CHICAGO — Lovie Smith isn’t getting ahead of himself.
Preparing for the start of his second fall camp as the coach of the Illinois football program, Smith senses improvement that he believes will ultimately lead to victories.
Some of it is simply familiarity with personnel and having the chance to construct his first full recruiting class.
Some of it is bricks-and-mortar commitment from the university, the decision to delay upgrades at Memorial Stadium to concentrate on a $79.2 million, 100,000-square-foot facility that will include new weight training facilities, a new locker room as well as meeting and office facilities.
“We’re in a whole different frame of mind right now,’’ Smith said earlier this week at the Big Ten kickoff event. “You have to believe you can win before you hit the field. We’re closer to that right now than we were a year ago.’’
Smith still sees “patience’’ as a critical component to the rebuild of the Fighting Illini program he inherited a little over a year ago.
“We haven’t been competitive enough and we realize that,’’ Smith said. “It’s a process that you have to go through and the things that are necessary behind the scenes, we are getting those done right now.’’
He points to growth in the weight room. A year ago, Illinois had a handful of players who could squat 500 pounds. Now, there are more than 20.
“Things like that behind the scenes, you know there are strides being made,’’ Smith said.
On the field, Smith puts the Fighting Illini’s needs in simplistic terms.
“Offensively, we have to score more points. It’s as simple as that. Defensively, we have to take the ball away more. Something as basic as that,’’ Smith said. “To play a certain brand of ball, the brand we want to play, you have to start with the basics. The goal right now is for marked improvement. The wins will follow.’’
Smith believes the Fighting Illini are “trending in the right direction’’ as they work toward the start of fall camp on Monday.
“Guys are buying in, believing, and having facilities that are as good as everyone else should help,’’ Smith said.
Illinois cornerback Jaylen Dunlap believes that, too.
“There’s a different feel around right now, guys have been hanging out together, been around each other,’’ Dunlap said. “That didn’t happen in the past. We’ve become a team in and out of season.’’
Graduating its entire group of starters on the defensive line and returning just three defensive starters overall, Illinois has plenty of work to do in fall camp.
“I like our players, they just don’t have a significant amount of experience right now,’’ Smith said. “Every great player starts at that point.’’
Smith sees the potential for several true freshmen to emerge into contributors with their work in the preseason.
“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 now we can’t wait to get to training camp and see how many of them are ready to step up,’’ Smith said.
That group will be challenged early.
The Fighting Illini nonconference schedule includes games with a pair of teams which won 11 games last season, at home against Western Kentucky on Sept. 9 and at South Florida on Sept. 15. Big Ten play opens two weeks later at home against Nebraska followed by a road trip to Iowa.
“We’re going to get a good taste of where we are at,’’ Dunlap said. “We’ll have to be ready early and that will help us all go in with the idea that we’re going to have a great camp. It puts some pressure on us to work hard and get set to go.’’
Offensively, Chayce Crouch will open as Illinois’ starter at quarterback.
He should benefit not only from the experience of Malik Turner, but from the return of a healthy Mike Dudek, cleared to go after missing the past two seasons because of ACL tears.
Smith likes the potential he sees in Crouch.
“In an ideal world, you want your quarterback to be a guy that everybody believes in, the voice. When he starts talking, everybody else stops and we have that in Chayce,’’ Smith said. “I think he can be productive running the football, buying time, but I think he can make the throws, too.’’
Collectively, Smith believes they can help the Illini become more competitive than during a 3-9 season a year ago.
“We know the reality is that we need to catch up,’’ he said. “We haven’t done our share. We weren’t one of those teams people are talking about. I can’t wait for the day where we’re in the discussion about making the conference strong. That’s part of our future, too.’’