On Friday, Illinois (2-0) will make its first-ever trip to Tampa to face the 22nd-ranked USF Bulls. While the two teams will be meeting for the first time ever, the Illini coaching staff will have no trouble finding their way around Raymond James Stadium or finding the visitors’ locker room.
No fewer than six Illinois coaches are familiar to Tampa Bay NFL fans. They have either played with the Bucs or served as coaches.
Head Coach Lovie Smith spent four years as an assistant on Tony Dungy’s staff from 1996-2000 and was the Bucs’ head coach in 2014 and 2015. He is in his second season in Champaign and holds a 5-9 record.
Smith twice brought his Chicago Bears’ teams to Tampa during his 8-year tenure in Chicago. The Bears and Bucs split those games in 2004 and 2005.
The Fighting Illini’s defensive coordinator is the popular former Buccaneer, Hardy Nickerson. The Pro Bowl linebacker played with Tampa Bay from 1993-99 and was on Smith’s Buccaneer staff.
Defensive Line Coach Mike Phair held a similar role with the Bucs during Smith’s two seasons. Special teams coordinator Bob Ligashesky also coached the Tampa Bay special teams during Smith’s tenure, while former wide receivers coach Andrew Hayes-Stoker holds the same position with Illinois.
The former Buc probably gaining the most attention is former Pro Bowl defensive back Donnie Abraham. While Abraham and his defensive backs seek to make big plays against the Bulls’ offense, his son, Bulls’ senior safety Devin Abraham, looks to do likewise against the Illini offense.
Devin wants to stick it to his father.
“You just want to go out there and execute and win the football game,” Devin told the Tampa Bay Times. “Then you can brag it in his face.”
If Devin is able to do that, it will be the first time in Bulls’ football history they will have defeated a team from the Big 10. They are 0-5 all-time.
Smith is taking the approach that it is just another game and not putting any special emphasis on returning to Tampa.
“I’m not one of those touchy-feely guys like that,” Smith said at his weekly press briefing. “I spent a lot of time there and I’m a homeowner still down there. I know the area. I’ve seen USF. I remember when they first started their program.”
Smith summed up Friday’s game in basic terms.
“Our football team needs to get a road win,” he said. It’s not much more than that.”
The 2-0 Bulls saw last week’s game at Connecticut postponed and could not practice as Hurricane Irma passed through, which left them only three days to prepare for the Illini. Bulls’ coach Charlie Strong did not complain and instead praised hurricane relief efforts. But he did admit the short time to get ready-made things tougher.
“Yes, we did have only three days to prepare, but I know this; our guys, they want to go play,” Strong said at his weekly press briefing. “It has been hard to sit for two weeks.”
Kickoff is scheduled for shortly after 7 p.m. Oddsmakers have listed the Bulls as 17-point favorites.