Lovie Smith and the Illini are hoping his second year as the head coach goes a lot better than the first.
The Illini went 3-9, won only two Big Ten games and finished 0-6 against division foes. To turn things around, they will need a lot out of a young team led by Chayce Crouch, a dual-threat quarterback that Smith and the coaching staff are excited about.
"Once you bring in that extra guy, a quarterback that can run the football, it's a totally different animal," Smith said.
Up first is Ball State, which is coming off of a four-win season and has a new defensive coordinator in David Elson, whose unit had 31 sacks last year — good enough for second in the Mid-American Conference.
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Smith said the majority of his time remains focused on his team, which includes 54 freshmen — more than half the 101-player roster.
"We all have a history," Smith said. "But you never know until you play that (first) game."
Illinois could use a win since the schedule gets challenging right away. Some things to look for as Illinois tries to win its 20th consecutive home-opening victory:
Running back Reggie Corbin and defensive back Jaylen Dunlap haven't been ruled out by Smith. Dunlap is the most experienced cornerback on the team, but didn't play at all during training camp due to a lower leg injury. Corbin averaged over 6 yards per carry last season, but has missed several practices as well with an undisclosed injury. Running back Kendrick Foster led the team in all-purpose yards, including 748 rushing yards, last year and will likely be the workhorse alongside Crouch.
After two ACL tears, receiver Mike Dudek will finally play in a game for the Illini following 981 days on the sideline. Smith said Dudek was brought along slowly during camp but enters the season completely healthy. In 2014, Dudek's freshman season, he recorded 76 receptions, 1,038 receiving yards and six touchdowns. Defensive end Sean Adesanya, finally healthy after a torn labrum and ruptured Achilles, will join a defensive line that lost its two best pass rushers to the NFL.
It isn't final yet, but Illinois' projected starting offensive line will include two freshmen, Doug Kramer and Larry Boyd. Smith said there were a few injuries to the young offensive line during training camp, but one player he can count on is Christian DiLauro. The senior has started in a team-high 31 consecutive games.
Illinois will no longer play "war chant " music during sporting events, ending a tradition that stemmed from the school's former mascot Chief Illiniwek. The school's band, the Marching Illini, had played the cadence at football games but it was halted after critics said it was offensive to Native Americans. Chief Illiniwek, which had been portrayed since 1926 by a student in a buckskin costume, was retired in 2007 after pressure from the NCAA.
After Ball State, high-scoring Western Kentucky (11-3 last season) is the second game, followed by No. 19 South Florida, which went 11-2 a year ago and has do-everything quarterback Quinton Flowers back. The Big Ten slate includes road trips to Iowa and Ohio State and the league opener is a Friday night game against Nebraska.