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Bret Bielema’s first season as Illinois football coach ended in a strange place when it came to defining success.

Bielema certainly can understand and appreciate why some Illini supporters offered him congratulations for the team’s accomplishments. After all, Illinois toppled two nationally ranked programs on the road for the first time in 20 years, gritting out an NCAA record nine-overtime 20-18 victory against No. 7 Penn State and then stifling No. 20 Minnesota defensively with six sacks and two interceptions in a 14-6 win. The Illini then closed the season by hammering in-state foe Northwestern 47-14 to snap a six-game losing streak in the series.

Yet Illinois finished 5-7 overall and did not participate in a bowl game. The Illini suffered a pair of humbling losses to Virginia and Wisconsin, a 10-point setback to Iowa and four single-digit defeats — to UTSA, Maryland, Purdue and Rutgers — that Bielema looks back on by pointing out how close his team was to winning.

So yeah, Illinois made strides a year after a forgettable 2-6 campaign led to a coaching change. But that doesn’t mean Bielema is anywhere close to satisfied with where things stand.

“There’s always going to be a huge discrepancy between what people view as progress from the outside world and then the building itself that we work in every day,” Bielema said. “From the outside world, I know there were a lot of people that were happy. They thought we made a step in the right direction beating two ranked teams on the road. But for me, I didn’t come here to win five games.”

Bielema recognizes how much work remains to make Illinois a consistent bowl game participant — the Illini have reached just two bowl games in the last 10 seasons — and climb the Big Ten West mountain to compete for championships. That’s why he made a drastic offseason change by moving on from offensive coordinator Tony Peterson after Illinois ranked tied for 115th nationally in points per game (20.2) and 112th in total offense (329.8 yards per game).

The goal, Bielema said, was to bring more modernization to the offense and implement the acronym AFAP — as fast as possible — to the tempo while still maintaining the principles of a pro-style offense. Bielema is optimistic that the new offense under former UTSA offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. will stress defenses up the middle, on the edges and vertically in the passing game.

As Bielema enters Year 2, he acknowledges that his program has to build on everything.

“We’re knocking on the door,” Bielema said. “We’re not in there yet, but we’re making a lot of progress, and I like the way our guys are building.”

Offense

Bielema attacked the transfer portal during the offseason, and one of his most significant pickups was former Syracuse quarterback Tommy DeVito, who was the offensive standout in the Illinois spring game. DeVito completed 16 of 20 passes for 248 yards with three touchdowns during the April showcase and could give the Illinois offense a big boost.

“I love the fact that he progressed every practice, put himself in a position to be successful and had a really good spring game,” Bielema said. “He’s a guy that’s still a work in progress in this system and really our program.”

Artur Sitkowski gives Illinois another experienced quarterback. Sitkowski missed the spring while recovering from surgeries on his left arm and right shoulder but played in five games last season and threw six touchdowns. Samari Collier and Ryan Johnson were the other quarterbacks in addition to DeVito to earn spring practice reps. Bielema said Collier possessed “a big arm and big talent” and praised Johnson for having a clean, effective spring. Bielema is eager to see what incoming freshman Donovan Leary, a New Jersey native, can do when fall camp arrives.

One area in which Illinois shined last season and should continue to excel is its running game. Chase Brown returns after leading the team with 1,005 yards rushing on 5.9 yards per carry and five touchdowns. Brown is one of just three Illinois players, along with Howard Griffith (1990) and Rashard Mendenhall (2007), with multiple 200-yard rushing games in a single season. Bielema said Brown is an every-down tailback who can thrive in any situation.

“He’s just really kind of a do-it-all guy,” Bielema said. “Extremely intelligent, very gifted athletically. Has balance and power with also the ability to make a burst and he can make a home-run hit. He’s got exceptional speed. So a very talented player that’s really truly just beginning to utilize all those skills.”

Josh McCray gives Illinois a strong 1-2 punch after rushing for 549 yards and two touchdowns last season. Bielema said the coaching staff is still looking for a third running back to complement the Brown-McCray combination and cited Chase Hayden, Aidan Laughery and Reggie Love as potential options to “create kind of a three-headed monster that is really a tough preparation for our opponents to handle.”

