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Opponent Spring Review: Illinois

With spring practices now wrapped up around the country, will take a look at where each of Nebraska’s 12 opponents in 2019 currently stands coming out of spring ball and heading into the summer.

We continue today by taking a look at Nebraska’s Big Ten opener in Illinois, which will host the Huskers on Sept. 21.

The Fighting Illini are coming off a disappointing 4-8 campaign in 2018 but are hoping to make a jump in their fourth season under head coach Lovie Smith.

We caught up with publisher Doug Bucshon to learn more about what NU can expect from its first Big Ten foe this fall.

Related: South Alabama | Colorado | Northern Illinois

Head coach Lovie Smith is just 9-27 overall and 4-23 in Big Ten play during his first three seasons at Illinois.
Head coach Lovie Smith is just 9-27 overall and 4-23 in Big Ten play during his first three seasons at Illinois. (Associated Press)

Spring overview

After three straight losing seasons to open the Smith era, Illinois found itself still searching for a starting quarterback coming out of spring ball.

The original plan was for sophomore M.J. Rivers, who appeared in eight games with three starts last season, to take the reigns this year. But he decided to enter the NCAA transfer portal after the spring, leaving the QB spot wide open with only two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster in redshirt freshmen Coran Taylor and Matt Robinson.

On the other side of the ball, plenty of work needed to be done on a defense that ranked among the worst units in all of college football. The Illini ranked 127th out of 129 FBS teams in total defense, 121st in rushing defense, 113th in pass defense, and 123rd in scoring defense.

In an effort to fix that side of the ball, defensive coordinator Hardy Nickerson moved on and Smith took on the dual role of the head coach and defensive coordinator this spring.

Returning starters

The good news for Illinois is that while last season was tough growing process for a young roster, it returns the majority of its starters on both sides of the ball.

Aside from quarterback and All-Big Ten right guard Nick Allegretti, the Illini bring back four starters on the offensive line, a 1,000-yard rusher in senior running back Reggie Corbin, and nearly all of its receiving production from 2018.

However, Bucshon said that over his decade of covering the team, this might be the worst wide receiving corps he'd seen at UI.

The strength of Illinois' defense will be up front, led by junior defensive end Bobby Roundtree and sophomore tackle Calvin Avery.

Running back Reggie Corbin returns after rushing for 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns in 2018.
Running back Reggie Corbin returns after rushing for 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns in 2018. (Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY Sports)

Offensive star: RB Reggie Corbin

Corbin didn't do a whole lot this spring as far as his workload, and that's because he already showed his coaches everything they needed to see last season.

After breaking onto the scene last spring, Corbin emerged as the focal point of Illinois' offense and racked up 1,085 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground to earn third-team all-conference honors (media).

In his first season as offensive coordinator, Rod Smith made the offense revolve around the running game and leaned heavily on Corbin. The Illini ended up only behind Wisconsin for the top rushing offense in the Big Ten at 243 yards per game.

Defensive star: DE Bobby Roundtree

Illinois' defense was downright bad last season, but one of the few highlights was the play of Roundtree at strongside defensive end.

The 6-foot-5, 255-pound native of Largo, Fla., did a little bit of everything for the Illini, posting 66 tackles, 12.5 TFLs, 7.5 sacks, seven PBUs, a forced fumble, and four quarterback hurries.

He's now led UI in sacks each of his first two seasons, and he'll once again be counted on anchor the defense this season. With another strong year, Roundtree could be a legit early NFL draft prospect.

Defensive end Bobby Roundtree led Illinois in sacks, tackles for loss, and pass breakups last season.
Defensive end Bobby Roundtree led Illinois in sacks, tackles for loss, and pass breakups last season. (Associated Press)

Biggest question: Who will be the quarterback?

Following the departure of former Nebraska transfer AJ Bush, Illinois thought it had a succession plan in place this offseason with Rivers set to take over.

But when Rivers suddenly decided to transfer after the spring, it left the Illini scrambling to find a new No. 1 quarterback. Inexperience will be a big hurdle for whoever wins the job, as neither Taylor or Robinson have ever played in a college game.

More competition will join the mix in the fall with the addition of true freshman Isaiah Williams, a former four-star athlete out St. Louis. But look for Illinois to continue to explore the graduate transfer market in hopes of finding a more seasoned option for this season.

The Illini already made a hard push for Penn State transfer Tommy Stevens, who ended up committing to Mississippi State.

Early outlook on Illinois vs. Nebraska

Bucshon: "It's a big game for both teams. With Scott Frost as the coach, I think everybody expects Nebraska to keep getting better, and they have a really good quarterback. Illinois has a hard time stopping dual-threat quarterbacks like that, and Nebraska's going to come into that game in Champaign favored.

"It's a game that Illinois might have circled on their schedule as a game they might be able to win, but I think in Scott Frost's second year everybody's expecting Nebraska to have a breakout season. So I think it's going to be another tough game for Illinois and a key game for them on the Big Ten schedule."

Overall 2019 win-loss expectation

Bucshon: "I think in Year 4, the expectation is that Lovie Smith goes to a bowl game. If he doesn't, it'd be considered a bad year. Just looking at the roster and the holes that they have, the lack of depth, and the lack of experience at the quarterback position, it looks on paper like a four or five-win team again. That's not the kind of season they need in the fourth year of Lovie Smith. They need him to win at least six games and go to a bowl game."