In three days, Illinois will take the field in front of fans for the first time since early January. Coming off the program’s first winning season since 2011, the Illini are in rarified air.
The atmosphere surrounding this program is more competitive than in many years prior, and head coach Bret Bielema now heads into his third season at Illinois with a team of new hopes and expectations.
With so much seemingly riding on this new season, Bielema and his staff arrived at Memorial Stadium on Monday to preview it, as well as the first opponent they will be facing.
The team attempting to play spoiler to the Illini’s home opener? The defending MAC Champions.
Who said non-conference was supposed to be easy?
On Saturday night, Illinois returns to Memorial Stadium to face Toledo. The Rockets enter the 2023 season as favorites to win the MAC again, and they come into Saturday’s matchup with one more AP vote than the Illini.
“They’re a very good football team,” said head coach Bret Bielema. “Coach (Jason) Candle has done a tremendous job ever since he took over and has won more games than anybody else.”
Any successful team starts with a good quarterback, and that’s exactly what Dequan Finn is. When asked about the Toledo starter, Illinois defensive coordinator Aaron Henry wasn’t sure who keeps him up more at night: his new twin daughters or Finn.
“He’s a special player,” Henry said. “They were the MAC Champs for a reason. Anytime you’re facing a dual-threat QB like this, you need to try to contain him.”
In one season with Toledo, Finn threw for 2260 yards, 23 TDs and 12 INTs, but his ability to run the ball was also showcased with 631 rushing yards and nine touchdowns. In his best game of last season, he racked up 350 total yards and SEVEN total touchdowns against Kent State.
“I always say that the greatest value of a great quarterback is someone who can make something out of nothing, and sometimes the answer isn’t always clear,” Bielema said. “And then he makes something that isn’t there. He’s very difficult to defend in that regard.”
Finn’s performance in 2022 was enough to earn him second team All-MAC honors. He wasn’t the only Rocket who received award recognition last season, as cornerback Quinyon Mitchell was a second-team All-American nominee for the Walter Camp award.
Led by Finn and Mitchell, Toledo comes into the 2023 season with eight players on 14 different preseason award watch lists.
“There’s not really one thing that you’ve got to watch. They’re just extremely talented,” Bielema said. “It’s going to be a tremendous task in front of us right away.”
The task may be tougher than many Illini fans wanted in the first non-conference game of the season, but Bielema and his staff are determined to start this season with a fighting mentality.
“We have to keep the edge that we’re in every game,” Bielema said. “We have to have not one chip on our shoulder, but two, and that’s how we have to play.”
ROLES TO FILL
It’s no secret to anyone that last year’s NFL departures left Illinois with plenty of vacant starting spots. Who will be ready to fill these spots come Saturday?
The transfer quarterback from Ole Miss was one of the biggest Illinois acquisitions of the offseason. The previous man under center, Tommy DeVito, transferred to Champaign as well, but each player’s career before arriving differed drastically.
In one year at Ole Miss, Altmyer only started one game under center, throwing 17 passes in three games played. Despite this lack of experience at the college level so far, the coaching staff believes he has shown the maturity and experience deserving of the starting spot going forward.
Playing the first game with any team can be intimidating — regardless of experience — but offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. is confident in the game plan for his quarterback.
“There’s going to be nerves, and there’s going to be excitement,” Lunney said. “Those are good feelings. You just have to channel those and harness those into playing within the scheme.”
This spot may arguably be the biggest one to fill. After Chase Brown led the NCAA in rushing yards a year ago, the Illini will now turn to the rushing tandem of Josh McCray and Reggie Love III.
Bielema’s system has favored the running game since he began his coaching career. Lunney is following suit with his offense, and they expect to see both backs handle a decent workload on Saturday.
“They understand that it’s going to be a series rotation,” Lunney said. “Whatever it is, it’s going to take both of them.”
Each player has battled through injuries throughout their careers, and now that they’re healthy, the opportunity is there for the taking. Even when opportunities were limited last season, Love III made the most of them.
“He had some really critical runs in critical moments when he was relieving [Brown],” Lunney said. “I’m excited about him because he’s proven to be very trustworthy and steadfast, and I think his mentality and demeanor has helped [McCray]’s game as well.”
There’s a reason Illinois was the number one scoring defense in the country last season. While Keith Randolph Jr. and Johnny Newton created constant problems for the opposing QBs up front, Devon Witherspoon, Sidney Brown and Quan Martin wreaked havoc in the secondary.
With those three now in the NFL, newly appointed defensive coordinator Aaron Henry has quite the task in front of him — nothing that he can’t handle, of course.
Being the defensive backs coach for a few years prior, Henry has experienced many of his players go pro. One of these former Illini he uses as an example is Kerby Joseph.
Last year, Joseph made a name for himself through big plays in his rookie season in the NFL, but Henry emphasized that before his big plays on the Lions, Joseph didn’t even start at Illinois in his last year until after the first few weeks.
With Mac Resetich, Miles Scott, Nicario Harper, Clayton Bush and Demetrius Hill competing for the safety position, Henry emphasizes the importance of learning from Joseph’s story.
“I’m challenging these dudes every single day — if you’re not the starter — to be ready when your opportunity is presented,” Henry said.
As a freshman last season, Matthew Bailey was another one of these terror-inducing safeties, and in just one year he is now a leader on this defense. He has made such great strides to the point where Henry now calls him “Coach Bailey”.
Xavier Scott is another defensive back who has received praise throughout this offseason — similar to the level Martin received before last season.
“Scott is extremely special,” Henry said. “He has a chance to be as good as he wants to be. He has some tools that are just God-given.”
Like Martin, the second year-player has the ability to line up at any position in the secondary. And one of Henry’s favorite qualities about him? He’s got that dawg in him.
Both the offense and secondary may look a lot different than last season, but the coaching staff is confident that they will fill these holes and compete from the get-go.
“I think we have a hungry football team,” Bielema said. “I think we have a group of guys that really want to work.”
What now? The test of Week 1.