Building wide receiver depth will be critical, but Bielema likes what he has with a pair of proven wide receivers in Isaiah Williams and Casey Washington. Williams led the team with 47 catches for 525 yards and four touchdowns last season and ranked third in the nation among Power 5 freshmen in receptions. Williams was recruited as a quarterback before moving to receiver last year. For that reason, Bielema said he is “on the front end of his learning curve” but praised his explosiveness in catch-and-run scenarios.

Bielema is bullish on Washington, who caught the game-winning two-point conversion against Penn State, for his competitiveness, size, good hands and playmaking ability in critical moments. As for who is behind those two receivers? Bielema calls it a work in progress.


Williams and the Illini passing game are under pressure to carry more of the load this year. (Steven Branscombe / USA Today)

Pat Bryant is a 6-foot-3 second-year player who caught six passes for 98 yards last season. Bielema said coaches are excited about his big catch radius and ability to make plays down the field. Brian Hightower and Khmari Thompson are two players who don’t have as many in-game reps but could be ready for more opportunities. Shawn Miller, an early enrollee during the spring, is among a group of freshmen Bielema could rely on to help with the passing attack.

At tight end, Luke Ford returns after starting all 12 games last season and testing the NFL Draft waters. He has the potential to take over as the No. 1 option after Daniel Barker, the Illinois career record holder for touchdowns by a tight end (11), transferred to Michigan State.

“Luke Ford is a guy that looked at the NFL world, got a draft grade that was good but it wasn’t good enough to get him to jump to the NFL,” Bielema said. “He’s had a pretty good spring, but I expect him to have the best football ahead of him in his career here this fall.”

Bielema said Tip Reiman, a former walk-on and excellent blocker, has “come on like gangbusters” and could help Illinois in the passing game. Reiman caught his first career touchdown pass last season in Illinois’ victory against Minnesota. Bielema noted coaches also are excited to see where Michael Marchese is at during fall camp after he missed the spring while recovering from hip surgery. Marchese, a sixth-year senior, spent his first four seasons on defense, earned a handful of snaps at fullback and tight end last season and “could be a big part of our offense,” according to Bielema.

The offensive line loses two players who became NFL Draft picks in Doug Kramer (Chicago Bears) and Vederian Lowe (Minnesota Vikings). But the Illini still return some good experience, beginning with Alex Palczewski. He enters next season with 52 career starts, which is more than any other active player in the nation. He has started 36 games at tackle and 16 games at guard and should open the season at tackle. Bielema said “he’ll probably be the spearhead” of the O-line.

Alex Pihlstrom, who appeared in all 12 games last season with five starts, played the majority of his snaps at left tackle, left guard and right guard, but he has moved into the No. 1 center role. Julian Pearl played in 12 games with 10 starts and projects as a tackle. Jordyn Slaughter, who suffered a broken left ankle during preseason practice and missed all of last season, was one of the starting guards during the spring game.

Bielema brought in a pair of junior college transfers in Isaiah Adams and Zylon Crisler, both of whom could help fill out the starting line. Adams attended Garden City (Kan.) Community College, while Crisler came from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. Bielema said he likes Slaughter, Pihlstrom and Crisler as interior players with Palczewski, Pearl and Adams as tackles. However, Crisler played tackle and Adams guard in the spring game, which speaks to the versatility Bielema wants to build with the line. Bielema also mentioned redshirt freshmen Zach Barlev and Josh Kreutz as players who can help.

“I think when you get that number around seven or eight linemen that give you valuable experience and depth at multiple positions, that’s when you have a chance to be a successful Big Ten line,” Bielema said.

Key stat to know: Illinois scored touchdowns on 17.0 percent of its drives last season, 120th in the FBS (the average was roughly 28 percent). New offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. oversaw a UTSA offense last season that was more than twice as effective as Illinois, scoring touchdowns on 34.3 percent of its drives, which ranked 26th in the FBS.

The passing game was a clear weakness for Illinois, which ranked 124th nationally in yards per attempt (5.8) and 121st in pass efficiency (109.7). Under Lunney Jr., the Roadrunners ranked 46th in yards per attempt (8.0) and 26th in pass efficiency (151.8).

