Nebraska will be the litmus test this season for the Illini.
The non-conference slate should be an opportunity to fine tune things, but the Cornhuskers will be the first big challenge to prove whether this team has truly improved from that disastrous defense.
Obviously, the key to stopping Nebraska from putting 55+ on the board again is to limit Adrien Martinez. Easier said than done. He'll have a plethora of talented options in the backfield and split out wide. The most exciting of which might be JD Spielman.
The son of Minnesota Vikings GM Rick Spielman, JD has been one of the most consistent receivers in the Big Ten his first two seasons.
The 5-foot-9, 180-pound native of Eden Prairie, Minnesota, set single season freshman records for receiving yards (830), receptions (55), and all-purpose yards (1,572) as a redshirt freshman in 2017. He upped his touchdown receptions from two to eight between 2017-2018. He's 66 catches and a little over 1,000 yards away from the all-time Nebraska record for receptions and yards.
He'll be the focal point of the passing offense moving forward. He has already been named to the Biletnikoff award watchlist. Every superlative you can use to describe his game, has already been used by one publication or another. Excellent route runner. Explosive. Good hands. Dependable. Team leader. On and on.
The secondary for Illinois has improved from last year to now, but it will have its hands full with Spielman.
This is just one of the many examples of what he brings to the table:
This was his first play ever for Nebraska, and far from his last.
He's dangerous as a kick returner, receiver, rusher — a Swiss army knife of a defense-breaker.
If you don't believe me, watch him crush Wisconsin last year for 209 yards on nine catches.
Yes, Nebraska lost that game. It wasn't Spielman's fault, however.
Nate Hobbs or whoever is charged with covering JD Spielman will have a tough go of it.