Lovie Smith won’t deny that the state of the Illinois football program appears bleak, but he is urging the public to look more closely at what he has done as coach in a daunting rebuild of the Illini.

“Your record says where you’re at as a program; in the end, that’s what everyone is looking at,” Smith said. “But as you look a little deeper, our program is in a lot better shape than what it was. I think you have to look at which way you’re trending. I think it’s safe to say that we’re trending upward.”

The Illini are 2-8 (0-7 Big Ten), which follows a 3-9 record (2-7 in the Big Ten) in Smith’s first season. His comment that the team is trending upward might puzzle some observers, but the play of several young players hints as to why he is optimistic.

He mentioned four freshmen — receiver Ricky Smalling, tight end Louis Dorsey, defensive tackle Jamal Woods and cornerback Nate Hobbs — as standard-bearers for the Illini’s youth movement.

Smalling leads the team in catches (28) and receiving yards (488), and Dorsey leads in receiving touchdowns (three). Woods and Hobbs have emerged as starters. Illinois also has started two true freshmen, Alex Palczewski and Vederian Lowe, on the offensive line.

The Illini are taking baby steps, but they aren't insignificant, Smith said.

“When you’re in a situation like this, you have to look for some of the small steps,” Smith said. “You want big steps, but you have to look at some of the small steps.”

Illinois has 10 seniors, the fewest in the Big Ten. One of those seniors, running back Kendrick Foster, said he believes the “sky is the limit" for the program, but he recognizes that searching for silver linings will be acceptable for only so long.

“I definitely see people from a younger perspective getting better each and every game and every practice,” Foster said. “But we got to get to the point where we got to start winning games. Getting better kids isn’t an excuse for us anymore. Our young guys and older guys have to grow up and take accountability.”

With the Illini eliminated from bowl contention, Saturday’s matchup with the Buckeyes will be predicated on pride, something that Smith is still demonstrating, despite all the losses.

“We’ve taken steps, and eventually we’re going to get over the hump,” Smith said. “Our program is on the rise, and the future is looking bright. On the field, off the field, new facility, there’s a lot of things to get excited about. … I think people still see the direction we’re heading and want to be a part of that.”