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6 underrated Illini key to Illinois’ 2023 success

Which Fighting Illini football players aren’t being talked about enough?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 19 Illinois at Michigan Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The college football season is rapidly approaching. Starting battles are being won, and teams are determining their depth charts and rotations.

The Fighting Illini have some clear stars who will power the team in 2023, like Jer’Zhan Newton, Keith Randolph, Julian Pearl, and Isaiah Williams, as well as other clearly important great players like Luke Altmyer, Josh McCray, Isaiah Adams, and Tahveon Nicholson. But what about players flying under the radar, guys who aren’t getting the same attention, who have very important roles to play if Illinois is to have a successful season in 2023? Let’s take a look at some of those guys.


OLB Alec Bryant

Illinois’ strength lies in the trenches defensively. They have studs across the front four, with Seth Coleman and Gabe Jacas occupying the EDGE/OLB spots next to the star DTs. But in the modern age of football, there’s a lot of rotation up front.

Enter Alec Bryant, a former 4-star recruit who didn’t play much last year but will have a definite role as the EDGE/OLB No. 3 for this team. When Coleman and Jacas need breaks, Bryant has to be able to step up.

Expect him to play about a third of the defensive snaps, and he’ll be a big part of one of the best pass-rushing fronts in the Big Ten and even the country.

S Miles Scott

One of the biggest training camp battles is happening at safety. Matthew Bailey was expected to be penciled in as a starter at FS, but has dealt with injuries during the offseason. Nicario Harper arrived early to be the SS, but might have been supplanted by either TJ Griffin, Clayton Bush, or All-American transfer Demetrius Hill.

The name that has been forgotten is Miles Scott, who converted to safety from WR after already being a walk-on. Illini Inquirer’s Jeremy Werner believes he has a chance to start Week 1 at FS based on his conversations with the coaching staff.

Going from walk-on WR to starting FS after one year would be an incredible story. Even if Bailey comes back and retakes the starting job, the Illini play a lot of DBs in nickel, dime, and quarter sets, so expect Scott to have a role.

CB Saboor Karriem

Illinois also lost multiple CBs to the draft in Devon Witherspoon and Jar’Tavius Martin. They’ll be looking for others to step up across from Taz Nicholson, and most expect those to be Xavier Scott and Tyler Strain. However, those guys got opportunities last year even with two top-50 NFL draft picks ahead of them, so other cornerbacks will get a chance.

I think Karriem will shine the most of them. He was a 3-star out of New Jersey and is 6-foot-3, elite size for a CB. He has to put on muscle weight, but assuming he did so in summer and during fall training camp, he gives Illinois a great option to go against bigger stronger possession jumpball receivers. I see him being an integral part of the Illini defense by the end of the year like Matthew Bailey was as a freshman.


WR Casey Washington

The Illini WR room is the deepest it has been in a long time, even after losing Brian Hightower to the transfer portal. Isaiah Williams could make the All-Big Ten team, making insane plays in space. Pat Bryant is a very solid deep threat and possession WR2. Hank Beatty will get a chance to take over Hightower’s role. Incoming freshmen Malik Elzy, Kenari Wilcher, and Collin Dixon are highly-touted.

But don’t forget the veteran slot receiver, Casey Washington. Illinois’ version of Hunter Renfrow has come up clutch in the past, including that 9OT game against Penn State. He had a career year last season finally getting competent QB play from Tommy DeVito, and he should build on that in his fifth year with another good QB in Luke Altmyer. He’ll need to move the chains on third downs when defenses are keying in on Williams.

He’ll also finally score his first career receiving TD. (A bonkers, but true, stat.)

TE Griffin Moore

Tip Reiman will return as Illinois’ TE1, with his blocking and experience, but there is a battle for TE2 that Moore is expected to win due to his great receiving ability. Moore could also be an H-back option for Illinois.

Last year the team really lacked a dynamic receiving option at TE after losing Daniel Barker, and is Moore can take the role that Barker had from 2019-21, the passing offense could take a huge step forward.

The fifth-year TE will be an integral part of Barry Lunney’s offense.

G Jordyn Slaughter

The Fighting Illini lost two starting offensive lineman to the NFL in Alex Pihlstrom and Alex Palczewski. Palczewski is expected to be replaced by Josh Kreutz, and being a center, much of the attention has been on him.

Slaughter is replacing Zy Crisler at RG, who moved to RT. He’s battling Josh Gesky to start.

I believe Slaughter’s advantage in size and strength, as well as experience (he was the 6th OL for the team last season) will make him the choice, and I also see him rising to All-Big Ten honors and even getting on some scouts lists.

Bret Bielema and his staff know offensive lineman, and I believe Slaughter will be another good one, making the job for Luke Altmyer and Josh Kreutz even easier.