CHAMPAIGN - The good-vibes press tour is over. The donor meet-and-greets take a back seat now.
Lovie Smith as Illinois football coach no longer is a thought or a dream. It's time to get down to business.
On Friday afternoon, Smith will run his first practice as the head of the Illini football program. It's time to get to work. And Smith's staff certainly has a lot of work to do this spring -- on the field and in recruiting -- to start the process of restoring lasting relevancy to a downtrodden Illinois football program.
Most of Smith’s work since his hire three weeks ago has focused on building a staff. His coaching hires have been official for the last week or two, and he officially introduced all nine of his assistants at Tuesday’s press conference previewing Friday's start of spring practice.
Tuesday's question-and-answer session with Smith -- who'd spent the last 11 years deflecting and dodging more sharp-toothed NFL media -- was a short ordeal.
Reporters had plenty of macro-level (philosophy) and micro-level (injuries) questions, but few focused on personnel since some reporters who have covered the team the past four years may know more about the Illini players than Smith. The Illini coach answered most of the questions succinctly, yet sufficiently in the breezy 15-minute affair -- giving reporters more one-on-one time with his assistants.
Smith still has some staff hires to make official, including his strength coach (reportedly Fresno State’s Joey Boese) and his recruiting staff. As I’ve written often in this space, that bolstered recruiting staff will be led by a director of player personnel (who will help lead and organize recruiting efforts behind the scenes) rather than an assistant coach with the title of “recruiting coordinator.” Those hires should be announced shortly, possibly this week.
Now, Smith's recently assembled staff must catch up.
Smith pieced together this staff from four separate NFL teams and three college teams (including three holdovers from predecessor Bill Cubit’s staff, two of which just arrived at Illinois in January).
“For the most part, the guys I set out (to get), that I wanted on our first staff, we were able to get,” Smith said. “It can’t get much better than that. ...I was looking for stern teachers. I feel like we have a great teaching staff.”
Only returning defensive line coach Mike Phair has witnessed these players, you know, play football in person. A crash course in last season’s film helps Smith’s staff know a little of what they’re working with: a pocket passer with pro potential, intriguing offensive skill players, an offensive line that can pass protect but struggles to get a push in the run game, a deep defensive line with a few possible future-pro difference-makers and a bunch of unknowns in the back seven.
A condensed spring schedule of 15 practices in 26 days -- practice was supposed to begin on March 11 but was postponed due to Cubit’s dismissal on March 5 -- will give the staff a better gauge of their players’ abilities and fits in their schemes.
“We know most of our roster right now, but we’re excited about getting to know them a lot better on the football team,” Smith said. “You start everything from scratch. We don’t have a lot of preconceived notions on players. We just want to get to the field and see what we have.
“For our players, it’s a new start. Guys want to prove exactly who they are. ‘Hey, coach I should be starting.’ Some players, ‘Hey, I don’t feel like I’ve gotten a chance before.’ New eyes that don’t have any biases.”
The staff also is behind in recruiting. Cubit’s staff earnestly started recruiting the Class of 2017 last fall and ramped up those efforts just as it was wrapping up its 2016 signing class.
While the Illini recruiting efforts certainly received a boost due to Smith’s name recognition, the push for 2017 stalled due to the staff assemblage and a "quiet period" in recruiting, which prohibits Smith’s staff from recruiting off campus until April 15. Staff member Pat Embleton, a holdover from Cubit's staff, almost single-handedly has run the recruiting ship this month, giving Smith a seminar on the current landscape. The condensed spring schedule also will limit their off-campus recruiting opportunities until late April.
Yet, Smith and his staff have been working the phones and social media messengers to get the word out. The Illini are setting their sights high on both in-state and out-of-state prospects, hoping to capitalize on the buzz Smith’s name brings to the program. The summer months will allow Smith’s staff to better evaluate the close to two hundred prospects the previous staff had offered.
“We’ve gotten a great response, starting off with that, from the players that we’ve reached out to, that have reached out to us,” Smith said. “I guess that’s about all you can ask. They’re watching and listening to what’s going on here with Illinois football. That part has been good. Now, it’s kind of left up to us to keep that momentum. We definitely have momentum right now.”
Meanwhile, the Illini still have two scholarships to fill by the fall. Admissions also will soon make the final calls on the Class of 2016 signees and a few could be borderline. So expect the Illini to be active on the fifth-year and multi-year transfer markets, especially for defensive backs, defensive linemen and linebackers -- and possibly a quarterback.
From a firehose
Smith is still getting caught up to speed on a Big Ten institution.
The compliance department quickly worked to get he and his staff abreast of NCAA rules He hasn't yet been briefed on his July trip to Chicago for Big Ten Football Media Days. The subject of Camp Rantoul wasn't breached until Tuesday morning. The football operations staff is more concerned with getting through the first week of spring ball -- and the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association convention this weekend -- than practices four months from now.
Lovie and his new staff are drinking information from a firehose.
They'll keep chugging -- and hope to have time to come up for air this summer.
It's time to get to work. The Illini football rebuild is going to require a lot of it.
“We have high goals,” Smith said. “We really can’t wait to see exactly what we have on the football field. We’re going set the bar and just start working to get better every day. It’s kind of as simple as that.”