Last year’s passing attack was less than stellar. Illinois had only 152 yards per game (114th/130 teams) and 10 touchdowns. Josh Imatorbhebhe led the pack with 42.4 yards per game and 3 TDs.
A lot can be MMQB’d about the 2020 stat line, but 2019 was only marginally better at 185.3 yards a game, good for 105th in the country. In fact, none of Lovie’s teams did well in the passing attack, placing no better than 10th (out of 14) in the Big Ten.
Not much will change under Bret Bielema. Bielema’s run-heavy Wisconsin offense was top-15 in the nation, but his spread offense still averaged 200 yards in the air and had receivers regular with 750+ yards and 7+ TD seasons.
Bielema doesn’t need a flashy passing offense to succeed. What he needs are strong, blocking receivers that can be relied on to catch the ball when thrown to. We may not see the impact right away, but the passing attack should be a bit of an improvement.
Illinois isn’t bringing back a lot of production on the receiving end. Donny Navarro, Brian Hightower, and Casey Washington are the only receivers with more than five catches per game who are returning. Navarro starred in 2019, with two receptions per game and 2 TDs, and Hightower led the pack in 2020, with 1.4 receptions/game and 3 TDs. Washington was a role player who played at Wake Forest in the spring but transferred back to Illinois late in July.
The rest of Illinois returning players are:
- Carlos Sandy - SO - (2020: 4 games/1 reception/29 yards, 2019: 1/4/22)
- Dalevon Campbell - SO - (‘20: 7/3/48)
- Desmond Dan Jr. - JR - (0/0/0)
- Khmari Thompson - RS FR - (0/0/0)
- Owen Hickey - RS FR - (0/0/0)
- Ty Lindenman - RS FR - (0/0/0)
The recruiting trail wasn’t the brightest spot, picking up only one scholarship freshman receiver, 3-star Pat Bryant, and three walk-ons, Peyton Vining, Keion Battle, and Miles Scott. The rest of the depth was picked up in the transfer portal or position switches.
The grad transfer from Notre Dame, played RB and WR for the Irish. He rushed for 513 yards and 9 TDs and caught the ball 30 times for 294 yards. His career in South Bend was hobbled by injuries and competition.
Armstrong is the prototypical candidate who fits will into Bielema’s scheme. A strong wideout that will go up and get the ball, Armstrong fits right into the hole left by Bhebhe. If Brandon Peters can find the same connection he won't miss his favorite wideout leaving for the NFL.
Williams switched from QB in the spring. Illinois was one of the few programs to offer him a chance to play QB as the 5-star athlete had offers from every blue-chip program in the nation.
Williams was sparingly used in his freshman year but had a break-out year as a backup QB in 2020. Most of the damage was done on the ground. It will be a learning curve for Williams, but he is a shifty runner, with a QB-level knowledge of Big Ten defenses.
Throw in a trick play or two and it's a combination to watch this year.
Beason switched from DB in the spring. The 4-star recruit is the eighth-best recruit to ever come to Illinois, but a knee injury sidelined Beason in the first year and limited his impact last year. Now as a WR, Beason has a chance to make an impact on the other side of the ball.
The wide receiving core isn't the star of the offense, and in a Bielema offense, it will never be. The WR room is a group of tough-on-the-nose athletes that will get the job done.