With the Gophers heading to Illinois for Saturday’s game, I swapped questions with Bob Asmussen, who covers the Illini for the Champaign News-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter (@BobAsmussen).
1. What needs to happen for Lovie Smith to have a successful first year?
The answer going into the season was "get to a bowl game." But that appears to be a long shot at this point. I think the fans want to see the team be more competitive and give them a reason for hope. The team has lost to Purdue and Nebraska this season, teams it beat last year with Bill Cubit as coach. Nobody here was surprised when Michigan won in a romp. But the Purdue and Western Michigan losses were disappointing for the fans.
There was a lot of hype and the fans seemed to buy in, filling Memorial Stadium for the North Carolina game. Without a miracle finish and two or three more wins, the season will be considered a disappointment.
2. How is his first recruiting class coming together?
OK right now. The players Illinois has locked up are a solid base, but there isn't that game-changer recruit that both Ron Zook and Ron Turner were able to get early in their careers. For Zook, it was Juice Williams. For Turner, it was Kurt Kittner.
The staff was at a disadvantage because it took over in March, must later than the usual transition. I think the staff has been trying to make up ground and has some decent players. There isn't much wow factor yet. The most important recruiting class for Lovie Smith is 2018, when he will have had more than a year to find his kind of players.
3. Is Illinois a tougher place to win than people might think or more of a sleeping giant, and why?
I have always felt it was a sleeping giant waiting for the right person to wake it up. I thought that was Ron Zook and early that looked to be correct. But the school made some bad decisions in athletics and Zook was fired. He should not have been. Tim Beckman was not a good choice. Most think that Lovie Smith is the right choice. There isnt' enough information to know if that is correct. But the school is fixing up its facilities, there are good players in the state and the tradition is decent. Dick Butkus and Red Grange played here. That is a good start. Illinois fans don't expect to be Michigan or Ohio state. But they would like to reach Iowa or Wisconsin levels of success.
4. What's the best case scenario for Illinois this week against Minnesota, including QB health, etc.?
Jeff George Jr. plays like his dad and the Illini keep it close. He had a tough opener, but he hung in there and played better as the game went on. I fully believe the players like him and will rally around him. If he is able to throw for 300 yards and a couple of touchdowns in a close game, it will make Illinois feel better about its chances later in the year. You won't see Chayce Crouch, but you might see Wes Lunt. Getting him back sooner rather than later would ease the burden on George.
5. Which players on the Illinois roster have the best draft prospects for 2017?
No question, it is defensive end Dawuane Smoot. Some think he might go in the first round. Illinois has done a good job in recent years sending defensive linemen to the NFL and Smoot is next. Jihad Ward is playing well as a rookie for the Raiders and Corey Liuget and Whitney Mercilus are very good players for the Chargers and Texans.