By Pete Ruden
It’s a new season for Illinois football, which is music to the ears of Illini fans. After a dismal 3-9 season that included just two conference wins, it appears that Illinois is ready to turn the corner.
While it won’t be perennial contender by any means, head coach Lovie Smith has changed things in a way that gives the Illini hope for the future.
When last season ended, he started grinding right away. He evaluated players on their talent level, changed all-season workouts, and learned more about the roles of the players.
In addition to Smith’s hard work, the Illini will also get new facilities. The old facilities definitely fell behind those of other teams in the Big Ten, the new facilities will send them right back up.
“Having plans, start date for our new facility should put us on par with other football teams, other football programs,” Smith said at the Big Ten media days earlier this week. “When you have the latest and the greatest, that has to be a positive.”
Not only will the team be getting the $80 million facilities, it will also get quarterback Chayce Crouch and wide receiver Mike Dudek back from injuries.
After being relatively effective last season, Crouch had season-ending surgery on his shoulder.
Dudek, on the other hand, missed his second-straight season after tearing an ACL, the same injury that forced him to miss the 2015 season.
In his freshman season (2014), however, Dudek was vital, breaking the school record for receiving yards by a freshman.
While Dudek was out, the Illini needed someone to step up, and Malik Turner did just that.
The Springfield, Illinois, native led the team in receptions, receiving yards, and touchdown catches.
Chemistry is such an important part of any offense, and Illinois is no exception. Even though the quarterback of the future has been out of action, the Illini still found ways to bond.
“We’re always around each other,” Turner said. “We just went out to eat … Just having that relationship on the field, off the field and going to movies and stuff like that.
“Grabbing the guys, we’re going to go do this, we’re going to go throw today. We’re getting that chemistry with everybody.”
Even though it’s only Smith’s second season at Illinois, he is responsible for a huge part of the team’s identity.
The Illini have had four head coaches since 2011, but Smith could be the one to stand the test of time.
“First off, it’s a blessing to have a coaching staff that we have, to have a coach like Coach Smith,” defensive back Jaylen Dunlap said. “It’s Year 2, so I think everybody has bought in to what the coaches are preaching, everybody knows what the coaches want. It’s time to put it all out there on the field.
“I think we got the best coach in the country, to be honest.”
Smith knows his team didn’t win last year. He knows it’s been a long time since the program has made a bowl game.
However, he is a patient man.
In his first year coaching the Chicago Bears, the team went 5-11, finishing last in the NFC North. The next season, he led his squad to an 11-5 record and then 13-3 the next season, capturing two division titles in the process.
So, will Illinois surprise anyone this year?
“Are we gonna surprise people? Sure,” Turner said. “Not really going to be surprising me, because I’ve seen what we’ve been doing, and I have very positive feelings about this team.”