CHAMPAIGN — Illinois isn’t going to win any football games in February.
But the shape of Lovie Smith’s next team is coming into focus as he fills out his coaching staff and is now 23 days from the start of spring practice.
Some key positions will be manned by new faces, and that’s just on the coaching staff.
Smith is rolling the dice with Friday’s hiring of 27-year-old Austin Clark as his defensive line coach.
Clark takes over a critical assistant coaching position after having only been in the coaching profession for three years, the last two as a graduate assistant at Southern California.
But Smith and defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson felt they had special insights into a one-time Cal-Berkeley teammate of Nickerson’s son. So they granted him an interview. That’s when Clark stole the job.
“Austin Clark came in for his interview and just blew us away with his enthusiasm and detail,” Smith said. “He brings an outstanding attitude and high level of energy to our program. Our players are going to love working with Austin.
“He is extremely detailed and has a plan for each of our guys on the defensive line. Austin gained some great experience in his previous position.”
Clark worked with USC’s defensive line and with the outside linebackers. He’s a Tampa, Fla., native who also worked for a year as recruiting assistant at Cal. And he will immediately begin working with two of Lovie Smith’s most heralded recruits in the 2018 class — Verdis Brown and Calvin Avery.
Brown held scholarship offers from Florida State, LSU, Michigan, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Wisconsin.
Avery had offers from Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Florida State and Texas, among many others.
On the other side of the ball, new offensive coordinator Rod Smith, who came over from Arizona after Rich Rodriguez was fired there, has earned early rave reviews.
In his two weeks on the job he secured recruiting commitments from a pair of Californians — quarterback Matt Robinson and tailback Kenyon Sims.
He found time to meet face-to-face with each of the four quarterbacks who will be on scholarship when training camp opens in August. And he’s told them how the competition at the position will work and what is expected of them as he sorts through the candidates in order to name a starter for the season opener Sept. 1 against Kent State.
He’s told Cam Thomas, the only scholarship quarterback who will be on campus when spring ball begins March 6, that he’ll have an edge based on the extra 15 practices he’ll get in March and April. But he’s also told Thomas that will guarantee him nothing.
“I want every kid to approach it by coming here believing they will be the guy,” Rod Smith said. “I’ve told them I am not bringing you in here to redshirt you. I am not bringing you in here to be a backup. I want you to come in and compete your tail off.
“Now, we’ll play the best guy and let it all sort out. And I don’t want any quarterback feeling comfortable. I don’t want any quarterback thinking: This is my job. You will earn it every day that you’re in this program, every practice. That takes a lot a lot of maturity, a lot of investment of their time, but we’ll find out who it’s important to.”
How will he make that decision?
“It’s going to be who’s the most efficient, who gets first downs, who scores points, who takes care of the football and who becomes the leader of our team, the guy that takes kids with him. It will sort itself out.”
Although Thomas is the only scholarship quarterback in the spring, Smith will keep incoming freshmen Coran Taylor of Peoria, M.J. Rivers of Frisco, Texas, and Robinson (from San Juan Capistrano, Calif.) engaged by sending them materials that can help them learn terminology, basic play calls and a password that will allow them video access to a variety of clips, including video of each spring practice.
Thomas has the advantage of being able to seek out face-to-face contact with Rod Smith whenever they’re each in the football building. And Thomas should be living there as he tries to maximize the edge he has with two starts last year and the 15 spring practices.
But Smith sounds genuinely excited about the three incoming freshmen.
As for M.J. Rivers (6-4, 215 pounds), Smith said: “He’s a long kid, a good-looking kid. I loved his attitude and his family and his film. He can flat-out throw. He can whip it and he moves OK.”
As for Taylor (6-3, 205): “He’s a big kid, very athletic. He knows how to make plays and I’m excited to work with a kid like that, with his body structure and talent level.”
And on Robinson (6-1, 180): “I was really impressed with his film, his ability to extend plays, throw on the run, throw from the pocket. He has some twitch. He’s not the tallest kid but we’ve won with a lot of kids his size. He understands how to maneuver in the pocket.”