Illinois Preview Football

Illinois quarterback Chayce Crouch (7) tries to avoid a tackle by Purdue linebacker Danny Ezechukwu (36) last season in Champaign, Ill.  Crouch is expected to be the starting quarterback on Sept. 2 against Ball State.

AP

Coach: Lovie Smith (3-9 entering second season at Illinois and overall)

2016 record: 3-9, 2-7 Big Ten (sixth, West)

Offensive starters returning (5): RB Kendrick Foster, WR Malik Turner, OL Christian DiLauro, OL Nick Allegretti, OL Gabe Megginson

Defensive starters returning (4): LB Tre Watson, LB James Crawford, CB Jaylen Dunlap, S Stanley Green

Specialists returning (1): K Chase McLaughlin

Returning statistical leaders: Rushing, Kendrick Foster 126-720; Passing, Jeff George Jr. 38-94-5-470-4; Receiving, Malik Turner 48-712; Tackles, Tre Watson 102; Interceptions, None.

Starring roles

Chayce Crouch: Is expected to move into the starting quarterback’s role this season, bringing both a passing threat and running ability to the position, averaging 6.1 yards per carry. He missed the final six games of the 2016 season because of injury, but did complete 18-of-32 passes for 248 yards and rushed 29 times for 176 yards.

Kendrick Foster: Provides returning experience at running back and in the return game. The 5-foot-9, 200-pound senior averaged 5.7 yards per carry last season while leading Illinois with 720 yards on the ground. He will work in tandem with Reggie Corbin, a 523-yard rusher, in the Illini backfield. Foster is also a proven return man, averaging 19.8 yards on kickoff returns last season.

Tre Watson: The 6-2, 235-pound junior linebacker started just eight games last season, but finished with 102 tackles. From his linebacker spot, he joins nose tackle Jamal Milan as the only returning starters from the front seven from a year ago

On the rise

Mikey Dudek: It’s been two seasons since the junior wide receiver last took the field for the Fighting Illini, but he returns after having recovering from two torn anterior cruciate ligaments to team with returning starter Malik Turner an bolster the Illinois receiving corps. Dudek caught 76 passes for 1,038 yards and six touchdowns in 2014. Turner caught 48 balls for 712 yards and six scores last season.

Newbie

Del’Shawn Phillips: A junior college transfer from Garden City Community College in Kansas, Phillips is expected to step into the middle linebacker’s role where Hardy Nickerson Jr. thrived a year ago as a graduate transfer. He was ranked as the third-best juco linebacker prospect in the 2017 recruiting class after finishing with 95 tackles, including 12.5 for a loss, and intercepting three passes for a national championship junior college program.

The big number

28

First-time starters for Illinois a year ago, including 13 freshmen who return to provide Lovie Smith’s team with experience

Coach speak

“Right after last season, we started evaluating then. Some of it is recruiting and we have spots where we need to elevate the talent level. I feel like we’ve done that. There are things as simple as the gains we’ve made in our strength and conditioning program. Last year at this time, we had a couple of guys who could squat 500 pounds. We have over 20 now. Things that like, they make a difference. We know each other now. We know we have a challenging schedule, three teams with over 10 wins last year. We’re not where we want to be, but we are taking steps.’’ – Lovie Smith

2017 schedule

Sept. 2 – Ball State

Sept. 9 – Western Kentucky

Sept. 15 – at South Florida

Sept. 29 – Nebraska*

Oct. 7 – at Iowa*

Oct. 14 – Rutgers

Oct. 21 – at Minnesota*

Oct. 28 – Wisconsin*

Nov. 4 – at Purdue*

Nov. 11 – Indiana

Nov. 18 – at Ohio State

Nov. 25 – Northwestern*

* -- West Division opponent

Numerology

Where Illinois ranked in the Big Ten in 2016:

Scoring offense: 19.7 (13th)

Rushing offense: 140.5 (13th)

Passing offense: 174.6 (11th)

Total offense: 315.1 (13th)

Scoring defense: 31.9 (12th)

Rushing defense: 219.2 (12th)

Passing defense: 185.9 (Third)

Total defense: 405.1 (11th)

Trends

The Fighting Illini record over the last five years:

2012: 2-10

2013: 4-8

2014: 6-7

2015: 5-7

2016: 3-9

Eye on Iowa

All-time series

Illinois 38, Iowa 32, Ties 2

Record in the last five games against the Hawkeyes:

2007: Iowa 10, Illinois 6

2008: Illinois 27, Iowa 24

2014: Iowa 30, Illinois 14

2015: Iowa 29, Illinois 20

2016: Iowa 28, Illinois 0

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