New Illini coach Smith working to relearn college job
After the Buccaneers fired Lovie Smith after last season, the longtime NFL coach believed he’d be taking a break before making his next move.
Then, Josh Whitman called and the break ended. The Illinois athletic director had a football program that had seen its share of turmoil and wanted Smith to take over.
“My plan was to stay out this year unless a great opportunity came along,” Smith said Wednesday during the Big Ten spring conference call. “And if you know Josh Whitman, you know he’s got a plan and knows how to deliver that plan.
“It meant a lot that I would be working with a guy that knows everything about being a football player in college ball. He knows everything about being a good football player and good student.”
Whitman, a former Illinois player, surprised many when he fired Bill Cubit not long after he was named coach. He led the Illini as the interim coach throughout last season, but Whitman had the chance to land Smith and went for it.
Now, Smith is busy getting himself back in the college mindset after spending nearly 20 years in the NFL. He last coached in college at Ohio State in 1995 as defensive backs coach.
“When you talk about the overall picture, there are recruiting calls, recruiting is the base part of each day,” Smith said. “You have to pay attention to class schedules, class attendance and what’s going on academically. That part has been different.
“The football part is pretty much the same when you come into a new program — getting to know the players, the names, getting in the right positions, things like that. That is typical stuff I’ve done going to a new place.”
He’ll certainly have his work cut out for him.
Illinois hasn’t won double-digit games since 2001 and fired coach Tim Beckman before the start of last season because of allegations of abuse in the program.
Smith, though, does have the luxury of having a veteran quarterback. Wes Lunt, entering his senior season, threw for 2,761 yards and 14 touchdowns last season and already is developing a rapport with the new coach.
“There has been a ton of communication with Mr. Whitman and coach Lovie Smith,” Lunt said. “It’s been pretty good so far.”
A nine-game Big Ten schedule isn’t ideal, particularly for the team that has four Big Ten home games, but that is the reality beginning this fall.
“I really think the one side having five the other side having four is a huge advantage,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “You get the stats at the end of the year and you see the higher percentage of games won at home in Big Ten play. That’s a huge advantage for having one more home game.
“From our perspective, we always want to be at that magic number of seven home games. When you only have four conference home games, you have to work really hard to have those three nonconference games at home, which makes it a pretty hard challenge.”
... Iowa defensive end Drew Ott (torn ACL) was hoping for a fifth season of eligibility, but the NCAA denied his final medical hardship waiver appeal.
Iowa (12-2, 8-0 Big Ten)
What we know: C.J.Beathard is arguably the best returning quarterback outside of Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett, and the defense should be stout despite the loss of E Drew Ott.
What we don’t know: The Hawkeyes controlled most of their games with a punishing inside running game. But RB Jordan Canzeri, C Austin Blythe and G Jordan Walsh have graduated, and replacing those players won’t be easy.
Kirk Ferentz: “My biggest concern is replacing 21 outstanding seniors. Those guys really did a great job — and we don’t have a first-round pick.”
Northwestern (10-3, 6-2)
What we know: Northwestern has holes to fill at wide receiver, where it lost three starters, and defensive end. But the Wildcats will bring back a veteran offensive line, which should be great news for RB Justin Jackson.
What we don’t know: Can Northwestern recover from an 45-6 loss to Tennessee in the Outback Bowl?
Pat Fitzgerald: “Clayton had a great first chapter of his career. I just look forward to him continuing to grow, continue to get better.”
Wisconsin (10-3, 6-2)
What we know: The Badgers, long known as one of the nation’s best running teams, finished without a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time in over a decade. Wisconsin is hoping a healthy Corey Clement can help it get back to its roots.
What we don’t know: Is Bart Houston ready to lead the passing attack? The senior quarterback looked decent in a win over Illinois, but if he struggles early, look for redshirt freshman Alex Hornibrook to get a look.
Paul Chryst: “Can you lead a team? Both (Houston and Hornibrook) have had a good spring in that regard. They’re working and they are getting better and not worrying about being the starters right now.”
Nebraska (6-7, 3-5)
What we know: QB Tommy Armstrong Jr. will be back. Armstrong’s penchant for turnovers hurt the Cornhuskers. The key to a revival for Nebraska could center on Armstrong’s ability to protect the ball.
What we don’t know: RB Terrell Newby likely will get as many carries as he could ask. An ankle injury slowed his production in the second half of last season, and the Cornhuskers will need to keep the versatile Newby healthy next season.
Mike Riley: “I think the sophomore year of a coach is probably like a player. Much more comfortable. It was a much smoother start in spring ball.”
Minnesota (6-7, 2-6)
What we know: Tracy Claeys did an admirable job replacing Jerry Kill in the middle of last season, which the Gophers acknowledged by making him the full-time coach. But Claeys will have to replace five starters on each side, including WR KJ Maye.
What we don’t know: Mitch Leidner will return as the starting quarterback after an up-and-down junior year.
Tracy Claeys: “Very pleased with the way spring ball went. We avoided any major injuries, and we’re looking forward to getting the season started.”
Illinois (5-7, 2-6)
What we know: Wes Lunt established himself as the starting quarterback, but failed to throw a touchdown in half his Big Ten games, and his completion percentage (56) will have to improve.
What we don’t know: The Illini was largely lauded for bringing coach Lovie Smith in from the NFL. But can Smith make the transition to the college ranks after two decades in the NFL? Smith last worked in college in 1995 as defensive backs coach at Ohio State.
Lovie Smith: “To come in and have a player like Wes — he’s poised, under control, he can throw the football, he’s had success in our conference — has meant a lot.”
Purdue (2-10, 1-7)
What we know: The Boilermakers have given coach Darrell Hazell plenty of time to rebuild. Purdue is 2-22 in the Big Ten under Hazell and the offensive and defensive coordinators will be in their first seasons.
What we don’t know: Purdue brings back 19 starters, including QB David Blough. But will those players improve enough in the offseason to turn things around? The defense gave up at least 40 points in four of the final five games.
Darrell Hazell: “This spring has been about learning the new system, and making sure we simplify things so guys can plan faster and harder.”