Game Day: Saturday, September 30th
Location: Ross Ade Stadium, West Lafayette, IN
Kick Time: 3:30 or 4 or 7:30 EST (TV option game)
Legal Name: University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Location: Champaign-Urbana, Ill
Type of School: Public Land Grant Research University
Historical Football Facts
Inaugural Season: 1890
Overall Win/Loss/Tie Record: 621-616-50
Conference Affiliations: Big 10
Conference Championships: 15 (1910, 1914, 1915, 1918, 1919, 1923, 1927, 1928, 1946, 1951, 1953, 1963, 1983, 1990, 2001)
Bowl Record: 18-11
Seasons Ranked in Final AP Poll: 13
AP National Championships:0
Most Recent Appearance in Final AP Poll: 2007
Mascot: None (Chief Illiniwek was retired in 2007 for obvious reasons)
Notable Football Alum
2022 Season Facts
Head Coach: Bret Bielema
Overall Record: 8-5
Conference Record: 5-4
Points Per Game: 24.2(95th)
Points Against Per Game: 12.8 (1st)
Highest AP Ranking: 21st (11/6)
Best Win: @ Wisconsin (34-10)
Worst Loss: @ Indiana (20-23)
Post Season: L vs Mississippi State (10-19)
Brett Bielema Head Coaching Information
Head Coaching Experience: 14 Seasons
Career Record: 110-70
Bowl Record: 4-6
Teams: Wisconsin, Arkansas, Illinois
Best Finish: 11-2 (Wisconsin, 2010)
Key Losses From 2022
Chase Brown - RB
Bielema put a saddle on Chase Brown and rode him to the tune of 328 carries for 1643 yards and 10 touchdowns and 27 receptions for 240 yards and 3 touchdowns. Like most Bielema teams, they didn’t score many points, but held on to the ball so long that the other teams couldn’t score much either. Brown was a unique multi-faceted back in the system, combining durability, explosive runs and receiving. Averaging 5 yards a carry when the defense is keyed to stop you isn’t easy. That’s why he was drafted with the 163rd pick in the NFL draft by the Cincinnati Bengals.
Brown registered 602 carries during his time in Champaign, and that’s tough to replace. That said, someone is going to get carries in Bielema’s ground and pound offense. Not sure whoever replaces Brown (looking like ‘22 back-up Reggie Love) averages 5 yards a carry, but they better be ready to try.
Tommy Devito - QB
Devito was one of those guys that played college for at least a decade. I remember covering him for Clemson when he was a starter for Syracuse in 2019. but he couldn’t stay healthy until his 5th season of college ball. No one is going to confuse Devito as a polished passer, but dude was tough as nails. Last season he completed 257 out of 369 attempts for 2650 yards, 15 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. He also ran for 35 yards on 73 attempts and 6 touchdowns.
Talent wise, he’s a replacement level Big10 quarterback, but it’ll be tough to replace his leadership, experience and intangibles. Losing Brown and Devito will be a tough to replace both in production, but also in experience.
Devon Witherspoon - DB
Witherspoon was one of 3 finalists for the Thorpe award, a consensus All-American (would be first team consensus but USA today had to be a contrarian and put him on the 2nd team), the Big10’s defensive back of the year and was drafted by the Seahawks with the 5th pick of the draft. In terms of defensive back evaluators, you won’t find many better than Pete Carrol.
He was a 4 year starter at corner. As a senior he tallied 41 tackles, 3 interceptions, and broke up and broke up 14 passes. There is no way Illinois replaces their highest ever draft pick.
Jaertavious Martin - DB
Replacing Witherspoon is doubly hard because Illinois also lost fellow starting corner Martin and starting safety Sydney Brown to the NFL. I went with Martin because he was the higher draft pick, but both he and Brown are key losses for the secondary. Martin was voted 2nd team All-Big10 by the media and 3rd team by the coaches. Not strictly limited to corner, Ryan Walters deployed Martin in all over the field. He finished the season with 64 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, a sack, 3 interceptions and 11 pass breakups. That’s one heck of a stat line for a defensive back.
Much like Witherspoon, there is no easy replacement for one of the most dynamic secondary pieces in the nation. Ryan Walters expected the fifth year senior to do a little bit of everything, and Martin was up for the job. He’s the type of player you replace with 2 or 3 guys.
Key Additions For 2023
Luke Altmyer - QB
Altmyer is another talented quarterback lost in the SEC shuffle in search of playing time. A 4* member of the 2021 recruiting class, he never stood much of a chance in Oxford with Lane Kiffin’s constant churning of portal quarterbacks. He has appeared in 8 games in his two year career, completing a combined 28/54 passes for 317 yards, 3 touchdowns and 3 interceptions.
The 6’2”, 200 pound pro style quarterback with decent athletic ability should be a nice fit with Bielema’s power offense that protects the quarterback with play action. He lacks the experience of Devito, but has more overall talent as a passer.
Dezmond Schuster - T
Illinois needed another starting tackle, but instead of hitting the portal, they went old school and hit the JuCo market for Schuster. The 6’5”, 330 pound giant out of Gonzales, Louisiana by way of Hutchinson CC fits the mold of Bielema linemen. He’s a monster capable of latching onto to a defender and driving him through the core of the earth. He might also struggle with speed off the edge, another feature of a Bielema lineman. He was the top rated JuCo tackle in the 2022 class and one of the top 20 overall JuCo recruits.
He’ll be plug and play and shouldn’t be hard to spot on the field (look for the guy that makes other big guys look small).
Demetrius Hill - S
The secondary was in need of instant impact talent after losing 4 members of the 2022 group to the NFL draft. Hill, a 6’2”, 190 pound safety, played at F.I.U. last season, and made his presence felt, putting up 95 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, a sack, and an interception on his way to being named a FWAA (football writers association) Freshman All-American.
He’ll be asked to step in as a starter on day one and has some enormous shoes to fill. I expect him to play the same roving role Martin played last season for Coach Walters (if they choose to play 3 safeties again). That’s a tough ask for a young guy, but one Hill knew he was stepping into. Got to appreciate a guy willing to bet on himself.
Kaleb Patterson - DB
Bielema went back to the JuCo well again for Patterson, a 6’2”, 186 pound defensive back out of Terry, Mississippi via Pearl River C.C. Like Hill, he’ll be tasked with filling one of the vacant safety positions. Look for him at nickel back in a 5 DB defense. He was considered the 7th best corner prospect in JuCo and a top 50 player overall.
Much like Hill, he’ll be tasked with doing the impossible. It’s hard to imagine Illinois being better or even close to the same in the secondary this season with the coaching and player turnover, but Hill’s going to give it a shot, and I can promise you one thing. If you make it through JuCo ball in Mississippi, I guarantee you’re tough.
Illinois is a weird team. Their defense was the best in the nation last season, but it lost it’s entire secondary, defensive coordinator and a few position coaches. The offense was built to hold onto the ball and keep the defense fresh. It wasn’t particularly at scoring points. This is the issue that got Bielma fired at Arkansas, but it’s all he knows.
The defense will still be stout up front. Defensive lineman Jer’Zhan Newton could be one of the most disruptive players in the nation, but some of his ability to disrupt plays was tied to the secondary’s ability to lock down the outside and make the quarterback hold the ball. He, and the rest of the defensive line won’t have the luxury behind them this season.
Can Illinois score enough points to off-set the losses on defense? For that matter, can the offense find a replacement for do-everything back Chase Brown? Lot’s of questions for a coach still firmly locked in the 1990s ball control style of football.
Call me skeptical.