Illini returning production

CATEGORY PERCENT RETURNING TOP RETURNER

Passing yards

38

Sitkowski, 704

Rushing yards

89

C. Brown, 1,005

Receiving yards

69

Williams, 525

OL starts

48

Palczewski, 12

Tackles

54

S. Brown, 81

TFLs

51

Witherspoon, 8

Sacks

48

Randolph Jr., 4

Interceptions

22

Barnes & Randolph Jr., 1

Defense

Up front, Illinois will be anchored by defensive linemen Johnny Newton and Keith Randolph Jr. Newton started 11 games and recorded 50 tackles with four tackles for loss and three sacks. Randolph started seven games and finished with 42 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and four sacks.

Bielema said Randolph is a dynamic, athletic player whose basketball background — he led Belleville (Ill.) West to two state titles — shows up on the field. Randolph was the only defensive tackle in the Big Ten with an interception last season. Bielema describes Newton as “more of a meat and potatoes” player who performs well with his hands, can knock linemen backward and has some explosiveness to him.

“The law firm of Newton and Randolph is very special,” Bielema said. “They bring a lot of energy. They practice at an extremely high level. They care about winning. They’re guys that for me as a head coach, they’ve bought into everything we’ve said since we got here. And on top of that, they’re really good players.”

Other defensive linemen Bielema said will be in the mix include Verdis Brown, Calvin Avery, Bryce Barnes, Sedarius McConnell, former offensive lineman Evan Kirts and TeRah Edwards, a transfer from Northwestern. Raashaan Wilkins, a Chicago native who announced his transfer to Illinois from Vanderbilt in April, has played in 21 career games and should add valuable experience.

At outside linebacker, Isaiah Gay and Owen Carney Jr. are gone after combining to record 94 tackles with 18 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks. Seth Coleman and Ezekiel Holmes step into potential starting roles. Coleman played in 10 games with three starts last season and recorded a pass breakup that led to an interception in the victory against Minnesota.

Bielema said he liked what Virginia Tech transfer Alec Bryant showed during spring practice. He noted that two freshmen, Jared Badie and Gabe Jacas, have the ability to immediately help the Illini as well.

Illinois has a couple of solid inside linebackers in Tarique Barnes and Calvin Hart Jr. Barnes played in 12 games with 10 starts and finished second on the team with 80 tackles last season. Hart was the Big Ten defensive player of the week after he recorded six tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and a 41-yard fumble return for a touchdown against Nebraska in the season opener, but he suffered a season-ending ACL tear in his left knee late in the game.

Bielema said both players possess explosiveness and a good attitude. Hart was cleared to practice during spring ball. Bielema’s other options at inside linebacker include Isaac Darkangelo, Dylan Rosiek and Kenenna Odeluga.


Barnes and the Illini defense helped key the memorable upsets of Illinois’ 2021 campaign. (Matt Krohn / USA Today)

The most accomplished cornerback on the roster is Devon Witherspoon, who started 10 games last season and tallied 52 tackles, eight tackles for loss and nine pass breakups. Bielema called Witherspoon tall, rangy and athletic.

“He’s got a lot of really good ball awareness, understanding, got great demeanor,” Bielema said. “For me as a head coach, I love those corners that play with a bravado, and I think Spoon definitely has that same thing.”

Bielema said Tahveon Nicholson, the team’s other projected starting corner, had an excellent spring. Nicholson played in eight games last season with two starts. To build depth at the position, Illinois is adding Terrell Jennings as a graduate transfer. Jennings committed to Illinois out of the transfer portal in April and most recently was at Division II Minnesota State.

Safety Sydney Brown led the team with 81 tackles last season while starting all 12 games. Bielema called him a talented player whose intensity and high football IQ stood out. Kendall Smith, who entered the transfer portal and then withdrew his name to return to Illinois for his final season of eligibility, will be a key cog at safety as well. Kionte Curry showed flashes of potential by disrupting multiple throws during the spring.

Bielema said Quan Martin was “one of the most underrated guys on a very productive defense the last half of the season.” Martin should fill the STAR role, which is essentially a nickel back. Bielema described it as a hybrid safety and corner role that provides value as a coverage player and also can play some deep-half or middle-post safety. He said Tailon Leitzsey is another player who can handle that versatile spot.

Key stat to know: The Illinois defense was stout when it needed to be last season, allowing opponents to convert just 46.5 percent of red zone drives into touchdowns, which ranked 12th in the FBS (the average was about 59 percent). A big reason for the success was the Illini’s pass defense in those situations. Illinois ranked ninth in the FBS in pass efficiency allowed in the red zone (111.3) and fifth in opponent yards per pass attempt (2.5).

