Summer workouts are underway for the Illinois football team. Incoming freshmen are on campus, transfers are mostly done, and spring camp is well in the rearview mirror.
The Fighting Illini, coming off their best season in 15 years, where they went 8-5 and made it to the Outback Bowl (I refuse to call it the ReliaQuest Bowl), had 4 draft picks and 8 undrafted free agents, and they hope to replace them in order to maintain success this season.
So what positions are the Illini’s strengths going into this 2023? Last season it was fairly obvious that the cornerbacks, safeties, offensive line and running backs were the top groups. Three DBs were drafted (Devon Witherspoon, Jartavius Martin, Sydney Brown), as was RB Chase Brown. The OL had the most experience in the Big Ten. This year? The strengths aren’t quite the same.
Note: These are not official depth charts, just based off Ourlads.
5 - Defensive Backfield (Safeties)
Starters: Matthew Bailey, Nicario Harper
Depth: Demetrius Hill, TJ Griffin
It was a toss-up between the safeties and the cornerbacks here. The best individual player among the DBs is probably Tahveon Nicholson, a CB who started most of last season before a wrist injury in November. But the CB group is probably a little less proven overall in depth compared to the safeties group, which gives the latter the edge.
Matthew Bailey mostly played special teams early on, but in the second half of the season got on the field a lot on defense, and recorded three interceptions. It culminated in an amazing bowl game with the draft-eligible DBs sitting out. He was a true freshman, too.
At the other safety spot, Nicario Harper is a thumper who tallied 150 tackles over 22 games with Jacksonville State. He could be supplanted by Demetrius Hill, a freshman All-American who transferred from FIU. The redshirt-sophomore had 95 tackles and 3 FF last year. He could be the perfect complement to Bailey in the defensive backfield.
Lastly, Griffin is a big safety who may get a bigger role this season after impressing in spring training.
4 - Offensive Line
Starters: Julian Pearl, Isaiah Adams, Josh Kreutz, Zy Crisler, Josh Gesky
Depth: Jordyn Slaughter, Dezmond Schuster
The Illini return 3 starters on the OL in Pearl, Adams and Crisler. Adams specifically had buzz to be picked in the draft, but returned to guarantee himself to be an early draft pick in 2024. He made All-Big Ten last season and will look to build on that.
Pearl is enormous even for a typical LT, and will try to build off an All-Big Ten honorable mention season.
Crisler is a solid RG who also made All-Big Ten honorable mention. The two spots to fill are center (Alex Philstrom) and RT (Alex Palczewski). Kreutz, the son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Olin Kreutz, has the smarts to play the position but is a little bit undersized. At RT, Gesky or Schuster could play there, or Slaughter could play RG, kicking Crisler out to tackle.
The Illini have a lot of options.
3 - Wide Receiver
Starters: Isaiah Williams, Pat Bryant, Casey Washington
Depth: Hank Beatty, Malik Elzy, Kenari Wilcher, Shawn Miller, Collin Dixon
This is one of the deepest Illini WR groups in a long time, even after losing Brian Hightower to the transfer portal. Williams is a star; the redshirt-senior had 82 catches last season for 715 yards. He was the Fighting Illini’s clear No. 1 option, and made a ton of big plays after the catch on screens or crossers.
Pat Bryant had a solid sophomore year with 34 catches for 453 yards, and he’ll hope to build on that. Washington is a reliable third WR, amassing 31 catches for 306 yards, though he may be pushed by the likes of Hank Beatty and Shawn Miller, who were supposed to be part of the rotation last season before injury.
The three incoming freshmen are extremely tantalizing. Wilcher is a speed threat, who will hopefully stretch the field for Luke Altmyer in a way nobody really could for Tommy DeVito. Elzy is the prized recruit of the 2023 class, a 4-star Chicago product and will be a stud. Dixon was stolen from Wisconsin and also figures to be a good jumpball receiver. WR may not be the best position group in 2023, but it’s probably the deepest.
2 - Outside Linebackers
Starters: Seth Coleman, Gabe Jacas
Depth: Alec Bryant, Ezekiel Holmes
This group nearly was No. 1. Coleman is another potential 2024 draft pick. He was fourth in the Big Ten with 37 pressures last season. The former 4-star recruit really shined last season.
Jacas, as a true freshman, had 5 TFL and 4 sacks, seizing the other OLB starting spot. It’s probably the best EDGE duo in the Big Ten. Coleman is the speed rusher, Jacas is the power rusher.
Bryant emerged as a solid third edge rusher for Illinois last season, playing almost 200 snaps. Holmes is a senior as the fourth option.
All in all, the Illini will rely on this group that was tremendous last season to be even better next season to make up for the losses in the secondary; sacks will be key.
1 - Interior Defensive Line
Starters: Jer’Zhan Newton, Keith Randolph, Terah Edwards
Depth: Bryce Barnes, Sed McConnell
The Law Firm takes the top spot of best position group for Illinois in 2023. If I were to guess today, Newton and Randolph would be the highest-picked Illini in 2024; Newton a first-rounder, and Randolph a second rounder (though Adams could sneak in there).
Newton is PFF’s highest-graded returning defensive lineman in the Big Ten. He had 14(!) TFL and 6 sacks. Randolph had 13 TFL and 5 sacks. Both were All-Big Ten last season and figure to repeat.
Edwards will likely replace Calvin Avery at the NT spot. He’ll need to just eat up blockers in the run game as Avery did. Barnes and McConnell got some playing time later in the season, and figure to be in the rotation.
The star power of Newton and Randolph, to me, is greater than the star power of Coleman and Jacas, making interior defensive line the Fighting Illini’s best position group in 2023.