While running through wide receivers Walters wants to step up, the offensive coordinator subtly dropped the news that freshman Miles Jones is out for the year.
“Miles Jones had surgery, so he’s out,” Walters said. “We wanted to make sure he’d be back for spring.”
Jones had shoulder surgery after playing in one game this season. The four-star recruit from Florida had one catch and one carry in the Bethune-Cookman game.
“At the end of the day, we’re looking more long-term with him,” Held said. “He could have probably finished out, but the smart move, probably, is to get him fixed so then he can go through spring ball.”
The goal always was to redshirt Jones, who struggled to get healthy at the beginning of the season. The plan when he enrolled was for him to contribute this season.
“When you look big picture, we want to get him fixed now so he can be progressing and be hopefully ready to do some things in spring ball, that way we can continue in his development,” Held said. “It is what it is with him. But he got a lot out of this fall even though he didn’t get many reps.”
Nebraska preparing for new Illini defense led by Lovie Smith
LINCOLN — Film study looks a little different this week for Nebraska’s offensive coaches.
It always does when an opponent makes a coordinator change within the season. In this case, Illinois made a move last week when coach Lovie Smith assumed defensive play-calling duties after the resignation of coordinator Hardy Nickerson.
“It was a whole different defense their last game,” offensive coordinator Troy Walters said. “Our guys noticed that and we know we’re gonna have to come ready to go.”
The Illini beat Minnesota 55-31 Saturday, allowing a pair of late touchdowns to the Gopher reserves. The 438 yards allowed were Illinois’ third lowest on the season, and the 6.26 yards per play given up were its second lowest against Big Ten teams this year.
NU quarterbacks coach Mario Verduzco said the challenge is to parse between what Illinois did specifically for Minnesota and what tendencies might be different with Smith calling the shots. Running backs coach Ryan Held said it can help the passing game that coach Scott Frost is familiar with Smith’s “Tampa 2” system from his own playing days as a defensive back.
“They were a little more aggressive last week in their play-calling,” Held said. “But in terms of scheme and what they do, we know what they’re going to do. It’s just a matter of maybe some of the different down and distances, be prepared for being a little more flexible.”
Held said Nebraska will look at Illinois’ full body of work, then more deeply analyze last week’s game. He expects the team to continue running lots of man coverage.
» Adrian Martinez appears to be improving every week. The true freshman was again among the highest-rated quarterbacks by Pro Football Focus. And as he develops, so too does the offense, Walters said.
“We feel like we can throw anything at these guys and they’ll pick it up,” Walters said. “Now they understand the concepts, they understand why we line up in different formations, why we do certain motions.”
Walters said the offense is “light years” ahead of where it was in the spring, or even early in the season.
“You can tell on Mondays, when we add some new stuff on Mondays and those guys pick it up quickly and the guys just get better as the days go on,” Walters said. “It’s fun when guys know what’s going on because the sky is the limit in terms of what we can throw at them.”
» Verduzco said he wanted to have some “choice words” with Martinez after his lateral fumble against Ohio State, but thought better of it. He said it might be a different story if such a “tragic error” resurfaces next season.
Overall, the coach said, Martinez showed remarkable poise in front of the crowd of 100,000-plus in Columbus.
“When we were talking on the headsets, he was so relaxed I thought maybe there was something wrong with him,” Verduzco said. “I’m serious. I’m like, ‘Adrian, you alright?’ He goes, ‘Coach, I’m fine.'”
» Nebraska won’t host a huge recruiting group for its last home game against Michigan State, Held said. Coaches are still evaluating who they want to bring in that weekend.
“The thing we don’t want to do is bring in 20 guys,” Held said. “You can’t entertain 20 guys on a weekend when we have a huge senior day (and) big game. We want to be able to get these guys, as many as we can, up to see our venue and everything. But also you want to be smart and not put yourself in position where we can’t do a good job.”
» Held said he’s “chomping at the bit” to get out recruiting again, and might do so this week. He had been staying close to home before his wife, Katie, gave birth to their son last week.
Everything Husker fans need to know about the Illinois Fighting Illini
A preview of Illinois, the first opponent of the Scott Frost era to face Nebraska without a defensive coordinator.