Special teams

Illinois must replace a pair of highly productive specialists following the departures of senior kicker James McCourt and senior punter Blake Hayes. McCourt set the program career record for most 50-plus-yard field goals made (eight). Hayes became the program’s career record holder in punting average, punting yards, punts inside the 20 and punts of at least 50 yards. Meanwhile, the Illini also lost five-year starting long snapper Ethan Tabel.

Bielema said the program “really doesn’t have a standout guy at any one of those three positions” and calls it a work in progress with competition that should continue into fall camp. However, kicker Caleb Griffin could have the inside track on the starting kicker job. Bielema said Griffin endured some injuries during spring practice but cited his strong leg and preparation. Hugh Robertson handled punts during the spring game, and Bielema called him an engaging, dynamic leader. Bielema said the long snapper job was “wide open.”

Donny Navarro, who handled both punt returns and kickoff returns for Illinois last season, transferred to Northwestern in the offseason. Bielema said he is still evaluating who could fill those roles for next season.

“In the spring, we had about 15 guys displaying for that position, both as a kick returner and punt returner,” Bielema said. “To point and say we have either one of them as a starter would be premature. So we’re looking. That’s why you have fall camp. That’s why we have the summer to try and get a list of the guys that you feel good about and see exactly how they perform when it becomes clutch.”

Opposing scouting report

One Big Ten assistant coach pointed out his surprise at Bielema’s decision to fire his offensive coordinator just one year into a three-year deal. However, that move has added intrigue to how other programs in the league prepare for the Illini next season.

“We’ll get a chance to figure out who they’re going to be or who they are,” the assistant said. “But I think there’s a little bit of the unknown there, like, what do they want to do offensively?”

What won’t change for Illinois?

“The fact that they’ve got some really good running backs,” he said. “The Chase Brown kid is a really good running back. I don’t know who they’re going to have at quarterback. That’s probably one of their biggest concerns right now, who they’re developing at that position and what does that person look like when it comes to the run game?

“I think we’re going to have to wait and see. What they were doing at UTSA doesn’t necessarily guarantee that’s what they’re going to be doing at Illinois. It might have a little bit more of Bret’s flavor in it.”

How the Illini recruited from 2019 to 2022

If you want to understand the biggest philosophical shift in what Bielema envisions for recruiting success at Illinois compared to his predecessor Lovie Smith, just look at the number of in-state prospects signed by the Illini. From 2019 to ’21, Illinois signed 10 in-state high school players: six in 2019, zero in 2020 and four in 2021 (though it should be noted eight players from St. Louis were added as well during that stretch). One of those in-state commits, linebacker Kenenna Odeluga, pledged after Bielema arrived.

During the 2022 recruiting class, Illinois signed 11 in-state prep players.

“Everybody’s roster is in a different place,” said Bielema, who thrived as an in-state recruiter while head coach at Wisconsin from 2006 to ’12. “But for us here at Illinois, what we try to do is surround ourselves with building from within the state. I think Illinois has to be great with Illinois players. So that’s a priority for us.

“It’s on a daily living process that we, whether it’s in the high school world or it’s in the transfer world, the grad transfer world, if somebody is from the state of Illinois and they can help us win a Big Ten championship, we want them here. For a long time, they’ve gone to other places. For us, we’ve really begun to change the narrative, so that’s our driving force.”

Of course, Bielema realizes he can’t fill his roster with Illinois players alone and said the program must find the right players at the right positions to bolster depth. Illinois added five players from Florida in its 2022 class, as well as a pair of junior-college players.

“We’re going to battle out with our neighboring states, and I’ve already done that on a fairly successful rate,” Bielema said. “And I think that’s built some excitement here in the state as well as with our fanbase. We’re always looking to find the best players we can find. I’m not oblivious to the fact that in our conference there’s a couple schools that have 50 to 100 years of winning tradition that Illinois can’t match. But what we can do on a daily basis is outwork, out-grind, outperform and out-evaluate our opponents, so that’s kind of our daily vision.”

In the transfer portal

With Brandon Peters moving on and Artur Sitkowski dealing with injuries, finding another quarterback was critical. Tommy DeVito arrived in time for spring practice after playing in 24 games with 15 starts at Syracuse. And while the DeVito transfer likely draws the most attention, other additions from the transfer portal could be key.

