As the Illini football team taxis onto the runway preparing to take off for the 2018 season, we are reminded of something comedian Ron White once said.
White joked that he was on a flight that experienced troubling mechanical difficulty, causing passengers to be overwhelmed with a sense of doom.
“How far do you think we’ll get?” he claimed a terrified passenger asked him.
“All the way to the scene of the crash,” he deadpanned.
It would be nice to board the 2018 Illini football flight without a sense of doom and gloom. We’ve already experienced our share of rough landings.
Maybe it’s just pre-flight optimism, but I await 2018 Illini liftoff with a real sense of optimism. I know, I know, I’ve been all smiles in the past as I tossed my luggage onto the Titanic. And through many years of Illini football, my bursts of optimism have rarely been rewarded.
But 2018 feels like a long-awaited autumn of anticipation, a fall football season in which we will witness the Illini football program begin to turn a corner.
This is not a prediction that Illinois will go 10-2 or 9-3. I’m not even prepared to declare this as a breakthrough bowl season, which would require the modest total of six wins.
That absolutely could happen with a favorable schedule, an improving roster and some tweaks to the coaching staff. I’m only willing to say this is the season when the arrow begins to point up. Improvement. Competency. Hope.
There are a number of players who can be the hook upon which to hang that hope, including new QB A.J. Bush Jr., wideouts Ricky Smalling and Mikey Dudek and the team’s physical and spiritual anchor, offensive lineman Nick Allegretti.
But the one person who inspires a great sense of anticipation is new offensive coordinator Rod Smith.
Smith would be a fun guy to hang with.
A couple beers, some spirited football talk, a pizza. Make that two pizzas because Rod Smith looks like he could put a hurtin’ on a pile of sausage and pepperoni.
I’m not sure Rod Smith even looks like a football coach. But there’s a boatload of swagger and football smarts crawling around inside the big oval-shaped man who on Saturday will sit in the press box and make his debut as Illinois’ play-caller.
Smith has been a breath of fresh air since arriving in January after serving as Rich Rodriguez’ offensive first lieutenant at West Virginia, Michigan and Arizona.
Those were some wicked offenses that Rich Rod produced, and Smith was the quarterback guru at each stop. But because Rodriguez is heralded as the godfather of the run-pass option offense, Smith toiled in his mentor’s shadow.
At Illinois, Smith casts the shadow. There is no one stealing his spotlight, which is both a great opportunity and a scary proposition.
But since he arrived here, the feeling is that a really smart guy has arrived to rescue an offense that has been dull and dreary in the years we refer to as Lovie 1 and Lovie 2.
Here’s a glimpse of the man who is helping to shape Lovie 3:
When he was hired to run this offense, it was clear that a fifth-year grad transfer quarterback made sense. And since Brandon Dawkins had become a backup for Rod Smith at Arizona, Dawkins was the logical choice to accompany Smith to Illinois.
That didn’t happen. Dawkins eventually transferred to Indiana. But after Peyton Ramsey won the competition for Indiana’s starting job, Dawkins recently announced he was stepping away from the game to address his own mental health issues.
As it turns out, Rod Smith could have had Brandon Dawkins at Illinois. But he had inside information that pointed him in a different direction.
“Brandon Dawkins likes playing quarterback,” Smith said this week. “A.J. Bush loves playing quarterback.”
Without speaking another word, Smith was saying the difference between the two is enormous. And Bush, who will start at quarterback Saturday for the Illini, has emerged as the clear No. 1 in the race to lead Smith’s offense.
This Illini team is intriguing. The Week 3 showdown against South Florida at Soldier Field in Chicago is a pivotal contest, one that could potentially propel the Illini to a six-win bowl season.
That remains to be seen. But after watching Lovie Smith endure a total rebuild of the roster, it’s time to see some positive results.
It can happen, folks. And if it does, Rod Smith will be a major reason why we finally have a smooth landing in November.