CHICAGO — In 2017, Lovie Smith and Co. stripped their current home to the studs in order to get to the land they wanted to build their new house on with prime real estate in the Big Ten.
They knew the task they were undertaking. The plan was to stick to the blueprint and not skip on any support beams in the interest of building faster. They avoided using materials that weren't conducive to ending up with what they see as the home with the most stability for longevity.
That process meant bringing in high school athletes, playing them early and watching them put down each brick on the foundation while using the scars of losses as the mortar joints between the bricks. In most respects, it was a painful process. Graduate transfers weren't part of that plan. It was all about the foundation. A 9-27 record followed with bowl game opportunities washing away.
The overwhelming statement from Smith and players Reggie Corbin, Nate Hobbs and Alex Palczewski on Thursday at Big Ten Football Media Days in Chicago was that the turn in the tide was ahead. It's a sentiment that's been echoed throughout spring football and will likely be echoed all the way up to the season opener against Akron on Aug. 31.
“Obviously, it was terrible when we were going through it," said Palczewski, an offensive tackle. "When we get through the fire, we’re way closer. We’ve gone through it and we all trust each other and we know that we’re going to be able to play very well this year."
The worst is behind them, they say.
“We’ve been through the storm, obviously," Hobbs said. "We’ve lost a lot of games in two years. We’ve had some good games, but we’ve lost a lot, too. Now everybody is older and we’re just tired of that. We flipped a new script."
Those freshman who absorbed loss after loss in 2017 are now juniors, including Hobbs and Palczewski, and ready to take what Smith and the team hopes is a leap in his fourth season. The foundation is steady, the floors are laid and the walls are constructed.
"Right now, this time of year, everybody is going to have a great year, and there will be a team that will come from nowhere that will have an outstanding year — we plan on that being us," Smith said. "But the last part of our overhaul of our program is have a better product on the football field, and across the board, we feel like we're in the best position to do that."
There's a sense of vengeance and payback that circled around the players. They remember the losses and the smacks they've taken for the last two years. Corbin likened it to constantly losing to an older brother in sports. Eventually, something has to give.
"Grow up and overcome that. That will be the best feeling ever," Corbin said.
Several times during his media availability on Thursday, Smith mentioned wins over Minnesota and Rutgers last season as games that were more like the product he thinks the Illini will put on the field this season. Illinois trounced Minnesota 55-31 last season and got a 38-17 win over Rutgers.
This year, though, in Year 4 with experience and graduate transfer help on the way should yield better results.
“We made strides, but are we saying this is the year where we should really say where we are? Absolutely," Smith said. "This is the year our best football team is put on the field this year. This is what we’ve been building for."
Now, the Illini are in a position to add amenities to the home they've constructed. Those amenities come to Champaign in the form of graduate transfers, three of which Smith could address on Thursday.
Quarterback Brandon Peters, wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe and defensive lineman Oluwole Betiku Jr. are all now listed on the roster and have two years of eligibility remaining. Trevon Sidney, who verbally committed to join the Illini as a graduate transfer from USC, has not yet been added to the roster.
“We didn’t take that approach early on," Smith said. "We wanted to hit high school guys hard, to get that solid foundation of guys who are going to be in our program for four years, and we’ve done that. Now, though, we’re able to bridge some of those guys with what we have coming now."