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B1G Thoughts: Five Questions for Illinois

The Illini look to build off a strong campaign after finishing 5-7 in Bret Bielema’s first year

Illinois v Minnesota Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

It’s officially the football offseason. Some teams are celebrating great seasons, while others are stuck licking their wounds and mending their broken pride. Regardless of how the 2021 season ended, all 14 Big Ten teams must put it in their rear-view mirror and look forward to the 2022 season. There have been coaching changes, outgoing and incoming transfers, players leaving for the draft, new schemes, and new expectations. The offseason allows fans to dream of a successful 2022 campaign, and it’s up to each individual program to make that a reality.

While that process has started for the teams, as fans we are beginning to ask the questions that programs need to answer to be successful. So that’s exactly what we’re going to do at Land-Grant Holy Land; Five Questions for each B1G team to answer this offseason.

After firing Lovie Smith, Illinois went old school hiring former Wisconsin and Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema. Bielema was hired to bring a smash mouth, gritty culture to Illinois. He was tasked with building a team that could dominate in the Big Ten West while keeping in-state talent at home. In his first season, Illinois went 5-7. They will be looking to build on that by reaching a bowl game in 2022.

Who will be the starting QB?

Illinois was inept on offense in 2021, and will be looking to become more explosive in 2022. That starts with the quarterback position, where they will be looking for their starter this off season. The incumbent Artur Sitkowski will be looking to keep his job after recovering from a broken arm he suffered during the nine-overtime thriller against Penn State. There is not much else in terms of production returning on this roster. Brandon Peters exhausted his eligibility, leaving the Illini with Sitkowski, Syracuse transfer Tommy DeVito and a couple young guys.

With Sitkowski out for the spring, DeVito will have a major opportunity to win the job. DeVito only has one year of eligibility left, so Bielema and his staff will have to decide if they want a one-year starter who gives them a chance to win in the short term or give one of the younger quarterbacks a chance to lead the team for the long haul. Ultimately, the impending competition won’t be won until Sitkowski is healthy. Look for this to go deep into fall camp.

How much offensive improvement can be made under a new offensive coordinator?

Illinois was objectively bad on offense in 2021. They ranked 115th nationally in scoring offense at 20.2 points per game, and 112th nationally in total offense only averaging 329.8 yards per game. Shortly after the season, Bielema fired his offensive coordinator and hired Barry Luney Jr. from University of Texas San Antonio. Luney led a UTSA offense that scored 36.9 points per game, good for 11th in the nation. They also averaged 439 yards per game, which was 34th nationally.

Luney, formerly on Bielema’s Arkansas staff, will have the tall task of fixing this abysmal offense. Don’t look for Illinois to replicate the success of UTSA, but even a jump into the top 75 could lead to a more successful campaign for the Fighting Illini.

Can the offensive line dominate in the trenches?

When Bielema was hired, it was largely because of the identity he could bring to Illinois. He was hired to bring a smash mouth style of football similar to what he ran, and is still being run, at Wisconsin. The first thing you think of when you think of Wisconsin is the offensive line. That is what Bielema is looking to bring to Illinois. A dominant offensive line isn’t easy to come by, and Illinois will have to replace seniors Doug Kramer and Vedarian Lowe. Their effort will be boosted by Alex Palczekski coming back for a sixth year. They hope to get a boost from JUCO transfer Zylon Crisler as well. Filling out the offensive line will be one of the program’s biggest questions this off season.

Can defense make any improvement?

Illinois, led by First Team All-Big Ten safety Kerby Joseph, had a pretty solid defense in 2021. They ranked 23rd in turnover margin, 20th in scoring defense, 46th in total defense and 69th in red zone defense. Their defense kept them in and won them multiple games, largely carrying an offense that, as previously discussed, was not all that spectacular.

With offensives routinely scoring 30+ points per game these days, a strong defense is mandatory. Joseph is the star of the show, but the Illini had five players earn honorable mention All-Big Ten. If they returned in 2022 with the same exact rankings, Illini fans would be happy, but the goal is to consistently improve. The Illini will look to build on 2021 and develop into a dominant defense no one wants to face.

How soon can class of 2022 get on the field?

One major issue for the Illini was their struggles in recruiting. They couldn’t keep in-state talent home, and did not have the players necessary to compete in the Big Ten. After a 5-7 campaign, the Illini secured the commitments from 11 in-state prospects. The class ranks 13th in the Big Ten and 46th nationally.

Illinois’ last five classes ranked 72nd, 88th, 53rd, 54th and 46th nationally. To consistently compete, the Illini will need to recruit at a higher level, but in year one they jumped up 26 spots. As Bielema’s first full class, look for the 2022 group to get playing time early and help build the culture that Illini fans hope will bring them from the bottom to the top of the Big Ten West.