Illinois Fighting Illini Football Details
It has been a long time since there was a buzz surrounding the Fighting Illini football team, but the squad had it last year with former NFL head coach Lovie Smith taking over the program. Fans in Champaign are hopeful that Smith, who coached the Chicago Bears for years just a few hours north, will make an immediate impact. He will bring NFL experience to U of I, which should be a selling point as he recruits players to his program.
Illini fans do have quite a bit to be proud about when it comes to their team’s history. Since the team began playing back in 1890 as an independent (joined the Big Ten in 1953), the Fighting Illini have won 15 conference championships and five national titles. The last conference title came in 2001, but the last national championship goes back quite a bit further (1951; other four came in 1914, 1919, 1923, and 1927).
A number of former Illinois football players have gone on to have great success in the NFL including one of the all-time great running backs, Red Grange. There have been 23 players selected in the first round and eight in the top five. Three first round picks are currently playing in the NFL, Whitney Mercilus (No. 26, 2012), Vontae Davis (No. 25; 2009), and Corey Liuget (No. 18; 2011).
There certainly wasn’t progress made in Smith’s first year last season. The team went from being a 5-7 squad under Bill Cubit in 2015 to a 3-9 program in 2016. After getting out to a nice 52-3 win over Murray State in the season opener, the team lost its next four and nine overall. They scored more than 20 points just four times and lost by more than 20 points seven times.
Last year’s group did have some talent on defense, but there is only so much the best defense can do when it is on the field as much as they were. Heading into 2017, much of 2016’s under-utilized talent is gone which will make the task even tougher.
If the team is going to be more successful this season, they are going to need some of their offensive talents (i.e. running back Kendrick Foster, quarterback Dwayne Lawson, and wide receivers Mike Dudek, Malik Turner, and Desmond Cain) to step up.
Can Illinois give the 60,000+ fans in attendance at Memorial Stadium something to cheer about? Fans will soon find out.