Despite Bret Bielema’s 5-7 record in 2021, Illinois fans were encouraged by the Illini’s first victory over Northwestern since 2014.
With only six starters back on defense and offense, the Illini face a steep uphill climb if they want to play in a bowl game this season.
It’s not that I didn’t like our roster a year ago, but now that you know everyone, you feel more at ease, as Bielema put it. “You know what makes them tick, what makes them stumble, and how they deal with pressure.”
After a miserable passing attack in 2021, Illinois head coach Bret Bielema hired former UTSA offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. to replace Tony Petersen, and the offense will look very different when it opens the season at home against Wyoming on August 27.
Bielema has mentioned an internal “buzz” about the program despite its predicted sixth-place finish in the Big Ten West Division.
Regarding making forecasts, Bielema said, “I leave that to the outside world.”
Get the dust off your shoulders
Substitute from Syracuse Tommy DeVito is competing with Artur Sitkowski for the starting quarterback position. Sitkowski had shoulder and non-throwing arm surgeries over the offseason and missed spring practice. In 2021, Sitkowski and Brandon Peters had one of the worst passing seasons in Big Ten history, completing just 51.2% of their passes and averaging just 156.2 passing yards per game.
“We’re starting to see the fruits of our labor with (the passing game) right now,” DeVito said to reporters at camp. It’s great to see guys like that who are motivated to grow and get better.
Isaiah Williams, a former quarterback who switched positions, is now a dangerous No. 1 target after hauling in 47 passes for 525 yards and four touchdowns in 2021. He needs help, and returning wide receivers Casey Washington and Bryan Hightower have shown promise.
The ability to make plays, and the consistency with which he does so, is something that DeVito could prove to be invaluable. As a senior quarterback for Syracuse in 2019, he threw for 2,360 yards, 19 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions. However, before he went through the transfer portal last year, he completed 32 of 52 passes for 388 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions.
DeVito has said that the key to getting back in shape is “staying healthy, taking care of your body.” “Then, how much I’ve developed intellectually between then and now.”
After meeting while both were prospects in New Jersey high schools, DeVito and Sitkowski have been friends for over a decade.
You never know when your paths will cross with someone else, and it’s funny how they do, so you never burn any bridges, as DeVito put it. We’ve always gotten along well, but now our friendship is even closer than it was before.
At least until the Illini offense shows it can move the ball effectively through the air, opponents will likely stack the box with eight players to stop the run.
Last year, the Illini averaged 173.6 rushing yards per game thanks to 1,000-yard rusher Chase Brown and a seasoned offensive line. Josh McCray, despite being a first-year player, showed a lot of potential as a running back, averaging 4.9 yards per carry.
The Illini have plenty of pocket protection thanks to sixth-year senior Alex Palczewski and 6-6, 315-pounder Julian Pearl, and versatile lineman Alex Pihlstrom will slide to center this season.
DEFENSE OF THE ILLINOIS
The Illini defense flourished with Ryan Walters at the helm, allowing just 18.9 points per game in Big Ten action.
After missing time in the spring due to a thumb injury, defensive tackle Keith Randolph is relishing his return to full practice.
There is a strong core of returning defensive stars led by Randolph (5.5 tackles for loss and four sacks in 2021) and Johnny Newton (three sacks and four tackles for loss), as well as safety Sydney Brown and nickelback Jartavius Martin.
On September 2, Illinois will face a “tremendous challenge” when they travel to Indiana to kick off Big Ten play. It will be the first meeting between the two teams since 2017 and he pointed out that the Illini had a game a week before facing the Hoosiers.
According to Bielema, the Fighting Illini have had “all spring, all summer, all fall camp to work on the Fighting Illini.”
On October 1, Bielema will travel back to Wisconsin, where he won three consecutive Big Ten titles between 2012 and 2014. In November, the Illini travel to Michigan and Northwestern before wrapping up the season at home against Big Ten East foes Ohio State and Indiana.
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