Northwestern transfer TeRah Edwards gives Illinois important depth on the defensive line. Three portal additions have committed to Illinois since April: Vanderbilt defensive lineman Raashaan Wilkins, Minnesota State cornerback Terrell Jennings and Furman offensive lineman Dylan Davis. Wilkins is 6-3 and 310 pounds and started 19 games for the Commodores over the past two seasons.

Jennings took a winding path that included stops at Santa Barbara (Calif.) City College and FCS school North Dakota before he transferred to Division II Minnesota State. Davis played in 11 games with two starts last season for Furman as a left tackle but could help Illinois on the interior.

Bielema said he considers his two junior-college transfers — offensive linemen Isaiah Adams and Zylon Crisler — to essentially be portal additions as well.

“In my mind, a transfer is a transfer,” Bielema said. “In this world that we’re living in, it really doesn’t matter how they come in. Whether it’s both of our junior college transfers, both the O-linemen were actually full qualifiers out of high school. So they’re not the normal junior college transition player that people normally tag through either academic failures or misfortunes. These kids both were full qualifiers out of high school, which allows them to come in and do the things they’re doing right now.

“But we aren’t done yet. When we hit fall camp in August, we’ll let the best man win at every position and see where we can come out.”


Bielema ‘s second year in Champaign comes with an offensive reset. (Ron Johnson / USA Today)

Impact of coaching changes

Bielema made just one change to his full-time staff, and it was an important one, hiring Barry Lunney Jr. from UTSA to take over as offensive coordinator for Tony Peterson. UTSA’s offense ranked No. 11 nationally in scoring (36.9 points) and 34th in total offense (439.0 yards per game) last season. Bielema saw first-hand what Lunney did to transform that offense during UTSA’s 37-30 victory against Illinois last season, when the Roadrunners racked up 497 yards of total offense.

But Bielema already had plenty of familiarity with Lunney, a former Arkansas quarterback. Bielema hired Lunney to be his tight ends coach at Arkansas in 2013, and the two worked on the same staff for the next five seasons.

“When I was let go, he was retained, stayed and learned from a couple other coaches,” Bielema said. “Then he went on to have his career to become the offensive coordinator at UTSA, and the last two years their offense has been one of the best in college football. So I’m very familiar with him.

“I think a lot of people, they just see us hire a guy and don’t go into the details. But he and I have been working together. This will be our sixth year together. So I’m very familiar with who he is and the way he thinks.”

Whether Lunney can transform the Illinois offense remains to be seen, but his track record the past two seasons at UTSA is impressive. In his first season with the Roadrunners in 2020, the team broke the single-season school record for total rushing yards, rushing yards per game, yards per rush and rushing touchdowns. In 2021, UTSA was one of only three schools in the country with three receivers that amassed at least 50 receptions, 750 yards receiving and five touchdowns.

Schedule

DATE OPPONENT SITE

Aug. 27

Home

Sept. 2 (Fri.)

Indiana

Away

Sept. 10

Home

Sept. 22 (Thu.)

Chattanooga

Home

Oct. 1

Away

Oct. 8

Home

Oct. 15

Minnesota

Home

Oct. 29

Away

Nov. 5

Home

Nov. 12

Home

Nov. 19

Away

Nov. 26

Away

Final assessment

Bielema showed some of the pillars to success in the Big Ten during his first season at Illinois, chiefly a strong running game and sound defense. The Illini ranked in the top half of the league in rushing offense, yards per carry, scoring defense and total defense. For Illinois to take the next step, it needs a more dynamic passing attack, which is the area Bielema attempted to address by bringing in a new offensive coordinator.

Illinois has finished better than fifth place in the Big Ten West just once since the divisional split in 2014, and Bielema’s first Illini group came in fifth behind four programs that tallied winning records: Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Purdue. Illinois led Iowa early, Purdue late and beat Minnesota, so the Illini appear to be on the right track. Bielema continues to build the program with his tough-nosed approach in mind. Demonstrating more consistency will go a long way toward giving Illinois the chance to earn a bowl bid and making more noise in the West.

Editor’s note: This is part of a series previewing Power 5 and top Group of 5 teams for the 2022 college football season.

(Top photo of Chase Brown: Gregory Fisher / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)



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