Smith takes on the burden of improving Illinois' dismal defense

  • After ranking 128th out of 130 teams in total defense last season, Illinois head coach Lovie Smith made himself defensive coordinator as he heads into his fourth season leading the Illini.

    After ranking 128th out of 130 teams in total defense last season, Illinois head coach Lovie Smith made himself defensive coordinator as he heads into his fourth season leading the Illini. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 8/27/2019 7:01 PM

After a dismal defensive performance in 2018, Illinois head coach Lovie Smith gave himself a promotion. Or maybe it was a demotion.

Whatever you call it, Smith named himself defensive coordinator over the winter. The former Bears head coach made his name in the NFL as a successful defensive coordinator.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Last season, the Illini ranked 128th out of 130 teams in total defense, giving up 508 yards per game while finishing with a 4-8 record. The number 128 is reportedly hanging in the defensive meeting room as motivation.

"I'm just going by what I've seen through my years, my experience, on what it looks like before you get a chance to show it on the field," Smith said. "We're better. We should be."

There are some positive signs as Smith heads into his fourth season leading the Illini. The team moved into the new Smith Football Center last week, creating a significant facilities upgrade. And they got a little older. Last year, the roster featured just 24 upperclassmen. That number now stands at 47.

The offense made massive improvements last season under new offensive coordinator Rod Smith, and the Illini might have the Big Ten's most underrated star in senior running back Reggie Corbin.

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Corbin became Illinois' first 1,000-yard rusher since Mikel LeShoure in 2010, averaged a whopping 8.5 yards per carry and led all of FBS with four runs of 70-plus yards.

Backup Mike Epstein averaged 6.8 yards per carry last year, though he played in only five games because of injury. Four starters return on the offensive line -- including right tackle Alex Palczewski (Prospect) and center Doug Kramer (Hinsdale Central) -- while the fifth spot is expected to be filled by Alabama grad transfer Richie Petibon. He's the grandson of the former Bears All-Pro safety of the same name and was a high school teammate of Corbin in Maryland.

Petibon is part of Smith's strategy of roster building. The Illini are counting on six transfers to contribute this year, while two more -- including highly-regarded tight end Luke Ford -- are sitting out this year.

The most notable grad transfer is quarterback Brandon Peters, who has two years of eligibility left and was already named the starter for Saturday's home opener against Akron. Peters started four games at Michigan and appeared to be the Wolverines' QB of the future. But he missed time after suffering a concussion in 2017, then Shea Patterson transferred in and took the starting spot.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"He's been everything we wanted him to be, we thought he would be," Smith said of Peters. "He's poised. He can make all the throws -- excellent arm. He can run the football, too. He says the right things at the right time. I love what he's done for our team."

Besides Peters and Petibon, the Illini have three grad transfers from USC -- wide receivers Trevon Sidney and Josh Imatorbhebhe, along with former five-star defensive end Oluwole Betiku. Linebacker Milo Eifler from Washington, who sat out last season in Champaign, is another transfer expected to contribute.

How much they'll help is anyone's guess. Sidney made 10 catches at USC, Imatorbhebhe had 2. Betiku, who was born in Nigeria and moved to the U.S. for his sophomore year of high school, recorded 2 career tackles for the Trojans.

Junior Ricky Smalling is the top receiver, with 33 catches last season. Smith is expecting a giant step forward from sophomore tight end Daniel Barker.

Most of the starters from that soft defense return, but the Illini has endured some horrible luck already. Defensive end Bobby Roundtree, the team's leader in sacks and tackles for loss by a wide margin, won't play this season after suffering a spinal injury in a swimming accident last May. The team's top-ranked incoming freshman, cornerback Marquez Beason, suffered a season-ending knee injury during training camp.

"The defense has had to own what has happened around here the last few years," Smith said. "We're better, can't wait to show it this coming Saturday at 11 o'clock at Memorial Stadium.

"The (new football facility) is exciting. It's as good as advertised. We're thankful for this. … For us to be in the best frame of mind to start this season, we're pumped."

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