Murray State, North Carolina and Western Michigan results in just one win. The most winnable Big Ten games are early in the year when Illinois will still be learning what could be a complicated new system on both sides of the ball. That could make it more difficult in early October when Purdue comes to town and the Illini travel to Rutgers. After that, the schedule gets brutal with Michigan, Minnesota, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern. This Illinois team is a bit of a wildcard in the Big Ten West, but it is difficult to see Coach Smith’s first year going all that well with that schedule.
Projected Bowl: None
2015 Team Stats:
Rushing Offense: 129.3 (110th in nation, 14th in conference)
Passing Offense: 243.4 (47, 3)
Total Offense: 372.7 (88, 10)
Scoring Offense: 22.7 (103, 12)
Rushing Defense: 166.4 (62, 11)
Pass Defense: 184.4 (15, 5)
Total Defense: 350.8 (30, 9)
Scoring Defense: 23.3 (37, 8)
Turnover Margin: 0.33 (37, 4)
Sacks: 1.58 (100, 13)
Sacks Allowed: 1.67 (45, 7)
Madness 2017 NFL Draft Rankings:
#74 Dawuane Smoot