CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) Lovie Smith and his staff didn't have the easiest start at Illinois last March.
There were many disadvantages for the first-year college coach, including a late spring football season. But things have changed heading into the staff's second spring on campus.
For starters, Smith actually knows his players' names.
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''We know each other a lot better now, and really where to put the guys, the options that we have,'' Smith said. ''It was about the names on helmets and trying to establish the culture. We feel like we are in a better place to take it to the next level.''
Spring football is just another example of the change in culture that Smith has brought to Illinois in the past year. Practices start on Tuesday as Smith wants to learn more about his players to see what his staff has and what needs to be added when recruiting the upcoming class.
The early spring season came as no surprise. Smith mentioned at the end of last season that an early spring would allow his team to recover from any injuries.
''There's a need for football, in my mind, as soon as possible,'' Smith said. ''We want the players to start thinking about football as soon as possible. We want to see what part of our football team will look like.''
Depth will be a problem, though. Twenty-four seniors graduated from the program and a few players have transferred out after Smith's first year, which ended with a 3-9 record overall and 2-7 in the Big Ten.
Injuries are the major concern and reason for lack of bodies.
Quarterback Chayce Crouch continues to recover from a shoulder injury that he suffered during the season that made him miss seven games. Smith said Crouch would see little to no activity in the spring.
Wide receiver Mike Dudek and running back Dre Brown continue to recover from torn ACL injuries that kept them out last season. Smith noted the staff will take its time with returning Dudek back to play given his consecutive ACL injuries.
Smith also noted he sees little value in a spring game, though he said he will make sure fans have a way to see their team before the fall.
''To me it's about spring ball,'' Smith said. ''To play a game like that, you need a lot of numbers. We will do something, but as far as spring game, I'm not much of a spring game guy.''