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Know Your Northwestern 2016 Opponent, Week 13: Illinois Fighting Illini

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NCAA Football: Ohio State at Illinois Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

With the Most Important Players and Position Previews sections of our Summer Guide having wrapped up, we now move on to our Know Your Opponent series, in which we preview every team Northwestern will face this season. When we hit game week, we will have more in-depth and comprehensive coverage, but for now we give you a general overview of the team so you know what to expect in general.

Northwestern finishes the season against their in-state rival Illinois as the Wildcats will look to retain the Land of Lincoln Trophy HAT HAT HAT for a second year.

The Basics

Returning starters: 11 (7 offense, 4 defense)

Returning experience: 56%

2015 record: 5-7 (2-6, Big Ten)

Coach: Lovie Smith, 1st year

The Stats

The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.

2015 S&P+ Overall: 61st

2015 S&P+ Offense: 98th

2015 S&P+ Defense: 21st

2016 S&P+ Projection: 76th

2015 Capsule

After a drama-filled offseason that culminated with the axing of Tim Beckman a week before Illini’s first game, many people dubbed Illinois’ football program as a dumpster fire. Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit was promoted to interim head coach and Illinois managed to start the season off strong, going 3-1 in non-conference play. Its only loss was a 48-14 beatdown against North Carolina in Chapel Hill, but Illinois started the conference season well with a shocking 14-13 win over Nebraska thanks to an improbable 4th quarter comeback.

From then on, it was a bumpy road for the Illini as they finished the season 1-6, including a 24-14 loss to Northwestern at Soldier Field in the season finale that prevented Illinois from becoming bowl-eligible. On the morning of that Northwestern game, Illinois named Cubit the permanent head coach of the program and signed him to a two-year deal. In February, it was announced Josh Whitman was hired as the university’s new athletic director and on his first official day on the job, Whitman made the decision to fire Cubit. Two days later, on March 7, Lovie Smith was hired as the Illini’s new coach. Here’s a timeline of those events just in case anyone had trouble following.

Offensive overview

Garrick McGee takes over as the new offensive coordinator for the Illini. Prior to taking the job, McGee had spent the past two seasons as the offensive coordinator for Louisville as he helped the Cardinals’ offense finish fifth in the ACC in total offense, averaging 416 yards per game and No. 49 in the nation in total offensive S&P+. McGee will also serve as the team’s quarterbacks coach and he will lean heavily on fifth-year senior Wes Lunt. In 2015, Lunt started every game for Illinois and threw for 2761 yards, 14 touchdowns and six interceptions; heading into this season, he has been placed on both the Maxwell and Davey O'Brien Award watch lists.

During his time at Louisville, McGee commonly used more mobile quarterbacks but he won’t have that luxury this season with Lunt behind center. At 6-foot-5, 225-pounds, it is rare to see Lunt make plays with his feet but he has shown that he posses a strong arm coupled with a quick release and good decision making that can make him a threat when throwing from the pocket.

The Illini also return their leading rusher from last season, Ke'Shawn Vaughn–who rushed for 723 yards on 157 carries (4.6 yards per carry) and six touchdowns as a freshman. Vaughn was explosive at times during 2015 but he also disappeared in some games and will look to improve his consistency in 2016. The biggest question marks for the Illini are on the offensive line and at receiver. They return three o-linemen and their best returning receiving weapon is junior Malik Turner, who caught 39 passes for 510 yards and three touchdowns last season. All-in-all, Illinois’ offense (which ranked No. 98 in the nation in total offensive S&P+) has enough returning pieces, along with the addition of McGee at offensive coordinator, to show significant improvement from last season.

Defensive overview

Illinois gained a great defensive mind in Lovie Smith, however, experience will be a major concern as the team returns only four defensive starters. Last season, the Illini defense struggled was very strong against the pass but struggled to defend the run at times. Fortunately for the Illini rush defense, the team returns three of the four starters on the defensive line, including senior defensive end Dawuane Smoot who led the team with eight sacks in 2015. Joining Smoot and the rest of the returning linemen will be Gimel President (6'4" 263 lbs), a senior transfer from Auburn who, at 6-foot-4, 275 pounds, has the size and experience to fill the void left by Jihad Ward (who was drafted in the second round by the Oakland Raiders) at defensive end.

Unfortunately for the Illini passing defense, the secondary loses almost all of its starters from 2015 with the exception of senior strong safety Tyler Barton–who is the team’s leading returning tackler. The linebacking corps is completely new. The Illini have added Hardy Nickerson Jr.–a graduate transfer from Cal who led the Golden Bears last season with 112 tackles. His dad, Hardy Nickerson Sr., is the team’s new defensive coordinator and has a history of coaching with Smith before. Nickerson Sr. will have his work cut out for him as the defense is in need of a linebacker to step up this season and be a leader. As of now, one of the prime candidates for that role is Nickerso’s son, who is expected to play middle linebacker.

Three Player to Know

QB Wes Lunt– There was a lot of turnaround in the Illini coaching staff this offseason and with a new head coach and offensive coordinator, having a veteran quarterback with 19 starts under his belt for the Illini and someone that is capable of taking charge and being the leader of the offense will be crucial.

DT Jarrod “Chunky” Clements— With a nickname like Chunky, you would expect Clements to be a big man in the middle who is capable of clogging up the line of scrimmage and last season, Clements did a great deal of that as he registered 11.5 tackles for loss and 35 total tackles. Illinois’ run defense was subpar this year and Clements can help change that this season as he returns for his senior year.

LB Hardy Nickerson Jr.—For me, this last spot was a toss up between Nickerson and Taylor Barton. Both are players with experience in a position group that lacks overall experience. Barton is the team’s leading returning tackler and will be key in making sure the losses in the secondary doesn’t lead to a drop off in the performance in the pass defense, while Nickerson is expected to be the anchor of the linebacking corps at middle linebacker and could end up leading the Illini defense in tackles if he plays at the level he did last season at Cal.

Summary

Lovie Smith ushers in a new era of football at Illinois heading into this season and the former NFL head coach takes over the program with some high expectations. And while there are certainly pieces in place on both sides of the ball that can help Illinois improve upon its 5-7 record last season, there are also plenty of uncertainties. On offense, Wes Lunt has high expectations at quarterback entering this season and will be the x-factor for the offense. However, no one knows how Lunt will mesh with new Illini offensive coordinator Garrick McGee as McGee has had a history of utilizing dual-threat quarterbacks (something that Lunt is not). If McGee and Lunt are able to get on the same page come the start of the season, and the offensive line can stay healthy, the Illini could have a respectable passing attack. On the other side of the ball, the defensive line may be the strongest defensive unit on the team as they return three starters from last season, which should help to bolster the Illini run defense, which struggled last season. The secondary and linebacker positions on the other hand are huge question marks as the team will be relying on unproven players to step up and take on a bigger role. Unless Smith can pull off what Jim Harbaugh did last season and maximize the potential of his players in his first season, expect Illinois to finish with about the same record it did last season.

Game Information

Date: Nov. 26

Time: TBD

TV: TBD