Press Clippings: Lovie Smith (Aug. 14)

Highlights from Lovie Smith's media day press conference held Sunday on campus

CHAMPAIGN - Lovie Smith didn't really want anyone to know about the contraption he had installed in the team meeting room. But with Sunday's media day press conference set in said team meeting room, the first-year Illini coach couldn't avoid a question about it.

What is it? A painted, square piece of wood drilled to the brick wall provides the base of a tightly-wound spring attached to a football. On each side of the square is a word (clockwise from the top): Takewaways, punch, yank and strip.

As if the defensive-minded coach's philosophy wasn't clear enough.

"We talk a lot about takeaways, and in order to have that mindset, you have to have it always," Smith said. "It's just a reminder as the guys walk through the door to the team meeting, all defensive guys don't walk in unless they hit at it. We like to see them punching the ball every play during the season too."

Following his 30-minute press conference, Smith punched at the ball as the left the meeting room, causing the spring to reverberate for a few seconds.

Charles Tillman would've been proud.

Messin' with Mizzou

Smith caused a mild stir when he was quoted earlier this month by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he would like to restore Illinois' football rivalry with Missouri. The teams haven't played since 2010.

"I'm trying to figure out when I said that because I've been hit with that (question) quite a bit," Smith said. "If you're in the same area, I think it means something to the fans with the rivalries that really mean something when you're this close. We have a rivalry of course with Northwestern up north. Of course, Missouri we're competing for the same (recruits). We talked about how we want to get more and more into the St. Louis recruiting area. Any teams that are close around here, we would love to play, but it's a lot more than that. But again, I'm a football coach talking about a schedule five years down the road, but we'd love to (play Mizzou)"

Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman would have to do a lot of work to renew the rivalry soon, though. The Illini already have booked their three nonconference games through the 2022 season. But Smith is showing that he isn't afraid to compete with Mizzou on the field (despite Illinois losing 17 of 24 all-time games vs. Missouri, including six straight dating back to 2002) or off the field (despite Missouri winning countless head-to-head battles against the Illini during most of the last decade).

This past weekend, Smith gave hope that the Illini can measure up with Mizzou as he won two recruitments over the Tigers, landing St. Louis University High cornerback Tony Adams and St. Louis Trinity Catholic offensive lineman Larry Boyd -- both Mizzou priorities.

While most focus on how Illinois recruits in the state -- Illinois has six commitments from players who live in the state, twice as many as they signed to the 2016 class -- The Gateway City is a huge priority as well. 

"St. Louis is an easy drive. It's a little over two hours," Smith said. "In the past, that's been an area where we've had a lot of players. We don't have a lot of players on our roster right now from the St. Louis area. We need to change that, and we're making progress with that."

'Rex was definitely our quarterback'

The usually monotone and soft-spoken Smith dropped some humor on Saturday.

When asked if Wes Lunt reminds him of any of his past quarterbacks, he asked the reporter for some of his former quarterbacks.

"Rex Grossman," the reporter said.

Smith replied, "You would hit Rex Grossman right away with a big smile on your face. For the record, I love Rex Grossman. Rex was definitely our quarterback."

A famous reference to his, "Rex is our quarterback" refrain during his Chicago Bears days.

'We're not the cover-2 defense'

Most associate Lovie Smith with the "Tampa-2 defense," a simple but aggressive defensive style popularized by his mentor and former boss Tony Dungy and run successfully by Smith during nine seasons with the Bears.

But Smith doesn't feel the moniker is all that fitting. "I just think that''s the wrong description though, 'the cover-2 defense.' We're not the cover-2 defense," Smith said. "We run a coverage, a two-deep coverage at times. But we're not just about that. Our success isn't determined on the cover-2. We're a gap-control, single-high (safety), eight-man front, man-coverage team is what we are. Those are the things we need to do. To get pressure, we're not going to rely on all-out blitzes every down. We rely on a four-man rush. That's kind of more of a description on who we are. Occasionally, you will see (the cover-2). There was one day we only played that for the most part to get a little bit of work on it. But that's a coverage you use on long-yardage situations pretty much."

Smith said the gradual transition to his defense is going well.

"We have young players," Smith said. "When you're a young player, you don't have everything all set in stone with what you believe and what you've been doing for a long time. Hardy Nickerson comes in familiar with our system, so it's gone in well for our linebackers. When I say gone in well, we still need the rest of the practices. Every rep we need, but they're adjusting. I'll say the same thing about our safeties. Safety-wise, we got Taylor Barton who's played a lot of ball. For him, he has great football intelligence, knowledge. So we feel like we're going to be able to do a lot of different things with him, but the adjustment, it makes sense (for him). We've had players, I've had players similar to his talent level who have had a lot of success. We've been able to do a lot of things just based on his football knowledge."

Thin O-Line

Despite returning three upperclassmen starters -- senior tackle Austin Schmidt, redshirt junior tackle Christian DiLauro and senior center Joe Spencer -- the Illini offensive line remains one of the Illini's biggest question marks on the team due to uncertainty and inexperience at the two guard positions.

But redshirt sophomore has locked up one of the starting guard spots following a big leap during the spring and summer.

"Nick Allegretti, no one changed their body I would say as much as he did during the summer," Smith said. "We asked him to get down, get body fat down, more lean weight, and he did." Redshirt freshman Gabe Megginson has taken most of the reps with the first-string offense during training camp. Despite some struggles, he seems close to solidfiying a starting spot.

"Gabe Megginson, he's a good football player," Smith said. "We have two young players who haven't played a lot of football, but everyone has a starting point. We think in time, we should have a solid offensive line with that group. They've come along the way we'd like them too."

While the first string looks solid, the second string is scary. The Illini most often play three walk-ons in the second group -- guard Matt Long, center Harry Black and tackle Jack Broeker -- along with guard Connor Brennan and tackle Adam Solomon.

The Illini added five freshmen offensive linemen, but most have played on the third string and none look ready to make an immediate impact.

Needless to say, Illinois can't afford to sustain many injuries to its first five.

"Depth is a concern, absolutely," Smith said. "In any program, it's about developing depth. We have young players on our roster right now. Every rep they get, they need. Coming in, you're not expecting a lot of those players to play early. It's about first off figuring out what to do, who to block. There's a lot going on on the offensive line. Getting stronger. Living in the weight room. We've only had them since this summer. So we'll continue to develop them. As far as a young offensive lineman that's going to play for us right away, it's a little early to say that."

Freshmen impact?

Though the freshmen offensive linemen haven't shown enough to make an early impact, other freshmen have provided flashes including receivers Dominic Thieman and M.J. McGriff, linebacker Dele Harding, running back Tre Nation (more due to need) and defensive tackle Kenyon Jackson.

Smith didn't commit to playing any freshmen yet.

"I think our freshmen are right where freshmen should be," Smith said. "Head isn't spinning as much. Long ways to go, but we see potential in some of them. In my mind right now, I have a good idea of the ones that will redshirt that aren't ready to play. Some are a little bit more advanced than others. But we don't have any of the freshmen on our top two groups right now and getting them ready to play the opening game or anything like that."

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