* * *
Record: 4-5 (2-4 Big Ten)
Offensive yards per play: 6.20 (39th nationally)
Defensive yards per play: 7.01 (125th)
Turnover margin: plus-3 (T-38th)
Penalty yards per game: 63.7 (88th)
Lovie Smith (9-24 at Illinois)
From the magnificent white beard he debuted at Big Ten media days in July to absorbing the defensive coordinator role last week, the veteran NFL coach and third-year Illini head man has showed a continued willingness to adapt in the college ranks. While no one is mistaking Illinois for a major player — its 38-17 win over Rutgers last month broke a streak of 13 straight league losses — the program is on the rise with a $79.2 million football performance center set for completion before next season. Smith has attracted average-ranked recruiting classes to this point, but he’s a name brand after stints as head coach with the Chicago Bears (2004-12) and Tamp Bay Buccaneers (2014-15) that included one Super Bowl appearance.
Coordinator: Rod Smith
As disappointing as the defense has been, Illinois’ up-tempo attack has been electrifying under its new 45-year-old play caller. Its run game is the nation’s most improved this season, ranking 11th in yards per game (249.44) and sixth in yards per carry (6.08) after coming in 123rd (105.58) and 120th (3.28) last year. The offense is explosive too, with 16 scoring drives of less than one minute, tying Clemson for third most in the country.
Smith is a protégé of Rich Rodriguez. He played for him at NAIA Glenville State in the mid-1990s and spent 10 of his 22 years in coaching under him. Smith — no relation to Lovie — landed in Champaign after Rodriguez was fired at Arizona last winter and replaces Garrick McGee, who Lovie Smith didn’t retain after two seasons.
Coordinator: Lovie Smith
Third-year coordinator Hardy Nickerson resigned for health reasons late last month following a 63-33 loss to Maryland in which his unit allowed 712 total yards. Lovie Smith — a defensive assistant or defensive-minded head coach throughout his career — filled the role last week in a 55-31 win over Minnesota. But the group remains one of the leakiest in the country overall, ranking 128th of 130 FBS teams in total defense (524.8 yards per game) and 116th in scoring defense (36.9 points per game). The Illini can create takeaways. Cornerback Jartavius Martin and linebacker Del’Shawn Phillips each have three interceptions, and the team overall has 13 picks, tied for sixth nationally.
Players to watch
Reggie Corbin, running back: Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of the new offense has been the 5-foot-10, 200-pound Corbin, whose 105.78 rushing yards per game rank 15th in the country. He’s the reigning co-offensive player of the week in the Big Ten after carrying 13 times for 213 yards and two touchdowns against Minnesota. Watch out for the long play. He owns seven runs of 50-plus yards and is averaging a whopping 9.07 yards per carry to rank second among FBS players with at least 100 attempts.
Chase McLaughlin, placekicker: The man known around Champaign as “Chase McLongkick” earned his nickname with a nation-leading four field goals of 50-plus yards. The senior is 17 of 22 this season and leads the Big Ten in total points scored (81). Getting the ball to Nebraska’s 35-yard line means the Illini will be in scoring position. The Cypress, Texas, probably has a future in the NFL and has been one of the few constants for the team during an up-and-down fall.
They said it
“We’re saying the same thing about our program. You get there and really see yourself being able to take off. We love being three-touchdown underdogs going into an environment like that.” Lovie Smith on Nebraska’s recent improvement.
“At the end of the day, I’m going there to play. I don’t like to hold grudges.” Illinois senior quarterback A.J. Bush, a former Nebraska reserve.
“Growing up, I was a huge Illinois fan. When I was being recruited they kind of (snubbed) me. Nothing against Lovie Smith, I think he’s a great guy and a great coach. But I’m not as much of a fan of Illinois anymore.” Nebraska center Tanner Farmer, an Illinois native.
1: Win in Lincoln in nine tries all-time by Illinois. That victory came in 1924, when the Huskers held Red Grange scoreless for the first time in his career but couldn’t prevent a late field goal in a 9-6 game
646: Total yards of offense generated by the Illini last week against Minnesota. The number is fifth-most in program history.
31: New players who have made their Illinois debuts this season. That includes 18 freshmen and 17 defenders.
Sept. 1 vs. Kent State, W 31-24
Sept. 8 vs. Western Illinois, W 34-14
Sept. 15 vs. South Florida (in Chicago), L 25-19
Sept. 21 vs. Penn State, L 63-24
Oct. 6 at Rutgers, W 38-17
Oct. 13 vs. Purdue, L 46-7
Oct. 20 at Wisconsin, L 49-20
Oct. 27 at Maryland, L 63-33
Nov. 3 vs. Minnesota, W 55-31
Nov. 10 at Nebraska
Nov. 17 vs. Iowa
Nov. 24 at Northwestern
Illinois at Nebraska
When: 11 a.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln
Radio: 103.1 FM