Illinois Football has put up a puzzling, inconsistent, occasionally baffling on-field product.
The passing offense has been marred by turnovers. The running game has been harmed by injuries. Both have been diminished by talent departures, playcalling, and an occasional matador-style offensive line. There isn’t any one solution for the offense.
In terms of the Illinois defense, there is some optimism. Johnny Newton had a tremendous game against Penn State and appears to be living up to his high-level NFL prospect pedigree. Keith Randolph has been a disruptive force and is in the process of cementing his own Sunday dreams.
Gabe Jacas and Seth Coleman have been inconsistent in the absence of Kevin Kane, but confidence in both players as well as their new position coach Charlie Bullen remain high.
The linebackers and defensive backs are young and largely untested. And the most tested of the bunch, Taz Nicholson and Tarique Barnes have been guilty of stupid penalties. Veteran leadership from those two in particular needs to improve for Illinois to snatch bowl eligibility from the jaws of a backslide.
Make no mistake about it, there are productivity gaps. At season’s end, despite a solid recruiting class, impact talent will be necessary on both sides of the ball. Using what we have observed this season in concert with who is leaving and who is arriving, thinking about potential spots for transfers makes sense. We’re around two months from the likely opening of the transfer portal. Illinois should be aggressive in the portal. However…
The portal hasn’t necessarily been kind to Bret Bielema and the crew.
The Lovie Smith years brought lots of heartache to Illini fans. It brought multiple 60-point losses. It also brought ridiculous levels of angst over the next coaching hire.
Having said that, Lovie Smith had several transfer portal hits.
Oluwole Betiku had an amazing, impactful non-conference slate in his only year in Champaign.
Chase Brown is a damned Illinois legend.
Josh Imatorbhebhe was a legitimate No. 1 pass catcher. Injuries stalled his time at USC and Illinois, but none of us will ever forget the Michigan State comeback performance.
Isaac Darkangelo became a stalwart tackling machine for the Illini. Not too bad for a walk-on transfer.
Brian Hightower had some weirdness intervening in 2022. But he wound up being a productive starter at a significant position.
Rod Perry became a fixture in the middle of the Illinois defense and a potential NFL player with the Illini.
And say what you want about Brandon Peters, but he provided multi-year stability at the quarterback position.
But the Bret Bielema regime has not had a similar track record of impact transfer players. Players like Alec Bryant, Calvin Hart, and TeRah Edwards have made decent contributions. And Tommy DeVito wound up being an excellent pickup, though Art Sitkowski wasn’t quite the success.
Perhaps it’s an evaluation thing. Maybe it’s just that the staff is so involved in the prep recruiting process that the level of dedication to the portal takes a hit. Of course, we know this staff considers the University of Illinois to be a developmental program. And with this season’s regression, that monicker takes an almost ironic, metallic taste.
Next season, Lincoln Riley and Chip Kelly arrive with their cutting-edge offenses. Washington brings national title-level talent and Oregon brings wow factor athleticism and high-end coaching. The conference is getting tougher, and the Illini will have a daunting schedule.
That underscores the need for impact talent and guys who are ready to play at key spots.
So what should the most important priorities be?
Look, I come to neither bury nor praise Luke Altmyer. I am not here saying he should be benched or anything of the sort.
But based on what we’ve seen so far, there definitely needs to be increased competition in the quarterback room. Perhaps Art wasn’t ever going to be a star, but he was always a dependable backup who could tread water. He was also like a coach on the field. Paddock isn’t the high-end Power Five prospect Sitkowski was.
Illinois needs at least a player similar to Art. Perhaps Art can be the one to scan film in the portal to find the right fit.
I reiterate, should Illinois have pushed harder for Hudson Card? Why didn’t Devin Leary’s name even come up once in connection with the Illini? That sounds like evaluation/pursuit malpractice by the staff.
Isaiah Adams has had some decent games at right tackle. But he’s likely a better guard prospect. He’s at tackle because of injuries and poor evaluations of other players. The staff tens to look at JuCo and lower-level transfer players to add depth to the offensive line.
It’s not really working.
Prep recruits need time to develop. But JuCo players have often never set foot in a Power Five strength & conditioning program. They haven’t had the practice reps against multiple future pros.
The recent Illinois blueprint in this situation is Richie Petibon. He transferred from Alabama due to a lack of playing time. But he was a scholarship player for one of the most talent-rich programs in the nation. He represents the kinds of players Illinois needs to bring into the program to provide depth, talent, competition, and effectiveness on the field.
Look, I believe in Henry Boyer. I also think if Griffin Moore doesn’t come back perhaps Karsen Konkel or Tanner Hollinger can be a long-term fit.
Or maybe Owen Anderson takes a leap. Those are too many question marks for me.
If Illinois can hang onto Ca’lil Valentine, tight end becomes an even higher priority immediately.
Erick All from Michigan (now at Iowa) would have been an excellent target. But to my knowledge, there was never a real connection between All and Illinois.
Tanner Arkin, the transfer target Illinois did land, has produced exactly zero counting statistics this season.
If either Tip Reiman or Moore comes back next season along with Boyer, perhaps there is a high floor. But a dynamite pass catcher (a Daniel Barker type) would be a great weapon for whomever the signal-caller is next season.
Much like Chase Brown this season, one doesn’t simply replace The Law Firm.
But quality defensive linemen rarely enter the portal. And when they do, the blue bloods swarm. Denzel Daxon is also likely to depart at the end of this season. Sure, Illinois and Terrance Jamison have worked the trail hard to reload depth on the interior defensive line. But whiffs on Trey Pierce and Jamel Howard in the Class of 2023 and Justin Scott in the Class of 2024 have left the Illini without the star power and disruptive push they need in a loaded Big Ten.
Perhaps this is where you pick the brain of Jim Leonhard. He recruited and developed plenty of stars along the defensive front as a superstar coordinator. Could his eyes on prospect film be the difference between hits and misses in the portal?
My hope is that this is where hiring a guy with head coach upside pays off in player evaluation.