The love for Lovie Smith has been infectious throughout Illini nation since he was hired in March, and the program has undoubtedly been pumped full of new life. One of the initial steps in that new life was the 52-3 win for Illinois over Murray State in Smith's debut on Saturday.
Smith hadn't been a part of the college game for more than 20 years (he was an assistant at Ohio State in 1995), and taking in his first game as a college head coach brought out some emotions in a famously emotionless coach.
"There were quite a few emotions," Smith said. "A lot of anticipation for the game. I didn't get a lot of sleep last night. Just excited about today. I talked a lot about the gameday atmosphere on a college campus. I saw it firsthand today."
Part of that included the 'Illini walk' through Grange Grove and into the stadium, hearing his name announced over the loud speakers and hearing a resounding roar from the crowd.
The Illini had a fast start against the Racers, as they picked off a pass and scored eight plays later. Smith credited the Illini fans for setting the tone long before the kickoff.
"Our fans were outstanding," Smith said. "It's my first walk down Grange Grove, and there's a lot of energy outside that was brought to the stadium and it gave us momentum right away."
Lunt to Turner
Turner looked the part on Saturday, finishing with 83 yards on three catches with a pair of touchdown grabs. One of those was a 68-yard bomb on a picture-perfect throw from Lunt deep down the sideline.
"Wes put it out there and I ran under it. It was a good ball," Turner said. "That's what we've been throwing all week in practice."
Overall, the Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin product doesn't look like the same player from previous seasons, and confidence intertwined with opportunity are big factors in that.
"I feel confident," Turner said. "I feel like the coaches are confident in me -- my teammates -- and I just vibe off of them and just make plays."
His quarterback sees that confidence, and they are building a great rapport with each other.
"Malik has put a lot of work in. We've thrown a lot over the summer," Lunt said. "I think the biggest thing with him is he's more confident. He's a different person than he was last year. He realizes he's one of the main guys to throw to, and he did a good job today."
It's no secret that Smith and Garrick McGee would like the run to be the offensive catalyst with Ke'Shawn Vaughn as the workhorse, and then play off of that with the pass. Stretching the field -- as Turner did on his career-long scoring reception -- can be an asset to the Illini offense.
"Malik Turner is a good football player. He's got good size and I've seen him make a lot of plays. Five or so weeks, we've seen Malik do a lot of things," Smith said. "He's capable of those type of plays."
Early check-in for Hylton
Sophomore safety Julian Hylton quickly proved why he earned the starting strong safety spot, picking off Murray State quarterback KD Humphries on the second play from scrimmage.
Hylton played in 10 games last season, but this was the first start of his career and he made it worth while. The interception on Murray State's first drive set up a touchdown drive for the Illini.
Illinois is hopeful that Hylton can continue to pair his physical ability with production on the field.
"He was third on the dept chart for a lot of camp. But he's got a lot of ability," Smith said. "No one can jump higher or run as fast as Julian Hylton. It's one thing to be able to run and jump You've got to be able to make plays and finish plays. He finished a few today."
Darta's big day
It's one thing to start the season opener as a true freshman. It's another to find out just a week before the game.
Darta Lee became the first Illini true freshman to start on the offensive line in the season opener in at least 20 seasons.
WIth senior center Joseph Spencer out with a knee injury, redshirt sophomore Nick Allegretti shifted to center, vacating a spot at guard. The Illini turned to a massive (so much that he needs to lean down) Frisco, Texas, native who arrived on campus just a few months ago.
"Coach told me they were going to throw me in the fire and see how I handle it," Lee said. "As a day as a whole, it wasn't too bad. But there's always room to progress."
Seldom-used redshirt junior Jordan Fagan, a junior college transfer who had played tackle for the previous staff, also received first-team reps with the first string.
Smith said Lee handled himself well for a true freshman.
"Last week, he got a lot of reps," Smith said. "Of course, Joe was nursing his injury last week. Darta worked with the ones. What a thrill for him to start your first game as a freshman and it be this type of a win."
Seven true freshmen play
Lee was one of seven true freshmen to play on Saturday. Wide receiver Dominic Thieman caught two passes for seven yards, running back Tre Nation carried eight times for 47 yards, defensive tackle Kenyon Jackson received late playing time, linebacker Jake Hansen played on special teams, linebacker Dele' Harding played on special teams and Tymir Oliver played on the punt team.
"There's a reason why we (played them)," Smith said. "We like some of the freshmen that we have. We're trying to win football games. There are a few guys that we think can help us win football games this year."
Grads make quick impact
The college free-agent waiver waiver paid immediate dividends for the Illini.
"We came in pretty much just had a couple months to get ready for the team, but it's been great," Nickerson said. "The guys embraced us and we're just trying to help the team win."
- Reggie Corbin ran for 71 yards on seven carries in his Illini debut and scored his first career touchdown. The redshirt freshman running back sat out last season with a shoulder injury.
- Redshirt freshman tight end Caleb Reams hauled in his first two career catches for nine yards.
- Redshirt freshman quarterback Jeff George Jr., the third stringer, played his first snaps at Illinois but did not throw a pass. He is the son of former Illini great and 1989 No. 1 NFL Draft pick Jeff George.
- Illinois provided answers on its training camp special teams battles. Chase McLaughlin kicked point-after-touchdown and field-goal attempts. Punter Ryan Frain handled kickoff duties. Darius Mosely returned punts, and Kendrick Foster and Caleb Day handled kickoff return duties.
- Former Illini players Clayton Fejedelem, Josh Ferguson, V'Angelo Bentley and Alex Hill were in attendance. Ferguson made the Colts' 53-man roster, Bentley was cut by the New England Patriots.
***Jeremy Werner contributed to this story.