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Reviving Illini: Lovie Smith giving it old college try

Illinois head coach Lovie Smith speaks to the media at the Big Ten NCAA college football media days, Tuesday, July 26, 2016 in Chicago. (AP Photo/Tae-Gyun Kim) ORG XMIT: ILTK119
Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman and coach Lovie Smith. | Heather coit/AP
Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman and coach Lovie Smith. | Heather coit/AP

After chatting with a handful of media in a hallway at the Hyatt McCormick Place on Tuesday, Lovie Smith turned and spotted his quarterback.

“All right, Wes Lunt,’’ the new Illini coach said. “Thirty touchdowns. Zero interceptions.’’

He didn’t shout it, just said it out loud to his new QB. Although hardly a rah-rah guy as Bears coach, Smith is making strides in his return to the college game.

Job One has been to restore excitement and enthusiasm to a program that was drifting in a sea of troubles—a coach who made people uncomfortable, too many losses and unacceptable misconduct.

Feeling it’s safe to return, Illini Nation has been embracing the hope emanating from Smith and new athletic director Josh Whitman.

“Absolutely,’’ Smith said. “Every function we’ve been to, and we’ve been to a lot, has been that way. It’s `Coach, what do we need to do?’ The message is, `Come back.’ Don’t worry about what’s happened in the past. It’s about today.’’

Attending his first Big Ten Kickoff luncheon, Smith is off to a very encouraging start.

A year ago, Illini Nation was still seething over Tim Beckman, who went from bad optics to a bad act. His PR gaffes seemed mild compared to a player-mistreatment scandal that led to his firing as well as the ouster of athletic director Mike Thomas.

That said, this is just the beginning.

“I knew coming in we had to sell our brand,’’ Smith said. “And Josh and I have covered quite a bit of ground speaking with our fans, our alumni, letting them know about the new day. They’re the rebirth of our program. But eventually, it will come down to what we do on the football field. We realize that.’’

Coming off a 5-7 emotional roller coaster under interim coach Bill Cubit, the Illini return seven starters on offense and four on defense.

Senior defensive end Dawuane Smooth, who had eight sacks as an honorable mention All-Big Ten last fall, is one key senior.

No one looms larger, though, than the 6-5, 225-pound Lunt, a two-time Downstate prep state champion who started his career at Oklahoma State. This will be the third season at Illinois for the fifth-year senior.

Whatever the Illini accomplish this fall, Lunt figures to be a huge factor.

“I’m very excited about Wes,’’ Smith said. “You want a stable force, a consistent player that’s been around a while. You want a senior. He’s a leader. Wes isn’t going to grab the facemask coming off the field, but he’s going to let them know exactly what they need to do.’’

At this point, it’s not a huge stretch for hopeful Illini fans to scan the schedule and see paths to six wins and a modest bowl trip.

Smith’s first season, though, will be about moving forward rather than dwelling on wins.

“To me, it’s about playing the game the way it needs to be played,’’ Whitman said. “Going out and being competitive, playing with a fire. It’s about progress, it’s about seeing fire within our guys. I have tremendous confidence that we’ll see that from the first kick.’’

Smith, who will make $2 million this year as part of a lucrative six-year deal that could be worth up to $29 million, has assembled a promising staff. And his cachet as the only coach besides Mike Ditka to guide the Bears to a Super Bowl should boost his chances in recruiting, a chronic issue in Champaign.

“One message I’ve gotten is, `Lovie, we already know you,’ ’’ Smith said. “You’ve been in our homes on Sunday.’’

Smith, of course, is as curious as anyone about what might happen this fall.

“It’s new to us,’’ he said. “I can tell you we’re going to win every game, [but] we really don’t know how many games we’re going to win. We want to play up to our potential each week. That’s our goal. If we can do that, I think we’ll be OK.’’

Follow me on Twitter @HerbGould