Lovie Smith's staff is almost complete. Following the hiring of special teams coordinator/tight end coach Bob Ligashesky, Smith just has one vacancy left -- and it likely is a running backs coach. When it comes to his assistants, it is clear that Smith emphasizes teaching and coaching over recruiting. That's not a bad thing. Just read my Q&As with offensive coordinator Garrick McGee and defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson and you'll get the impression that impressing prospective student-athletes, parents and high school coaches shouldn't a problem with Lovie and his staff. Nickerson, Ligashesky, Andrew Hayes-Stoker, Luke Butkus and Mike Phair combine for dozens of years of NFL experience. The Illini players felt bad for Bill Cubit and the previous staff. But my interactions with them on-the-record and off-the-record leaves little doubt. They are pumped to play for a staff with so much NFL experience. For that reason, I don't think you'll see any transition issues, like we did when the 2012 Illini seniors basically ignored Tim Beckman's staff.
Am I concerned about recruiting? Not yet. Lovie and Hardy carry a ton of cache and should open a bunch of doors. McGee is an established name in college football and has great recruiting ties. Hayes-Stoker, Phair and Butkus can sell their interactions with players from the NFL, the dream destination of almost every college football player. Returning staffers Phair, Paul Williams and Tim McGarigle give Lovie a little bit of a bridge for the Class of 2017. All those assistants laid some ground work in the class of 2017 during the winter. Now, the staff is behind. The Big Ten competitors have been recruiting the Class of 2017 full-bore for the the past few months, are currently hosting recruits and already have a deluge of off-campus visits set up following the end of the spring quiet period, which lifts on April 15. Lovie's staff is just getting its bearings -- with the help of the returning assistants and recruiting staffer Pat Embleton -- and must put together its plan of attack quickly. Expect the staff to aim high early, likely recruiting with a wider net nationally, as it continues to digest film of the in-state prospects.
Lovie seems to have swung and missed on a few hires. A source said he was aiming for a top defensive backs coach. He ended up keeping Williams. He tried to sway Bucs running backs coach and former Ohio State assistant Tim Spencer, who elected to stay in Tampa. It's a difficult time on the calendar to hire coaches, even for a Lovie Smith.
Lovie prioritizes special teams. Illinois has struggled in the third phase of the game. Smith hopes he found a cure by hiring Ligashesky, a longtime NFL special teams coach. Now, Ligashesky's credentials aren't flawless. He spent the last three seasons as special teams coach with the Houston Texans -- he was fired in January -- and spent 2012 as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers special teams coach. During those four seasons (starting in 2012), his units ranked 27th, 29th, 28th and 32nd, respectively, in the NFL according to FootballOutsiders.com. Now, I admit I don't know much about the Texans personnel. Plus, Smith knows football way more than I do, especially special teams, and Ligashesky has way more special teams experience than anyone on the previous Illini staff. Ron Zook did have a ton of special teams experience, and his units seemed to struggle here too. Maybe it's just an Illinois thing. Maybe it's a depth and recruiting thing.
Jerry Kill once told me that the strength and conditioning coach was his most important hire. So it's no surprise that Lovie Smith will find his own trusted guy for the ever-important role after dismissing Aaron Hillman on Wednesday. Kill told me it s the most important because no staffer spends more time with the players than the S&C coach. While assistant coaches' interaction with players is limited by NCAA rules, S&C coaches work out the players for several hours a week when they are on campus and interact with the players way more than the coaches during the winter and summer. And of course, the S&C coaches have a huge influence on the team's physical makeup: strength, speed and injury prevention. In my opinion, Beckman focused too much on conditioning and agility drills during the offseason -- possibly why the team had so many noncontact injuries. The Illini have struggled to get a push up front in recent years. They have to get stronger and more explosive.
Illinois has erased a stigma. Not only is Lovie Smith the first minority/African-American head coach of one of the two Illini revenue sports (football or men's basketball), he also hired two African-American coordinators. I talked to a former Illini student-athlete, an African-American, the other day about if he thought that was important. He told me that he's actually happy that it's not that big of a story because Smith is so qualified for the position that it's obvious he wasn't hired because of his race. The former Illini said the reason he thinks it's important is not because of perception but because black Illini student-athletes now see a black man leading the program and will believe that they can do the same, that they don't have to settle for being assistant coaches. As a white man, I found that enlightening.