Even though the Iliinois Fighting Illini ended 2021 with a 5-7 record, they still performed respectably in Bret Bielema’s first season. They were competititve in almost every game and had a few memorable upsets versus ranked opponents. But the offense — specifically the quarterback play — was Illinois’ glaring weakness.
Brandon Peters provided a safe, experienced veteran presence but he was unspectacular over his three seasons — in fairness, injury and concussion issues had a lot to do with that. Art Sitkowski entered this offseason as the likely incumbent, but he, too, was inconsistent and is coming off injury. Ryan Johnson, who ended the year as QB2, joined the Illini as a walk-on grad transfer from Division II Northern Michigan and hasn’t attempted a pass since 2019. Matt Robinson held a clipboard the entire season and never sniffed the field. Coran Taylor was converted to defensive back, while Deuce Spann and Isaiah Williams were turned into receivers prior to the season.
Even with the addition of former Syracuse quarterback Tommy DeVito in December, many around the program felt that Illinois needed to bring in multiple transfer QBs to liven up the offense.
DeVito truly is a nice pickup. And he may truly better fit the mold of a typical starting quarterback in a Bret Bielema system (and the guy already looks good in Orange & Blue), but I don’t want typical. Typical is boring. I want to dream bigger.
And when it comes to transfer portal QBs, it doesn’t get any bigger than Caleb Williams.
The former five-star recruit out of Washington, D.C. came to Oklahoma and immediately made a season-changing impact as a true freshman. Williams unseated a preseason Heisman candidate in Spencer Rattler — it took only one half of football against Texas for then-OU coach Lincoln Riley to effectively kick Rattler to the curb and roll with Williams — and figured to be the cornerstone of the Sooners’ offense for the next few seasons. But everything changed when Riley bolted to become head coach at Southern Cal.
Rattler left OU as expected and Williams was the clear QB1 in Norman. Until he wasn’t. Former UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel decommitted from UCLA to transfer to Oklahoma. Couple that with Riley’s exit, and Williams suddenly found himself contemplating his next move.
With Bielema hiring a new offense coordinator, this would be a more than appropriate time for the Fighting Illini to shoot their shot. Hell...if EASTERN MICHIGAN is making a recruiting pitch, why shouldn’t Illinois?
Williams has good pocket presence, terrific arm strength and the athleticism to make off-platform throws. He also has the improvisational skill and escapability to extend plays with his legs. Williams may not be a “scheme fit” but he is LITERALLY the best player available. It’s obvious why the Fighting Illini should want him...but why should he want the Fighting Illini? Well, wouldn’t you know it? I came up with a list!
- Illinois may not have the football tradition or the Heisman history of an Oklahoma or USC. But Illinois does have plenty of rich, successful, generous alumni that’d be willing to dole out some NIL coin. Hell, my brother’s an Illinois grad — he’s a neuropsychologist so he can probably chip in a few bucks. And his wife studied at Oklahoma State. I’m sure she’d relish any opportunity to stick it to the Sooners.
- Winds of change are already blowing through Champaign. Bret Bielema was quick to recognize that offensive coordinator Tony Petersen was not the right guy for the gig and made the difficult choice to fire Petersen after just one season. On Saturday, Illinois announced Barry Lunney Jr. as its new OC/QB coach. Lunney comes from UT-San Antonio, where the Roadrunners finished 34th nationally in total offense and 11th in scoring, and recorded 72 “splash plays” (scrimmage plays of 20+ yards). Oh, and they beat Illinois this past season, in case you forgot. UTSA had an elite running back and dual-threat quarterback, just thought I’d bring that up.
- C-Will to I-Will. As previously mentioned, Isaiah Williams switched positions during the 2021 offseason. The converted QB led the Fighting Illini in catches (47) and receiving yards (525) as a redshirt freshman — and this was with Brandon Peters & Art Sitkowski throwing to him. He has emerged as an All-Big Ten-caliber threat at wideout, and should only improve with time, reps, and a more accomplished passer getting him the ball.
- The “Ayo” Factor. Ayo Dosunmu signed with Illinois in 2018 when the basketball program was, well, not very good. He joined the Illini in the midst of a massive rebuild and helped turn Illinois’ fortunes around almost immediately — no team has won more Big Ten games the past two seasons. Ayo brought a swagger to Illinois and made Illini basketball cool again. He’s a beloved figure in Champaign and will forever be remembered as one of the finest players in program history. Dosunmu turned out to be not just a great player, but a transcendent one. Football could use some swagger of its own. And even if he isn’t a homegrown talent, Williams’ arrival would signify the program’s rapid ascent.
- Speaking of that... here’s a more personal plea: Have you seen the Big Ten West, my dude? You would easily be the best QB in the division — other than Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, you may be the best in the entire conference. You want opportunity? You want to make a splash? You want to elevate a program to the next level? You should seriously, earnestly consider coming to Champaign. The Illini are desperate for a quarterback. Just in the past half-decade OU has had Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, Jalen Hurts & Spencer Rattler — Oklahoma is like the rich kid in your neighborhood with all the cool toys. This isn’t even a negative recruiting pitch, I’m just spitting facts. Oklahoma Football is a national brand and recruits at a championship level every year. Caleb, the Sooners don’t need revitalizing, and they’ll simply plug in another four-or-five-star QB if you leave. Join the Fighting Illini and you’d be THE guy, not just another guy who passed through town.
Do I think he’ll actually transfer to Illinois? Ha! No. But like I said before, I’m dreaming bigger. Maybe I can speak it into existence. You reading this, Caleb? How about it?