Illinois football has a long way to go.
It has much more winning to do to be a factor in the new Big Ten.
Bret Bielema has gotten off to a great start, but we’re nowhere near the pinnacle of this rebuild.
Or, at least that’s how it should be.
In other words, Illinois football certainly isn’t what it was.
But it’s also not what it’s going to be.
The Bielema way is the Bielema way: power running, aggressive defense, ball control, fundamentally sound football played by intelligent, tough, dependable players.
Those elements will remain in place regardless of how dramatic the roster/staff turnover is.
“I ain’t changed, but I know I ain’t the same.” The Wallflowers, One Headlight
So will this year be the bridge to a better future? Or was last season that bridge?
Were the hard lessons learned against Michigan and Purdue the scars the Illini needed to be a better program? Are the Wolverines the Detroit Pistons to the Illini’s Bulls?
I can’t say either with absolute certainty. Not now.
Certainty arrives on Saturdays.
The spotlight will shine brightly on Champaign-Urbana. The entirety of East Central Illinois will feel the weight of real expectations for the first time in over a decade. And the 2023 Illini will have to not only handle that burden but do so without some of the key pieces who made last season such a significant leap forward.
With that in mind, here are five replacements that could mean the difference between evolution and regression.
Who is he replacing? Tommy DeVito
Tommy DeVito was an efficient leader of the Illinois offense in year one under Barry Lunney Jr. He showed flashes of being far more than a game manager. Many fans clamored for DeVito to have more leeway and the freedom to improvise more, especially in the red zone. But he wound up exceeding expectations last season, becoming the best Illini QB since Wes Lunt.
Mississippi transfer Luke Altmyer is the heavy favorite to take over behind center for the Illini this season. Luke hasn’t put much on film, so it’s hard to predict what he can/will do. But in order for Illinois football to take the next step, he has to at least duplicate DeVito’s efficiency while increasing the offense’s big play ability.
In limited SEC action in Lane Kiffin’s potent offense, Altmyer showcased solid mobility and playmaking ability. As a prospect, he reminds me more of Brandon Peters.
- He was a highly touted prospect coming out of high school.
- He committed to/played for a quarterback whisperer college football coach.
- His style of play/personality left him out of favor with his original school.
- The transfer film on him doesn’t accurately capture the potential in his right arm.
A successful season from Altmyer is the key to an ascendant season for Illinois. If he’s able to live up to his prospect pedigree, the Illini could contend to win the Big Ten West.
Who is he replacing? Ryan Walters
It’s rivalry season. The Illinois/Purdue thing is real, and not just because of the protected matchup status of the Illini and Boilermakers.
In case you’ve been off the grid since the ReliaQuest Bowl, Illinois’ wunderkind defensive coordinator Ryan Walters bolted to become the new head man in West Lafayette.
(For a moment, imagine the alternate timeline in which Walters goes back to his alma mater and takes the Colorado job instead. Then we don’t get Coach Prime. What would ESPN have to talk about in that timeline?)
Anyway, Aaron Henry has big shoes to fill. He got the defensive coordinator job over Kevin Kane (more on him in a moment) who had been the perceived odds-on favorite. Henry has a sterling reputation bolstered by sending five players to the NFL in the past two seasons. He’s combined victories on the recruiting trail with “coaching up” a top-five draft pick.
All eyes will be on Coach Henry as the season begins. Will he be able to maintain or improve upon the high standard Coach Walters set? Will Henry be able to take down Walters the way Walters took down Jim Leonhard?
Reggie Love/Josh McCray
Who are they replacing? Chase Brown
One does not just replace Chase Brown. Even when you have talented backs like Reggie Love and Josh McCray, the task of stepping into the role of an Illini legend is challenging. Love and McCray have different skills than Brown, but they both have skills that could translate to Big Ten success.
A healthy McCray gives Illinois the bruising, physical presence Bielema and Lunney love to have. He could serve as the hammer in the red zone that the Illini lacked last season. He showed flashes of dominant potential as a true freshman. So perhaps after two years with Tank Wright, he’ll be an even more lethal threat in short-yardage situations.
Love demonstrated good burst and balance last year. His versatility as a three-down back is a tool none of the other perceived rotation backs have. He and Isaiah Williams are the last players from the Trinity Crew that dominated two years of Illinois recruiting. Perhaps he has a breakout on the horizon.
Who is he replacing? Quan Martin
Taz Nicholson could easily be in this spot. He has to replace Devon Witherspoon, who is in position to be the centerpiece of the new Legion of Boom.
But Xavier Scott has big shoes to fill as well. Quan Martin was one of the most productive nickels in the country last season. His role is even more important with the improved quarterback play throughout the conference. Illinois will face Matt Rhule, Graham Harrell, and Phil Longo this season.
With clever offensive minds and pass-heavy game scripts, Scott will have to step into a major role in coverage. Quan Martin was a tremendous hitter with quality ball skills. He enabled Illinois to play man on the outside because he could lock down slot receivers.
Coach Henry and Coach Antonio Fenelus have their work cut out for them in replacing so many talented secondary players. With Matthew Bailey not yet healthy and Tyler Strain/Kaleb Patterson largely unproven at this level, Scott needs to be up to speed quickly. Can he make an impact early enough to cement a prominent role for years to come?
Who is he replacing? Kevin Kane
Aaron Henry has shared on social media how “Chuck” is a bad man. And Charlie Bullen’s ability to get Illinois into recruitments like Marquise Lightfoot is an unexpected bonus. If only he had been on staff last season, perhaps Justin Scott wouldn’t be suiting up for Ryan Day in the fall of 2024.
Bullen’s on-field coaching chops are his calling card. His work in the NFL with elite pass rushers is exactly what the program needed. Kevin Kane did a hell of a job coaching up the defensive ends/outside linebackers. Gabe Jacas was a Freshman All-American. Seth Coleman is poised to be a potential day 2 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft.
Bullen’s ability to continue to develop those two stars in addition to the development of Pat Farrell, Calvin Smith, and Jared Badie could make the Illini defense scary for years to come. Can Bullen unlock a new level for the Illinois pass rush? Can he nail the blue-chip edge prospect recruitment well enough to get the next in-state Lightfoot or Scott to sign the line that is dotted in Champaign? If so, he may be the next future head coach on Bielema’s star-studded staff.