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Players to keep an eye on as Illinois spring ball begins

Football is back.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: AUG 27 Wyoming at Illinois Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

About a month ago, I shared five burning questions for Illinois Football to address in Spring Camp.

Spring practices are great for installing new schemes and packages and a great period for players deep in the depth chart to showcase their growth in the offseason. Bret Bielema has famously been chided for saying his team lacked depth in 2021, especially in the offensive line ranks.

While the depth issue seems to be resolved on paper, here are five players I am excited to see rise in the depth chart in 2023.

OL Zachary Barlev

Barlev saw playing time in 2022 as a redshirt freshman, but mainly on special teams. If there is a sixth man for the job, Barlev is the guy.

An Illinois native out of Plainfield East, he should be playing behind senior Jordyn Slaughter at left guard. Barlev and Slaughter have similar builds — big, beefy 6-foot-5 linemen who can protect the quarterback and create holes for the Illini offense. However, Barlev is still a bit undersized at 305 pounds and should use the spring to put on some weight, understand the playbook, and grow alongside Illinois’ future linemen.

NOTE: When you have a 6’5” 305 lb lineman do a roundoff in the Red Lion patio, you know you got an athletic, mobile lineman in the depth chart. Scroll to the 4th picture above.

OL Josh Kruetz

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 02 ReliaQuest Bowl Photo by Chris Leduc/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Speaking of linemen, another big fella I am excited for is Josh Kreutz, brother of Illinois linebacker James Kreutz and son of former Bears Pro Bowl center Olin Kreutz. Playing center is clearly in Kreutz’s lineage, but the center name carries some weight in the Illinois locker room (Chicago Bear’s second-year center Doug Kramer and two-time Super Bowl champion Nick Allegretti).

Kruetz, like Barlev, also has some weight to put on this year, but unlike Barlev should be in line to start at the center position. With the ball in his hands to start every offensive play, how he gels with Illinois' new QB Luke Altmyer will be the key to Illinois' success in 2023. If all goes well, the pair will be playing together for the next few years so seeing how this develops will be a key storyline to follow until the spring game.

WR Hank Beatty

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 08 Iowa at Illinois

We have already seen Hank Beatty (7 catches, 25 yards) play as a true freshman, both as a punt returner and slot receiver. Beatty will be playing behind senior Isaiah Williams in the slot, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him get more reps as a returner.

In 2024 Beatty will take over in the slot, but the 2023 season will be a year of growth. The Rochester native was Bielema’s first in-state commit and will have more of a role to play in the offense and give some breathing room in the return game for Williams.

ILB Kenenna Odeluga

NCAA Football: ReliaQuest Bowl-Illinois at Mississippi State Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Kenena Odeluga is another player in the depth chart who is developing behind a 2023 senior. While serving as a backup for Tarique Barnes in 2022, Odeluga saw playing time in every game, recording 8 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, and two quarterback hurries.

In my last column, I said how I’m intrigued by how Illinois will set up its linebackers in 2023. The defensive line will continue to be a monster behind the Lawfirm, Gabe Jacas, and Seth Coleman. Odeluga will look to build more consistency in 2023 while splitting linebacking duties with Barnes and add onto his impressive redshirt freshman season.

Punter Declan Duley

Freshman punter Declan Duley should add some irons to the fire that is the special teams room. There is a reason Bielema spent a scholarship on 247 Sports’ No. 2 punter — he’s got the legs that Bielema wants.

Whether this is to give some friendly competition for sophomore Hugh Robertson or actually fight for a starting spot is yet to be decided. The fact that Duley is already on campus and practicing this spring gives me enough to be excited about.