Smith says Illinois committed to the run, and to tight ends

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) Lovie Smith is under no illusions about the degree to which his team will rely on senior quarterback Wes Lunt, but the first-year Illinois coach emphasized Sunday how much he wants the Illini to be able to run the ball.

Lunt, Smith said Sunday at the team's preseason media day, is a good decision-maker with a strong arm.

But like his NFL teams, Smith believes the Illini must run the ball, and more than they did last season. Illinois ran the ball on 43 percent of its snaps in 2015.

''We have an excellent tailback in Ke'Shawn Vaughn. Kendrick Foster has looked good in our preseason drills. You start with that,'' Smith said.

What lies behind those two, though, is a major question.

As a freshman last season, Vaughn averaged 4.6 yards a carry on 157 carries and scored six touchdowns. Foster, a junior and the most experienced backup on the roster, has a career 15 carries for 78 yards. Behind him is a redshirt freshman, Reggie Corbin.

Vaughn, at 5-10 and 210 pounds, says he's ready to handle the bulk of the carries and believes the backs behind him can do the rest.

''Somebody will have to come in and tote the load when I get tired,'' he said.

Smith said the emphasis on the running game does not mean he believes he needs to go out of his way to take pressure off of or protect Lunt, who has a history of injuries that have sidelined him in college.

''I don't. This is what we feel like we need to do to play winning ball with our offense,'' Smith said.

Other things to know about Illinois football after media day:

TIGHT ENDS AND FULLBACKS: Tight ends have long been a source of Illinois fan frustration.

''I've been told that,'' Smith joked Sunday.

Over the past decade Illinois has a long list of strong tight ends who have sometimes disappeared in the offense. Some, like the New Orleans Saints' Michael Hoomanawanui, were good enough to go on to the NFL.

Smith said he wants tight ends to be a big part of Illinois' passing game, and fullbacks, too. Illinois hasn't used a true fullback in several seasons, forcing Smith to convert a pair of former linebackers, Nathan Echard and Austin Roberts.

HOME MOMENTUM: Starting with the Sept. 3 opener against Murray State, Illinois will play its first three games and four of its five at home.

Coming off a 5-7 season and the firings of two football coaches in the past year - not to mention and facing a Big Ten schedule in which they will usually be underdogs - the Illini need to use that friendly early schedule, Smith said.

''If we could get some momentum early on, we want to have a home-field advantage, simple as that,'' he said. ''In order to get the rebirth of our football program, we need a home-field advantage.''

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