As the calendar flips to October, the college football season is now in full swing. The Fighting Illini head into Big Ten play after an up and down September, where they struggled to put away non-conference teams in Toledo and FAU, and lost badly to Kansas and Penn State. Still, there is reason for optimism, with the talent on this team, and the fact that they haven’t hit their stride. Let’s take a look at how the Fighting Illini are doing at every position.
Luke Altmyer looks like the guy for Illinois at QB.
He had great games against Toledo and FAU, and made plays late to give Illinois a chance against Kansas. Now sandwiched in between was a 4-interception game against Penn State, which obviously was not good. But growing pains were expected for a guy who was starting for the first time in college and is still a redshirt sophomore.
He has made a lot of downfield throws we haven’t seen from an Illinois QB in a long time. He has also shown an ability to run the football very well too.
If he can cut down the turnovers, Illinois has its QB for 2023 and beyond.
The Illini sure miss Chase Brown.
They just don’t have anyone who is as reliable as he was both on the ground and in the passing game. Reggie Love has played well, but he can’t handle the workload Brown had. Josh McCray just doesn’t look as explosive as he did in 2021, and has fumbled twice as well.
The running back by committee has struggled thus far to generate yardage the same way Chase Brown did last season. They’ll need to step it up in conference play.
This is the best group of pass-catchers in a long time.
Isaiah Williams remains an elite all-purpose weapon. Pat Bryant and Casey Washington have developed great chemistry with Luke Altmyer in both the short and deep passing game. Malik Elzy had a few nice plays against Penn State. Hank Beatty is rotating in nicely.
The TE duo of Reiman and Moore has made a lot of big plays. We haven’t seen a receiving group this deep in a long time.
The right side is a mess.
Julian Pearl and Isaiah Adams could be better, but they have at least been fine. Josh Kreutz has done fine at center as well. The right side has been a disaster. Josh Gesky has struggled mightily at RG, and Zy Crisler hasn’t adjusted well from RG to RT.
Maybe starting Jordyn Slaughter there could be the move, but even he has struggled in limited reps.
Altmyer cannot play at his best while the right side of the OL is getting constantly beat.
The Law Firm is alive and well.
Jer’Zhan Newton struggled in the opener against Toledo, but since then he leads the countries in pressures by interior DL. He had two sacks against Kansas, and then absolutely dominated Penn State, getting a lot of recognition from NFL analysts on Twitter. Keith Randolph leads the country in tackles by an interior DL, and had a huge part in Illinois shutting down the run game of Penn State.
These guys will hear their names called early in April.
Awful start, a little better since.
This group has been a big disappointment. ILBs Tarique Barnes and Dylan Rosiek have been picked on a lot in the short and intermediate passing game, as teams have found they don’t have the speed to get sideline to sideline. That was the main issue for Illinois as the defense struggled against Toledo and Kansas.
OLBs Seth Coleman and Gabe Jacas also struggled to maintain the edge and stay disciplined those games. Since, they have played better, but more will be needed to get the Illini defense back to where it should be.
A nice surprise, but...
The secondary lost three players to the draft and another to undrafted free agency, so a step back was expected. They have played quite well though. Tahveon Nicholson has slotted into the CB1 role, Xavier Scott has played great as CB2, and Miles Scott single-handedly flipped the Toledo game with his pick 6. The unit has done nicely.
The problem is injuries are beginning to pile up. Nicholson, Tyler Strain, and others have gotten nicked up. Even worse, Matthew Bailey and Demetrius Hill are out for the season. Luckily, backups like Nicario Harper, Zachary Tobe, and Saboor Karriem have stepped up so far. They’ll have to continue to do that
Caleb Griffin missed a field goal that hurt against Penn State, but has been fine. Hugh Robertson has been better than last season, but still needs to improve.