#92 Illinois Football 2017 Preview

Illinois Fighting Illini
Overall Rank: #92
#13 Big Ten
There were not many highlights to Coach Lovie Smith’s debut season at Illinois. The Fighting Illini managed to beat Murray State, Rutgers and Michigan State, but most of their losses were not even close. Year two could be even worse as Coach Smith looks to replace a lot of the talent on the roster and basically rebuild from scratch.
2016 Record: 3-9, 2-7
2016 Bowl: None
Coach: Lovie Smith (3-9 at Illinois, 3-9 overall)
Offensive Coordinator: Garrick McGee
Defensive Coordinator: Hardy Nickerson
Returning Leaders:
Rushing: Kendrick Foster, RB, 720 yards
Passing: Jeff George Jr, QB, 470 yards
Receiving: Malik Turner, WR, 712 yards
Tackles: Tre Watson, LB, 102
Sacks: Tito Odenigbo, DL, 1.0
Interceptions: Julian Hylton, DB, 1
Other Key Returnees: RB Reggie Corbin, DB Patrick Nelson, DB Jaylen Dunlap, DB Stanley Green
Key Losses: RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn, QB Wes Lunt, WR Justin Hardee, OL Joe Spencer, DB Darius Mosely, LB Hardy Nickerson, DL Carroll Phillips, DL Dawuane Smoot
Chayce Crouch and Jeff George have some experience under center, but neither has fared well during that time. Crouch is the likely starter after backing up Wes Lunt, but George could be the future. Last year though George was a turnover machine and threw five interceptions and completed just 40.4 percent of his pass attempts. There is not much for the quarterback to work with this year either. Malik Turner is back after leading the team with 48 receptions for 712 yards and six touchdowns, but there is little else on the roster in terms of wide receiver experience. Mike Dudek, if he can stay healthy, would provide a big threat, but he has not played since his Freshman All-American campaign in 2014. The group of running backs had a really rough year. Ke’Shawn Vaughn opted to transfer after getting just 60 carries as a sophomore after a very promising freshman campaign. That leaves Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin. Both had their moments last year and combined to rush for 1,243 yards, but there is very little depth and the Illini rarely were successful establishing the run.
The defense was not much better than the offense last year. And just like on offense, there are some big names to replace. Most notable is linebacker Hardy Nickerson who led the team with 107 tackles. Tre Watson will look to step into a leadership role this year after totaling 102 tackles and he should get some help from junior college transfer Del’Shawn Phillips. The big losses up front are Carroll Phillips and Dawuane Smoot. Those two combined for 14.0 sacks and 35.0 tackles-for-loss and there is virtually no returning experience on the end spots. The secondary returns the most experience and the team did rank third in the Big Ten in pass defense. That was in part due to the fact that the opposition did not need to throw too much to beat Illinois. Jaylen Dunlap, Stanley Green and Patrick Nelson are a nice group to build around in the secondary, but if the pass rush struggles, the secondary will be put under a lot more pressure in 2017.
The Bottom Line:
Illinois hosts Ball State and Western Kentucky prior to heading to Tampa to take on South Florida. Those are three winnable games, but they are three losable games too. With a new quarterback and new leaders all over the field, it may be tough for the Illini to get off to a fast start, but they need to in order to gain some momentum heading into Big Ten. A home game against Rutgers on October 14th is clearly their best opportunity for a conference win and it may be their only opportunity.
Projected Bowl: None
2016 Team Stats:
Rushing Offense: 140.5 (105th in nation, 13th in conference)
Passing Offense: 174.6 (109, 11)
Total Offense: 315.1 (123, 13)
Scoring Offense: 19.7 (122, 13)
Rushing Defense: 219.2 (105, 12)
Pass Defense: 185.9 (17, 3)
Total Defense: 405.1 (61, 11)
Scoring Defense: 31.9 (94, 12)
Turnover Margin: -0.17 (82, 9)
Sacks: 2.33 (42, 7)
Sacks Allowed: 1.67 (39, 3)


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