Big Ten Media Days isn't happening as planned, but we can always pretend!
We didn't have the chance to ask the Big Ten's merry group of coaches our burning questions this year with the conference canceling Big Ten Media Days, so we had to get creative.
In lieu of an actual Big Ten Media Days, we decided to throw our own pretend version.
Each of our interviewers posed a hypothetical question to Locksley (some serious, some far from serious) followed by an explanation as to why that's an important question to ask and/or how the question might be answered – with some impersonation, of course.
To the questions!
Johnny Ginter: Lovie, Illinois had exactly one super kickass moment last season, which was upsetting a sixth-ranked Wisconsin team on a last second field goal. In Champaign. On Homecoming! Wow!
Also it says in the media guide that your quarterback is still Brandon Peters, who last year was, I guess, Bellasari-esque? Sorry, that's a reference for the Buckeye fans. What I'm saying is that he kind of sucked. Is it possible to have a winning season with Peters and company leading the offense? Also, side question: does making something in the realm of five million bucks per season mean that you have to answer this question, or are you tenured enough to not have to worry about it?
I apologize if this is rude, I'm still angry you shaved your beard.
One of the more interesting developments in the Big Ten in the last decade is athletic departments being much more aggressive about seeking out prime coaching talent and also paying for said coaching talent. Oftentimes it has worked in teams' favor, but in this case it hasn't. The idea of Lovie Smith being successful at Illinois is a fun and compelling story, but the reality is that an almost winning season after four years really just isn't adequate anymore. Or at least, it shouldn't be.
Also RIP a very good beard. Signed, A Man Who Can't Grow Decent Facial Hair.
Kyle Jones: Coach Smith, despite finishing 11th in the Big Ten in total defense last year, you decided not to hire a defensive coordinator yet again and remain in charge of the unit once again this fall. Is this finally the year we see you deviate from the Tampa-2 scheme that made you famous?
Tony Dungy’s former assistant played a major part in developing the defining scheme of professional football for nearly two decades. But as spread offenses and option football became more and more popular, the two-deep scheme fell out of favor at nearly every level…except where Smith has been in charge. His system has evolved to incorporate modern techniques, such as the pattern-match Quarters coverage known as ‘Palms’ or ‘2-read’ (which was derived from the Tampa-2), but has failed to meet the standards set by his defenses in Tampa or Chicago.
One such reason is the utter lack of pass rush. The zone scheme asks the entire back-seven to drop in coverage on nearly every play, leaving just the front four to get pressure. That proved to be a struggle for the Illini, as they registered just 10 sacks in 9 conference games last year. Though Smith continues to receive a vote of confidence from his athletic director, one can only wonder how long U of I supporters will put up with a defensive-focused coach who fails to deliver on that side of the ball.
Matt Gutridge: Coach Smith, since 1990, 30 years, the Buckeyes are 11-1 when playing the Illini in Champaign and have won 11 straight. The last time Illinois defeated Ohio State in Memorial Stadium was 1991. You are currently scheduled to play the Buckeyes in Champaign on November 21. What can this year’s Illini team do to end Ohio State’s dominating winning streak in your stadium?
Lovie Smith, probably: "As you are aware, Ohio State has beaten us by an average score of 28-12 when playing in Memorial Stadium during that 30-year span. Some of the games have been close. I believe there was an overtime game in 2002 and we had a tight, three-point loss in 2000. It’s also not like we haven’t had success when playing Ohio State in Columbus. In fact, since 1990, we are 7-7 against the Buckeyes when playing in Ohio Stadium."
So, instead of focusing on our current nine-game overall losing streak to Ohio State, instead of focusing on our 11-game losing streak when playing the Buckeyes in Champaign, instead of focusing on us losing to the Buckeyes by at least 25 points in the last five games…man, (long pause) we suck.
"Instead, I want everybody to focus on my baby face. Did you know that I shaved my beard? Look at this sheen, buttery baby face. Look at the skin on my jaw line and chin. This Illinois team will have a fresh start in 2020 and those losing streaks don’t mean shit. I don’t look like Santa Claus anymore and we’re not going to hand the Buckeyes any more gift wins. In fact, with my new look, I’m going to lead this team to a winning record in the Big Ten for the first time in my career...and the first time for the program since 2007."
