CHAMPAIGN — The defensive statistics were gaudy, in every way a team doesn't want them to be.
Last season's Illinois football team got picked on and picked apart time and again by older, more experienced offenses. Head coach Lovie Smith knows that. The players on the defensive side of the ball know that. Opponents knew that. The Illini gave up 63 points on three separate occasions — against Penn State, Maryland and Iowa. They forced 20 turnovers, including 15 interceptions, but Smith has built a career on forcing turnovers in bulk.
Yet at Big Ten Media Days last month, Smith stood at a dais and didn't run from or sugarcoat the need for his defense to take a step forward when his fourth season begins with training camp at 10 a.m. Friday, and at 11 a.m. Aug. 31 at home against Akron in the season opener. In the offseason, Smith named himself defensive coordinator, going all-in on his ability to put his patented defensive stamp on the program.
"We have to be a lot better in so many areas, things we didn't do well, gave up too many big plays," Smith said. "We weren't really able to stop the run. And our signature is about doing that and taking the ball away and scoring on defense. We weren't able to do all of those things."
Smith's hope for a step forward rests, in part, on experience, but also on increased depth across the board (which really can be extended to the offensive side of the ball, too). Even without star defensive end Bobby Roundtree, who is at a rehabilitation facility in Chicago after suffering a severe spinal injury in May, Illinois looks markedly deeper at each position.
That depth was created with recruits like defensive back Marquez Beason, linebacker Shammond Cooper and defensive linemen Moses Okpala, Keith Randolph Jr. and Seth Coleman. Those recruits, mixed with transfers like defensive end Oluwole Betiku Jr. and the eligibility of Milo Eifler, who sat out last season because of NCAA transfer rules, give Smith more depth at each spot.
The depth and experience many players have entering their second or third season with heavy playing time in the system could be the springboard for a leap.
"I just feel like we have a better understanding of what we're going to do and the individual improvements that we needed to make, we have made," Smith said. "Our depth is better also. A lot of what happened to us is when you lose some of your front-line players, the drop-off is ... there's too much of a drop. We're in a better position with that.
"Even losing a player like Bobby, we have an excellent recruiting class coming in of defensive linemen, Jake Hansens — I mentioned (defensive back) Nate Hobbs — the Dele Hardings of the world. Milo Eifler being able to play. I feel like some of those things will really help us play better defense this year."
Hobbs said having Smith as the team's defensive coordinator all season will make a difference. Smith took over following the resignation of Hardy Nickerson from the position last year following a loss at Maryland, in which the defense allowed 63 points. With Smith manning the position for a full season, Hobbs said Smith puts the players in the best positions for success.
Now it's time to see that confidence off the field translate to on-the-field success.
“We expect a lot," Hobbs said. "We’re coming to dominate. We have a different mentality this year. We just want to kill everything. We’re hungry. We got humbled a lot last season. When you get humbled it brings a different energy. We’re like, ‘OK, we’re going to double back. We know more things. We’re older. We’re coming.’"
Recruiting picks up
The Illini have picked up a few verbal commitments for the Class of 2020 in the last week. The headliner was four-star, 6-foot-5, 210-pound quarterback CJ Dixon from Loganville, Ga. Dixon chose the Illini over powers like Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Ohio State. Illinois also got a commitment from 6-foot-5, 295-pound, St. Louis three-star offensive lineman Kevin Tyler. Illinois also got a commitment from Phifer Griffin, a three-star offensive lineman from Monroe, North Carolina. He's a 6-foot-6, 290-pounder.
Illinois got a commitment from 6-foot-7, 300-pound offensive lineman Blaise Sparks from North Fort Myers, Fla. on Wednesday.
In total, Illinois has seven verbal commitments for the Class of 2020, with two four-stars, according to 247Sports, in Dixon and Chicago wide receiver Jadon Thompson. Three-start St. Louis running back Reggie Love and three-star defensive tackle Quinton McCoy from Vairico, Fla., round out the current commits.