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Misguided Optimism Part 1: The Freshmen

Hope springs eternal for the Illini recruiting class of 2022

Illinois v Purdue Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

It’s time for another Illini football season.

Which means it’s time for an entirely new set of ridiculous expectations and grandiose predictions that will leave us all feeling empty by December.

But I am here for all of the pain. I’m a lifelong Illini-loving masochist, so I invite the misery of another year of optimism gone awry the same way I invited 8:00 lectures at Foellinger: with healthy skepticism and the unshakable confidence that disaster is on the horizon.

So here is my hottest take that has me irrationally excited about the season:

One of the true freshmen will make the Big 10 All-Freshman 1st team.

Coach Bret Bielema has made an impact on the recruiting trail. He’s brought the focus back to making the University of Illinois into the University of Illinois once again. The in-state focus has made tremendous inroads into the Illini’s primary geographic footprint.

While this approach has been a feel-good story, it’s yet to be determined whether the Illini have yielded enough top-end talent for the staff to coach up into B1G contenders. Recruiting rankings have consistently placed Bielema’s Illini at the bottom of conference rankings.

So now the good news: one of the members of the class of 2022 will have a significant breakout campaign. There are a few possibilities.

  • RB Aidan Laughery - He’s got the playmaking ability. He could even make an impact in the return game. But he’s mainly on this list because his game-breaking speed can be used in multiple spots in Coach Lunney’s formations. He can impact the game on offense and in the return game, so his upside as a true freshman is pretty tantalizing.
  • WR Shawn Miller - He was slowed by an injury in camp, and needs time to get himself into game form. But the tape doesn’t lie. He’s a Power-5 talent with the offer list and pedigree to prove it. While the receiver room looks to have taken a step forward, Miller has potential to contribute early with his polished route running and college-ready ball skills.
  • WR Hank Beatty - This is another local kid who would be a hero in Champaign if he put up a monster debut. However, this prediction isn’t just based on his speed and hands. It’s not even based on his cerebral ex-quarterback approach to the position. It’s the fact that if the doomsday scenario takes place, and Isaiah Williams gets hurt, Beatty could step into the slot role and make a difference. He could be one of the next up in the slot receiver rotation, and the staff could look to get him on the field in an effort to salvage what would look like a doomed season without #1.
  • EDGE Gabe Jacas - I mean, have you seen this guy? He gives off major Wole Betiku vibes from a physical standpoint. So he may be the most physically mature freshman on the roster. Pair that with the rave reviews he’s gotten from Kevin Kane, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him causing havoc on third down as early as this season. Although just from looking at him, some quarterbacks may just take a knee.

Prediction: DB Matthew Bailey - According to 247Sports, Bailey has been getting lots of comparisons to Sydney Brown. That’s high praise. The unheralded Quad Cities product has been turning heads in camp with his cerebral approach. It’s even been reported that he ran with the starters in practice while Syd sat out. This reminds me of another recent unheralded secondary prospect who shocked the world and made all conference freshman first team: Bennett Williams. Hopefully, Bailey will stick with the Illini for much longer than Williams did.