A few weeks ago, Bret Bielema mentioned in an interview that the Illini had three open scholarships remaining.
That number went down to two when Illinois won the commitment of Demetrius Hill, a Freshman All-American (now the Illini defense has two from 2022) from Florida International University.
In order to analyze the Illini’s needs with the final two scholarships, I’ll put together a wholly speculative two-deep.
QB - Luke Altmyer, Donovan (not Devin) Leary
RB - Josh McCray, Jordan Anderson
RB - Reggie Love, Aidan Laughery
WR - Isaiah Williams, Hank Beatty
WR - Pat Bryant, Malik Elzy
WR - Casey Washington, Shawn Miller
TE - Tip Reiman, Griffin Moore
OT - Julian Pearl, Josh Gesky
OG - Jordyn Slaughter, Zachary Barlev
OC - Josh Kreutz, Joey Okla
OG - Zy Crisler, Dez’Mond Schuster
OT - Isaiah Adams, Hunter Whitenack
DL - Johnny Newton, Bryce Barnes
DL - Keith Randolph, Sedarius McConnell
DL - TeRah Edwards, Denzel Daxon
DE - Gabe Jacas, Alec Bryant
DE - Seth Coleman, Ezekiel Holmes
LB - Dylan Rosiek, Kenenna Odeluga
LB - Tarique Barnes, Malachi Hood
CB - Taz Nicholson, Kaleb Patterson
CB - Tyler Strain, Elijah Mc-Cantos
NB - Xavier Scott, TJ Griffin
FS - Matthew Bailey, Kionte Curry
SS - Nicario Harper, Demetrius Hill
K - Caleb Griffin, David Olano
P - Hugh Robertson, Declan Duley
So where are the needs?
Illinois is returning a competitive roster.
Illinois filled out the quarterback room with Luke Altmyer and John Paddock. They both bring experience to a room with zero meaningful game reps.
The running back room has a Chase Brown-sized hole. But based on the flashes Love and McCray have shown and the freakishly gifted athletes behind them, the position group still looks quite strong.
The receivers and tight ends have been bolstered this offseason by people not named AJ Henning. Tanner Arkin transferred from Colorado State and will push Griffin Moore and Henry Boyer for snaps behind Tip Reiman. True freshmen Collin Dixon, Kenari Wilcher, and Malik Elzy bring spectacular potential to a room with a solid starting core. But the staff isn’t ready to depend on freshmen.
According to 247Sports, the Illini will host California JuCo wideout Jayden-Dixon Veal next weekend. Illinois will be competing against San Diego State, Temple, and Oregon State among other offers. This appears to be a position the Illini will pursue.
Zachari Franklin, with whom Barry Lunney had great success at UTSA, is still available in the portal. He’s one of the most productive players on the market, and he would elevate the roster’s potential even more than Henning would have.
The offensive line is a potential source of consternation. Specifically, the center position is up in the air. Hugh Freeze swiped star grad transfer center, Avery Jones. Josh Kreutz has great bloodlines at the position in addition to a mean streak that is already bordering All-American levels. But there are questions about his length, so the Illini will continue to scour the JuCo ranks and the portal for this season’s starter.
JuCo star Amaury Wiggins officially visited Champaign over the weekend. His skill set would place him as a likely day-one starter. But it’s not going to be tough to land him. His offer list includes Miami (FL), Arkansas, Penn State, LSU, and Texas A&M. Illinois has an excellent sell for offensive linemen. Bret Bielema puts ‘em in the league better than anyone not named Nick Saban.
There is always a paucity of defensive line talent in the portal Thankfully, TeRah Edwards can step into the Calvin Avery spot in support of the Law Firm. Transfer Denzel Daxon should be ready to provide reps as needed after a successful stint as an Ohio Bobcat.
The OLB room has Gabe Jacas. Enough said.
The linebackers appear to have both macro- and sub-package capabilities. The departure of CJ Hart to Oregon State did leave a dent in their two-deep, but Dylan Rosiek definitely looks the part alongside stalwart Tarique Barnes. I’m intrigued by Kenenna Odeluga’s potential to rush the passer from the ILB spot. Also, Andy Buh is a hell of a teacher. So I have complete confidence in this group.
The secondary has plenty of speed, talent, nastiness, feistiness, and skill. Coach Henry and Coach YoYo will have the unit ready to play. But there is an experience gap. The transfer additions of Kaleb Patterson, Nicario Harper, and Demetrius Hill bring some needed experience. The rotation could shake out in several ways. But I think the staff is done recruiting defensive backs for this cycle.
(They are also looking to load up in the secondary in the class of 2024.)
The specialist room looks strong with two true freshmen from in-state who are ready to compete with the entrenched vets.
So, as of right now…
It looks like offensive line and wide receiver are the most likely places Illinois will look to add talent with their last two available scholarships. Both units are talented but will otherwise rely on some unproven players to get the job done. 2023 will present a winnable Big Ten West for the Illini. The roster already looks primed to compete on offense, defense, and special teams.
A reporter once asked Theo Epstein if he was willing to give fans the “cookie” of calling up power-hitting prospects like Kris Bryant and Javy Baez from the minor leagues.
Theo responded by telling the interviewer that “We’re cooking the whole meal. We want to give them an annual feast. The only way to make fans happy is to give them pennant races and October baseball.”
Coach Bielema and the staff cooked the whole meal. And they can make fans happy by providing annual bowl games and sustained conference competitiveness.
These last two additions will be the cookies.