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Take a deep breath, and enjoy Illinois Football

Anticipation, expectations, coaches, and talent bring a fresh coat of paint to an emerging program.


This thought started bubbling in my head 11 months ago. It was before the game at Camp Randall against the reeling Badgers.

Because even those Badgers were better than the Illini, right? I mean, they always bring enough fire to burn Champaign to the ground.

But that game felt huge.

It was Bielema returning to his old stomping grounds for the first time as an opposing head coach. It was the long history of Badger dominance. It was Wunderkind defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard vs. Wunderkind defensive coordinator Ryan Walters.

Wisconsin v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

Neither Wunderkind is at the institution where he earned Wunderkind status.

And it wound up being Bret Bielema, the Prophetstown, Illinois native putting his stamp on his home state program by dominating the school where he built his name.

The still-youthful head man has over a decade of experience at the helm of Power Five programs, and he looks like he’s just getting started.

This is it.

This is that feeling that we all have been craving for years. Let it sink in. Take a deep breath and enjoy the moment.

Illinois Football is opening a season with the tailwinds of momentum and the roster to make that momentum real.

This wasn’t how I thought we’d all get here.

I thought it would be a long, drawn-out process.

I saw Bret Bielema as a solid Big Ten program builder. I figured we’d be hinting at bowl games in year three.

Yeah, year one saw an Illini team that nobody believed in coming within one game of bowl eligibility.

Sure, that sounds like a modest season. But think of the previous staff. We would have taken 5-7 every other year if it meant that the off-year was occasionally 7-5.

But back on task. I thought Bret Bielema would eventually get Illinois back to respectability. Maybe a ReliaQuest Bowl-type of year in year four.

Nah, he did it in year two.

And it’s not like he invented some magic formula that previous Illinois coaches lacked the esoteric powers to conjure. It was as simple as it gets.

1. Hire the right coaching staff.

Most of the coaching staff was retained, and those who left did so for promotions. Bielema’s rolodex has paid off richly.

2. Recruit in a way that gets future recruits excited.

In-state kids are now excited to go to their state university. From the Quad Cities and Chicago area to Central and Southern Illinois, the FamILLy is growing because people are buying into Bielema’s vision.

3. Recruit for the way you play so your depth pieces have a better chance of success.

Illinois has a two-deep that looks like a competitive Big Ten roster. The emergence of players like Dylan Rosiek and Josh Gesky into larger roles this season is a sign that the roster is developing into the roster Coach Bielema wants. Tough, smart, dependable players populate the depth chart from top to bottom.

4. When you make a mistake, own up to it and make aggressive moves to right those wrongs.

Tony Petersen.

5. Win football games.

An 8-4 second regular season under HCBB changed everything. Winning cures a lot of angst.

Big Ten Football Media Days Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

So here we sit on the precipice of yet another Illinois football season.

Students are back on campus at U of I. They’ve had Quad Day. The residence halls, Greek houses, and apartments are overflowing with both new and returning students.

The football program is chock full of new names who will bring excitement.

Get to know Jim Leonhard. His service as Bielema’s eyes in the sky during home games and at practices could snatch victory from the jaws of at least one potential defeat.

Get to know Demetrius Hill. The versatile safety was a Freshman All-American at FIU. He’s left South Florida for East Central Illinois, and figures to be a major contributor in a rebuilding secondary.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 02 Big 10 Championship Game - Ohio State v Wisconsin Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Get to know Antonio Fenelus. Coach Yo-Yo has the unenviable task of replacing the promoted Aaron Henry and coaching a secondary that lost four players to the NFL in one offseason. His relentless energy matches the passion of the feisty defensive backs Illinois specializes in recruiting. Let’s give him a season to judge the weight of his influence.

Get to know Malik Elzy. The yoked, gifted Chicago Simeon product is poised to remind us all about the previous Simeon greats who have brought significant joy to our navy and orange hearts. While he won’t have the pressure to carry the offense, Barry Lunney Jr. can deploy him in ways that take full advantage of his immense physical gift and advanced feel for the position. Be prepared for at least one wow factor play from Elzy this season.

Southern Illinois v Kansas State Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

Get to know Clayton Bush. He was just named a starter for Week One. He’s made the trek up I-57 from Carbondale to Champaign and he appears ready to thump. The staff has raved about him throughout camp. When it comes to safeties, I trust this staff and its evaluations. You know who agrees with me? Kerby Joseph, Tony Adams, Sydney Brown, Quan Martin, and Kendall Smith.

Get to know Charlie Bullen. “Chuck” has never recruited. He’s never coached in college. But the Palatine native returned to his home state to help the Illini in their quest for dominance in an ever-changing Big Ten landscape. He’s got amazing clay to mold into world-class sculptures. A sophomore Gabe Jacas is already jacked like I imagine Zeus would have been. Seth Coleman has been a productive player for multiple years and could be walking right into his NFL arc. With the injury to Ezekiel Holmes, it’s next man up with Alec Bryant and Jared Badie holding it down while Trey Smith puts in the work that makes him the coal who will be squeezed into the next diamond.

Get to know Kenari Wilcher. But blink and you’ll miss him. His speed could blow the top off of defenses that normally control the sky. Don’t be surprised if even as a true freshman he plays a Deuce Spann-type role.

There are so many other newcomers of note, but I encourage you all to get to know JoJo Hayden and Brandon Henderson. The two freshmen serve multiple roles. Not only is Henderson likely already in the two-deep, but he’s generating buzz about an NFL future...already. And Hayden may be asked to step up in the absence of Malachi Hood. Hayden was the pied piper of his recruiting class, and that kind of charisma and leadership matches the fiery, intense coaching staff quite well. Both of these young men have re-opened the door to East Saint Louis, the most talent-dense city in Illinois. ESL Coach Darren Sunkett has been an Illini frenemy for years. Perhaps now that bond goes stronger and more stars from Illinois stay away from the SEC.

It’s game day eve, and I know I’m ready for what’s new and what’s next. This Illinois football “thing” is happening faster than I expected. I’m not used to having early season optimism that extends beyond the non-conference schedule.

As you will find me saying all season, Illini fans...

Get hyped and stay hyped!