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Illinois will be elite on the line of scrimmage

Speed, size & excellence on the line.

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Let’s brush off those cobwebs. Football season is back.

This week starts Week 0 of the 2023 football season, and I don't know about you, but this week is my Christmas. Our beloved Illini does not have a game in Week 0 for the first time in two years. But this gives me time to give you two stat-filled preseason blogs to kick off the season. This is the first of those two.

As TCR’s Pleas Honeywood mentioned last week, Bret Bielema is bringing fun back to Illinois.

Everything that Lovie Smith had imagined, Bielema is executing. He has completely transformed the two-deep lineup and, more importantly, brought his style to Champaign (more on this later). The Wisconsin (and Iowa) guys are so mad at this; we live in their message boards rent-free.

Let me bring this back to the stats you should know about.


I want to discuss returning production here and the Chase Brown-sized elephant in the room. I want to start by using predicted points added to start this conversation.

Predicted Points Added (PPA) is the projected points that a player will add per play. You add them and have the Total PPA.


Illinois isn't the worst, but it isn't standing out — Illinois is right there in the group of statistically average returning production in 2023. I would say that Illinois should have an average receiving room next year — and over average if Luke Altmyer excels in his role. And as expected, Illinois doesn't have a ton of predictions for its running backs because we did lose Chase Brown’s 300-some carries on the season.

Luckily, many of the teams Illinois plays are right around it in returning production. Penn State and Wisconsin have about the same Receiving PPA, but they have a better RB room with potential All-Big Ten backs returning for their sophomore year. Indiana, Northwestern, Minnesota, Iowa, and Purdue have the same returning production statistically. The only team that worries me is Kansas, but only because we play Week 2 in Lawrence. This is a bit easier to see in the stats below.

Illinois is right in the middle of the pack in the B1G for returning receivers. Ohio State is the outlier here with Marvin Harrison Jr., but looking at Kansas in the first chart, they have a more robust returning receiving room than Ohio State — which doesn't bode well for our young secondary.

So how about that Chase Brown-sized hole I was talking about before? Well...


There’s a lot left to be desired here. Not only does Illinois have a new play caller on offense, but also Illinois running backs haven’t had the level of touches as Brown. Whatever the committee of running backs looks like, has yet to receive more than ten touches a game.

But you know what — knowing Bielema’s history with running backs, I don’t think that this chart will have Illinois running backs in the bottom two at the end of the season. There is no way a McCray/Love/Anderson combination doesn't put Illinois in the top quadrant of B1G/P5 running backs this season.

Statistically, I am even less worried.

Here is Illinois' 2022 offensive line compared to the rest of the Power 5:


And the Joe Moore Award semi-finalist offensive line just got bigger in 2023.


Ignore the vertical placement here. But on average, Illinois linemen gained about 5 pounds, placing them in a pretty elite category. This is the Bielema way (like I said at the start).

We know Illinois has a pretty good returning receiving room — and the addition of Luke Altmeyer only makes them better. We have a fresh running back group — but Bielema’s coaching and history should propel them to the top of the Big Ten quickly.

The beefier 2023 offensive line should propel Illinois into the Oregon, LSU, Tennessee, and Penn State grouping of offensive lines — probably a bit below at nine wins. Still, statistically, I would say it's pretty damn close. If Illinois regressed into the Florida/Arkansas/TAMU/OU/MSU group, I would question many things.

I honestly don’t see that happening with Julian Pearl, Isaiah Adams, Josh Kruetz, Zy Crysler, and Jordyn Slaughter manning the line this year. And after reviewing returning defensive production, I really don’t see a regression happening.


This front seven is elite. With 5 of the front seven returning into their starting roles, I expect last year’s excellence — especially against the run — to continue.

To do this, I want to look at last year’s stats, specifically EPA. EPA is the expected points a team adds (or loses) each play. If you have an EPA > 0 on defense, that would put you in some elite territory.

Ok, I take that back. Looking at the chart below, we all know Indiana and Virginia’s run defense was not elite against the rush. They look good in this chart because nobody ran against them last season since their pass defense had more holes than Swiss cheese.


But in the context of Illinois — the Illini secondary was the shining star in the defense last year, often overlooking the progress being made in the trenches.

Let me break this down for you: Against the rush last year, Illinois lost about 4.5 yards a play, similar to Michigan, Ohio State, and Tennessee. But the Illinois rush defense was expected to net Illinois > 0.1 points per rush. Say the team Illinois played 80 snaps a game, with 45% of those plays being run. The Illinois defense would have been expected to add 3.6 points per game.

This front seven is ELITE — and they have only gotten better.

Here is the player weight-to-wins chart for Power 5 Front 7 in 2022.


And here is the 2023 Illinois Front Seven in comparison.


The defensive front has not only gained about 10 lbs on average, but these dudes can move.

That is 300 pounds of pure muscle coming straight at Tanner Mordecai, Hudson Card, Aithan Kaliakmanis, and Penn State’s “savior,” Drew Allar.

Not to mention his partner-in-law Keith Randolph meeting him at the QB in less than 3 seconds.

I know that this was a long one — looking at the data — here is what I learned:

  • Bret Bielema’s influence has transformed how Illinois football is played in the trenches.
  • This O-line should be able to help the new quarterback and running backs settle in.
  • Luke Altmyer will already have a middle-of-the-pack WR room to throw to — not to mention the cadre of receivers like Hank Beatty, Eian Pugh, Shawn Miller, and Malik Elzy on the sidelines.
  • Illinois has an elite front 7 — this will allow for some breathing room in the secondary — especially if Matthew Bailey is out for an extended time.
  • Much like what Bielema has created everywhere he coached, Illinois will have one of the country's best offensive and defensive lines.

It’s not just me; Dave Revsine, Gerry DiNardo, and Howard Griffith all agree:

11 days till Toledo.