New OC Rod Smith vows to spice up Illinois offense
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — Rod Smith had a bit of music for the ears of Illinois fans who watched the Illini scuffle along on offense last season.
“We’re going to try to make them defend (the entire field),” said Smith, who was formally introduced Friday as the new offensive coordinator at Illinois. “I think the hardest skill to do in football is tackle a skill-kid in open field. . We’re going to try to get guys out in space.”
Smith spent six years as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Arizona, helping establish it as one of the best offensive teams in the country. Last season, the Wildcats averaged 41.3 points (fifth in the FBS) and 489.5 total yards per game. A lot of that success was because of Khalil Tate, a dual-threat quarterback who scored 26 total touchdowns.
The situation under center isn’t as clear at Illinois. Last season, the Illini averaged just 15.3 points (126th in the FBS), 280.4 yards of total offense and never scored more than 24 points in a game. Coach Lovie Smith started three different quarterbacks but wound up 2-10 overall and 0-9 in the Big Ten.
“I think most of our fans will agree, we need to score more points,” Lovie Smith said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Two of those three starting quarterbacks are no longer with the team, leaving sophomore Cam Thomas as the only scholarship quarterback on the roster. Thomas appeared in four games, starting two, but completed just 42.4 percent of his passes and throwing five interceptions. He never scored through the air, but had 52 rushes for 233 yards and a touchdown.
Still, the Smiths said they will look to add more experience.
Regardless of who starts at quarterback, Rod Smith said he plans to implement a spread, run-first offense. In 2017, Arizona averaged nearly 46.9 passes and 22.7 rushes per game.
Illinois has a number of young playmakers returning. Sophomore running back Mike Epstein missed the last seven games of the season with a foot injury, but still finished with a team-high 346 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Sophomores Ricky Smalling and Louis Dorsey proved to be two of Illinois’ best pass catchers. Smalling averaged a team-high 16.5 yards per catch and led the Illini with 510 receiving yards. Dorsey led all tight ends with 395 receiving yards and hauled in a team-high three touchdowns.
Epstein, Smalling and Dorsey were three of 16 true freshmen starters last year, the most in school history.
“When you play so many freshmen, it’s tough,” Rod Smith said. “That’s tough sledding, particularly in the Big Ten. But that’ll pay off. . Hopefully we start reaping some of those benefits in the spring.”