Illinois is entering 2022 in a better place than this time last year. There is more depth and talent all over the field, but that doesn’t mean this team is ready to compete for Big Ten championships just yet. What was on display in Thursday’s spring game was a veteran defense that mostly ran its base package versus a new, balanced offensive scheme that leaned on its talented offensive line.
Transfer QB Tommy DeVito has a firm grasp of the new scheme. He didn’t receive much pressure from the second-team defense and efficiently guided the offense throughout the game. DeVito has the arm strength to complete most passes and will continue to get more comfortable with his receivers over the summer and into the fall.
Samari Collier has made a significant jump in development. He’s young and may not be ready to lead the team just yet, but he has a big arm and can zip the ball around the field. Barry Lunney’s offense fits Collier’s skill set well.
To say the running back room is deep would be an understatement. Chase Brown and Josh McCray will carry most of the load, but freshman Jordan Anderson has entered his name into the mix for playing time. He demonstrated an explosiveness as well as the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Chase Hayden looked quick, but may find himself sliding down the depth chart if Anderson continues to progress at the current pace.
Isaiah Williams is head and shoulders above any other wide receiver on the roster. The second-team secondary held its own against everyone not named Williams. Pat Bryant looks ready to fulfill a bigger role and the tight ends will be more of a focus in the receiving game in 2022.
The first-team offensive line looked impressive. There is size, bulk and athleticism littered throughout. Barry Lunney will have multiple options at his disposal from a play-calling perspective with an offensive line that can move and generate push this well. From left to right: Isaiah Adams, Jordan Slaughter, Alex Pihlstrom, Zy Crisler, Alex Palczewski. Notable participants on the second team were Josh Kreutz, Zach Barlev, and Josh Gesky.
True to form in a 3-4 defense, not too many players stood out on the defensive line, outside of Johnny Newton, but there was consistent pressure being forced on the second-team offensive line and quarterbacks throughout the game. Keith Randolph did not participate, but his injury is not major.
Calvin Hart and Tarique Barnes were solid and sure tacklers at linebacker, while also covering a lot of ground. Ezekiel Holmes mostly played with his hand in the dirt as a rushing outside linebacker, while Seth Coleman was a stand up backer on the opposite side, who was either dropped into space or rushing the passer. Both offenses did a nice job rolling the pocket and getting the ball out quickly so there were not many opportunities for sacks from the defensive line and linebackers.
The secondary will be the strength of the defense in 2022. Devon Witherspoon and Tahveon Nicholson were the first-team corners and were impressive. Quan Martin is still the nickel, while Sydney Brown was at one safety and Kendall Smith filled Kerby Joseph’s former position. The first-team secondary was flying around and not giving up much to the second-team offense all night. The second team defense consisted of DD Snyder and Tyler Strain at cornerback. Kionte Curry, Prince Green and Peyton Vining filled out the rest of the secondary.
Illinois will likely surprise plenty of people this coming season. This team is positioning themselves for a bowl birth and to be competitive throughout 2022. The defense could be better than last year and if the offense can continue to show balance, change tempos effectively, and hit the big plays consistently, this will be an exciting team to watch.
More playmakers are on the way in the form of summer enrolling freshmen, impact players returning from injury, or additions through the transfer portal. This roster is not complete, but the spring game gave a glimpse into the possibilities of what the 2022 season could bring.