A few words to describe Illinois football in recent years: instability and irrelevancy.
In one bold move, new Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman -- who arrived in February -- changed both. In his first month on the job, Whitman landed the Illini's most high-profile hire ever: Lovie Smith. The former NFL coach brings instant name recognition in recruiting, especially in the state he coached the Chicago Bears for nine years, and credibility.
Whitman invested unprecedented resources into Smith: a six-year deal that could pay him up to $29 million. His average annual salary is almost triple what interim coach Bill Cubit made last season and double what ousted Tim Beckman earned. Illinois invested almost double what it previously had in his staffing pool, about $4 million -- which is among the top-three in the Big Ten.
In its simplicity, Illinois -- now led by an athletic director who played football at Illinois -- finally got serious about football.
But there is no quick fix here. Illinois was one win away from a bowl game last year and went 1-6 over its last seven games. The roster has enough talent to make a bowl game this season but probably not enough to be a serious contender.
The roster features more holes next season, especially in the trenches, so a full revival will take time.
Lovie doesn't need to win this year, but it a bowl bid certainly would give Illinois the type of momentum it hasn't experienced since the 2007 Rose Bowl season.
Cubit brought respectability to Illini during his first two years as offensive coordinator, using his pass-happy spread offense to keep the Illini somewhat competitive while the defense struggled immensely. Those tables turned last year as the Illini finished near the bottom of the conference in most statistical categories: scoring (12th), total offense (10th), rush offense (last), pass efficiency (12th). They struggled immensely in the red zone, scoring on 29 of 40 red zone chances (72..5 percent -- about nine percent lower than the next worst team in the Big Ten).
Injuries crushed the Illini last year and have already taken their toll again this season. Star receiver Mike Dudek and No. 2 running back Dre Brown each suffered their second a spring ACL tear for the second straight spring and will miss the season. The Illini also lost their top overall playmaker Josh Ferguson and top receiver Geronimo Allison to graduation.
A lot is riding on senior quarterback Wes Lunt and sophomore running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn. Lunt looks like the prototype pocket passer and is on a lot of NFL radars. He's big, strong-armed and can make all the throws. He also is much more accurate than his 56 percent completion rate last season suggests (his receivers dropped 60 passes last season). However, he is extremely immobile and without top playmakers or a strong running game, he becomes pretty easy to defend. Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee prefers a more balanced scheme and will commit more to the run but had success at Arkansas with stationary quarterbacks, like Ryan Mallett.
Vaughn, a former four-star recruit, showed all the signs of becoming a Big Ten bellcow last season, leading the Illini with 723 rushing yards and six touchdowns. Expect him to get a ton of touches, though depth behind him is a big question mark
There is talent at receiver despite Dudek's injuries -- but a lot of questions. Junior Malik Turner has the size, athleticism and skill package to be a No. 1 and finished last season on an uptick. The only other player with that type of upside appears to be sophomore Sam Mays, but he's raw. Senior Justin Hardee returns from a lost season (foot injury) to give the team speed. Sophomore Desmond Cain and senior Dionte Taylor should provide decent slot options.
Tight end was a huge problem last season but Tyler White, a plus blocker and redzone target, returns from an ACL tear to take over the starting spot and the Illini also receive a depth boost from three incoming freshmen, including Zarrian Holcombe who could make an immediate impact as a receiver.
The Illini return three of five starters, including tackles Christian DiLauro and Austin Schmidt and center Joseph Spencer, who give the group a decent floor. The ceiling will depend on former highly-ranked in-state recruits Nick Allegretti and Gabe Megginson, who will take over the guard spots.
For the second straight year, Illinois likely will rely on its defense to set the tone. The Illini were on of the worst defenses in the Big Ten in 2013 and 2014 (especially against the run) but took a huge step forward in 2015 (eighth in scoring defense, ninth in total defense).
Despite the loss of second-round draft pick Jihad Ward, Illinois returns a strong front four. Senior defensive end Dawuane Smoot (15 TFLs, 8.0 sacks) emerged as one of the Big Ten's better pass rushers last season. He and three technique DT Jarrod "Chunky" Clements (11.5 tackles for loss) are likely NFL Draft picks. Senior DE Carroll Phillips worked his way into the starting lineup at the end of last season due to his potent pass rushing and was a star of the spring. There also is depth up front, especially with the addition of Auburn transfer Gimel President.
Linebacker was the team's biggest question of all the big questions entering the spring following the departures of starters Mason Monheim (graduation) and T.J. Neal (transfer to Auburn). But the outlook is a lot brighter following two additions. Cal graduate transfer Hardy Nickerson, the son of new UI defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson, gives the Illini an experienced, smart, hard-nosed run stuffer in the middle of the defense. The return of sophomore Julian Jones from suspension gives the Illini much needed speed and athleticism at the second level, along with returning WLB starter James Crawford.
The secondary has a ton of questions after losing three long-term starters. Three-year starting safety Taylor Barton gives the Illini some stability on the back end. It's time for two other upperclassmen to step up. It hasn't clicked for athlete Caleb Day to this point, but this is his best chance to claim the other safety spot. Junior cornerback Jaylen Dunlap, who has length and physicality, is locked into a starting cornerback spot after playing a reserve role his first two seasons.
The Illini front seven should be solid. The Illini hope that covers up some questions in the secondary.
Illini made 64.0 percent of its field goals last season (12th Big Ten) and lost its top kicker, Taylor Zalewski. Senior David Reisner will compete with incoming scholarship freshman James McCourt, but this is a concern. Punting also is a minor concern. Ryan Frain doesn't have a big leg but the Illini finished middle of the pack in net punting last season.
Illinois has run a similar offense to the one McGee plans to implement this season. Under Paul Petrino -- who like McGee was an OC under Bobby Petrino -- Illinois believed in a "feed the studs" mentality. Illinois football has one known stud: Ke'Shawn Vaughn. Illinois doesn't want to wear out Vaughn, but 300 touches isn't out of the question for the well-rounded back.
The Illini Class of 2016, which ranked 12th among Big Ten teams, probably should've been worse given that an interim head coach recruited it. Yet, there aren't many instant impact players.
But Maryland linebacker Dele' Harding was a big late addition as the Illini won the battle for the former Michigan commit -- who also had offers from Tennessee and USC -- over Rutgers. While the addition of Nickerson should alleviate the need for Harding to make an immediate impact, he has the size and athleticism to make an impact in the linebacker rotation and on special teams.
2015 Record: 5-7 (2-6 Big Ten)
2015 Final Rank: n/a
2015 Postseason: n/a
Starters Returning: 15 (eight offense, six defense, one special teams)
Starters Lost: 13 (four offense, six defense, three special teams)
Out: Head coach Bill Cubit, offensive coordinator Ryan Cubit, defensive coordinator Tim Banks, receivers coach Mike Bellamy, offensive line coach A.J. Ricker, tight ends coach Jeff Hecklinski
Staying: Defensive line coach Mike Phair, linebackers coach Tim McGarigle, secondary coach Paul Williams
In: Head coach Lovie Smith, offensive coordinator Garrick McGee, defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson, running backs coach Thad Ward, receivers coach Andrew Hayes-Stoker, offensive line coach Luke Butkus, special teams coach Bob Ligashesky