Big Ten Conference Football Media Days

Monday July 24, 2017

Lovie Smith

Illinois

THE MODERATOR: We're joined by Illinois head coach Lovie Smith.

LOVIE SMITH: Thank you. Very excited to be here, year two. We have three of our players -- Christian DiLauro, Jaylen Dunlap, and Malik Turner -- here to represent our university well.

What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time I knew a few of the players, thought we knew what their roles would be. Feel like we have that down now, a year to work with the players off the field to really establish how we're going to win football games, pretty important.

After a year on the job, had a chance to survey the landscape a little bit, too, to see some of the things we needed to change to take that next step. Our facilities, in one of them, just felt like we were behind most of the other teams in the Big Ten and college football in general. So having plans, start date for our new facility should put us on par with other football teams, other football programs.

Players have been working extremely hard, just like most other programs have. We've seen marked improvements, strength- and conditioning-wise, just concept-wise on how we're going to win football games, which should really help us an awful lot.

Talking offensively, we'll have a new quarterback. Chayce Crouch will be our quarterback. Really excited about what he'll bring throwing the football. Dual athlete. He's a football junkie. You want a guy like that. An undisputed leader of our team. Really have a lot of confidence in him going into his first year as a full-time starter.

Last year as I talked, Mike Dudek was not a part of the plans. Mike has had a chance to rehab. He's 100 percent. We'll watch what he does a little bit in practice, but he's good to go. Should give us another big boost on the offensive side of the ball. I mentioned Malik Turner coming back, which should help us a lot, Kendrick Foster, guys like that. We have a couple of other positions where guys have to step up, but we feel we'll get that.

Defensively, still about taking the ball away, things like that. We'll have for the most part new players on the defensive line, a guy like Sean Adesanya you don't know a lot about, you will in time. We will ask Jamal Milan to step up into a different role. I mentioned Jaylen Dunlap a little bit early on being one of the players we have here.

But just excited about year two and our program. We haven't been competitive enough. We realize that. And our program hasn't been going to a lot of bowl games. We realize that. But it's a process you have to go through. And, again, the things you should do, you need to do that are necessary behind the scenes, we are getting done right now.

So these meetings kind of kick start the season a little bit. We start our training camp a week from today, which we're pretty excited about. Can't wait to get back on the football field.

Q. You mentioned you've had a full year now to get with the team. And what do you expect from the team this season now working with you for a full year?
LOVIE SMITH: The easy answer is it's just marked improvement as much as anything. We didn't win enough football games. Just don't feel like we -- it's hard to play the type of ball that you envision us eventually playing. Offensively we have to score more points. Simple as that. I mentioned defensively we have to take the ball away. Something as basic as that. Certain brand of ball. We always want to play harder, more exciting football. And just find a way to win football games. It's hard winning football games. But you have to do some things behind the scenes, which we feel like we have done.

Q. You mentioned the new facility plans, about $80 million facility. What functionality does this have for the team, and what does this mean for recruiting?
LOVIE SMITH: Recruiting-wise, what I was saying, a year on the job, is that especially in the summer, most guys now, they go on a campus tour. They have different stops along the way, making comparisons.

And right now, of course, when you don't have a lot of players right now that are just coming to our place based on facilities, but we feel like we're evening up that playing field an awful lot. And what we're talking about, meeting rooms, the latest and greatest in technology, new weight facility, you know, all of these things, when you have the latest and the greatest, that has to be a positive, maybe mentally in the players' eyes a little bit, but for us we know we have an awful lot to offer the University of Illinois.

But having facilities that are as good as everyone else should help, and I know it will.

Q. You said in your opening remarks that Dudek is 100 percent now. I know you weren't at the program the last time he played, but do you think that he could be that same player that he was two years ago after everything that happened or could he even surpass the production that he had then?
LOVIE SMITH: We're hoping so for sure. And my experience teaches me that when you have a major injury like that, you do everything you possibly can to get back. You work harder than maybe you would have before.

I know Mike has been doing that. I've seen him go through the process every step along the way, when you're out of sight, out of mind, I know right now, as far as his speed, which we've managed his strength, which we've had a chance to manage, he is back to where he was before.

I didn't see him play before, but there's video of him, and I just know he'll give our offense a big boost.

Q. I know looking up and down your roster you see a lot of players that haven't had a lot of experience, you have a lot of young players. Can you talk for a minute about the young players on your team and which ones you might see step up and make contributions this year?
LOVIE SMITH: Okay. I'll kind of group them a little bit. First off, we have a freshman class that's on campus right now, and really feel good about the freshman class. Feel like when we recruited them, felt that some of them would have long futures and be able to contribute right away.

