How much fun was last season as an Illinois fan? Illini fans saw an 8-5 season; it was the Illini’s first winning season since 2011 (7-6) and first 8+ win season since 2007. They did finish with a 19-10 loss in the ReliaQuest Bowl to Mississippi State. But it also included wins at Wisconsin, vs Iowa, vs Minnesota and a close loss at a College Football Playoff team in Michigan.
The Illini lose some key players in CB Devon Witherspoon, DB Jartavius Martin, DB Sydney Brown, RB Chase Brown and QB Tommy DeVito. They also lost defensive coordinator Ryan Walters (now head coach at Purdue). But Bret Bielema is back as head coach and this season is an opportunity to show that his system is here to stay.
The defense was absolutely incredible last year! They led the entire country in takeaways, which also includes being #1 in interceptions. The secondary lost a ton though, that will be the biggest defensive question mark. The biggest strength is on the D-line. Jer’Zhan Newton and Keith Randolph will be a wrecking crew up front. They will create problems all year long on the line. TeRah Edwards played in every game last year but has the opportunity to start inside with Calvin Avery gone. Denzel Daxon provides solid depth to plug up the line.
Gabe Jacas could be a star at outside linebacker. Jacas was an All-Big Ten honorable mention as a freshman and should take another step this season.
Below we see where Illinois ranked amongst the other Big Ten Teams on defense. First in yards/game, pass yards/game and points allowed/game and second in rush yards/game only to Michigan.
Chase Brown is gone, but Reggie Love and Josh McCray are really talented backs to the point where I don’t think this position is a weakness. The left side of the O-Line is a strength too. Julian Pearl and Isaiah Adams are extremely talented All-Big Ten type guys up front. Zy Crisler and JUCO transfer Dezmond Schuster should be fine on the right side with some polish and Josh Kreutz (Olin’s son) steps in at center, there’s a little more of a question mark around how he’ll fill in after losing Alex Pihlstrom to the NFL.
The receivers are really talented. Isaiah Williams, Casey Washington and Pat Bryant return. Keep on eye on a few freshmen too; Malik Elzy and Kenari Wilcher could make an impact.
With Ryan Walters off to Purdue, Aaron Henry steps in as defensive coordinator. The Illini lost two important defensive back so that’s the area that appears to be the weak spot. Taz Nicholson returns as a starter and should mold into the leader of the secondary. Xavier Scott played plenty as a freshman and will likely be the second corner.
Illinois plays a lot of Nickel defense, and they bring in Kaleb Petterson from the JUCO ranks to plug in for this year.
The Illini lost their quarterback, running back and center from last year. They brought in two transfers to sure up the QB position. Luke Altmyer (Ole Miss) and John Paddock (Ball State). Luke Altmyer is the likely start and be the main guy. The passing game was a weakness last year. There wasn’t many big passing plays and almost no shots down field. That was probably by design, but it allowed defenses to take some more risks against the Illini. This year’s receivers along with Altmyer may allow for some more shots.
No Ohio State or Michigan on the schedule, but that Big Ten opener against Penn State will be a big one! The Illini visit Purdue and former DC Ryan Walters on September 30th. Homecoming on October 21st against Wisconsin will be a big one. Minnesota will be another tough one, but the BYE falls at a good time between those two games.
Wrap Up and Keys
W-L projections I’ve seen have Illinois anywhere from 6 to 7 wins, but I think it could be higher. The weakness on defense appears to be the secondary, but the coaching staff did a great job providing a lot of talented depth. Add in the nickel heavy defense with an incredible D-Line and there’s no reason this defense can’t lead the Big Ten again!
The Illini secondary are going to be tested out of the gate Toledo, Kansas and Penn State all have quarterbacks who can throw it, so I’m excited to see how they respond early on. Last season the Illini established themselves in the Big Ten West. This season they need to prove it was no fluke. They are here to stay.