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Illinois OLB coach Charlie Bullen returning to NFL

Bielema is now down three assistant coaches.

TCR // David Pollak

Just over a year after joining the program from the NFL, coach Charlie Bullen is headed back to coach in the pros.

On Wednesday, the New York Giants announced that the Illinois outside linebackers coach and pass rush coordinator would join its staff in the same position. Bullen has 11 years of coaching experience in the NFL, including four years with the Arizona Cardinals before eventually joining Bret Bielema’s staff last January.

Bullen’s exit now requires Bielema to address three coaching vacancies as the team enters the spring. The firings of Antonio Fenelus (defensive backs) and Andy Buh (linebackers) last month signify a notable shift for Bielema and his coaching staff, at least on the defensive side of the ball.

After wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator George McDonald chose to leave his alma mater for the position at Ole Miss, Bullen is Bielema’s fourth assistant coach to leave this offseason.

David Gibbs was hired to replace Fenelus on Jan. 23, but replacements for Buh and McDonald are still to come, leaving Bielema short of a wide receivers coach, linebackers coach and now an outside linebackers coach.

The offseason before the 2023-24 season had widespread personnel changes, and this year’s spring and summer seem to be no different.

Bielema, who was available to the media on Wednesday for National Signing Day, also said that he’s had several assistant coaching candidates on campus and that the wide receivers job is expected to be filled sooner than later.

“My intent and goal is to have somebody up and running at the positions by Monday,” he said.

Bielema also told the media that senior football analyst Jim Leonhard is still on his staff, and has the opportunity to return if he does not find a job that is “not in college”.

A mass poaching of his staff may have been expected after a successful 8-win season two years ago, but Bielema will have a few key decisions to make to ensure this year’s outward flow doesn’t result in another season under .500.