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Illini who we want to see step up down the stretch

These 4 guys can be key pieces to Illinois’ Big Ten West title chase.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 23 Illinois at Penn State Randy Litzinger // Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s hard to find very many flaws with this Illini team after a 6-1 start to 2022.

So many guys have played extremely high-level football, from Chase Brown’s Heisman campaign, to Johnny Newton and Keith Randolph’s dominance in the trenches, to the secondary creating the nation’s top pass efficiency defense, and much more.

With that said, there’s still a few guys that haven’t yet left their mark — whether that be due to injury or other reasons — that I think can really provide an extra boost to this team as they look to book their trip to Indianapolis.

Here’s four under-the-radar players who can still make a big impact:

RB Josh McCray

Wyoming v Illinois Michael Reaves // Getty Images

Chase Brown has had such a phenomenal season that Josh McCray’s knee injury, which has kept him out of action since Week 0, has largely become an afterthought.

Playing running back at any level takes a massive toll on the body and I’m sure Bret Bielema and Barry Lunney would prefer to lighten Brown’s workload a little from some of the games we’ve seen in the first half (37 touches at Indiana and 44 vs. Minnesota stand out the most).

Enter Josh McCray who — let’s not forget — ran for 549 yards and 2 touchdowns as a true freshman in 2021. Bret Bielema said this week that he expects him to be back against Nebraska on Oct. 29.

McCray’s presence as a second running back should allow Chase Brown to stay fresh while keeping the Illini’s strong run game intact while he’s off the field.

McCray can also provide a boost to Illinois’ red zone offense. Illinois has struggled in goal-to-go situations this season, with a lack of cashing in touchdowns being Chase Brown’s only significant blemish thus far. McCray’s physical running style should allow him to have success in short yardage and hopefully turn a few more stalled field goal drives into touchdowns for Illinois in the second half.

TE Tip Reiman

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 22 Chattanooga at Illinois James Black // Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Illinois’ offense has taken a massive leap under Barry Lunney Jr. in 2022, but one group that still leaves some to be desired is the tight ends.

You can throw Luke Ford in here as well, but I chose to highlight Tip Reiman, who won the starting tight end position in fall camp and has played over 61% of Illinois’ offensive snaps so far per PFF, leading all Illini tight ends by a fairly wide margin.

Reiman has graded out well as a blocker, but Illinois could use a lot more in the pass game from him and their tight ends in general in the second half. Despite that heavy snap count, Reiman has just 7 catches in 7 games for 51 yards.

I already mentioned the Illini’s red zone struggles, and that’s an area where Reiman can really become a key factor. Look for Lunney to use Reiman more in play action and utilize his 6-foot-5, 260-pound frame as a red zone threat for Tommy DeVito down the stretch.

LB Calvin Hart Jr.

Chattanooga v Illinois Michael Hickey // Getty Images

Nearly every guy on Illinois’ defense has shined this year, making for the country’s No. 1 scoring defense through 7 weeks of the FBS season.

But one guy who you can argue has underwhelmed is Calvin Hart Jr. Hart hasn’t necessarily played poorly — he’s been mainly good in coverage and rarely jumps out on film for mistakes — but he has only recorded 11 tackles and 1 tackle for loss despite a 56% snap share on defense per PFF.

Hart has also yet to make some of the flash plays near or behind the line of scrimmage that his fellow inside linebackers Tarique Barnes and Isaac Darkangelo have. Unlocking the guy that has received rave reviews from the coaching staff and tormented Nebraska in 2021 before suffering a season-ending injury would be one more added element to this elite defensive unit as they finish the season.

Linebacker play will be extremely important against a team like Michigan, who possesses possibly the best rushing attack in the country, and Calvin Hart Jr. has the speed and athleticism to make plays all over the field to help slow them down.

Don’t be surprised if Calvin Hart Jr. adds a couple highlights to the already loaded reel before the 2022 season concludes.

K Caleb Griffin

Illinois v Indiana Justin Casterline // Getty Images

Let’s first give a ton of credit to Fabrizio Pinton for going a perfect 7-of-7 on field goals the last two weeks, including a game-winning kick late in the fourth quarter to beat Iowa.

His longest of the 7, however, is from just 37 yards out and Bielema’s recent 4th down aggressiveness indicates that he doesn’t yet trust the young kicker from beyond 40 yards.

Illinois isn’t going to be able to survive going for it on 4th-and-6 all year, so (hopefully) getting Caleb Griffin back after the bye week will be a big boost to this team and his range will likely come into play in some close games down the stretch.

Griffin was inconsistent to start the season — going 7-of-11 on field goals — but he comfortably won the starting kicker job in camp and nailed a huge 48-yarder at Indiana with 2:16 to play.

Not to mention, Illinois has struggled in kickoff coverage at times in recent weeks which can be partially attributed to Pinton and Will McManus’ failure to reach the endzone. Griffin’s ability to eliminate kick return opportunities for opponents by kicking off for touchbacks can be an extremely underrated component the rest of the way.