Illinois remains a work in progress under Lovie Smith, as the first two seasons with Smith haven’t brought much success. In fact, things got worse last season. Smith debuted with a 3-9 record (2-7 Big Ten) in 2016. Last season, the Fighting Illini went 2-10 (0-9).
One of the best things about the 24-21 Illinois victory over Ball State last Saturday was the return of junior wide receiver Mike Dudek. Dudek missed both the 2015 and the 2016 seasons for Illinois due to knee injuries. A disappointing situation for Dudek, as well as, Illinois players, coaches, and fans, given the success the receiver had as a freshman in 2014. That year, Dudek established Illinois single season freshman records in receptions (76) and receiving yardage (1038). He became only the eighth player in school history to gain 1,000 yards receiving in a single season. So, Dudek’s return to the football field after a 981 day absence was something that everyone interested in the Illinois football program awaited with eager anticipation. Dudek’s first catch was a 16 yard touchdown reception from quarterback Chayce Crouch that gave Illinois an early 6-0 lead. He also had a 52 yard punt return in the fourth quarter that led to Illinois’ game winning touchdown.
Dudek shared his feelings about returning to the football field: “It felt a little surreal. I had probably thirty family members and friends here watching, and to have me go out and make that first touchdown catch from one of my friends (Crouch)… It was a pretty surreal moment. It’s hard to explain how it felt. (But) I couldn’t be more thankful for that.”
Questions abound for Lovie Smith as he opens his second season in Champaign. Can he flip the script on a 3-9 debut? Here are five things BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart learned at practice.
On February 14, Lovie Smith will begin his second “spring practice” since his arrival as head coach at Illinois last March. Last year, the sessions were hurriedly put together with the coaching staff being hired a short time before the practice began. The players and coaches were strangers to one another. But this year the situation is different. Lovie Smith and eight of his coaches have been through a whole season of football together with most of these players. There is an empty spot on the staff left when Tim McGarigle departed the team for a job with the Green Bay Packers (he’ll be replaced by Donnie Abraham), and there are four players from the 2017 recruiting class participating in spring ball. But the point is, that the players and coaches now have had a whole year to get know the offensive and defensive systems and get to know one another. That knowledge and experience will allow Smith and his staff to build a better football team at Illinois. A more stable and cohesive team will result. And don’t forget, that this fall will be the first time that the Illinois seniors will begin the season the same head coach two years in a row. Lovie Smith now knows his players, and the players know what expect from him, so the end should be a better Illinois football team in 2017.
Lovie Smith is beginning his second week of games as head coach for University of Illinois football. His first win came over Murray State, a score of 52-3. But this week Smith’s focus is on North Carolina and his own team. The new coach talks about his team improving each week as the season progresses. Smith has a cool confidence that I have never seen in an Illini football coach. He believes in his team, and wants them to play to the best of their ability. I see a leader here. A man who knows where he wants his team to go, and will do everything he can to get them there. It will be interesting to see how far he can take them.
Illinois had a big victory today.
Illinois punter Justin Duvernois has been named Big Ten special teams player of the week for his performance against Washington at Soldier Field. Duvernois had five punts for a 45.2 yard average. Three times his punts gave the Huskies a starting field position inside the twenty yard line; once inside the ten yard line. He had three punts of over 50 yards. Including a career high 57 yarder. Duvernois is the second Illini player this season to be named a Big Ten player of the week. Quarterback Nathan Scheelhause was named the Big Ten offensive player of the week September 2.