More than almost any other sport, building and maintaining an experienced roster is of critical importance to a college football program. Illini fans are all too familiar with young and inexperienced teams like those in 2013 and 2017 getting trounced by older rosters that were more accustomed to the college game. To his credit, Bret Bielema no doubt recognizes this concept and understood how it underpinned his success at Wisconsin.
The emphasis Bielema is placing on re-recruiting Illini seniors to return for a fifth or sixth season demonstrates that he realizes both the value that these players bring, as well as the dearth of experience in the 2021 roster in their absence. Indeed, the 2021 season was long imagined to be a sort of talent and experience “cliff” due to the graduation of most members of Lovie Smith’s massive 2017 recruiting class. That cliff has now become something of a rolling hill, as the retention of so many super seniors provides current underclassmen with one more year to gain strength and experience before being forced to take over the program.
As stated recently by the AP, Illinois leads the nation in committed super seniors who are exercising their option to return for another season. The return of star linebacker Jake Hansen was stunning and instantly changes the fortunes of Bielema’s inaugural Illini defense, but Hansen’s return is all the more special in light of the other key players who have announced their return.
On offense, securing the return of Brandon Peters makes new offensive coordinator Tony Petersen’s job much easier, and helps him to shape his offense with greater certainty. Equally important is the return of much of the core of the offensive line: Alex Palczewski, Vederian Lowe, and Doug Kramer will re-join the team, while Blake Jeresaty will return from injury. Having experience at quarterback and on the offensive line allows younger skill players like Chase Brown, Donny Navarro, and Mike Epstein to maximize their potential.
Defensively, Illinois really doesn’t have many holes left to fill. Hansen’s return secures the inside linebacker role, while Khalan Tolson, Tarique Barnes, and Shammond Cooper will fill out most of the remaining minutes. Just like on the offensive side of the ball, the defensive line returns some of its biggest difference makers, as Owen Carney, Roderick Perry II, Jamal Woods, and Isaiah Gay will anchor the line and mentor young talent like Keith Randolph and Seth Coleman. The secondary will get help from Alabama transfer Eddie Smith, who will complement Tony Adams, a versatile super senior returnee, along with young stars Devon Witherspoon and Sydney Brown.
It’s hard to imagine a better first offseason for Bret Bielema, but it’ll be incumbent on the first-year head coach to maximize the talent that he’s been able both bring in and retain.
We’ll find out how Bielema can use this talent in the fall, but so far so good.