Illinois football has had a perplexing offseason.
After crashing, burning, and missing a bowl game in 2023, Bret Bielema’s squad is looking to establish a stronger foothold in a revamped, more competitive Big Ten.
The Class of 2024 included double-digit early enrollees, but not a ton of widely considered superstars. Though AJ Dennis and Ca’Lil Valentine do appear to be clear home runs.
Illinois has been able to reload in the trenches via the Transfer Portal. JC Davis, Cole Rusk, Kevin Wigenton, and Anthony Johnson all project as starters.
But between transfer portal ups, downs, and major misses, the roster is still evolving. And moreover, Illinois relieved Antonio Fenelus and Andy Buh of their duties.
While Coach Yo-Yo had been replaced by David Gibbs, the Illini have not announced their new ILB coach.
So, what’s really going on with the Illini right now? Let’s dive into the current state of affairs.
What does the David Gibbs hire mean for the direction of this staff?
Gibbs has similar traits to Andy Buh. He is a position coach with experience calling plays and running defenses from the coordinator spot. He also has extensive experience recruiting some truly fertile recruiting territories.
The former UCF co-defensive coordinator has pulled high-end talent out of Texas and Florida throughout his career. The 55-year-old Gibbs fits a different profile than prior DB coaches Keynodo Hudson, Aaron Henry, and Antonio Fenelus.
Illinois’ corners underperformed last year, so perhaps Bielema wants a more experienced teacher guiding a deep, athletic, but largely unproven room. Corner coaches are often ex-corners with the DB swagger as a central part of their charismatic appeal. Gibbs looks to strike a different note in that room this season. And perhaps that’s just wnat the doctor ordered for an underperforming position group.
So far, Illinois hasn’t made any portal additions to the secondary. Gibbs’ expertise will be needed on the recruiting trail during the second portal window.
So, what’s up with the ILB spot?
A key injury to Kenenna Odeluga late in the season will likely have a likely major impact on the spring. With the emergence of Dylan Rosiek, tantalizing teases from James Kreutz, and the star potential of JoJo Hayden and incoming frosh Easton Baker, this room looks pretty solid.
Andy Buh seemed like the right guy to get the most out of the room while doing an outstanding job recruiting his position group as well as New Jersey and California for the Illini.
But much like Bielema firing Tony Petersen after one year, sometimes a change that rocks the program has to be made. Buh will join Ryan Walters’ staff at Purdue, invigorating the animus in that emerging rivalry even more.
Is Illinois going to pursue an NFL guy like Charlie Bullen?
Perhaps this position should go to a less-experienced college coach with great relationships like Cory Patterson.
Maybe the Illini will split the difference. But ILB wasn’t a position I was worried about…until the position coach was suddenly terminated.
The Class of 2025 could be a barometer class for where Illinois truly stands.
Tinley Park Andrew interior offensive lineman Michael McDonough became the first player to pledge his commitment to the next installment of FamILLy. A solid in-state pickup is always a valuable prospect for Illinois.
The Class of 2025 is full of in-state talent. The Illini are making strong pushes to land as many top Illinois prospects as possible. That will be tough considering how many are already off the market or just unavailable to the Illini.
Logan Farrell and Christopher Burgess committed to Mack Brown and Marcus Freeman respectively.
Can the Illini land Trey Pierce’s younger brother Christian from Chicago Brother Rice? Will Blue Island Eisenhower DB Andre Lovett be another Chicago area success story for the Illini? Can Illinois close AJ Epenesa’s younger brother Iose and keep him away from Iowa City? Will gettable potential stars like Brayden Trimble and Caden O’Rourke help in-state recruiting gains with early commitments?
This weekend is Junior Day. Several of the aforementioned players will be on campus. This would be a great weekend for a commitment or two. There is some Crystal Ball buzz on a few targets. And those commitments would undoubtedly bring some real momentum on the trail.
Having said that, this class is about solidifying a class loaded with top in-state prospects.In the new Big Ten, the biggest advantage of Bret Bielema and company is that they are the University of Illinois. Taking full advantage of that geographic largesse should be at the core of the Illini’s plans on the trail in the coming months.