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What’s next for Illinois this offseason

Illinois must now build off its 8-win campaign.

NCAA Football: ReliaQuest Bowl-Illinois at Mississippi State Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Bret Bielema’s second season in Champaign has officially come to an end.

Despite a disappointing 1-4 finish, it’s fair to characterize the year as a giant step forward for the Illini. It was their first 8-win season since the 2007 Rose Bowl year and created a sense of excitement about football in Champaign that hadn’t been experienced in over a decade, maybe longer.

Now, it’s on Bielema and the rest of this staff to continue pushing forward and making sure this success is not a one-off, but instead something sustainable for years to come.

That’s where the offseason comes in.

It’s safe to say this is the most important football offseason at Illinois in quite some time. The program has a ton of positive momentum, and with that comes the pressure to now live up to recalibrated expectations.

Additionally, the 2023 season could very well be the last one with two Big Ten divisions. As a result, Illinois has an opportunity to not only replicate its breakthrough 2022 season, but also avenge late-season missteps that cost them a chance at competing for a Big Ten championship and — potentially — an even higher-profile bowl game.

So, what needs to happen this offseason to build off this 8-win season and potentially take the next step?

NFL Draft Decisions

When solely focusing on next season’s win total, the most important factor is going to be which, if any, potential Illini draft picks return to Champaign for another season.

We already know that Chase Brown, Devon Witherspoon, Sydney Brown and Quan Martin will be entering their names into the draft.

After those guys, the most important decisions to keep an eye on will be those of the Law Firm: Johnny Newton and Keith Randolph. Both guys are projected draft picks but could benefit from one more year in college, racking in a nice sum of NIL money for their troubles.

Getting those two back would have the greatest impact on next season’s outlook of anything that could happen this offseason. With them, a strong case could be made that Illinois will enter 2023 with one of the best defensive lines in the Big Ten. Newton would be a preseason candidate for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and new defensive coordinator Aaron Henry would gain a massive boost to his efforts of trying to replicate one of the country’s best defenses.

Aside from Newton and Randolph, Julian Pearl and Isaiah Adams will have decisions to make. Pearl is currently projected as a potential Day 3 pick in the draft and could very well choose to play another year at Illinois to try and improve that projection. Adams seems to have a similar grade at this point but may have a bit more intrigue for pro teams due to his athleticism and versatility within the line.

One or both of their returns would be extremely important for the Illini offensive line. It would help maintain the physicality up front that was a big reason for many of the Illini’s wins this past year, and not force the Illini to turn to many younger, unproven options to fill holes.

Tarique Barnes and Seth Coleman could also jumpstart their pro careers early but would be crucial pieces for Illinois to bring back.

Players have until Jan. 16 to enter their name into the 2023 NFL Draft.

Iowa v Illinois Justin Casterline/Getty Images

Transfer Portal Activity

Following the ReliaQuest Bowl, Bret Bielema spoke about his approach of attacking the transfer portal heading into the offseason.

“I really don’t want to make a huge living in the portal, but I do think it gives us a chance to replace old players that aren’t here anymore,” Bielema said.

Illinois will definitely have some old players to replace and will likely at least monitor the transfer market leading up to spring practices.

They’ve already landed the biggest fish of all, bringing in Ole Miss transfer Luke Altmyer to replace Tommy DeVito at quarterback. Nicario Harper also hopped on board from Louisville to factor into the secondary in 2023, and Avery Jones has transferred over from East Carolina to take over for Alex Pihlstrom at center.

To me, the Illini could use a few more impact players from the transfer market to truly help replace all of the talent they’re slated to lose.

Should Newton or Randolph depart for the draft, the interior of the defensive line becomes an immediate need that doesn’t appear to have a lot of strong, in-house options to turn to.

The recruiting pitch at running back is at an all-time high following Chase Brown’s Power 5-leading season on the ground. The rushing numbers with Brown off the field this year were somewhat alarming, so the Illini could be wise to go after a talented backfield replacement in the portal if the right fit comes along.

As far as the secondary, replacing four extremely talented starters will be nearly impossible. However, there’s plenty to be optimistic about in regard to the Illini’s young options. Tyler Strain, Xavier Scott and Matthew Bailey helped hold the Mississippi State air raid attack mainly in check in the bowl and are all really exciting pieces for the future.

With that said, I expect Illinois to pursue an experienced transfer to help bridge the gap in the short-term back there. And their sell could be very persuasive coming off having one of the top secondaries in college football in 2022.

Could they add another weapon for Altmyer at wide receiver? Does an immediate impact offensive lineman become a dire need after some NFL departures? There are plenty of possibilities for this staff and it’ll be very intriguing to see what the roster looks like in a couple months.

More offensive improvement in Year 2 for Lunney

Barry Lunney Jr. appeared to be a very polarizing figure among the Illini fanbase in his first season as offensive coordinator.

One thing can be said without debate: Illinois’ offense was much improved under Lunney from what it was in 2021 under Tony Petersen.

Illinois went from 116th in the FBS in total offense in 2021 to 74th in 2022. They also improved its overall offensive efficiency from 84th in 2021 to 58th in 2022.

That said, it undoubtedly left plenty to be desired, especially late in the season. Much of the Illini’s 1-4 finish to the season was characterized by a failure to move the ball and drain clock late in games and score enough to complement one of the country’s top defenses.

During the offseason, I’d like to see Lunney and the rest of the staff make a few changes in attempt to really take the next step offensively.

It’s clear that Illinois is going to continue to be fairly limited in terms of having a true vertical passing threat. In order to combat that, they need to improve their intermediate passing game so they can sustain drives when the run game is being shut down.

I’m curious to see whether Lunney starts to incorporate the RPO more frequently, which was something he used often with Frank Harris during his time at UTSA. We saw it heavily in the 31-0 victory against Chattanooga, which resulted in Illinois’ best offensive performance of the season, and I think it could be extremely impactful with Isaiah Williams, Pat Bryant and some of the other wideouts.

I also hope to see Luke Altmyer’s running ability add a new element to the offense. Altmyer is a much greater threat on the ground that DeVito was, so giving him an opportunity to make plays with his legs whether that be as a product of the RPO game, more option plays, or more rollouts, can take the offense to a whole new level.

“I think we have to have an identity,” Bielema said Monday when asked about what he wants to see going forward from his offense.

Building that identity and ensuring the offense isn’t overly predictable and one-dimensional like it was at times this year, will be Lunney’s primary task leading up to September.