This has been quite a tumultuous offseason for the University of Illinois football program.
- Top recruit Josaiah Knight, who signed with Illinois during the early signing period, was released from his National Letter of Intent and signed with Mississippi State.
- In yet another unexpected loss to the SEC, wide receivers coach and Illinois graduate George McDonald bolted Champaign for the same job in Oxford, Mississippi.
- In a surprising move, veteran linebackers coach Andy Buh was fired.
- In a less surprising move, first-time Power Five (Now Four) defensive backs coach Antonio Fenelus was fired after his unit grossly underperformed in 2023.
- Outside linebackers coach Charlie Bullen (aka “Chuck”) departed the Illini staff to take a job with the New York Giants.
- Potential starting lineman Clay Patterson, a Yale transfer, committed and rapidly de-committed after an (allegedly) tumultuous official visit.
So, since the end of the 2022 season, the Illinois defensive staff has absolutely hemorrhaged coaching talent. Ryan Walters and Kevin Kane bolted for Purdue. And this offseason, three more defensive coaches (including Kane’s replacement) left the program.
So really, when I ask what’s up with Illinois football, it’s a fair question. Something is awry in the defensive room that is causing such rapid attrition.
This level of turnover is normal for teams who change head coaches. But in this case, the head coach is the common denominator in all of the turnover.
Illinois has a long way to go to evolve from 2023’s performance back in the direction of the stellar 2022 season. Perhaps without any NFL upperclassmen running the secondary, that will be a steep hill to climb. A potentially perilous schedule doesn’t help the cause, either.
The offense has only lost one coach this offseason, but it was a major loss. And with a lot of emerging but unproven talent in the room, the challenges for the Illini deepen.
But the Illini have started taking steps to rectify their coaching drain.
As of Feb. 9, three of the four staff openings have been filled.
So what does it all mean?
Justin Stepp appears to be at least on the same level as George McDonald.
Stepp has coached multiple NFL receivers during his time at the University of South Carolina and the University of Arkansas. He was the position coach and primary recruiter for players like Keytron Jackson and Treylon Burks. That pedigree bodes well for a room full of high-end talent that has yet to fully break through at the collegiate level.
Stepp’s recruiting presence in the South, namely in Florida, South Carolina, and Texas, could be a boost to the Illini. Getting speed from talent-rich states is a great idea for roster building, as Illinois has learned in its consistent influx of defensive back talent. But can Stepp bring in top talent? Can he convince the top-notch pass-catching prospects to spurn the SEC for a Big Ten team with a conservative passing offense? That’s a difficult question that could determine the ceiling of the Illini passing game.
David Gibbs is a different look for the defensive backs room.
When Illinois fans look at the recent history of DB coaches, names like Antonio Fenelus, Aaron Henry, and Keynodo Hudson come to mind. Gibbs is an older, more experienced voice. He will bring a veteran presence and playcalling savvy to Aaron Henry’s defense. His presence could loom large in the development of Saboor Karriem and Zachary Tobe.
On the recruiting front, Gibbs has had considerable success recruiting Florida. That is the common link among the last four Illinois secondary coaches. So perhaps this is also an excellent hire. Gibbs’ presence in Champaign has been met with near-universal praise. However, he is being tasked with resurrecting the strength of a defense that clobbered the nation just two seasons ago. He is an ex-defensive coordinator, much like Andy Buh, so perhaps his big-picture eye in the sky will take Aaron Henry’s potential to a new level.
Archie McDaniel is geographically ideal.
A wise man named Tim Riggins once (or dozens of times) said that famous line, and Bret Bielema is making a decisive inroad into the Lone Star state by hiring McDaniel, the LB coach from Houston. McDaniel starred at Texas A&M and has the coaching resume of an up-and-comer with future coordinator/head man written all over him.
The Houston-area native has a blend of youth and experience that Illinois sorely needs in the building and on the trail. McDaniel will inherit a solid room with Dylan Rosiek, Kenenna Odeluga, and James Kreutz ready to compete for two starting jobs, while JoJo Hayden and freshman missile Easton Baker wait in the wings and push for playing time.
But we’re here because we want the Illini to heavily recruit Texas. That’s all well and good, but when are the four-star Texas studs going to come to Champaign? When is Illinois going to land its next Marquez Beason-level recruit? Illinois is trying to plant its flag in the most talent-rich recruiting territories in the nation.
These hires strike a balance between the last two regimes, but will it work?
Bret Bielema has focused hard on rebuilding relationships and pipelines within the state of Illinois. He has also found talent in Wisconsin, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Michigan, and Ohio. He just needs to hit Minnesota and the Dakotas and he gets a free “I was in the Midwest and all I got was this lousy T-shirt” shirt.
Lovie Smith focused on Texas, Florida, and St. Louis. This burned some bridges in Illinois that Bielema has had to rebuild. But the talent is undeniable. Some of those out-of-state Lovie players include Texas’ Calvin Avery and Florida’s Quan Martin, Jake Hansen, Kerby Joseph, and Devon Witherspoon.
Now, with one spot remaining on staff, will Bielema choose a coach with in-state ties or one to replace a departed territory? Cory Patterson took a lot of the St. Louis success with him. Buh and George McDonald are both Californians, while Buh shined in New Jersey.
Finding the right replacement for Bullen is significant to the development of the young, unproven OLB room as well as the recruiting momentum Illinois needs to build to compete in the new Big Ten.
So the final staff hire of the offseason will tell us all a lot about the direction of the program.