The Book of Bielema has been an intriguing mix of the classics in 2022.
The no-nonsense style of play employed by the Illinois defense-first philosophy hits you in the throat like a Beat Generation masterpiece.
The defense itself, led in part by Devon Witherspoon, Quan Martin, Gabe Jacas, Calvin Avery, Taz Nicholson, Johnny Newton, Tarique Barnes, and Seth Coleman…well, they bring the Dixie heat like a Faulkner epic.
Even Coach Bielema himself is in the midst of a grand Dostoevsky-esque redemption arc. After his sudden departure from Madison and his relative failure in the SEC, the Illini head man has re-established his name as a Big Ten winner.
It’s a far cry from previous chapters in which Illini football looked like the left-behind students struggling through the remedial class. It’s a role not befitting of an institution like the Alma Mater.
The 2022 chapter provided exactly what was needed to get fans to continue reading along. There was significant story progress with the development of Witherspoon and Newton into no doubt NFL prospects. There were secondary characters who took more prominent roles like Martin and Kendall Smith, who became hard-hitting turnover generators on an elite defense.
There were new characters who took star turns, like Tommy DeVito, Isaiah Adams, and the aforementioned Jacas.
And then there were the Brown twins. It can’t be understated how much their excellence on the field and perseverance off the field helped give this roster an identity. Both will go down in history. And for current University of Illinois students and new fans alike, Chase Brown gave a reason to tune in on Saturdays even when the odds were piled high against the Orange and Blue.
But all of that has been 2022.
This beautiful chapter, capped with an 8-4 regular season and a trip to the ReliaQuest Bowl in Tampa on Jan. 2…well, it’s coming to an end.
Will its last dance be a wonderful waltz or a slog through a mosh pit?
And more importantly, what does the next chapter hold in store?
2023 is a mystery. It’s a story with holes yet to be told.
Will it be, as Shakespeare wrote, “A tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing?” Or will it be a more triumphant story, told by a competent football program on solid footing?
Here are five questions that will determine the immediate future of this program.
Who is going to be QB1?
On Thursday, Mississippi quarterback Luke Altmyer announced his commitment to the Illini. He is the 9th-ranked quarterback according to 247Sports’ transfer rankings, earning him 4-star status. He was also a 4-star prep prospect.
Altmyer is the odds-on favorite to line up at quarterback when Illinois opens the 2023 season. He is still a bit of a mystery, but a mystery with tremendous upside. Keeping him upright and healthy will be key to Illinois’ success in 2023.
Who is going to be QB2?
This has become a bigger question. Illinois is going into 2023 with a significant lack of experience at the most important position on the field.
As of now, in addition to Altmyer, Illinois will have only two other scholarship quarterbacks on the roster. Both of those quarterbacks are freshmen. But will either true freshman Cal Swanson or redshirt freshman Donovan Leary be ready to log meaningful snaps in 2023? That’s not something any coaching staff can depend on.
Illinois should upgrade its depth at quarterback, namely with a veteran backup. Art Sitkowski was never intended to be a long-term starter for Illinois. But he was a power five backup who was a former starter at Rutgers. Losing Art is one of the most difficult roster holes to fill.
Perhaps after spring ball another quarterback who is willing to serve as a backup for a season or two will become available. But as of right now, backup quarterback stands as a gaping roster hole.
How will Illinois replace Chase Brown?
One does not simply replace Chase Brown. He’s a bona fide Illini legend who put together back-to-back extraordinary seasons. He and his brother have been the avatar for the program since Chase transferred from Kalamazoo.
Bret Bielema loves to build a roster with a punishing running game taking advantage of holes opened by a massive, powerful offensive line.
Josh McCray looks to be the favorite to be lead ball carrier next season. But there are plenty of titillating unknowns. Redshirt freshman Aidan Laughery was injured for the majority of the 2022 season. But his breakaway speed and Central Illinois ties could make him an immediate fan favorite. Redshirt freshman Jordan Anderson has a similar physical profile to McCray and incoming freshman Kaden Feagin. But he also has tremendous hands and figures to contribute as an H-back or red zone back. Reggie Love showed that he is more than capable of succeeding against Big Ten defenses this past season.
Illinois will have a committee of talented players. The competition will be intense, but this will be a BIelema/Lunney squad that will be able to pound the rock.
Who will be joining the staff?
Coach Bielema announced Thursday that he would announce his defensive backs coach in a day. Will it be an ace recruiter? Will it be a top-notch teacher? Will it be someone who, like recently promoted defensive coordinator Aaron Henry, is both a recruiter and a teacher?
Illinois will also have to cover the departures of Kevin Kane and Cory Patterson. Kane did a phenomenal job recruiting and coaching the Illini edge rushers, including Freshman All-American Gabe Jacas. And Patterson is well-known for his deep connections in the St. Louis area and his general popularity among the players.
Will Illinois focus on Chicago? Perhaps finding another St. Louis/East Metro recruiter would be a long-term gain for the program. Bielema has talked about OLB and RB hires coming at the end of the NFL season, so keep an eye on former/current Patriots and Giants staffers
Either way, Illinois has to turn up the dial on closing difficult recruitments. Hiring assistants with recruiting talent and ties makes perfect sense.
Am I wrong for wanting to pluck Dre Brown from Notre Dame and Jay Valai from Oklahoma?
How well will the current staff re-recruit the current roster?
Isaiah Williams said it’s his intention to return to Illinois next season. I certainly hope that’s the case, and I take him at his word. But an influential figure in his life has relocated to West Lafayette. How strong will that pull be?
Johnny Newton had an amazing season. He has rightfully earned a potential spot in the NFL. He may even be a day two selection. Losing him seems almost inevitable.
But what about his partner in the law firm? Will Keith Randolph come back to Champaign next season? Has he done enough to guarantee that he will be selected in the NFL Draft? Perhaps, but his return to Illinois would be monumental. And his departure would be extraordinarily difficult to overcome this late in the cycle. Talents like Randolph don’t just show up in the portal.
What about offensive tackle Julian Pearl? He is no surefire draft pick, but he has been in college for five years. Perhaps he wants to shoot his shot at the professional ranks. If so, that would require some reshuffling along the Illini offensive line. Replacing Pearl, Alex Palczewski, and Alex Pihlstrom would be a lot to accomplish. Thankfully, Illinois is dealing from a position of depth and strength along the offensive line.
More barge formation plays, I say.
Fringe cases such as Isaiah Adams, Tarique Barnes, and Brian Hightower would make a big difference in Champaign. Possibly, bigger than the impact they’d make in the NFL if they chose to make the leap. The current staff can bring back the foundation of a winning team coming off a winning season if they are able to keep their homegrown, developing stars in Champaign long enough to reach their collegiate ceiling.