Last year, Bret Bielema led the Illinois Fighting Illini to a 5-7 record, notching a pair of wins against ranked teams Penn State and Minnesota, though narrowly missing out on a bowl game. Heading into the offseason, the Illini lost key personnel and needed to fill holes in the coaching staff. Many Illinois fans were unsure about Bielema’s ability both as a recruiter and as a coach, but as the offseason concludes, it appears that Bielema is off to a good start.
Bielema wasted little time making changes to his coaching staff when he fired offensive coordinator Tony Petersen in January. Under Petersen, the Illini offense ranked 115th in offense among all 130 FBS teams. This cost the Illini, as they lost four games by seven or fewer points, including losses to Maryland, Rutgers, and Purdue. Overall, the passing game was especially unproductive, with a 51% completion percentage and only two receivers ending up with more than 20 catches.
On January 8th, Bielema hired UT-San Antonio’s Offensive Coordinator Barry Lunny Jr, who helped coach the Road Runners to a Conference USA Championship. The Road Runners had the 34th best offense in the nation and a potent passing game. Although the Illini are changing coordinators, Lunny will not make drastic changes to the Illini offense.
The Illini will still be a run-first offense, but hopefully with the ability to get the ball to their best wide receivers and tight ends. They will also take more chances passing the ball deep—the Illini only had 43 plays for more than 20 yards last year.
Additionally, the Illini special teams coordinator and tight end coach Ben Miller is taking a leave of absence from the program after being diagnosed with colon cancer. It is unclear when he will return.
Since coming to Illinois, Bielema has improved Illinois’ recruiting ability. The 2022 class has a cumulative ranking of 46th in the nation—the Illini’s best since 2011. Although 2023 is incomplete, the class is ranked 41st in the nation with 15 commitments, including six from the powerhouse prep state Florida.
The 2023 class includes Kaden Feagin, a 4-star running back from Arthur, Illinois. Feagin had 13 offers, including Iowa, Michigan, and Wisconsin. He is a physical runner who is tough to tackle and explosive. Feagin has the playmaking ability that Bielema needs to jumpstart the offense.
Other important commitments this summer came from edge rusher Pat Farrell and defensive lineman Jamarrion Harkless. Farrell is from St. Rita’s in Chicago and is ranked as the 69th best edge rusher in the nation. Jamarrion Harkless is the ninth best player from Kentucky and chose Illinois over Georgia, Auburn, and LSU. Both players have an opportunity to make an impact on the Illini this year.
Compared to some of their BIG Ten opponents, the Illini don’t have as talented of a recruiting class. Therefore, the coaching staff will need to develop players to compete with the top of the BIG Ten.
While it’s clear that Bret Bielema is making progress rebuilding Illinois football, it will be crucial for the Illini to continue this momentum by hiring the right coaches, developing talent, and most importantly winning football games.