Year two of the Lovie Smith era at Illinois kicked off on Tuesday, as the Fighting Illini are the first FBS program in the country to begin spring practice.
Smith's first Champaign campaign did not go well, as his team finished 2016 with a 3-9 record. Illinois’ 2-7 Big Ten mark placed them second to last in the West Division, ahead of only Purdue.
The 2017 season looks as though it will present plenty more hurdles for the Illini. They start spring ball looking to replace several key players lost to graduation and transfer. Making that task more difficult is the absence of key returning players due to injury – including their projected starting quarterback.
Needless to say, the uphill battle to rebuild Illinois football doesn't look like it's going to get easier anytime soon for Smith and company.
5 Storylines to Watch in Illinois' Spring Practice
1. Player interaction with Lovie Smith
This is more of a body language thing. After a tough 2016 slate, are the returning players buying in to Smith and what he's trying to implement? Is there a positive culture being built? Until the upperclassmen are Smith's recruits, positive culture is going to need to replace and compensate for leadership. Smith is an extremely positive personality, so conventional wisdom says this should not be an issue.
2. Jeff George Jr.'s progression
George got some reps last season, and it wasn't pretty. He completed 40 percent of his passes and had a hard time taking care of the football. The Illini would like to see significant growth from him this spring, and he'll get plenty of chances. Projected starter Chayce Crouch will miss the entire spring with a shoulder injury. Having George grow into a trusted security blanket as a backup would do wonders for Smith's stress level.
3. Replacing Hardy Nickerson Jr.
The fifth-year senior transfer from Cal followed his father to Illinois a season ago and helped ease the transition into a new defensive scheme. His leadership and presence at linebacker was invaluable, and he'll be sorely missed in that regard. On the field, the Illini will be looking for a new defensive playmaker that also can emerge as a leader in the locker room. One leading candidate for that role to keep an eye on is Del'Shawn Phillips, a junior college transfer who flipped from his commitment to Arizona in December.
4. The offensive line
Some include the Illini offensive front in the long list of concerns about this team heading into 2017. That said, there is a real good chance that the unit ends up being one of the team's strengths. Five players with significant experience return up front – something that will go a long way in working in a new starting quarterback. If the line can gel in the spring, it could help the Illini get off to a fast start in the fall against a formidable-yet-manageable non-conference schedule.
5. The need for another pass-catching playmaker to emerge
Star wideout Mike Dudek is still injured and Desmond Cain is no longer on the roster. As a result, the Illini are in desperate need of playmakers outside of Malik Turner for Crouch (or George) to get the ball to. Between Turner being the only proven healthy target and running back Kendrick Foster leading the way for a thin running back corps, the Illinois offense does not appear to offer many matchup issues that will keep defenses on their toes. The emergence of another playmaker this spring is crucial to ensuring the Illini can field a dynamic enough offense to be competitive in the Big Ten West in 2017.
Pre-Spring Illinois Outlook in the Big Ten
Quite simply, it's looking pretty bleak. Between graduations and transfers, the 2017 Fighting Illini are likely going to be the youngest and least experienced team in the conference. Many of those young players do have a year under their belts in head coach Lovie Smith's culture, but that is not likely to overcome the talent deficit they'll face in nearly every game they play this season. Home games with Ball State, Western Kentucky, Rutgers and Indiana look like their best chances at wins – and even those are probably toss-ups. I'd call 2016 the cultural installation year, while the ‘17 slate looks to be Smith's foundational rebuilding season.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.