Illinois Fighting Illini Preview 2022: Previewing, predicting, and looking ahead to the Illinois season with what you need to know and keys to the season.
Illinois Fighting Illini Preview
Head Coach: Bret Bielema, 2nd year at Illinois, 5-7
14th year overall: 102-65. 2021 Preview
2021 Record: Overall: 5-7, Conference: 4-5
Keys To The Season | Season Prediction, What Will Happen
Illinois Top 10 Players | Illinois Schedule & Analysis
Illinois Fighting Illini Preview 2022
It wasn’t consistent, and it turned out to be a loser of a season, but Illinois under Bret Bielema suddenly looks like it’ll be a pain in the rest of the Big Ten’s side.
The offense failed, the defense buckled in a few key spots, and again, there wasn’t any semblance of positive consistency, but Illinois beat Penn State. It might have been the most painful overtime game ever, but it was a win.
And then Illinois lost to Rutgers. And then it stuffed Minnesota.
Bielema and his staff did what he could with what they had, and now it’s time to not only come up with the program’s first winning season in ten years – and just three in the last 19 seasons – but to bring more of an attitude to what Illinois football can and should be.
It continues to be one of those programs that doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense. It’s surrounded by schools that have known recent success at various levels.
It’s asking a lot to be another Wisconsin or Iowa – that takes years of a culture being built – but Indiana came up with a great season in 2020. Northwestern has been to two recent Big Ten Championships. Louisville, Kentucky, Purdue, Cincinnati, Missouri – they’re all within easy driving distance, and they’ve all had their moments over the last ten years.
There’s a fan base in place waiting for a winner. There might be an apathy and resignation among the faithful, Bielema is just the guy to change all of that.
As long as there’s a style that keeps the team in games against teams like 2021 Penn State and Minnesota, and add in a little more pop to push past the mediocre, there’s no reason Illinois can’t have a consistently winning football program.
But to win, you have to score, and …
Illinois Fighting Illini Preview 2022: Offense
Don’t be misled by the 20 point scoring average. As low as that might have seemed, it was worse than that – the Illini failed to score more than 20 points in seven of the last ten games.
The crazy part about the 2021 Big Ten season was how Illinois could only average 330 yards and those 20 points per game and still be tenth in the conference in yards and 11th in scoring. Going forward, it starts with getting more consistency and pop out of a horribly inefficient passing game. In comes new offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. to change all of that.
Juice Williams, Nathan Scheelhaase, Wes Lunt, Jeff George Jr., Chayce Crouch, AJ Bush, MJ Rivers, Brandon Peters, Isaiah Williams. Illinois hasn’t had horrible quarterback play over the last ten years, but it can never seem to quite get the guy who can take the team to a whole other level.
The era of the transfer portal fits in perfectly with what the Illini are trying to do and what they need. Rutgers transfer Artur Sitkowski appeared to step up last year before he got hurt, and now we get to see what Tommy DeVito can do.
More on this in a later blurb – DeVito has talent, but you wouldn’t know it from the way he was beaten up behind a miserable Syracuse O line.
Former star QB get Isaiah Williams has real upside as a receiver – he caught a team-high 47 passes last season – and most of the other key targets are back. The one big loss, though, is TE Daniel Barker – he’s a Michigan State Spartan now. Former Georgia transfer Luke Ford will be a more featured part of the attack.
It’s a Bret Bielema team. The offensive line is going to get a whole lot of attention. It wasn’t a bad year from the front five considering what the staff had to work with, but the negative was its age. That was a veteran group that has to be patched up now.
The running backs are sneaky-good. Chase Brown ran for over 1,000 yards and five scores, Josh McCray is a good backup, and there are a whole lot of interesting other options in the mix.
Illinois Fighting Illini Preview 2022: Defense
The defense did what it could considering there wasn’t any help from an offense that didn’t score. It allowed just 22 points and 366 yards per game with a whole lot of bending and not a ton of breaking.
There might not be a lot of superstar power, but there’s a nice pace of talent to work around for what will be a D full of tough guys. The production might not always be there, but you don’t play defense for Bret Bielema or defensive coordinator Ryan Walters if you don’t bring a certain attitude.
The pass rush was by far night and day better with the most sacks since 2011. There was enough production from enough spots to overcome a few losses with the young line of last year about to be a whole lot better.
Keith Randolph and Jer’Zhan Newton are great-looking sophomore ends, but the tackle situation needs a rotation around young Northwestern transfer TeRah Edwards.
The linebacking corps takes a hit with Owen Carney Jr. and Isaiah Gay done, but the system makes the players, too, in the 3-4 alignment. Tarique Barnes is a good hitter on the inside, but the outside needs Ezekiel Holmes and Seth Coleman to turn into backfield terrors.
The secondary should be the early strength. Devon Witherspoon is a terrific rising corner and leading tackler Sydney Brown should be an All-Big Ten safety. Now they all need to pick off more passes with ball-hawking Detroit Lion Kerby Joseph done.