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Bielema just secured his BEST commit at Illinois. What’s next?

An early look into the 2024 season.

TCR // Jack Jungmann

I tweeted this in response to Dave Wischnowsky. You probably know him from his award-winning column, the Wischlist, and it started a back-and-forth between him and me about what this season entails.

But let's put that in a bit more perspective — even more so after the best recruit Illinois has landed during Bret Bielema’s tenure, AJ Dennis.

This column isn’t supposed to be about commits or recruits but rather about putting some perspective on Illinois football and, more importantly, the direction this program is headed in the next few years.

On Dec. 20, Dennis and the rest of the recruiting class of 2024 will sign their letter of intent, committing to the orange and blue after a rather lackluster 2023 campaign.

It is so easy to look at this last season in a vacuum and look at the 6-11 record in the last 17 games and say that this program isn’t headed in the right direction. And to be honest, you would not be wrong. This is extremely factual. There are actual concerns on the offensive line and the secondary, and even I have called out a few “Figure It Out” moments on this past season’s defense.

But when the class of 2024 signs, it will have been 22 years since Illinois last won 12 Big Ten games in three years.

The class of 2024 was not even born the last time this happened.

So what next? Where do we go from here?

Recruit, Develop, Re-recruit

There are going to be disappointing seasons for Illinois football. Illinois isn’t a national powerhouse. It is nowhere close to 1,000 wins like Michigan just crossed. 5-7 seasons are going to happen. But we are slowly working ourselves out of the bottom of the pit.

This team has repeatedly shown that it can develop its players. Devon Witherspoon went from almost playing JUCO to being one of the most elite rookie defenders in the NFL. The Brown brothers went from no-name recruits to creating a name for themselves. Even Tommy DeVito went from a middle-of-the-pack quarterback at Syracuse to an NFL-ready quarterback after his stint at Illinois.

NFL: New York Giants at Washington Commanders Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

This staff has shown it can develop its talent. And the talent pool is getting better and better each year. Ashton Hollins, Malik Elzy, Henry Boyer, Brandon Henderson, Saboor Karriem, Zach Tobe, Mac Resetich, Kaden Feagin, and Kenari Wilcher are all freshmen who contributed to the 2023 squad. Karriem, Tobe, and Resetich — all true freshmen — got burned at times but received valuable experience.

Much like how Witherspoon and Sydney Brown got beat in 2020, they returned two years later to be core parts of one of the best secondaries in the nation. Karriem, Tobe, and Resetich all have a chance to grow and develop with this staff, much like Spoon and Brown.

This staff has also shown its ability to keep the team intact — two-deep players have yet to leave for the transfer portal in the last three years. The culture inside Smith Center is extremely sticky. Players seem like they want to be there and call Champaign home. Regardless, recruiting players to stay on the roster in this college football era will be a key to success.

With the unfinished business of 2023, I don't think it will be that hard to do.

Get Back to Basics

One of the best parts of the 2022 defense was that it was effortless. Sydney Brown felt he was thinking less and playing the ball more — and he would repeat that repeatedly in every press conference.

I think some of that was lost last year. From first-year coordinator Aaron Henry to the players making adjustments, too much thinking was happening.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 04 UTSA at Illinois Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In 2024, Henry and the staff need to simplify the scheme, plan to highlight the players' skill sets, and let raw intuition and talent shine. The talent is in or will be in Champaign in 2024.

Illinois received a commitment from one of the best raw talent in the JUCO ranks — Daniel Brown.

With Matthew Bailey hopefully returning to the field in 2024, this defense is primed for a return to competitiveness.

Keep Doing What You Are Doing on Offense

How fun were the last few games on offense? It’s pretty exciting when you have chunk plays every few plays. This needs to continue.

Luke Altmyer hopefully has shaken off that freshman shell and walks back into Memorial Stadium as the big man on campus. For the first time since Wes Lunt, Illinois will have the same center-quarterback-running back combo returning for a second year.

Wisconsin v Illinois Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The only thing missing from this offense is a better offensive line. I think that there is still some trust issues with the team on where this line stands. I mentioned this last year — but this is still a young offensive line with no true leader. Josh Kreutz did an amazing job and hopefully that voice and experience will carry into 2024. AJ Dennis provides that competition in the two-deep along with current linemen Brandon Henderson, Zy Crisler, and Josh Gesky.

Add on some transfer portal linemen, and this could be an offensive line that Kaden Feagin and Altmyer would be happy to line up behind.

I told myself I wouldn't hype myself up three days after a loss to Northwestern. But shit, here I am. It might be insomnia or the Kool-Aid sitting in the fridge, but the future looks bright.

Let’s see how this offseason plays out.

I-L-L