Has time finally come for Illinois to have 'outstanding' season?
Lovie Smith is not only ready for his fourth year as head coach at Illinois, he is fired up for his first winning season.
"As I talk about recruiting and just the state of our program right now, this time of year, everybody is going to have a great year," Smith said Thursday during the Big Ten football media day at the Hilton Chicago. "And there will be a team that will come from nowhere that will have an outstanding year. We plan on that being us."
Looking back on Smith's first three years on the Fighting Illini sidelines, it would be fair to say there's nowhere to go but up.
The Chicago Bears' former head coach has gone 9-27 (4-23 in the Big Ten) since landing in Champaign. Overall, Illinois has not had a winning season since 2011.
Why does Smith think this season is going to be different?
It takes time to build a program from ground zero, and many of the 16 returning starters and 45 letter winners were recruited in Smith's first year.
"When we first got here we knew there were some challenging things that we had to take care of, and we attacked it," the 61-year-old Smith said. "We went to work right away. We overhauled our football program. We have a lot of new players. Recruiting has gone well.
"A few years ago we had 15 freshman that started. Those guys are juniors now and are running our football team. That's a good thing."
The Illini showed some encouraging signs last year while going 4-8. They beat Minnesota and Rutgers in conference play and ended the season with a narrow 24-16 loss at West division champion Northwestern.
"Last year, offensively, we did some good things," Smith said. "I felt like we did enough to win more football games. Defensively we did not. We were one of the worst defenses in college football. We're embracing that and right after the season, we went to work to correct that."
This season, all eyes are going to be on the quarterback spot as Illinois prepares for its Aug. 31 opener against Akron.
True freshman Isaiah Williams is a dynamic all-around talent. Brandon Peters, a graduate transfer from Michigan, is a big, strong passer with Big Ten experience.
"That's what I'm looking forward to in training camp, the competition at quarterback," said junior tackle Alex Palczewski, a Prospect High School graduate. "I don't really like it when there's a spot locked up. When you've got someone breathing down your neck, you are always trying to get better."
Like Smith, Palczewski views the Illini as a team on the rise.
"I think people are going to be surprised by how we play this year," the 6-foot-6, 300-pounder said. "It's going to be dangerous. We are extremely talented across the board and its going to be a lot of fun to watch us play."