The wait is almost over.
Technically the offseason hasn’t quite ended yet, but the annual appearance for every program at Big Ten media days serves as an unofficial kickoff for the season -- and a welcome reminder that football is nearly back. The event opens next Monday in Chicago with the coach and three players from every team in the league reporting for two days of questions, answers and some predictions sure to go wrong by the time September rolls around.
To help set the scene in advance, this week Big Ten blog is rolling through a list of the hottest topics each team will be addressing from the assembled media. Up first: Illinois, which will have quarterback Wes Lunt, defensive end Dawuane Smoot and running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn joining coach Lovie Smith in Chicago.
1. How is the transition back to the college game going for Smith?: Plenty of attention has already been devoted to how Smith will handle the move from the NFL since Illinois pulled off its unexpected hiring in March. He should be prepared for an onslaught of questions about his transition, which should go hand in hand with opportunities for him to detail what he wants his teams to look like over course of the six-year contract he signed to rebuild the program. Smith's presence alone should produce a much brighter spotlight on the Illini than usual.
2. Can the Illini weather another season without Mikey Dudek?: The question is unfortunately nothing new for the Illini, who for the second year in a row will head into training camp already knowing their electrifying wide receiver and potentially most dangerous weapon on offense will be out of the season. Dudek suffered a torn ACL in his right knee during spring practice for the second year in a row, a devastating blow to a wideout who burst on the scene with 76 catches as a freshman in 2014 and looked to be on his way to rewriting the record books at Illinois as the primary target for Lunt. Instead the veteran quarterback will have to move on without Dudek again, and after some summer throwing sessions, Lunt should have a better feel for which guys can replace that production.
3. How will Smith’s arrival impact the defense?: There was clear progress a year ago on the side of the ball that had been the program’s biggest problem under former coach Tim Beckman, and a scoring defense that ranked in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten was nearly good enough to get the Illini into a bowl game. But as stout as Illinois may have looked in conference wins over Nebraska and Purdue, it was also gashed for at least 32 points in three of its losses and continued to have problems slowing down opposing rushing attacks. Smith’s defensive background is no secret, and there’s no doubt helping the Illini take the next step in shutting down offenses around the Big Ten will be his top priority. But is his pro-style system the way forward, or is Smith cooking something new up as he returns to the college game?