Illini’s new look to be built for Bielema’s second year
Bret Bielema offered Illinois fans a glimmer of hope by going 5-7 in a debut campaign in 2021 highlighted by a nine-overtime victory at Penn State and the first victory over rival Northwestern since 2014 .
Bringing the Illini to a bowling game is among the next challenges for a team that only fires six starters on each side of the ball.
“Just knowing our roster, not that I didn’t like our roster a year ago, it’s just that you’re more comfortable,” Bielema said. “You know their strengths, you know their weaknesses, you know how they handle the moments.”
The offense will look markedly different when Illinois opens the season at home against Wyoming on August 27 after Bielema brought in former UTSA offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. to take over from Tony Petersen after a lamentable passing attack in 2021.
As for the final result, Bielema hinted at an internal “buzz” around the program, picked to finish sixth in the Big Ten West division, according to a media poll.
“As far as predictions go,” Bielema said, “I leave that to the outside world.”
CLEAR THE AIR
Syracuse transfer Tommy DeVito is seeking the starting quarterback spot over Artur Sitkowski, who missed spring training after offseason surgeries on his throwing shoulder and non-throwing arm. Sitkowski and Brandon Peters have struggled mightily in 2021, completing just 51.2% of passes and averaging 156.2 passing yards per game, the two worst in the Big Ten.
“We’re starting to see the fruits of our labor with (the passing game) right now,” DeVito told reporters during camp. “It’s great to see guys who are eager to learn and want to improve.”
Converted wide receiver Isaiah Williams is a capable No. two a potential flashed.
DeVito’s playing potential could be crucial – along with his consistency. In 2019, he threw for 2,360 yards with 19 touchdowns and five interceptions at Syracuse. Last year, however, he completed 32 of 52 passes for 388 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions before entering the transfer gate.
“The most important thing is to stay healthy, to take care of your body,” DeVito said of returning to top form. “Then, mentally, by then, how much I’ve grown.”
DeVito and Sitkowski have known each other for the better part of a decade after training together as high school prospects in New Jersey.
“It’s funny how people’s paths cross and you never know when you’re going to be back with someone, so you never burn bridges,” DeVito said. “We’ve always had a good relationship and it’s only getting stronger now.”
Illinois should expect opponents to load the box with eight-man fronts to fill the run until the offense proves they can move the ball through the air.
Behind 1,000-yard rusher Chase Brown and a veteran offensive line, the Illini averaged 173.6 rushing yards last season. True freshman Josh McCray has shown plenty of promise as a powerback, averaging 4.9 yards per carry.
Six-foot-6, 315-pound tackles Alex Palczewski and 6-foot-6, 315-pound Julian Pearl provide the Illini with good pocket protection and versatile lineman Alex Pihlstrom will slide to center this season.
The Illini thrived defensively under coordinator Ryan Walters, allowing just 18.9 points per game in Big Ten play.
“Being back out there makes you feel alive again,” defensive tackle Keith Randolph said of returning to full practice after a thumb injury limited his work in the spring.
Randolph (5.5 tackles for loss and four sacks in 2021) and Johnny Newton (three sacks and four tackles for loss) headline a series of returning defensive players, alongside safety Sydney Brown and nickelback Jartavius Martin.
Illinois opens the Big Ten game in Indiana on Sept. 2, which Bielema called a “tremendous challenge.” He noted the Illini were playing a week early before facing the Hoosiers for the first time since 2017.
“They had all spring, all summer, all fall camp to work on Fighting Illini,” Bielema said.
Also on the schedule is Bielema’s Oct. 1 return to Wisconsin, where he won three consecutive Big Ten titles from 2012 to 2014. Big Ten foes West Iowa, Minnesota and Purdue all visit Champaign before the Illini ends the season in Michigan and November.
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