The spring game is finally here. This is the first spring game post-covid that systematically there really aren’t may changes. Anything we see should be a delta from last year — hopefully in the positive direction.
We have a new QB — but the starting spot isn't up for grabs.
We have a new running back room — but all signs show a running back-by-committee approach that Bielema has used successfully in the past.
We do have a new DC — Aaron Henry will have to fill some big shoes to replace Ryan Walters, but the signs around the program all say the same thing. The players have to be tough smart and dependable. As long as the players have those things, things can change around the program, but the culture will stay and progress will continue.
As Bielema’s spring games of past, I don't expect a lot to be shown. It will be a lot of basic packages on both sides of the ball and maybe a play or two showing the dynamic ability of Luke Altmyer.
So what am I hoping we see on Thursday?
Driving the ball down the field
In my last article, I said I would use ChatGPT to dive into play-by-play data. Here is the first analysis.
Illinois has had this problem for a while now. We just don't throw the ball down the field. For the last few years we excused the play calling, the lack of receiving talent, or lack of QB talent. But the evidence is clear: Illinois doesn't move the ball through the air.
I really didn't know how bad it was until I saw this chart. I get it that Illinois is a run-first team, but I didn't know we were a pass-last team.
Out of the 14 teams in the Big Ten, Illinois ranked second-to-last in pass completion yards or air yards. Northwestern — who didn't win a game in the United States in 2022 — ranked last. But even Northwestern had a longer tail.
This tells me that Illinois really only attempted short passes, and those down-the-field game-changing passing attempts were few and far between.
You want to bring butts to Memorial Stadium on Saturdays this fall? Pass the ball down the field more. Luckily this year, Illinois has a very mature receiving room and talented freshmen coming in. Hopefully, Altmyer’s arm talent will be showcased on Thursday.
Besides — Altmyer and senior WR Casey Washington (the surest hands in Illinois Football) already got a deep connection:
Let him cook. @cwash82 ✌️#famILLy // #HTTO // #Illini pic.twitter.com/P56uhB0lEa— Illinois Football (@IlliniFootball) April 2, 2023
Which two running backs stand out?
We all know that a healthy Josh McCray is RB1 — but who is his counterpart?
Reggie Love III is clearly a second option due to his seniority. But Jordan Anderson could and should give Love some trouble to land the second role in the committee.
Anderson is built like a back that Bielema loves. He is big-bodied, but his 6-foot-4, 240-pound frame is unassumingly quick. He is designed like a linebacker but sprints like a track athlete and is as slippery as Chase Brown.
With McCray and Love both injury-prone, expect a lot of use of Anderson on Thursday. Hopefully, he shines like last year.
Aaron Henry’s Defense
Bielema and Henry aren’t going to want to show their fall packages just yet, but expect some wrinkles to be thrown. We know what the D-line and linebackers will be this year. The rotation, placement, and role of the secondary should also be interesting to watch. There will be a lot of new faces, and a new leader will need to emerge with Sydney Brown and Devon Witherspoon moving on to the NFL.
I don’t think we will see much change schematically just yet, as it should be kept it under wraps till Labor Day. But if the offense is as explosive as I am hoping for, we should see some action in the secondary and find out who rises to the top.
137 days till Toledo.
But first, Spring Game on Thursday.