With the transfer window and prep signing period now complete, the Illinois spring roster is set. Fifteen players will enroll at Illinois in the spring — 11 prep prospects, one junior college transfer, and three transfers from other programs.
The spring game is about eight weeks away, and here are questions I want answered during spring training.
Who starts on the offensive line?
Illinois’ offensive line has stayed pretty consistent with its leadership for the last six years. Alex Palczewski was the team’s true senior leader, and before him Doug Kramer, Kendrick Green and (now two-time Super Bowl champ AND two-time dad) Nick Allegretti. Palcho should follow the rest to the NFL, but that leaves a gap in leadership on the offensive line.
Luckily, Illinois does return three starters from last year: Julian Pearl, Isaiah Adams, and Zy Crisler and Jordyn Slaugther return with a wealth of experience. But the key piece still missing is the center. JUCO transfer Avery Jones was supposed to fill the gap, but he flipped late to Auburn.
This means Bielema and Bart Miller have eight weeks to find a center on their current roster. Josh Kreutz is probably the front runner for this spot, but the fact that Illinois looked elsewhere means the staff thought Kreutz was not ready to step into the starting spot yet.
Can Matthew Bailey, Tyler Strain and Xavier Scott replace Sydney Brown, Devon Witherspoon and Quan Martin?
While replacing a coordinator and some of the best cornerbacks and safties is difficult, Illinois doesn't have much concern in this area. Bailey, Strain and Scott have already shown they have the talent to make an impact at this level.
Illinois also returns cornerback Taz Nicholson and added cornerback Kaleb Patterson and safety Nicario Harper. Patterson was one of the top cornerback JUCO transfers in the nation, and Harper was the OVC Defensive Player of the year at Jacksonville State in 2020.
While the potential new starters are extremely talented, the Illinois secondary is replacing a lot of production. Luckily, Illinois returns one of the best defensive lines in the country, allowing the new players to learn their new full time roles.
With the D-line returning, how do Aaron Henry and Andy Buh coach up the linebackers?
The strongest part of the defense is in the line. Every starter returns, and Te’Rah Edwards should take over right where Calvin Avery left off. But what about the linebackers?
After Jake Hansen departed for the NFL, the linebacker department has not seen the same level of success. You see this across college football. When the D-line has returning talent, the linebackers lose some production. When the D-line is new, the linebackers are used to plug the gaps and support a developing defensive front.
Illinois has a unique position for 2023. The defensive line is fantastic and its secondary should be right there after a few tune up games. But what about the linebackers? Does Andy Buh use them to pressure opposing QBs or does he drop them back and support the new secondary? The duality of the position will be interesting to watch in spring camp and in the fall.
The linebacker role, I suspect, will be very fluid, depending on the opponents offensive strengths. This will give the edge to Illinois, who can disguise formations with the linebackers and carry on its success from 2023.
The WR room has a lot of talent; who separates from the pack?
Isaiah Williams and Pat Bryant are the clear starters, and Casey Washington, who has the surest hands on the team, is a great down-the-field blocker and role player. So the real question is, who lines up opposite to Bryant.
Illinois has a couple answers here. Three-star receiver Shawn Miller is coming off an injury, but is in year two of Barry Lunney’s system. Hank Beatty, who will probably replace Williams in the slot, is quick and has solid hands. Illinois is obviously awaiting 4-star Simeon receiver Malik Elzy, who will enroll this fall.
George McDonald will probably wait for Elzy to arrive on campus in the fall. Seeing who lines up on the other side of the field will be the first time we see the true depth of the position. This is the first time Illinois has had real depth behind the first string in the last five years. The talent in the WR room should bring stability to the position for a few years to come.
Who is QB2?
Luckily that stability should stick because of the starting quarterback, Ole Miss transfer Luke Altmyer. But Illinois has a new problem: who is the backup.
Illinois has two redshirt freshmen (Donovan Leary and Kirkland Micheaux), true freshman Cal Swanson, and Ball State grad transfer John Paddock. Paddock is definitely the front-runner here and has the most experience, but Leary and Micheaux have experience in Lunney’s system.
Leary, Micheaux and Paddock should be in a battle until Toledo. The spring game will show who leads the pack.