Suffice it to say that the die was set in stone on Nebraska’s 2021 season before halftime of the very first game of the season. Horrific special teams play, bad penalties and turnovers started Nebraska’s season out the wrong way, and Illinois was more than capable to take advantage of it. It didn’t look like it for the longest while, as the Illini didn’t win another conference game until a nine-overtime stinkfest in Happy Valley. After the 20-18 victory over then #7 Penn State, Illinois also beat Minnesota and Northwestern to finish Bert Bielema’s first season at 5-7.
That’s definitely an upgrade over a 2-6 record in 2020, so call it a successful debut for Bielema. Though with just 13 returning starters, progress could be slow in Champaign. Change at quarterback could likely be the starting point for improvement, now that the oft-injured and mostly ineffective quarterback Brandon Peters is finally out of eligibility. Junior Artur Sitkowski (6’5” 205 lbs.) wasn’t effective outside of his stunning 12 of 15 passing performance off the bench against the Huskers, completing just 50% of his passes for the season. In comes Syracuse transfer Tommy DeVito (6’2” 210 lbs.) who started 11 games for the Orange in 2019, completing 63% of his passes with 19 touchdowns and five interceptions that season. DeVito only played four games in 2020 due to injury, and three games in 2021 before hitting the transfer portal.
A loaded running back room should also help the Illinois offense. Junior Chase Brown (5’11” 205 lbs.) rushed 1,005 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 5.9 yards per carry. Sophomores Josh McCray (6’1” 240 lbs.) and Reggie Love (5’11” 195 lbs.) rushed for 549 and 158 yards respectively as backups. Brown earned third team All-Big Ten honors last season, and with former Arkansas/East Carolina transfer Chase Hayden (5’10” 205 lbs., 580 career yards) also on the roster, Illinois has one of the deepest running back groups around.
One of the truisms of football is that poor quarterback results are also accompanied by poor receiver results, and that’s the case at Illinois. Sophomore Isaiah Williams (5’10” 180 lbs.) led the Illini with 47 catches for 525 yards and four touchdowns last season after moving from quarterback to better exploit his athletic ability. Junior Casey Washington (6’2” 190 lbs.) was second on the team with 21 catches for 294 yards. Junior tight end Luke Ford (6’6” 260 lbs.) caught 15 passes for 114 yards and two touchdowns. If Tommy DeVito is going to upgrade the Illini passing game, other receivers are going to need to emerge in 2022.
On the offensive line, Illinois has to replace three starters, which could impact the production of the Illini running backs this season. Senior right tackle Alex Palczewski (6’6” 310 lbs.) was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA; prior to a 2020 injury, he was a multi-year starter who earned third team All Big Ten honors. Junior left tackle Julian Pearl (6’6” 310 lbs.) has started 14 games in his career. To fill the holes on the line, Illinois has added juco transfers Isaiah Adams (6’5” 310 lbs.) and Zy Crisler (6’6” 360 lbs.).
While Lovie Smith was a defensive-oriented coach, the arrival of Bert Bielema (and perhaps more importantly, defensive coordinator Ryan Walters) significantly improved the Illini defense last season. Illinois went from worst (14th) in 2020 to sixth last season in the Big Ten in both total defense and scoring defense. Six starters return this year, so while Illinois may not improve much, they shouldn’t fall back too far back in 2022.
Sophomore defensive end Jer’Zhan Newton (6’2” 290 lbs.) returns after a 50 tackle season that saw him earn fourth team All-Big Ten honors. On the other side, fellow sophomore Keith Randolph (6’5” 270 lbs.) had 42 tackles last season. Senior nose guard Calvin Avery (6’2” 335 lbs.) has started four games in his Illini career, so this should be a solid group, especially if Newton continues to develop.
Junior middle linebacker Tarique Barnes (6’1” 230 lbs.) was second on the Illini last season with 80 tackles. Junior weakside linebacker Calvin Hart (6’1” 230 lbs.) only played one game last season with six tackles and one season-disemboweling fumble return for a touchdown in the season opener before suffering a season-ending knee injury. He’s back along with sophomore outside linbeacker Seth Coleman (6’5” 235 lbs.), who’s started seven games over the last two seasons with 35 career tackles.
Three starters return in the secondary, but Illinois will miss second team All-Big Ten safety Kerby Joseph, who was a third round draft pick of the Detroit Lions. Senior strong safety Sydney Brown (6’0” 200 lbs.) will lead the secondary this year after earning honorable mention All-Big Ten honors with a team leading 81 tackles. Junior cornerback Devon Witherspoon (6’0” 180 lbs.) led the Illini with nine pass breakups and seven tackles for loss. Senior “Star” Jartavius Martin (6’0” 195 lbs.) has started 23 games in his career with Illinois; as the nickel back, he had 55 tackles and eight pass breakups.
Slow progress following a 5-7 record could mean a bowl game in Champaign, and that’s something for Illini fans to be very pleased with. I dare say, though, that Illinois surprised a bunch of teams last year (Nebraska, Penn State and Minnesota, to be honest)... and that’s not likely to happen in 2022.
What happens when Illinois leaves the Land of Lincoln for Lincoln, NE?
This poll is closed
Bert does what Bert does... Destroys Nebraska’s hopes and dreams.
It’s another sloppy game, but the Huskers eek out a victory at home.
Karma. The Huskers flush last year’s bad memories and crush Illinois.