CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — As Lovie Smith begins his second season of rebuilding the Illinois football program, he is sure of two things.
Junior Chayce Crouch will be his starting quarterback and senior Kendrick Foster will be the team’s primary running back as the Illini try to bounce back from a 3-9 season that included an 0-6 mark in the Big Ten West
Crouch only appeared in two games for the Illini, but his performance was enough to convince Smith he was the leader he wants.
“(I’m) really excited about what he’ll bring throwing the football (and as a) dual athlete,” Smith said. “He’s a football junkie. You want a guy like that.”
In his first game last season, Crouch showed flashes of how effective he can be. Stepping in for an injured Wes Lunt, Crouch piled up 137 rushing yards, 142 passing yards and two rushing touchdowns before the Illini lost 34-31 in overtime.
Foster’s breakout moment happened four weeks later in a win over Michigan State, with a career-high 146 rushing yards and two touchdowns. He led the team in rushing, total touchdowns and all-purpose yards — and he’s ready for more work.
“Last year coach Smith sat me down ,” Foster said. “He just said, ‘Hey, we need you to lose a little weight. You know NFL running backs are about nine to 11 percent body fat.’ And I was just like, ‘For me to be great, I’m going to do that.'”
The hope is that Crouch and Foster will ignite an offense that was often stagnant a year ago, dead last in the Big Ten. Smith has focused on trying to make sure his players believe they are no longer bottom feeders in the league.
“Just from losing for so long, it’s hurt us mentally,” Foster said. “But I think now, we’re on the track of just (thinking), ‘It’s OK to win. Don’t be scared to win.’ And like I said, the culture in the locker room is all about winning. It’s all about that grit and desire to win, so I’m excited.”
Some other things to watch this season at Illinois:
Crouch was lost for the season a year ago after he was hurt against Rutgers. The Illini were careful with him during spring drills and both he and Foster were taking limited hits during August practices. Smith also said Crouch will need to make better choices to protect himself during games.
“It’s something that I really need to take to heart,” Crouch said. “(I realize) you can’t be having your quarterback taking all of these hits. So it’s going to be crucial for me to avoid contact and things like that. Not necessarily shy away from it, but put myself in position to be healthy for a whole season.”
Wide receiver Mike Dudek and defensive end Sean Adesanya are returning from serious injuries. Dudek is back from his second ACL tear in as many seasons and will play a big role in an offense that struggled to gain yards through the air last year. Adesanya is coming off an Achilles tear and has never played a down for the Illini. Still, he will have to step up and be the leader for a defensive line that lost leaders Dawuane Smoot and Carroll Phillips.
Illinois will begin its season at home against Ball State, which went 4-8 last season. The Illini will then find out quickly where they are. The second game of the season is against a high-scoring Western Kentucky team that went 11-3 last season and the third game is against South Florida, which went 11-2 and has do-everything quarterback Quinton Flowers back. The Big Ten slate includes visits to Iowa and Ohio State and the league opener is a Friday night game against Nebraska.
Illinois hasn’t had a winning season since 2011 and Smith was brought in to lead a turnaround that has left the program at or near the bottom of the Big Ten most seasons. Illinois had only two conference wins last year and finished sixth in the Big Ten West. The Illini were outscored 130 to 57 in the fourth quarter as players lost confidence during a three-win season.
“(I) didn’t like winning three games,” Smith said. “That comes to mind in every conversation as much as anything. It’s a process and it takes steps along the way. (This is) step two, year two. We’re just anxious to start going to work.”
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