Over the next couple of weeks, GopherDigest will take an early look at the Minnesota Gophers football team’s opponents throughout the 2016 regular season. Today, we preview the Illinois Fighting Illini.
Minnesota Golden Gophers vs. Illinois Fighting Illini
Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Ill.
Oct. 29, 2016, TBA kickoff
Illinois head coach: Lovie Smith (1st season)
Coordinators: Garrick McGhee (Offensive coordinator; 1st season) and Hardy Nickerson (defensive coordinator; 1st season)
Illinois 2015 record – 5-7 (2-6 B1G): The Fighting Illini started last season strong winning four of their first five games including beating Nebraska at home, but then the wheels fell off the wagon as Illinois lost six of their last seven and fired their head coach after some nasty allegations.
2015 offensive stats: 88th nationally in total offense (372.7 YPG), 103rd in scoring offense (23.1 PPG), 47th in passing offense (243.4 YPG), 110th in rushing offense (169.9 YPG)
2015 defensive stats: 111th nationally in total defense (462.0 YPG), 104th in scoring defense (34.9 PPG), 118th in passing defense (275.9 YPG), 84th in rushing defense (129.3 YPG)
Returning leading passer – QB Wes Lunt (2761 yards, 14 TD, 6 INT on 270-of-481 passing): Lunt returns as the clear leader of this Illini offense and one of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten. Illinois' passing attack should remain among the best in the Big Ten.
Returning leading rusher – RB Ke'Shawn Vaughn (723 yards, 6 TD on 157 carries): Vaughn lived up to his four-star billing as a freshman, sharing the load with Ferguson and leading the Illini with 723 rushing yards (4.6 yards per carry) and six touchdowns. He's a decisive one-cut runner with plus strength, speed and vision.
Returning leading receiver – WR Desmond Cain (492 yards, 1 TD on 53 catches): Sophomore Desmond Cain is a reliable slot receiver and had a nice freshman season and solid athlete but needs to make more big plays.
Returning leading tackler – DB Taylor Barton (5 tackles): The Fighting Illini lose their top three tacklers from last season, so they have to find some new bodies to replace those 347 tackles somewhere.
Returning leader in interceptions – DB Taylor Barton (Four picks): Taylor Barton, who earned All-Big Ten honorable mention honors last season and has started 29 career games, is the only proven starter on the team. He had four interceptions last season, the most for an Illini since 2007, but three of those came in the first two games.
FIVE QUESTIONS ANSWERED BY JEREMY WERNER OF THE ILLINI INQUIRER
What was the biggest thing about this Illinois team that you drew from watching spring practices and its spring game?
JW: Lovie's presence. There is a newfound sense of confidence and swagger inside and out of the Illinois football program. Bill Cubit did what he could, but he simply didn't have the celebrity or credibility of Smith, one of two coaches to lead the NFL team in this state to a Super Bowl appearance. Cubit and Tim Beckman had to introduce themselves to high school coaches and recruits. In-state high school football coaches couldn't stop taking smartphone pics of Lovie at practice. There's just finally a belief in prospects, current players, administrators and fans (season-ticket sales have already increased by the thousands) that Illinois football has a path to sustained success. As for the actual football, Lovie is a teacher. His practices are pretty slow-paced with the team going through pain-staking, repetitive walk-throughs for half of practice. His staff is full of NFL experience and power-five experience, and the players have bought in.
What are the three biggest story lines to follow this season?
JW: 1. Looking to Lunt: Wes Lunt has NFL arm talent. He's probably the best pure passer in the Big Ten. But he's a polarizing figure in Illinois circles. He hasn't won much here. But how much of that is on him when his receivers dropped 60 passes last season and his rushing attack was the worst in the Big Ten? He's injury prone and doesn't like to take hits. But his offensive line has been solid at best and his best target has been injured. He's also immobile, and he's not the most vocal. But the arm talent is everything NFL teams want. It's up to new offensive coordinator Garrick McGee -- who coached a similar prospect, Ryan Mallett, at Arkansas -- to get the most out of Lunt in his last season, before the Illini convert to a more dual-threat quarterback.
What are Illinois' greatest strengths for the 2016 season?
JW: Definitely the defensive line. This group took a major step forward last year and despite the loss of Jihad Ward, a second-round pick of the Raiders, the group projects as a possible top-half of the Big Ten group at its position. It's led by Dawuane Smoot, who had a breakout junior season (15.0 tackles for loss, 8.0 sacks) and projects as a first- or second-round draft choice. He has a devastating mix of power and speed. Jarrod "Chunky" Clements (11.0 TFLs) also is a future pro and fits perfectly as a disruptive three technique. Carroll Phillips adds speed on the edge rush, Rob Bain adds power in the middle. Also, the group has pretty good depth with talented redshirt freshman DTJamal Milan and Auburn grad transfer DE Gimel President.
What are the Fighting Illini’s greatest weaknesses?
JW: I mentioned the lack of depth at playmakers. The Illini also have two inexperienced -- but talented -- guards (Nick Allegretti and Gabe Megginson) making the transition to starters, and tight end was a problem last season due to injuries. On defense, the linebacker depth chart got a much-needed big boost from the return of talented sophomore Julian Jones from suspension and the addition of Cal grad transfer Hardy Nickerson, son of defensive coordinator and NFL great Hardy Nickerson. The secondary has some talent, but is really inexperienced. Special teams also are a big question mark.
What is your outlook for the 2016 season for Illinois and what's your way too early prediction for their game against the Gophers?
JW: I think this is a 5-7 or 6-6 team based on talent, but the fun part of this season is discovering the impact this coaching staff can make. The defensive line is really good. The starting quarterback and running back are really talented. The receivers have a higher ceiling, and the offensive line could be the best its been in a few seasons. But this team seemingly just can't afford another injury to a key player (Lunt, Vaughn, Turner, Nickerson or Smoot).
The Gophers and Illini both seem at similar turning points. I loved what Jerry Kill was building slowly in Minneapolis. The Gophers haven't been the fastest or most athletic, but they're physical and tough. I love that identity, especially in the West. I really respect Tracy Claeys, but with a new AD, you have to wonder how much pressure is on Claeys, especially after seeing what Illinois was able to get on the market. I think these two teams are pretty evenly matched. I'm not as high on Mitch Leidner as others, but NFL scouts probably know more about it than me. Still, I'd have to give the edge to the team that should have a homecoming crowd of 50,000+ reinvigorated Illini fans and a defensive line that can get after Leidner.
You can follow Jeremy Werner on Twitter @JWernerScout.
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COMPLETED EARLY OPPONENT PREVIEWS:
Nov. 5 vs. Purdue
Nov. 12 at Nebraska
Nov. 19 vs. Northwestern
Nov. 26 at Wisconsin