It’s been a rough season so far.
Illinois is 2-4, 0-3 in the Big Ten, with a -58 point differential. The team was expected to take a little bit of a step back, with multiple early NFL Draft picks, but they were still at least supposed to make a bowl game; that is now in jeopardy.
Bret Bielema and his staff are under fire, but one thing he has done well is recruit much better than other recent Illini football coaches. So let’s check on how his guys from the freshman class, the recruiting class of 2023, are doing. Is there light at the end of the tunnel?
Note: Only players who have gotten meaningful playing time will be listed
RB Kaden Feagin
The Fighting Illini have sorely missed Chase Brown in the backfield. The running back by committee has struggled to make up for his absence. Reggie Love has had good moments, but has struggled to stay healthy. Josh McCray has struggled in the new offensive scheme and is now out for season.
Enter Kaden Feagin, a huge RB (listed at 6-foot-3, 250 pounds) who some thought Illinois might convert to defensive line or linebacker. He has been thrust into action as RB3 due to injury, and now may move up to RB2. Feagin has carried the ball 24 times for 148 yards, good for 6.2 yards per carry, and caught three passes last game against Nebraska. He seems like he can easily fill the thunder role, the big back to run between the tackles that McCray was supposed to fill.
If Illinois just handed him the ball down at the goal line instead of Love, they probably beat Nebraska.
WR Malik Elzy
Elzy has gotten some snaps, but most of his production has come in mop-up duty. Still, I like what I’ve seen from him; it’s obvious why he was a consensus four star recruit.
He made good plays late against Penn State, including a great back shoulder 50/50 TD.
As the season goes along, Illinois has to get Elzy more involved, even with Isaiah Williams, Pat Bryant, and Casey Washington ahead of him. Illinois has to keep taking deep shots in order to open up the offense, and Elzy is their best bet to unlock whatever they can get from Luke Altmyer, giving him a weapon to throw jumpballs to.
WR Kenari Wilcher
Similar to Elzy, Wilcher has gotten snaps and mainly only produced in mop-up duty. He can take the top off a defense, so if Illinois can work him into the offensive gameplan more, they can get more explosive plays as well as more open short and intermediate routes. He has also gotten some opportunity returning kickoffs.
His speed should slowly start to show, and he could replace Isaiah Williams once he’s off to the NFL.
CB Zachary Tobe
The secondary was going to have a lot of new faces due to all the drafted players. And with injuries as well, freshmen have been thrust into action. Tobe is one of them, and he has shown out. Against Florida Atlantic, he gave up just one reception on six targets. He had three PBUs and was PFF’s highest graded freshman that week.
He earned himself more snaps with that performance, and followed up a rough game against Purdue with a bounce-back performance against Nebraska. Illinois may have done it again with its secondary.
CB Saboor Karriem
Karriem has also been forced into action due to injury. He also had three PBUs against Florida Atlantic. His height at 6-foot-3 makes him an ideal corner to match up on the bigger receivers Illinois has to face. I mentioned preseason that Karriem was an underrated X-factor for Illinois on defense, and that could really show up in the second half of the regular season.
The same way Matthew Bailey emerged down the stretch, I see Karriem emerging down the stretch. DBU?
It’s been a solid start for the recruiting class of 2023. Plus, a few players who redshirted last season, like LB Kenenna Odeluga, are starting to emerge. Let’s just hope that it can be translated into at least a 4-2 finish to the regular season, otherwise questions will continue to arise as the Fighting Illini lose another year with top NFL Draft prospects like Isaiah Williams, Jer’Zhan Newton, and Keith Randolph.