This is the first in a series looking at the most impactful assistant coaching hires heading into the 2018 college football season.
Who: Rod Smith, Illinois
Title: Offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach
Previous stop: Arizona co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach (2012-17)
Why he’s important: It seems silly on the surface to boil an entire coaching regime to one video, but Illinois’s announcement of Josh Whitman’s hiring as athletics director really is the thesis for his entire tenure.
Think about the message this video sends: We understand. We used to be good in football, and we’re going to be good again. This guy is going to take us there.
Whitman returned to Illinois on Feb. 17, 2016, fired Bill Cubit on March 5 and hired Lovie Smith two days later. Smith was an against-the-grain hire that yet to produce against-the-grain results. After going 11-14 in Tim Beckman’s final season and Bill Cubit’s lone season as interim head coach, Illinois is 5-19 in Smith’s two seasons, including an 0-9 Big Ten campaign in 2017.
Illinois has backslid in a time when the remainder of the Big Ten West is ascending. Wisconsin has jumped a level from Gary Andersen to Paul Chryst. Minnesota and Purdue made correct, possibly transformational hires in P.J. Fleck and Jeff Brohm. Nebraska appears to have made one in Scott Frost. Northwestern just opened a state-of-the-art training facility on the shore of Lake Michigan.
And thus, we arrive at Rod Smith (no relation to Lovie). Garrick McGee was not retained, and Illinois capitalized on Rich Rodriguez’s bizarre ouster at Arizona to scoop up one of the best free agents on the market on Jan. 19. Smith coached Pat White at West Virginia and Denard Robinson at Michigan, and spent his 2017 season shepherding Khalil Tate to overnight stardom in Tucson.
He inherits a quarterback room that is wide open after returning starter Jeff George, Jr., elected to transfer and backup Chayce Crouch retired. Sophomore Cam Thomas (66 attempts as a true freshman in 2017) is the only returning scholarship signal caller, though Illinois acquired a graduate transfer in Virginia Tech’s A.J. Bush, secured one juco transfer and signed two high school quarterbacks.
Though it’s safe to say there’s not a White, a Robinson or a Tate among that bunch, Smith will put his new quarterbacks in the same positions to succeed as his previous pupils.
“We will be a spread, up-tempo-type of team,” Smith said in an interview with BTN. “We will use different formations and make the defense defend the length and width of the field. We are trying to get athletes in space and get them in one-on-one battles. The hardest thing to do in football is to tackle in the open field.”
Make no mistake, Smith has a tall order ahead of him, and an instant fix is an unfair expectation. Illinois finished 13th in the 14-team Big Ten in total offense, yards per play and passing efficiency and dead last in scoring a year ago. But Illinois promised its stakeholders that good times were on the way in choosing Whitman as its AD, and definitive progress is the bare minimum for 2018.