Jeremy Werner

Illini coach Lovie Smith: Youth movement 'not what we're looking at'

With veterans struggling, Lovie Smith and staff giving young players plenty of opportunity

CHAMPAIGN  - With the safeties in front of him struggling, Patrick Nelson received an opportunity. And the redshirt freshman made quite the impression on his first rep during the Illini's 34-10 Week 3 loss to Western Michigan.

“What he did to continue to play was his first snap, and then from there he seemed to make tackle after tackle," Illini coach Lovie Smith said.

Nelson has started each of the three games since, collecting 36 tackles (he is tied atop the Big Ten with 12.0 tackles per game during conference play) and a Big Ten Freshman of the Week honor following his 14-tackle performance against Rutgers.

With so many struggles from his veterans, Smith and his staff have given more and more opportunities to young players.

“Coming in new, you have an idea of who’s going to play based on what you’ve done at the time," Smith said. "But once you get to games, teams tell you, players tell you a lot more. They tell you who should start and who should play."

During the past four games, here are the Illini changes to the starting lineup for reasons other than injury.

Some may see this as a youth movement by a first-year coach looking to build upon the future in an otherwise lost season. Smith won't agree with that, though. After all, the Illini still only started seven underclassmen (freshmen and sophomores) at Rutgers.

"It’s based on what we’d like to see from those positions," Smith said. "It so happens that some of the players are younger, but that’s not what we’re looking at. We’re looking for the best fit and the players who are making the most plays.”

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Said defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson: "What we've seen from the younger guys is they've gotten opportunities and they've  taken a huge step forward. Stanley I thought played pretty well last week. He ran to the ball well. He's got great range and tackled pretty well. The young guys, when they've gotten their opportunities, they've really stepped up and played well. Jamal Milan played well forcing two fumbles last week this past game. Those guys have really taken advantage of the opportunities they've gotten."

The Illini also are experimenting with players at other positions. Crawford has moved to a situational pass rusher role on passing downs, while Smoot has moved inside on certain passing downs to give Illinois a bigger boost on the interior pass rush. With Corbin and Foster performing so well at running back, Vaughn has received reps at slot receiver.

Smith and his staff may face their biggest personnel decision when quarterback Wes Lunt returns to full health. The senior captain -- Smith on Monday offered little on his quarterback's health other than, "Wes is getting better" -- missed the last six quarters with a back injury. Redshirt sophomore Chayce Crouch has stepped in to lead Illinois to one of its better offensive performances against Purdue  and a win at Rutgers.

Smith said Monday that Crouch has been "gutting it out" and complemented the "energy" Crouch has "brought to our football team."

The Illini staff already has shown that it has no loyalty to upperclassmen or preseason starters. Like Illini basketball coach John Groce says, players play players -- by making plays.

"We've been wanting to see everybody," Smith said. "Everybody's gotten opportunities. The young guys have just really taken advantage of those opportunities that they've had and made some big plays for us."

The playing time for so many young players probably points to issues for the Illini now. But it may help the team in 2017 and beyond.

"I think it pays off huge for us down the road," Nickerson said. "Those guys are getting more and more playing experience, getting more comfortable with what we're doing and growing as football players. That's only going to help us."

'Bumps and bruises'

Smith doesn't talking about injuries. That didn't change on Monday.

“Injury-wise, there’s some bumps and bruises from the last game," Smith said. "We don’t go over an injury list, so I’m not going to go over an injury list or anything like that. We’re improving. We’ll see what happens the rest of the week.”

Smith offered little on Lunt.

"Wes is getting better," Smith said. "There’s no program in the country that tells you or talks in detail about injuries. We’re not going to either. You can understand why. I kind of go over that each week. Our players are getting better. We don’t have practice today (Monday). We’ll see how it goes this week.”

'Jim's a good football coach'

According to Illinois, Saturday's match-up will be the first time two former Super Bowl head coaches face each other as college football head coaches.

Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh led the San Fracisco 49ers to Super Bowl XLVII in 2013 while Smith led the Chicago Bears to Super Bowl XLI in 2007. Both Harbaugh and Smith lost those games, to the Ravens and Colts, respectively. Harbaugh won the only head-to-head match-up against Smith, a 32-7 49ers win over the Bears on Nov. 19, 2012 -- which also happened to mark Colin Kaepernick's first NFL start. Harbaugh has led a revival at his alma mater. He has a 16-3 overall record in a season and a half and currently has the Wolverines (6-0) at No. 3 in this week's AP Poll. The Wolverines have the nation's No. 1 scoring defense (10.3 points per game) and No. 2 scoring offense (50.0 points per game).

“Jim’s a good football coach," Smiths aid. "When you have good football coaches, of course they help the Big Ten, they help the Michigan program. He’s just a good hard-nosed coach who loves his job. He’s been successful at every level. You expect his teams to play a certain way, a certain personality. I think there’s a certain personality first to the University of Michigan through the years on what type of football (they play). When you think Big Ten football, of course that’s one of the teams that comes to mind right away. There’s a certain brand of football. The offensive attack we see this week is different than what we’ve seen. We’ve had to play a lot of spread offenses that spread you out  and trick you a little bit. But not a lot of downhill, two-back plays. We’re going to get that this week. It’s a big-boy, padded game that we’ll see this week.”

Peppers 'a special football player'

Smith showered appreciation on Michigan junior Jabrill Peppers, a defender so special that he's receiving serious Heisman Trophy consideration.

Peppers -- a 6-foot-1, 210-pound linebacker/safety who is projected to be a top-10 NFL Draft pick -- lines up all over the field on defense and currently has 38 tackles, 10.0 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, six quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. He also returns punts (17.8 yards per return), returns kicks (31.7 yards per return) and even carries the ball (five carries, 98 yards, two touchdowns)

“He’s an outstanding football player, great football player, a special football player," Smith said. "Doesn’t matter where he is, whether it’s on the defensive side or multiple positions. ...I’m not telling you anything new. It’s not a secret they have a special player up there.”

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