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5 returning players ready to break out for Illinois

Who looks poised for a bigger contribution this year?

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

The Fighting Illini have collectively gained a tremendous amount of mass during the calendar year 2023.

They are now burdened with the weight of expectations.

Bret Bielema’s squad went 8-5 led by a smothering defense and an all-world running back. Their secondary placed four players on NFL rosters, including a top-5 pick in Devon Witherspoon.

Coupled with the belief that the Illini redemption arc is legit is the need to replace major contributors. The 2022 team outperformed predictions and defied analyst’s putrid prophecies.

So who from last year’s team is poised to step into a big role this season?

Kenenna Odeluga

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 02 ReliaQuest Bowl Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This spot could have also gone to James Kreutz or Dylan Rosiek. Both of them will also see expanded roles with the graduation of Isaac Darkangelo and the transfer of Calvin Hart. Darkangelo was a tackling machine who rose up the depth chart and now finds himself in camp with the Detroit Lions. Hart moved to Corvallis to join the defense of an upstart Beavers squad that’s looking to continue its ascent in the PAC-12.

This is where the sophomore from Chicago Catholic League powerhouse Mount Carmel can create a name for himself. He may or may not be a nominal starter. But that shouldn’t impact the niche he carves out in terms of making an impact.

Odeluga is in a unique position to play a role similar to what Noah Sewell is likely to do for the Chicago Bears this season. He can be a situational pass rusher from the inside linebacker spot. Last year, he tallied three sacks. Could he wreak even more havoc with an increased role? Will Andy Buh and Aaron Henry dial up more opportunities for the stealthy guided missile to destroy opposing quarterbacks?

With all of the blocking attention given to the Law Firm, Odeluga could be a significant

game-breaking weapon.

Griffin Moore

“Hard work pays off, you get what you put in

Can’t stop now, gotta keep pushin’”

-Juelz Santana, “The Second Coming”

Griffin Moore has primarily been a practice player and a “program guy” since joining the Illini with the class of 2019. He didn’t come in with the hype of classmates like Isaiah Williams and Seth Coleman. The converted quarterback learned the tight end position in a Big Ten football program and rarely saw the field in his first four years.

This year, Moore figures to see an increased workload as a receiver. His hands and football IQ along with his maturity and experience stand out in a largely unproven room. Tip Reiman figures to be atop the depth chart, but Moore could push Henry Boyer for primary reps as the second tight end on a team that frequently utilizes “12” personnel.

The staff hasn’t ignored Moore’s evolution. He could easily get double-digit red zone targets this year.

Jordan Anderson

So this is apparently my hill to die on. From day one, I’ve been a major believer in Jordan Anderson. The 6’4 bruiser from Joliet Catholic has the kind of pass-catching chops that make him a salivating third-down option on a team that wants to play with power.

Without Chase Brown, the Illini backfield will likely have a committee structure and follow the hot hand. So having a 240-pound bulldozer who can line up at H-Back, halfback, or fullback as a deployable weapon is an intriguing option. Reggie Love and Josh McCray are favorites to get significant first-team reps. But Anderson’s singularity makes him a candidate to spell either or both against select opponents.

He’s another likely target for red zone reps, so don’t be surprised if he makes it into the end zone multiple times this season.

Hank Beatty

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 08 Iowa at Illinois

Yes, Illinois has an entrenched slot receiver.

His name is Isaiah Williams, or “One.” He’s one of the biggest stars in the program and one of the most beloved Illinois football players of the last decade. His commitment alone sent shockwaves through a fanbase thirsty for good news.

So no, I’m not suggesting that Williams is going to be displaced by a second-year player.

But Han Beatty is an outstanding compliment to Williams and true freshman Kenari Wilcher in the slot. He’s another ex-quarterback with a cerebral approach to route running and the shiftiness to break big plays.

Barry Lunney Jr. didn’t do a lot of gadget plays and trickeration strategery in his first year in Champaign. I don’t expect that to change. But I do expect him to utilize a healthy Beatty in ways that get him alone in space.

He may not have the measurables of Malik Elzy or the straight-line sprinter’s speed of Wilcher. But much like Isaiah Williams, Beatty’s elusiveness and football IQ can enable him to be a much better playmaker in his second year with more reps.

Josh Kreutz

As of now, Josh Kreutz is likely to be the starting center when Illinois opens its season against Toledo.

Experts lament his lack of measurables. He doesn’t have prototype length for a Big Ten center.

But the Loyola Academy grad has a reputation for playing with fire and aggression. In close games where points are at a premium, would you rather have the guy with the measurables or the guy who will do anything and everything to free his guy for one yard? I know I would take the latter.

Kreutz will have to do a lot more than be nasty in the trenches. He has to step into a role that has been held down in back-to-back years by NFL guys. Alex Pihlstrom was a revelation at center last season, and Doug Kramer is entering his second year with the Chicago Bears.

Kreutz practices against guys like Johnny Newton and Keith Randolph. That’s iron sharpening iron. So those practice reps combined with Kreutz’ prospect pedigree and bloodlines create an intriguing mix for a Bret Bielema-coached team.

Kreutz may have committed to his father’s former NFL coach Lovie Smith, but he was born to play Bielema Ball. The spotlight will be on him early, and I’m confident he’ll thrive under the bright lights.