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‘Big shoes to fill’: Clay Patterson ready to hit the ground running

Step one in the staff’s journey to filling a Newton and Randolph-sized hole.

Yale Bulldogs

It looks like Bielema and his staff are moving quickly to replace the Law Firm, earning a commitment from a defensive lineman who spent four years at a university with one of the best law schools in the country.

Senior defensive lineman Clay Patterson announced his commitment to Illinois on Saturday via his X account.

Patterson enjoyed four seasons over five years (the Ivy League didn’t play in 2020 due to the pandemic) in which he had 30 career starts, 15 as a defensive end and 15 as part of a three-man defensive line, as he described to TCR.

He was an All-Ivy League First Team defensive lineman this season, recording 40 tackles and 4.5 sacks in 10 games for the Bulldogs.

His best work came in 2021 as a sophomore when he was named to the Associated Press Third Team All-America team with 44 tackles and 11.5 sacks.

Replacing the defensive line is one of the biggest tasks at hand for Bret Bielema and his staff after finishing the season 5-7. Illinois will need to replace three starters, with Johnny Newton, Keith Randolph (the Law Firm) and Denzel Daxon declaring for the NFL Draft or having no eligibility remaining.

The “Law Firm” of Johnny Newton and Keith Randolph enjoyed a stellar season.

Newton leaves Champaign as the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year and Defensive Lineman of the Year, and also First Team All-Big Ten. Randolph was named to the third-team All-Big Ten selection by the media and an honorable mention by coaches.

Both Newton and Randolph will look to enter the NFL next year, with Newton a potential top-ten draft pick and Randolph rated as the ninth-best defensive end by ESPN’s Mel Kiper.

The path that they’ve taken to becoming NFL-caliber players played a big role in Patterson’s decision to make Champaign the last stop of his collegiate career.

“What I was looking for in my next school was two things, really. First, a place that’s going to develop me as a player. And then the second thing, a place that’s going to put me in the best spot for my future at the next level,” Patterson told TCR.

Bielema and his staff wasted no time reaching out to Patterson when he entered his name into the portal over Thanksgiving break. Before committing to the Orange and Blue he held offers from Colorado, Houston and Oregon State, among others.

“Coach B was the first head coach to get on a phone call with me,” Patterson said.

“How fast it went and how much I felt wanted, I feel like it was just an easy decision, paired with the opportunity to work with Coach [Terrance] Jamison. I think he’s one of the best D-line coaches in the country,” the Frisco, Texas native said.

While Yale is a great academic institution and Illinois is no small fish in that regard, Patterson says that he’ll be here to focus on football, with his goal being the NFL.

“[Coach Jamison’s] track record with developing D-linemen specifically and sending them to the league, I felt like Illinois was the best fit for me and my goals.”

The pitch Bielema and his staff are sending to players in the portal is clear, especially in the case of Patterson’s.

“Obviously with Johnny Newton and Keith Randolph leaving the need was there and they articulated that,” he said. “They are big shoes to fill. They’re two really amazing players and I have the exact same goals as they had.”

The 6-foot-3, 290-pound defensive lineman will graduate this December, meaning he has the spring in addition to the summer to get acclimated with Illinois Football.

“I’ll be able to not only get integrated with the guys and the culture but also get to work under the great strength staff that Illinois has and utilize the great facilities and all that,” he said.

The goal for the former Bulldog is Johnny Newton and Keith Randolph levels of success.

“I’m just excited to come in, work, get better, develop as a player and hopefully be in a similar situation as those guys are in right now.”