It would be understandable if Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman had some doubts about the football program ahead of the 2019 season. In the three years that Lovie Smith has been running the show in Champaign, the Illini have won just nine games and have been a bottom-feeder of the B1G.

Whitman isn’t worried about looking in the past, though. He’s focused on the future, and he has an optimistic outlook for the program moving forward.

A big part of that is Lovie Smith.

“I’m more confident in Lovie Smith than I’ve ever been,” Whitman told Sports Saturday. “The more time I spend with him, the more impressed I am and the more enthusiastic I am not only with him, but with the future of our program.”

Since Whitman made the decision to fire Bill Cubit and bring Smith to be the head coach, the AD has been steadfast on the idea that Illinois was enduring a rebuilding situation. He would’ve liked to see immediate results on the field, but understood the Illini wouldn’t be challenging in the B1G West overnight.

Now, though, the expectations have changed a bit. Whitman has said during the offseason that he anticipates Illinois challenging for a postseason bid and finally getting to that .500 mark on the field. And, for once, the Illini finally have the skill and depth to surprise some teams in the B1G this fall.

Whether or not it comes to fruition won’t be known for a few months, but Whitman is standing behind the guy he hired to change the culture in Champaign. He’s still a believer that Smith is the right guy for the job.

Perhaps even more so now than ever before.