But I'll just stay away from them right now. Just some of the players that haven't played a lot that have been on our roster didn't play for us last year. We talked about, of course, Mike Dudek, getting him back into the mold. Tight end-wise, a guy like Caleb Reams, a local guy from this area. Really kind of counting on him a little bit. Gabe Megginson, a player that has played a little bit. So some of those new players we'll be counting on a little bit.

Defensive side, I mentioned Jamal Milan that has played a little. Sean Adesanya that hasn't -- a lot like Mike Dudek, is coming off major injuries. They should help an awful lot.

But then the linebacker position a little bit, too. We brought in -- we won't recruit an awful lot of JC players, but a guy like Del'Shawn Phillips will have a chance to help us.

And, again, the freshman class we have. We're in a place right now in our program where as we recruited guys we say you'll get an opportunity to play early, and can't wait to get to training camp to see how many of those guys really can step up.

Q. In your remarks you mentioned you were taking steps behind the scenes, sort of improve the program and get us back to competing in bowl games. Can you just elaborate on what steps you've taken this season?
LOVIE SMITH: When we say steps, there's an awful lot that goes into that. Right after our football season, I mean, we started evaluating then. We said, hey, we need to recruit players. We have spots we want to elevate the talent level.

Feel like we've done that. All-season workouts. Things as simple as just gains we've made in our strength and conditioning program. Last year this time we had a couple of guys that could squat 500 pounds. We have over 20 now. Things like that behind the scenes that you're doing. Our systems, just knowing players' roles more from a year in it.

These are the things that I'm talking about. We know each other well now. We have a challenging schedule. It's about Big Ten play. But our non-conference schedule, playing two teams, two of the three teams had over ten wins last year, which will be challenging all of that.

We're excited about two night games we have also against Nebraska and South Florida. There's a lot of things going into play.

Q. I had a question about the particular pipeline in south Florida. There's several players on the roster from the south Florida area. How important is that pipeline for the program moving forward?
LOVIE SMITH: I think it's very important. First you're identifying our recruiting areas. I mean, it's about Illinois, and of course Chicago and it's about St. Louis and Indianapolis, this triangle that's close, but we have to go other areas too. Traditionally for some reason Florida has been one of those areas. And we have a lot of ties there. Our main recruiter, Thaddeus Ward, has a history there.

Now we've had some players that have had success that really feel good about the university and that can really kind of lead that next wave of players coming up. So Florida is an area that we will continue to recruit hard.

And this year we'll move into a couple of other areas, too. I'm from Texas. We have a few coaches from my staff also from there. It's another area that we feel we can gain grounds on also.

Q. Wonder if you can go in more depth about Chayce Crouch. Just what kind of improvements do you need to see from him from last year besides becoming healthy again, and where have you seen some improvements?
LOVIE SMITH: First, we need to teach him how to slide. That helps a little bit. But we have that type of mentality as a quarterback, and I've had different guys like that in the past, trying to get a yard, trying to get a first each play, they just have to play a little bit smarter football and know that it's not about that play. You have to do everything you can to possibly protect yourself. He'll do that.

But what I've seen is just in offseason of talking football, even though he's coming off an injury and didn't have a chance to do an awful lot in spring physically, the mental part of the game I've seen him improve so much.

On every football team there is a leader, one guy. You have different leaders, but there's one guy. An ideal world, you want that to be your quarterback that everybody believes in, he's the voice. When he starts talking, everybody else stops.

And that's what we have in Chayce. But I think he can be productive, running the football, when he has to. Buying time, and then getting down, of course, as I say it.

But we think he can make the throws too. Every first-year starter has to have a first year, but just feel really good about his first year being our starter. That's why there's a lot of optimism down in Champaign based on him.

Q. Lovie, you referenced this earlier, just being a new year and going into year two with a different mindset, what's something that maybe caught you off guard in year one, something that you learned about coaching in this conference?
LOVIE SMITH: Well, caught me off guard -- I'm a football fan all my life. And I've watched college football in the strongest conferences in college football for a long period of time. So we expect that tough football each week. A lot of good football coaches in the conference. A lot of good football traditional powers.

And that's what we've got. We expect each week to be really hard. It will be hard to win football games.

So I can't say that it has really surprised an awful lot based on what happened. We just know that reality says we need to catch up. We didn't do our share. We weren't one of those teams that people were talking about.

Can't wait for the day where we're in discussions about making the conference stronger, and that's a part of our future, too.

THE MODERATOR: Thank you.

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Rev #1 by #206 at 2017-07-24 18:40:00 GMT

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