CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) When Illinois players talk about the differences between this summer and last, they talk about excitement and calm.
They use both words to describe changes that have begun under their first-year leader, longtime NFL coach Lovie Smith. And both words illustrate the sharp contrast between this summer and last, when their coach was fired just a week before the opening game.
''I think that's a great feeling. It's a feeling we haven't felt in a while, just as players,'' senior quarterback Wes Lunt said.
Part of Smith's job has been trying to repair both the reputation of Illini football and the team's morale, both damaged when Tim Beckman was fired last summer amid allegations that he mistreated players and interfered in medical decisions.
Of course, Smith is at Illinois to do more than polish a tarnished brand. Under Beckman and replacement Bill Cubit, wins were scarce. Cubit was thrust into the interim role when Beckman was fired and the team finished 5-7 (2-6 Big Ten). Illinois never won more than six games in Beckman's three seasons.
''We were a five-win team last year, I understand that,'' Smith said. ''I know we're going to be a better team.''
A few things to keep an eye out for as Illinois prepares to open the season:
A LOAD OFF LUNT
Lunt's history of injuries and a lack of proven pass-catchers - another anterior cruciate ligament tear is expected to sideline Mike Dudek for a second straight season - mean Illinois will need to be able to run the ball. That means sophomore Ke'Shawn Vaughn, the only experienced back on the roster, will see a lot of carries.
''In order for us to have success at the running game Keshawn Vaughn has to have a good year. He realizes it,'' Smith said.
Vaughn carried the ball 157 times for 723 yards and six touchdowns as a freshman.
Smith pointed out before preseason workouts that defense should be Illinois' strength. But the Illini lost a half-dozen starters from a defense that was ranked eighth in the Big Ten in points given up at 23.3 per game and ninth in yards allowed at 350.8. The emergence of Dawuane Smoot at defensive end gives Illinois a strong pass rusher. He led the team with eight sacks and 15 tackles for losses in 2015. Transfer Hardy Nickerson's arrival from Cal - his father, also Hardy Nickerson, is the defensive coordinator - should strengthen a thin group of linebackers.
If the Illini can finish the nonconference schedule 2-1 with wins over Murray State and Western Michigan, the Big Ten schedule offers four games that would not require dramatic upsets to win. Illinois hosts Purdue and faces Rutgers on the road. If the Illini win those, the Oct. 29 home game against Minnesota and the Nov. 26 game at Northwestern could be make-or-break games for a bowl berth.
The Illini are energized by their new coach and his NFL pedigree, but this is essentially the same team that was 5-7 last season, minus a number of key starters. Lunt's ability to stay healthy will be a major factor. The home-heavy schedule and a handful of winnable Big Ten games give Illinois a path to a bowl game. But given the likelihood of injuries and first-season hiccups for a brand-new coaching staff, 5-7 and sixth in the Big Ten West seems about right.
The Lovie Smith era begins at home on Sept. 3 against Murray State. The Illini and Racers have never played. The Racers, a Football Championship Subdivision school, were 3-8 last season.
Online: AP College Football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org/
Follow David Mercer on Twitter: (at)davidmercerAP