Illini football far exceeded preseason expectations in 2022, as most prognosticators thought they would finish anywhere from fourth to sixth in the Big Ten West. The bookies certainly did not see Illinois winning eight games this past season. But next season, they are now on the board for national championship futures. Betting with a verde casino bonus, you can buy in to Illinois national title odds at +20000 or +25000. For 2023, the standards bar is now indeed raised.
As it should be, with Illini football coach Bret Bielema having received a contract extension and a pay raise. A bowl berth won’t be just a fun, pleasant surprise next fall, it’ll be simply expected. Illinois football historically does not do well as the hunted, only as the hunter, and we saw that again this past fall. Maybe that changes next autumn.
We already took a long, hard, detailed look at 2022, now it is time to go in depth on an advanced analysis of 2023.
Bear in mind that what follows is highly subject to a ton of changes, because of the transfer portal and NFL Draft declarations. We’re just looking at it right now, from where things stand today, Wednesday, January 4.
QB1 Tommy DeVito, Leading rusher and MVP Chase Brown, Top cover corner and defender Devon Witherspoon, stellar secondary members Kendall Smith and Quan Martin, ball-hawking safety and big time play-maker Sydney Brown, second best receiver Brian Hightower, heart of the OL Alex Palczewski, leading tackler Isaac Darkangelo, regular starters Calvin Avery, Alex Philstrom and Isaiah Adams.
That sounds like a lot, and it surely is, but remember this- the 2021 team was one of the most experienced in the nation, and the 2022 version one of the youngest. And yet, the turnaround happened.
Leading receiver Isaiah Williams, the rest of the receiving corps other than Hightower, running back Reggie Love, tight end Tip Reiman, “The Law Firm” Keith Randolph and Johnny Newton, who were the most dominant DT pairing in the nation during the first half of the season (they came down to Earth in November),
Also back are Rookie of the Year Gabe Jacas, leading pass rusher Seth Coleman, key defenders Calvin Hart, Tariq Barnes, Matthew Bailey, and Tahveon Nicholson. OL starters Zy Crisler and Julian Pearl return as well.
We asked Bielema about addressing needs in the transfer portal, after the Reliaquest Bowl. He discussed trying to fill the voids left by Devon Witherspoon and Chase Brown exiting before their college eligibility expired.
“The transfer portal to me is maybe a lot of things, when you lose guys early, so definitely Spoon, right?” Bielema said.
“Before the year started, I thought, if he played well, there’s a chance we might lose him, but he played himself into possibly being the first corner taken in the NFL draft. So I really didn’t foresee that at that level.
“But I think it makes sense to grab a corner for a corner given that scenario.
“Obviously Chase Brown jumped out, right? He had a year left of eligibility. So depending on what we feel at the running back position, there’s some easy ones there to go one-for-one. I don’t want to make a huge living in the portal, but I do think it gives us a chance to replace old players that aren’t here anymore.
“I think we’re always going to be a developmental high school type program, but we definitely want to supplement where there’s a need.”
New QB Coming In
Illini football has their new QB1 in Ole Miss transfer Luke Altmyer. He doesn’t have a ton of experience, or gaudy stats, but he went to Ole Miss highly touted, and he learned a lot under offensive guru Lane Kiffin.
The best part is, he’ll be a three-year starter, potentially. Would have been better to get Hudson Card, obviously, but this is a great consolation prize.
Position Group Spotlight: Wide Receivers
Isaiah Williams was a bright spot on a day were the offense sputtered mightily in the Reliaquest Bowl, he discussed what the team needs to get right in order to get better next season.
“I feel like everything in the locker room is going the right way,” he said.
“We lost five games on one possession, good teams know how to win those games, so that’s our biggest thing coming into next season.”
With the exception of Hightower, all the receiving room comes back next season, take a position group that was a weakness of the team in 2022, and theoretically making it a strength in 2023, as they’ll be very experienced.
“There’s going to be a lot of competition, and I’m going to make sure guys know that you have to compete everyday to help the team,” Williams said.
The weakest link of this team was the passing offense, by far, and that needs to improve. They won’t become a pass-first team, but they need enough to have balance, otherwise Barry Lunney is not doing his job.
Speaking of coordinators, obviously the biggest adjustment of this Illini football team will be the loss of defensive coordinator Ryan Walters, who is now the head coach at Purdue. He took OLB coach Kevin Kane with him to be his new D coordinator in West Lafayette.
Now DBs coach Aaron Henry will be the new DC. Bielema was asked about how Henry did in his first day with the gig, the Reliaquest Bowl, and about the decision itself to elevate him.
“When you see coaches’ players play, when you see the growth that Devon Witherspoon is having, you see the things that are happening, physically, maturity, there’s talent development in the tank, but he learned to play the game at a different level,” Bielema said.
“I know that was what was bred into him in Aaron’s coaching.
“The way the players reacted when I made the announcements, the way they handled practice, they literally didn’t miss a beat.
“Today just the way the game unfolded, he made some adjustments at halftime, played some things within the game. The extreme limitations we had today personnel-wise, I think we made the right choice, and hopefully it’s just going to become even better from here.
Paul M. Banks is the owner/manager of The Sports Bank. He’s also the author of “Transatlantic Passage: How the English Premier League Redefined Soccer in America,” and “No, I Can’t Get You Free Tickets: Lessons Learned From a Life in the Sports Media Industry.”
He’s written for numerous publications, including the New York Daily News, Sports Illustrated and the Chicago Tribune. He regularly appears on NTD News and WGN News Now. Follow the website on Twitter and Instagram.