CHAMPAIGN - Finally, it's game week.
Speculation, anticipation of the last five months following athletic director Josh Whitman's big move is almost done.
At 2:42 p.m. Central Time on Saturday, the Lovie Smith era of Illinois football kicks off in earnest.
"It's been a long time coming to get to game week," Smith said on Monday at the first of his weekly in-season press conferences. "We've been through an awful lot, getting to know each other, letting everybody know their roles, basic philosophy on how we plan on winning football games, spring ball and then training camp. We know a lot more about our football team now. We had a an excellent camp. We stayed away from injuries. That's one of the things we want to do. Then just to see daily improvement, which we've seen.
"Now, it's about this next step of finally getting to game week, finishing plays, finally getting in front of a crowd and just hopefully getting some momentum started for a good season."
Smith admits he doesn't know much about Week 1 FCS opponent Murray State, which finished 3-8 last season under first-year coach Mitch Stewart.
"For me, first time around, I don't know about many of our opponents that we're going to play," Smith said. "But it's more about what we do. I really feel that way."
But Saturday provides Smith and the Illini with the first chance to show fans and recruits a product on the field.
"We want to put a good product on the field, the best product possible on the field -- and from the start," Smith said. "There's not a grace period or anything like that -- no more so than any grace period in the first game of the season you have. I've made the statement that normally between Week 1 and Week 2 is when you see the most improvement during the year. For us, we've hit every situation as much as you can. But you never know the first game of the season what you'll see. You try to cover the waterfront as much as you can and hope and pray."
Initial official depth charts are to be taken with a grain of salt given the gamesmanship of coaches, but the Illini's first released depth chart provided a few surprises.
Senior Caleb Day was expected to have the first crack at the starting strong safety spot and split first-team reps with Darwyn Kelly at the position through most of the public portion of training camp. But redshirt sophomore Julian Hylton is listed as the starter.
Hylton played in 10 games last season, mostly on special teams, recording seven tackles and a fumble recovery.
"We have a lot of young players when we came in that we didn't know a lot about," Smith said. "Julian Hylton, you just look at his ability, his athletic ability. He's as fast as anybody on the team. He can jump higher than anybody on the team. He's smart. He's a young player that just hasn't played a lot of football. We have that with a few of our players. But from the time we've been here, he's been competing and put himself in position to get playing time. What we're looking for in our safeties is a guy who can play man coverage. You have to have that skill set. He'll hit. And some decent instincts. I think Julian has most of that."
Illinois also repped redshirt freshman Justice Williams almost exclusively with the first team at strongside linebacker. But it's redshirt sophomore Tre Watson listed as the starter alongside senior middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson and junior weakside linebacker James Crawford.
Watson recorded 21 tackles in a backup and special teams role last season.
"Tre has played MIKE (middle linebacker), he's played all three positions," Watson said. "He's smart. He's been an instinctive player, and he's just gotten himself in position for playing time similar to how we talked with Julian. A young player who hasn't played a lot. It's time now to step up."
Sophomore Chase McLaughlin appears to have won the starting kicking job, which isn't a surprise after Lovie Smith singled him out as a standout at the position two weeks ago.
The Illini list "TBD" next to the kick and punt returner spots, but Smith said he knows who will be in those positions on Saturday.
Earning their 'ships
Grant, a former Rochester standout alongside Illini starting quarterback Wes Lunt, emerged as one of the Illini's more reliable receiver options during training camp.
Echard, a Eureka, Mo., native, switched from linebacker last year and is listed as the starting fullback for Saturday's game.
Martin, a Champaign Centennial graduate, is the team's starting long snapper after splitting the role last season with Zach Hirth, who is on medical scholarship.
Captains to be named
Illinois has selected four captains, but Smith will not publicize the captains to the team or media until Tuesday. He said two offensive players and two defensive players will serve as season-long captains, a diversion from the past staff which awarded captains on a game-by-game basis. Smith did add that he will choose a special teams captain each week.