CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) - A new quarterback, upgrades throughout the offense and a revamped defense -- all of it has led to optimism at Illinois, where coach Lovie Smith heads into his fourth season.
A tough Big Ten season will tell how long the bloom remains on the rose.
The Illini showed signs of turning things around last year, including flashes of the stout defense Smith is known for. Illinois finished 4-8, and Smith hopes to take advantage of a soft non-conference schedule to aim for a bowl game. He smiled when he said it. But he was serious.
"We're a better football team this year," Smith said. "No one has picked us to do much of anything (in the conference), and, frankly, that's a good position for us to be in going into the season. So, can we reach a bowl this year? Yeah, I think so. There were signs last year that we're getting closer."
Smith's teams have shown steady, but slow, improvements while battling a series of debilitating injuries. This year's version will open the season at home Aug. 31 against Akron.
Standout Mike Epstein is back from an injury and will join Reggie Corbin in the backfield. Corbin rushed for more than 1,000 yards last season and is recognized as one of the best running backs in the conference.
"Reggie took a big step for us last year," Smith said. "Now it's up to all of us to do the same this year."
LEADER OF THE PACK
In camp, there were four promising quarterbacks vying for the starting job: graduate transfer Brandon Peters from Michigan, freshman Isaiah Williams, sophomore Matt Robinson and redshirt freshman Coran Taylor.
"It's a good group of quarterbacks," Smith said. "We have that range from experienced guys to news guys. It's ideal."
While at Michigan, Peters was 58 of 110 for 680 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions. Not exactly stellar numbers, but Smith will take it.
"Brandon has changed the dynamics of our team already," Smith said. "He has that mix of experience and athleticism we look for."
Smith also praised Williams, signaling he may represent the future at a position the team has had a difficult time keeping consistent.
"He's been impressive," Smith said. "He's quicker than most people think. His reputation is that of a running quarterback, but he can pass the ball, too. He is smart and he knows how to navigate on the field."
ON THE RECEIVING END
Highly regarded wide receiver Edwin Carter has been cleared to play following a serious leg injury he suffered early last season. Joining Carter in the mix are USC graduate transfers Josh Imatorbhebhe and Trevon Sidney. Ricky Smalling, Trenard Davis, Dominic Stampley and freshman Kyron Cumby round out the promising group.
Former defensive end Bobby Roundtree was a rising star and an emerging leader of a tough defensive squad last season. But Roundtree suffered a severe spinal injury in a swimming accident in May and is currently in a rehabilitation center in Chicago. While his football days are likely over, the plan is for Roundtree to transition back to Champaign as a student, perhaps as early as this year.
Smith is looking at several options to replace Roundtree. USC graduate transfer Oluwole Betiku Jr., and juniors Isaiah Gay and Owen Carney Jr. are among possible starters.
Smith took on the additional role as the team's defensive coordinator last season when Hardy Nickerson resigned in October. Smith will remain in the position this season.
"I have certain ideas when it comes to defense and I think we'll see that on the field this year," he said. "The best chance for us to be successful is for me to move into that role."
Smith's son, Miles Smith, has been promoted to full-time assistant and will be the on-field linebackers' coach.
ABOUT THAT SCHEDULE
Besides the Zips, the non-conference slate includes a visit to UConn and a home game against Eastern Michigan. The Big Ten schedule starts with a bang: The Illini host Nebraska, Michigan and Wisconsin in a four-game span and the fourth game is a trip to Minnesota. Other road trips include Michigan State and Iowa, with the regular-season finale against in-state rival Northwestern at home Nov. 30.