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B1G Thoughts: Five offseason questions for Illinois

Illinois shocked a lot of people in 2022. This spring is pivotal if they hope to build on that and compete for the West Division.

NCAA Football: Senior Bowl Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

The 2022 season has come to an end. It was a great season that leaves many questions to be answered as we enter the 2023 offseason. Michigan won the Big Ten for the second year in a row, taking the crown from Ohio State.

Ohio State enters the new year a field goal away from a national championship appearance, but now has to replace C.J. Stroud. Will this be the first time in almost a decade that the best quarterback in the conference doesn’t wear scarlet and grey?

Nebraska, Purdue, and Wisconsin enter 2023 with new coaches while Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald and Indiana’s Tom Allen enter on the hot seat. Penn State has high expectations, Illinois will try to rebound from a late-season collapse, and Minnesota is trying to replace four of the best players in program history.

This is the final offseason before USC and UCLA enter the conference and the new TV deal starts. Teams must build a foundation that will last in the ever-changing landscape of college football. The 2023 offseason is essential for every team, so let’s dive in and see which five questions each team must answer before the 2023 season begins.

What does the defense look like under new defensive coordinator Aaron Henry?

In 2022 Illinois had the No. 4 defensive in the country in stop rate. On 146 drives, they stopped the opposing offense 76.7% of the time and only allowed 1.10 points per drive. By all standards, they were an elite defense under former defensive coordinator Ryan Walters. Walters turned this success into the head coaching job at Purdue after spending two years with Bret Bielema at Illinois. To replace Walters, Bielema tabbed former player Aaron Henry, who has some big shoes to fill.

Henry served as the defensive backs coach under Walters the past two seasons, taking their passing defense from No. 69 the year before he accepted the job to No. 9 in year two. Henry also coached future first-round pick, Devon Witherspoon. In 2022 three of Henry’s starting secondary were awarded all-Big Ten honors, with Witherspoon and Sydney Brown being voted first team and Jartavious Martin on the third team.

Going from a position coach to a coordinator is a big jump, but Henry seems to be a rising coach in the field. This spring will be huge if they hope to replicate some of their defensive success from 2022.

Who steps up to replace Chase Brown?

Chase Brown has been one of the best running backs in the Big Ten for the past two seasons, accumulating 2,648 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground with three receiving touchdowns in 2022. Brown was a true workhorse for the Fighting Illini who had the ability to take over a game at any moment or put a game away with four-yard carries in stacked boxes.

With a new quarterback in 2023, Bret Bielema must find a replacement. The replacement is probably already on the roster if he can stay healthy. As a freshman, Josh McCray ran for 549 yards and two touchdowns as Browns backup in 2021, but he got injured early in 2022 and missed most of the season. McCray will enter spring as the top running back on the roster, but he must first get healthy.

Replacing Brown will most likely be running back by committee, but having a healthy McCray will go a long way to gaining some of that production back in 2023.

How do they replace key defensive starters, including Devon Witherspoon?

Not only are they replacing defensive coordinator Ryan Walters, but they must also replace cornerback Devon Witherspoon and safeties Sydney brown and Jartavious Martin. Those are some major holes to fill, whether the players are already on the roster or if they need to reach into the transfer portal must be answered this spring.

Illinois’ defense kept them in a lot of games last season. They may be able to handle a slight drop-off, but anything major and they may struggle to reach a bowl game. Luckily for the Illini, their new defensive coordinator coached this room and should know better than anyone what he has on the roster.

Who is the starting quarterback?

Illinois had some success last season with Tommy DeVito at quarterback, but unfortunately, Devito was denied a waiver for an extra season, so they must find a new starting quarterback. After the season, offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. went into the portal for Luke Altmyer from Ole Miss and John Paddock from Ball State.

Altmyer, a former four-star quarterback, is the projected starter. Still, he does not have any starting experience after losing the competition at Ole Miss. If Altmyer wins the job, they will have their starting quarterback for the next two or three seasons, but he can not be handed the job. Without Chase Brown, Illinois may need more from its quarterback than it has the past two seasons, so this is a critical design they can not afford to take lightly.

Can they develop competitive stamina and learn to win?

Illinois surprised a lot of people in 2022 by going 8-5, with a 5-4 mark in the conference, and making a bowl game. Their 2022 season should be viewed as a success, but I’m sure there is some disappointment in the building with how their season ended. After losing to Indiana due to a terrible call that took away a touchdown, Illinois went on a six-game win streak, including wins over Minnesota and Iowa. At 7-1, they were the favorites to win the West Division, but lost three straight games — two of which they were favored to win.

One of the hardest parts of rebuilding a program is teaching them how to win and maintain a high level of play. The college football season is long, and when you’re having a good season, you’re going to get everyone’s best shot. Illinois crumbled when they had the target on their back and lost the division title in a tough three-game stretch.

This spring, they should use that as motivation, focus on competitive stamina and work on maintaining a high level of play throughout the long season. That starts now. Their ceiling has been raised, and they have to raise their standard to maintain their new expectations.