It was another rough year for Illinois in 2020 as they finished with a 2-6 record in what was a Big Ten only season because of Covid-19. Lovie Smith is out as head coach and Bret Bielema is in. Bielema saw tremendous success as a head coach at Wisconsin from 2006-2012 before leaving Camp Randall for Arkansas. Bielema never could replicate that success at Arkansas and was let go in 2017. Since then, Bielema has spent time as a defensive consultant and line coach for the New England Patriots and linebacker coach for the New York Giants. Let’s take a look at this year’s squad before Saturday’s opener against Nebraska.
Bielema’s style has revolved around the running game. The Illini surpassed the 200 yard rushing mark just twice last season; their only two wins against Rutgers and Nebraska. It’s no secret those teams aren’t the top level teams in the Big Ten and if you can’t establish the run game against anyone other than Rutgers and Nebraska, it will be a long season again. The run game begins with the line and the Illini did lose Kendrick Green to the NFL (3rd Round- Pittsburgh Steelers). But besides Green, the entire line returns. Senior offensive tackle Verderian Lowe and senior center Doug Kramer lead a group of experienced guys up front who will look to establish that line.
Illinois returns Chase Brown at running back this year. He led the team with 540 yards last year and finished with 3 TDs. He’s a huge key for the this offense and maybe this team in tandem with the offensive line. The team’s second leading rusher was freshman QB Isaiah Williams, who’s actually listed as a wide-receiver this year so the offense may have some intriguing option with Williams. Mike Epstein was the Illini’s other main option out of the backfield. He finished with 367 yards and 4 TD’s last year and played the role of more of a 3rd down and back. Grad-transfer Chase Hayden (East Carolina) may leapfrog Epstein as the backup RB and I can see redshirt freshman Reggie Love III getting some carries as well.
Brandon Peters will return as the starting QB. Peters only played in 5 of Illinois’ 8 games last season as he dealt with injuries and we saw a QB carousel of Isaiah Williams, Coran Taylor and Matt Robinson. Having Peters back with this offensive is a positive and his experience should only help with the transition of a new coaching staff. The former-Michigan transfer has now had five different offensive coordinators in his five-year collegiate career. Peters completed 48.8% of his passes for 429 yards and 3 TDs with 0 INTs last year. He’s the clear number one guy going into the year. Rutgers transfer Artur Sitkowski will be the backup to begin the season.
Who will be catching the passes from Peters is a bit more of a question mark. Leading receiver Josh Imatorbhebhe is off the Jacksonville Jaguars and his brother Daniel has transferred to Kansas State. Add in that last year’s fourth leading receiver, Casey Washington, transferred to Wake Forest and that leaves Brian Hightower and Tight-End Daniel Barker as the only two returners with more than 100 yards receiving in 2020. Hightower is the likely number one option to start, but there’s a big opportunity for someone else to step up. The most-likely candidate is Notre Dame transfer Jafar Armstrong. I could also see Georgia-transfer Tight-End Luke Ford making an impact out of the gate. Isaiah Williams has moved from QB to WR so I’d also expect him to see plenty of action. Williams can be a versatile threat as we saw him be the second-leading rusher on the team last year from his six games at the QB position. Marquez Beason and Donny Navarro III are a few other names I expect to see on the field.
Lovie Smith was never able to get the defense we all hoped for in Champaign. Illinois finished dead last in the Big Ten last year in total defense; allowing 467.8 yards per game and 34.9 points per game. The defense struggled mightily against the run and seemed like they just couldn’t get off the field. Ryan Walters comes in from Missouri as the new defensive coordinator and attempts to change that narrative.
The strength of this defense is the linebackers. Middle-Linebacker Jake Hansen led the team in tackles last year and will surely lead them again this year as long as he’s healthy. He was everywhere on the field last season, consistently making things happen for the Illini. Owen Carney Jr and Isaiah Gay return on the outside and will be instrumental in the Illini to create a pass-rush. Calvin Hart also transfers in from NC State. He’ll add depth and be used as a pass-rusher.
Up front, the Illini are led by 315-pund nose guard Roderick Perry. Senior Jamal Woods will help anchor a line that needs to improve this year. Around Perry and Woods, there’s a lot of young depth. Redshirt freshmen Jer’Zhan Newton and Keith Randolph Jr should be in the mix. This line needs to be able to stop the run for Illinois to take a big step this season.
If the pass-rush does improve as expected, that should really help out the corners. Devon Witherspoon returns at cornerback and Tony Adams moves from safety to corner this year. That should help sure up the cornerback position, but leaves a hole and some questions at safety. Junior Sydney Brown will have one of those safety spots. The other one appears to be between two SEC transfers: Prather Hudson (Georgia) and Eddie Smith (Alabama).
James McCourt is back as the kicker with sophomore Caleb Griffin as his backup. Senior Blake Hayes is the punter. Punt and kick return options look to be Donny Navarro III, Khmari Thompson and Chase Brown.
The start of the Bret Bielema coaching era at Illinois will bring excitement in Champaign and the Illini faithful can only hope it brings improvement. The schedule doesn’t look too difficult this year, so a good start in Champaign is definitely plausible. Nebraska, UTSA, Virginia, Maryland, Purdue and Charlotte are the first six games so let’s get off to a good start!