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This December just feels different

The air is crisp with positivity.

NCAA Football: Illinois at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Editor’s Note: This article was written before the announcement that Ryan Walters is Purdue’s next head coach.

It’s been two weeks since Illinois throttled Northwestern, and Illinois doesn't play its bowl game until after New Year’s.

It’s this weird sense of busy-but-calm that I don’t think I have felt as an Illini fan. For newer fans you understand the feeling, and the older fans, it’s been a while since Illinois has had a season like this.

Usually football season is over, we write our final pieces and wait for signing day to start speculating the recruits impact on the next season.

But Illinois is in a spot, where the season is not quite over and the next season has not quite yet started. Here are a couple things on my mind:

The Transfer Portal

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 02 Duke’s Mayo Classic - East Carolina v Appalachian State Photo by John Byrum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The transfer portal opened up 10 days ago, and I only see Illinois gaining talent from the portal this year. I saw programs like Texas A&M, Florida, and even Alabama that had players that were drawn to the lure of the portal, but not really from Illinois.

I honestly don’t see Illinois losing players in in this transfer window, and that's just part of the culture. That's a good thing.

When the portal is closed, Illinois should only be better — at least on paper — than it was in 2022. Illinois showed the competitiveness, the culture, and the player growth that the coaching staff can use to bring in better talent to Champaign.

We are already seeing the fruits of that culture with Avery Jones committing to the Illini on Monday.

Big Ten Recruiting Battles

Illinois is being a bit out of character in recruiting with Bielema. Not only is the staff successful at keeping talent in state, but also the staff is successful at beating other Big Ten teams in-state.

Illinois is keeping pace with traditional Big Ten power houses like Wisconsin and Michigan. in recruiting key players. Ex-Wisconsin commit Chicago Brother Rice DL Roderick Pierce is looking to choose between Illinois and Michigan, as are Simeon WR Malik Elzy (ex-Cincinnati) and Kankakee DB Jyaire Hill. Illinois has already flipped Ohio WR Collin Dixon from the Badgers.

In years past, these recruiting battles were never in the picture, so the fact that Illinois has been in pursuit of top talent, beating out teams in the Big Ten and staying in the hunt says a lot about the program.

Who will be the 2023 QB1?

TCR’s Drew Pastorek and Pleas Honeywood discussed this week on Oskee Talk the possibilities of NC State’s Devin Leary, Virginia’s Brennan Armstrong, and Boise State’s Hank Bachmeier committing to Champaign. Leary and Armstrong seem like the obvious choice, but there are some other names I would watch:

Coastal Carolina v Marshall Photo by Chris Bernacchi/Diamond Images via Getty Images
  • Grayson McCall - Coastal Carolina - 7,994 yards, 77 TDs, and 8 INTs as a starter for 3 years and has been a top-20 QB the last two years. He has talent at the G5 level, one year at a P5 could upgrade his draft stock.
  • Nick Evers - Oklahoma - 4-star prospect from the class of ‘22 was offered by Barry Lunney at UTSA. The offense fit is clearly there and Illinois is a better program than UTSA.
  • Graham Mertz - probably not a fan favorite, but Mertz has shown sparks of greatness and maybe a change of scenery helps.

I like this positivity in the air in December.

Lots to look forward to with early signing day next week, the bowl game, and the closing of the Transfer Portal in mid-January.