Dan Hope: Who are the Illinois players we need to know about?
Admittedly, I know less about Illinois than I do about any other team in the Big Ten, in part because Ohio State hasn’t played the Illini since 2017. That’ll change this year, so this is a question I actually would like to ask Lovie when we get the chance. But I do know the Illini have some talented players in all three phases of the game who probably deserve more attention than they’ve gotten.
Their offensive line could be one of the best in the Big Ten, with four returning starters, while their skill-position talent has been bolstered by a multitude of transfers, including former USC wide receiver Josh Imatorbebhe, former Georgia tight end Luke Ford and former Michigan quarterback Brandon Peters. On defense, cornerback Marquez Beason was a top-100 recruit in the class of 2019 while linebacker Jake Hansen led all Football Bowl Subdivision players with seven forced fumbles (one more than Chase Young) last season. And on special teams, Blake Hayes is the reigning Big Ten Punter of the Year while James McCourt hit one of the biggest kicks of last season when he made a 57-yard game-winning field goal against then-undefeated Wisconsin.
Ramzy Nasrallah: Lovie, when you coached the 1995 Ohio State secondary your position room had Shawn Springs, Ty Howard, Damon Moore, Antoine Winfield, Rob Kelly, AJ Gwinn and Che Bryant. Right now in Champaign your top secondary guys are All B1G honorable mentions Nate Hobbs and Sydney Brown along with Tony Adams. My question is when are you growing your beard back, and can you describe how it helped Illinois upset both Wisconsin and Michigan State last season?
Illinois’ defensive strength is its back seven. If it can figure out what to do with its front four the Illini could be in position to win games with defense instead of witchcraft and magnificent beards.
Guest Question-Asker Isaac Trotter, of the Post Bulletin: Coach, you've been very involved in the transfer portal in the past few years. Do you expect that to continue in 2021 and beyond?
Lovie Smith and the Illini wouldn't have gone bowling in 2019 without the huge contributions they got from the transfer portal. Quarterback Brandon Peters (Michigan) came in and threw 18 touchdowns. Wide receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe (USC) led the team in receiving. Defense end Oluwole Betiku Jr. (USC) led the Illini in sacks. Richie Petitbon (Alabama) started 13 games at left guard. Linebacker Milo Eifler (Washington) delivered huge hit after huge hit.
Smith and the rest of the Illinois coaching staff believe that they've found a market inefficiency. They think that while most other programs focus on high school recruiting, they'll take the cast-offs from the transfer portal and give them their first real opportunity and let them shine. Will it work long-term? That's not entirely clear yet. But it absolutely worked in Year One and the Illini have continued that push yet again.
Chase Brown (Western Michigan) will be in the mix to start at running back. Luke Ford was one of the top recruits in the Class of 2018. He left Georgia after a year and will likely start at tight end for the Illini. Blake Jeresaty was an All-American lineman at Wofford who will use his final season of eligibility to form one of the most experienced offensive lines in the Big Ten. Tresean Smith (Louisville), Derrick Smith (Miami) should add some thump and athleticism in the secondary, while Khmari Thompson (Missouri), Brevyn Jones (Mississippi State) and Brian Hightower (Miami) are intriguing long-term plays.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Lovie Smith and his coaching staff have struggled to consistently land top-500 talent in the prep recruiting circles. They didn't even land an Illinois native in the Class of 2020. But the transfer portal can continue to boost the Illini roster with high-upside additions. Can they mold together and form a cohesive group that can win long-term? We'll have to find out. But the Illini will continue to be very active in the transfer portal. They're intentionally leaving scholarships open in each class so they can chase talented transfers in the spring and summer. Other programs are filled up, so that limits the options for some of these talented transfers. It might not be long until other programs start following Illinois' lead.
David Regimbal: Do you have any fear that your beard held a mythical power that allowed your Illinois team to win six games and get to its first bowl game since 2014? And now that you've shaved it, you've potentially doomed your team and also probably every aspect of your personal life?
Smith's beard was arguably the third or fourth most interesting thing about the Big Ten over the last two years, and him making the decision to shave it is a sin against nature. Ohio State is scheduled to play Illinois the week before the Michigan game, and we can only hope that Ryan Day and the Buckeyes make it rain fire in Memorial Stadium on that Saturday afternoon.