The dog days are coming, and that’s a good thing. With Big Ten Media Days kicking off on Monday, Land Of 10 is breaking down the three biggest questions each team is hoping to answer coming out of Chicago. We’ll post two per day, with one from each division, turning this time in the Big Ten West to …
ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI
1. What the @#*($ just happened?
As an athletic department, the Fighting Illini were a bit of a hot mess at this time a year ago — and, truth be told, it feels more like five years.
Some insiders regretted the Tim Beckman hire almost instantly, and when accusations of player abuse came to light during the coach’s third campaign, it provided the perfect window for the administration to cut bait.
Which it did. And that’s where things went from strange to outright surreal.
After an internal investigation, Beckman was let go late last August, just before the start of the regular season, and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit was promoted on an interim basis to steer the ship. Or launch it. Or something.
Despite all that, Cubit somehow guided Illinois to five wins, including one over Nebraska, and evened the keel enough that the administration rewarded him with a two-year extension, tearing off the ‘interim’ label in the process.
A month after Cubit extension was approved, the Illini hired Josh Whitman in February to serve as its next athletic director. A month after that, during his first official day on the job, Whitman announced to the world that he had fired Cubit. A few days later brought the real head-turner: Whitman introduced former Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith as Cubit’s successor.
Ya got all that?
Good, because we’re not going over that train wreck again. Neither are Illini fans, who hope they can forget not only the past 10 months, but the previous 48 or so.
2. All right, then what does a college team under Lovie Smith look like?
Start here: Good-bye, Mid-American Conference pipeline. Hello, Tampa 2.
Longtime Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans will have no trouble recognizing Lovie’s preferred defensive formation. And he’s got the right pedigree running it in defensive coordinator – and ex-NFL tackle machine – Hardy Nickerson and the right legs in the middle of it in the form of Nickerson’s son, linebacker Hardy Nickerson Jr., a graduate transfer out of Cal.
And both are a welcome sight: Five of the top six tacklers from last season’s unit — which ranked 30th in the country and was overshadowed by inconsistencies on the offensive side of the ball — have to be replaced, as well as all but one starter in the secondary.
In fact, Illinois returns just 57 percent of its lettermen, the lowest ratio in the Big Ten and one of the five lowest in all of the Football Bowl Subdivision. For better or for worse, Smith comes out of the gates with a clean slate. And it might take a while before the new coach is able to really put his stamp on a program that’s become tagged as one of the Big Ten’s perennial underachievers.
3. Could Wes Lunt turn out to be the best quarterback in the division nobody ever talks about?
Possibly. The transfer from Oklahoma State showed last year that he could hit the ground running — or in this case, throwing (2,761 passing yards) — and being paired with new offensive coordinator and former Bobby Petrino assistant Garrick McGee could only add more refinement to the Illinois native’s arsenal.
Not having wideout Mike Dudek all year — he’s out for the season after re-tearing his ACL — will be a pain. On the plus side, injuries forced running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn into a featured role as a freshman last fall, and the early reviews (723 rushing yards, six scores) portend well enough. The Illini were 5-2 last fall when rushing for at least 100 yards as a team.
Keeping the defense off the field a bit more would probably help some, too: Illinois ranked last in the West in third-down conversion percentage (34.9) in 2015 and 105th nationally out of 128 schools.
You can reach Sean Keeler via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @seankeeler