A 4-8 season for the Illinois Fighting Illini was capped off by a disappointing loss to in-state rival Northwestern. For many people it signaled what could be the end of the Lovie Smith era in Champaign.
On Sunday the speculation came to a quick end, as AD Josh Whitman did the unexpected. Rather than announcing Smith would be let go just three years in to his tenure, Whitman doubled down on him with a two-year contract extension.
Smith will remain in Champaign through the 2023 season, extending the original six-year deal by another two years.
“This extension demonstrates my belief in Lovie Smith, his staff, and the plan they have for the future success of Illinois Football,” said Whitman. “I have studied our program extensively, and I see steady progress, both in the development of our current players and the talent we are adding to our roster. To date, we have remained one of the youngest teams in college football, with only nine seniors and nearly 80 freshmen and sophomores. As our players grow in strength, skill, and experience, more wins will follow.”
It was a surprising decision from the outside, because the numbers over the last three years have been brutal.
Whitman is aware that 4-8 seasons are not what anyone is hoping for. He also pointed out correctly that the youth movement simply needs more time to work itself through the system.
In a college football era that is increasingly impatient, Whitman is doing the rare thing and allowing a coach to rebuild the program from the bottom up before judging it.
“We recognize that our work is far from finished, with improvement needed in every phase of our program’s development, but our plan is sound and our resolve is stronger than ever,” Whitman continued in his press release. “As I have said on many occasions, stability and continuity are key to building a foundation that will yield long-term success.
“With the opening of our new facility next summer, and the continued efforts of our staff and student-athletes, the success we all covet is within reach. I applaud Coach Smith, his staff, and our team for their commitment and steady progress, and I stand ready, as we all should, to help them in whatever way possible to continue building upon their momentum.”
For Smith and his Illini program, that watershed mark will be in year five, not year three.
So, how will Lovie Smith repay this loyalty? It starts by identifying the good and bad. We’ll start with the bad.
Chief amongst the problems for the Illini? Try the defensive side of the ball.
During the nearly three-year tenure of defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson, the Illini defense never turned a positive corner.
Year one was understandable, given the crazy offseason that led to Lovie Smith’s late hire and thus late installation of anything and everything.
Year two saw the Illini basically say “screw it” on both sides of the ball and a youth movement was afoot.
Year three? Well, it was the final straw as Nickerson left the program following a dreadful performance against Maryland in a 63-33 loss in College Park. He sited health concerns in the abrupt leave he took, while Smith had made it clear following the loss that Nickerson wasn’t going to be fired and no decisions on any staff would be made until the offseason.
Smith must find a way to get more out of this group, because even Nickerson’s absence did little to turn things around in-season. He took over the play-calling duties over the final four games and Illinois still gave up an average of 43.0 points per game.
What then saved Smith’s job? It could have been his hire of offensive coordinator Rod Smith.
Illinois offensive output was amazing considering where this team was just one year ago.
They even survived issues at quarterback and injuries around the pass and run game throughout the year. After averaging 15.4 points per game in 2017, the Illini upped their scoring over 10 points per game to 26.0.
It was only good enough for 11th in the league, but it was a vast improvement in just one season’s time. Illinois scored fewer than 20 points in just four games this season, while it managed to top 20 points in just four games in 2017.
Senior A.J. Bush gave the Illini their best look at QB, while also allowing freshman M.J. Rivers to get major experience in Smith’s offense going forward.
Junior running back Reggie Corbin was a breath of fresh air in Smith’s attack. He topped the 1,000-yard mark on just 128 carries, averaging a sick 8.5 yards per carry. It was the first 1,000-yard rushing season by an Illini running back in eight years.
Add in a healthy Mike Epstein and the Illini had the pieces it needed to be productive on offense.
It showed as the run game improved by nearly 140 yards per game and averaged a healthy 243 yards per game — a mark that was only topped by Wisconsin within the Big Ten.
Whitman clearly saw the offensive improvement and believed there was more where that came from. He penned a letter to fans alluding to as much.
“No one is satisfied with our season, least of all those of us directly involved in the day-to-day work of Illinois Football,” said Whitman. “We endured several lopsided losses and expected to win more games. After studying the season, however, there were undoubtedly signs of progress.”
Now it is on Smith to make his boss look smart in the face of three years of losing.
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