Despite the departures of Donny Navarro and Daniel Barker to conference foes, the Illini still return plenty of talent to the wide receiver and tight end positions. We don’t yet know how Barry Lunney Jr. plans to use tight ends in his offense, but tight ends have been emphasized in recruiting efforts, so it seems likely that they’ll play a major role.
I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that both sophomore Isaiah Williams and junior Casey Washington are virtually assured of starting roles in 2022. Bret Bielema has been transparent about Williams being the centerpiece of the Illini offense next season, and that should surprise no one given his highlights over the past year.
The Isaiah Williams Show pic.twitter.com/hfyZ0NpYAd— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) November 27, 2021
Williams caught 47 receptions for 525 yards and four receiving touchdowns in 2021, which complemented his 61 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns. He looks to build on that performance in 2022.
It sometimes bears reminding that Isaiah Williams turned down legitimate, committable wide receiver offers from the likes of the Ohio State Buckeyes, Alabama Crimson Tide, and Clemson Tigers. That’s the caliber of player who we now have to headline our receiving corps (and props to him for understanding that QB probably wasn’t in the cards, and then for STILL staying).
Casey Washington is likely to be one of the other starting wide receivers, but he brings a different game compared to Williams. Washington is taller and longer than Williams, and is a little better suited to lining up on the numbers rather than in the slot. He tallied 21 receptions last season and 294 receiving yards, one of which was the game-winning two-point conversion pass from Brandon Peters in the ninth overtime of last season’s thriller against the No. 7 Penn State Nittany Lions.
A few different players will likely vie for the third starting receiver spot, and I think either sophomore Pat Bryant or freshman Miles Scott will take the job. Bryant fits the physical mold of a Big Ten wide receiver at 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds, which gives him plenty of length to be able to make those critical outside blocks on run plays. He had six receptions for 98 yards last season, including a 45-yarder at Iowa.
Miles Scott got reps during the spring game with the starters on the white team, and made the most of his time. At 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds he’s probably more of a slot receiver, but his athleticism has been turning some heads.
I already put him in my 10 Names You’ll Learn column and I pointed him out in my latest depth chart post but let me be more direct: the things I said about Fej and the things I said about Donny I’m now saying about WR Miles Scott. The next great walkon find.— Robert Rosenthal (@ALionEye) April 16, 2022
We’ll likely see at least a half dozen wide receivers on a regular basis next season, and I feel like the Illini will also get a lot of production out of true freshman Shawn Miller. Though he was injured and unable to play in the spring game, Bielema had thought highly of his performance in the spring practices. His talent is also shown by his high school offer list, which included heavyweight programs like the Michigan State Spartans and Miami Hurricanes.
Other potential contributors include senior Brian Hightower, who started every game except one in the 2020 season, but only played sparingly in 2021. If he can return to his 2020 form, then he could be a key contributor at wide receiver this season.
TOUCHDOWN ILLINOIS Coran Taylor-Brian Hightower pic.twitter.com/yTtGE0SLx5— IllinoisLoyalty (@IllinoisLoyalty) October 31, 2020
Eian Pugh is an in-state true freshman out of Fenwick who chose the Illini over the Iowa Hawkeyes, Cincinnati Bearcats, and Indiana Hoosiers, among others. He enrolled early and played for the blue team in the spring game, and in doing so got some key experience ahead of his peers.
The headliner at the tight end position is of course senior Luke Ford. As many Illini fans are familiar, the Carterville native chose the Georgia Bulldogs out of high school, transferred back to his home state school in 2019, and didn’t end up playing until 2020 because his hardship waiver for immediate playing time in 2019 was denied by the NCAA.
Ford can absolutely make his presence felt in the passing game, as he did last season catching 15 passes for 114 yards and two touchdowns, but he arguably plays a larger role as a blocker in the ground game. At 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds, Ford can get to the second level and the perimeter to effectively block linebackers and cornerbacks, which opens up space for other playmakers like Chase Brown and Isaiah Williams.
The other likely starting tight end is sophomore Tip Reiman. A former walk-on, Reiman earned his scholarship during the 2021 season and made most of his impact in the running game. So much so that PFF graded him as the No. 9 blocking tight end in the Big Ten despite Reiman only starting three games behind Daniel Barker. Like Ford, Reiman is not solely a blocking tight end, and he can get open for passing opportunities as well.
Bielema has emphasized the tight end position in both recruiting and in the transfer portal, which makes it one of the deepest positions on the roster. One of the first tight ends off the bench next season will likely be veteran senior and former walkon Michael Marchese, who is now in his sixth season with the Illini. Marchese switched to tight end at the beginning of last season and appeared in almost every game.
Bloomington native and sophomore Griffin Moore started for the blue team in the spring and has appeared in three games so far for the Illini. At 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, he has the physical frame to line up out wide and make perimeter blocks to open up running lanes.
True freshman Owen Anderson could also surprise some fans this season, though at 225 lbs he likely still needs to spend some time with Tank Wright and the strength coaches before seeing significant playing time. Anderson grew up in New Jersey and chose the Illini over the Georgia Tech Yellowjackets and Michigan State Spartans.
The Illini have no shortage of experienced receivers and tight ends to catch passes from Tommy DeVito, Art Sitkowski, or whoever else is under center for Illinois. I’m excited to see how the depth chart continues to shake out over the summer and into the fall.