1. Staff changes?
Lovie Smith's late hire (March) came at an inopportune time during the coaching job cycle. Most of the job force had settled into jobs either during the college coaching carousel (December) or NFL coaching carousel (January). Smith was able to poach good coaches from other staffs, including offensive coordinator Garrick McGee from Louisville, defensive coordaintor Hardy Nickerson from the San Francisco 49ers and running backs coach Thad Ward from Northern Illinois. But Smith didn't hit on all his top targets. Smith kept three holdovers from Bill Cubit's staff. Defensive line coach Mike Phair had served on his staff at the Bears, so he seemed a natural fit to remain on coaching the team's most talented group. Smith also kept linebackers coach Tim McGarigle and secondary coach Paul WIlliams, to whom he had no ties. With more coaches -- and good coaches -- about to hit the market, don't expect Smith to sit back and show too much loyalty -- especially after a disappointing season on the field. The Illini also could use a few more high-potential recruiters, like Ward, with deeper connections in recruiting circles. I expect change, but how much change?
2. Who's the quarterback?
Illinois will have some interesting weapons on offense next year. Running back could be deep with Kendrick Foster, Reggie Corbin, Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Dre Brown, Ra'Von Bonner and Mike Epstein filling out the depth chart. The Illini also will add some immediate upgrades at receiver with the return of Mike Dudek -- though his health and production cannot be assumed at this point -- and addition of a talented freshman class of receivers, highlighted by Ricky Smalling. The offensive line likely will have its struggles as it gets younger, but incoming recruits could make it more physical. The tight ends have nowhere to go but up, right? But who will be leading said offense still remains a huge question mark. Rising junior quarterback Chayce Crouch showed flashes in his limited playing time before a shoulder injury, but that injury likely will keep him out until next fall. Rising sophomore Jeff George Jr. showed some toughness but his pocket-passer skill set doesn't fit what McGee wants in a quarterback. Incoming 2017 commit Cam Thomas is toolsy with 4.5 speed and a good arm, but he is very raw. The Illini are intent on adding a transfer, either of the graduate or JuCo variety. Some names are natural to speculate, including Notre Dame's Malik Zaire and Louisville's Kyle Bolin, but these names should emerge over the next month. Ideally for Illinois, this quarterback will come this spring. Otherwise, George Jr. and walk-on Cam Miller may be the only quarterbacks available for spring ball
3. Who transfers?
Attrition happens every year, but it's even more intense after a coaching change. Illinois saw two quarterbacks, Eli Peters and Jimmy Fitzgerald, transfer before the fall. Many of the players on the Illini roster don't fit what Smith wants on his roster. Post-season meetings will often include some difficult conversations, including the head coach telling players where they sit on the depth chart and how the staff envisions using them in the future. When players are told they likely won't play, most look for options elsewhere. Nowadays, redshirt juniors are the most likely to transfer due to the graduate transfer rule which allows them to play immediate elsewhere. One possibility, safety Caleb Day already has left the team and likely will receive a medical redshirt following a torn ACL this season, which would allow him to graduate transfer. The current Illini junior class is small, but redshirt juniors -- so possible graduate transfers (we are not saying they will transfer but that they simply have the option to grad transfer) -- on the Illini roster include safety Darwyn Kelly, defender James Crawford, fullback Nathan Echard, offensive tackle Christian DiLauro and offensive lineman Zach Heath. Of course, another tell-tale sign of a transfer? A player who lost playing time under the new staff. Illinois had a few of those this season.
4. Dudek, Brown return -- Part II
Dre Brown and Mike Dudek wanted to play for the in-state school when so many others ran away from head coach Tim Beckman. But out of their combined five years of eligibility, we've only seen one (phenomenal) combined season from the playmakers. Both entered the 2016 spring on the comeback trail after suffering torn ACLs the previous spring. But on the second day of spring practice, Dudek suffered a tear in the same ACL the same way he suffered the first one -- in a non-contact drill. Just two weeks later, Brown suffered a torn ACL, this time in the opposite knee from the previous spring. Of course, the Dudek injury hurt more. He earned Scout.com Freshman All-America honors in 2014 following a 76-catch, 1,038-yard season. His elite quickness, speed, route running and hands have been sorely missed the last two seasons. Meanwhile, Brown shined during each of the last two seasons, showing a combination of size and speed that the Illini need. This spring, he showed great improvement as a receiver out of the backfield and seemed poised for a big role. The early word is that Illinois will be much more cautious with the two injured playmakers with both possibly doing very limited activity during spring practice. That was Bill Cubit's 2016 spring plan with Dudek. Hopefully, both in-state products will return to full health and make a big impact on the Illini. But to count on either to be better or even as good as he was before two ACL surgeries is probably setting expectations too high.
5. How do Illini finish Class of 2017?
Since Smith was hired, I've said his early recruiting efforts were more important than the 2016 results. First, that's because the ceiling of the 2016 season always was limited given the talent he inherited. Secondly, the lack of talent he inherited will show up worse in 2017 and 2018. The Illini currently have just 13 rising seniors on the roster. I count only four as major-impact players: Foster, DiLauro, receiver Malik Turner and cornerback Jaylen Dunlap. There are just 17 rising juniors on the roster. Though, it is a slightly stronger group han the seniors, highlighted by Dudek, Crouch, Vaughn, offensive lineman Nick Allegretti, defensive tackle Tito Odenigbo, linebackers Tre Watson and Julian Jones. Even if Illinois adds five transfers (grad and JuCo) this offseason, this will be an extremely young team. And even though 13 freshmen (now rising sophomores) started games in 2016, it isn't necessarily a very talented group. So this Class of 2017 will be counted on early to make a big impact. It also will set the foundation for Smith's program. These are Smith's hand-picked players to run his schemes. The Illini are off to a solid start with more explosive offensive skill players, more physicality on the offensive line and more speed and length everywhere. But the Illini still have 14 scholarships available. Can they land the top A-list targets still on their recruiting board, including guys like DE Owen Carney, DE Bobby Roundtree, WR Reggie Roberson, OL Howard Watkins, OL Preston Mixon and CB Quran Hafiz. Can they flip any players committed to other programs, like QB Reyondous Estes? And can they save some of their current commits, like WR Carmoni Green and DE Olalere Oladipo, from getting poached by other programs? Buckle up, it's going to be a crazy ride until the Feb. 1 Signing Day.