Five tasks for Illini bye week

The bye week came early for Illinois. Yet following a 1-2 start, this week might actually be a good time for the Illini to reset, re-evaluate and replenish. Illini Inquirer publisher Jeremy Werner breaks down five things the Illini should do during the bye week.

1. Re-open position battles

The new Illinois coaching staff was able to evaluate its personnel during about 40 combined spring and fall practices. During the first three games, the Illini sent out who they thought were their best players at each position. But some players have failed to live up to their expectations during the season. That means it might be time to give others a shot. For instance, redshirt freshman safety Patrick Nelson and redshirt freshman Jamal Milan showed some flashes. Maybe they should play a few more series. The Illini also have had struggles at receiver, offensive line, cornerback and linebacker. It might be a good time to see if those positions need a shake up. While it's probably not yet time for a drastic quarterback change (and probably won't be unless the Illini don't win against Purdue or Rutgers), it wouldn't hurt to get backup Chayce Crouch some reps at the end of decided games to see what they have.

"Daily, we evaluate, and we see if the depth chart needs to change," Smith said on Tuesday. "We have an idea. But when you have a little bit more time, you can make some more rational decisions. You have a little bit more time to do that. That'll be the case for us."

2. Live tackling

Lovie Smith doesn't really believe in live-tackling much during practice. Illinois barely tackled to the ground during training camp -- and it looked like it against North Carolina and Western Michigan. But it wasn't just about wrapping up and tackling to the ground. The Illini struggled with their gap assignments with some linebackers trying to side-step blockers instead of taking them head on. Former Illini J Leman told Illini Inquirer that he gained confidence in his tackling ability by doing it during practice. He said he wouldn't have been nearly as good of a player if his coaches didn't allow live tackling during the week. After allowing North Carolina and Western Michigan to run for a combined 484 yards, Lovie may want to re-consider his stance on live tackling. Players said Tuesday's practice was very physical. That's a good start.

"Good practice for us, to say the least," Smith said on Tuesday. "It was a full-padded practice. We got a lot of good stuff done."

3. Get more creative offensively

Garrick McGee doesn't have the personnel he wants to run his power-run offensive system. A healthy offensive line -- they've had three different starting lineups in the first three games -- certainly would help. He needs stronger offensive lineman, a dual-threat quarterback, bigger running backs, more dynamic tight ends and faster receivers. McGee is limited with his personnel (just as Bill Cubit was last season), but it might be time to open up some other elements. That, of course, is pretty simplistic and easy for the outsider to say. But it's worthwhile to try anything that can spark an offense that ranks last in the Big Ten in first downs and near the bottom in third-down conversions. McGee has called plenty of zone runs, but the Illini's best runs have come on the perimeter, so maybe they amp those up more. The Illini haven't run many quick bubble screens or bunched wide receiver sets that can cause some defensive confusion and maybe allow his receivers a better chance to get open. And if the offense continues to struggle, a package with Crouch shouldn't be outside the question. McGee eventually wants an offense that looks more like most of its no-frills Big Ten counterparts , but his current personnel probably requires him to add more bells and whistles.

4. Evaluate HS seniors and JUCOs

The Illini are off to a solid start in recruiting, improving team speed and size on the lines with their first 11 commits. The Illini staff hits the road this week for an important period of evaluation of many players on their recruiting board. The Illini will look some at junior college prospects but shouldn't feel compelled to use a lot of spots just to add temporary, fleeting depth. This is a long-play, and while a talented JUCO or two could help in 2017 and 2018, Smith's staff should try to add players who can best help in 2018, 2019 and beyond. Head coach Lovie Smith will finally will hit the road recruiting. He was hired in March, which meant he missed the winter window to recruit. The Saban Rule then kept him at home for the spring and summer with the exception of satellite camps. This week will mark the first time he can step recruit off campus and step inside high schools or junior colleges, etc. Unlike previous Illinois head coaches, Lovie -- a celebrity prior to arriving at Illinois -- won't have to introduce himself ever. Lovie is the Illini's best recruiting tool, and it finally can be taken outside the shed.

"I'm looking forward to it," Smith said. "It's been a long time since I've been in a high school. It comes back to you pretty quick. I am looking forward to that, seeing some high school practices, of course high school games and just letting the guys see. We've been communicating a different type of way but them seeing you in your school that hopefully will mean a little bit." 

5. Get healthy

The Illini don't have the depth to withstand key injuries, and they've already suffered some. Backup safety Caleb Day is out for the season with a torn ACL. Senior nickelback Dillan Cazley has a cast on his arm. Megginson (out last game with a leg injury) had his ups and downs in his first two games, but he's a massive upgrade over who's playing in his spot now. Senior offensive tackle Austin Schmidt sat out practice on Tuesday due to a leg injury he suffered Saturday against Western Michigan. Lovie Smith said starting wide receiver Des Cain missed last game due to a knee injury. The bye week is early but it may come at a good time for the Illini to rest some of their key bodies before a key early October stretch, including winnable games against Purdue and Rutgers.

Illini Inquirer Top Stories