Bielema secures his offensive vision with Petersen hire


Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Tony Petersen poses for a professional headshot. Petersen has recently been hired as offensive coordinator for the Illinois football team.

By Carson Gourdie, Assistant Sports Editor

After only having switched his job one time in 16 years, Tony Petersen finally experienced what a lot of assistant coaches deal with: having to move around the country a lot. 

After long-term stays at Marshall and Minnesota, Petersen has become a journeyman in coaching, as the offensive assistant has had seven jobs in 14 seasons. While Petersen has coached NFL quarterbacks such as Jeff Driskel and Gardner Minshew, he had been away from a Power Five program for over a decade. 

But when friend Bret Bielema was announced as the next head man for Illinois, his return to the Big Ten was inevitable. 

“You better not be going to Illinois on me,” Petersen recalled what Appalachian State head coach Shawn Clark said. 

Though the two never worked together, Petersen and Bielema have been intertwined for decades while competing for talent in South Florida and victories in the Big Ten. Petersen, who was the co-offensive coordinator at Minnesota for six seasons, always wanted to work together with his friend. 

    Subscribe to our sports newsletter!

    With Petersen’s hiring, Bielema has made clear he wants a coordinator who follows his vision for the offense.

    Petersen’s path to Illinois has been unique in the sense that he’s never attached himself to an offensive ideology, having been a jack-of-all-trades in numerous stops across the country. 

    “We are going to bring some stuff I’ve done, some stuff from other guys on the staff, some stuff that Bret’s done,” Petersen said.  

    When Oregon hired Chip Kelly as offensive coordinator in 2007 or when USC hired Graham Harrell as offensive coordinator, they also hired a guy who could bring down a new system and be attached to it. But with Bielema hiring Petersen, the former Wisconsin coach is electing to craft an offense around what he wants while the coordinator is the caretaker. 

    At his recent stop at Appalachian State, Petersen agreed to run what the Mountaineers were already running and didn’t want to meddle. 

    In that sense, Bielema made the right decision for him. While Bielema wants to innovate what his team usually runs, he isn’t backing away from his smashmouth style of football, and why should he? His Wisconsin teams ran through the Big Ten while Arkansas produced top offenses in the SEC. 

    Petersen has overseen offenses ranging from seasons where they run 98% of plays under center at Minnesota and pass-happy offensives at Louisiana Tech and Marshall. But Petersen promises to showcase an “Illinois offense” where everything revolves around a solid spread rushing attack that protects the ball.

    “As long as we score one more point than the other team, I’m fine,” Petersen said. “We’re not going out saying, ‘Hey, we need to score 38 to 40 points a game every week.’”

    The foundation is set for Petersen to run a smash-mouth offense immediately. Illinois returns most of its veteran offensive line, tight ends Luke Ford and Daniel Barker and workhorse running backs Chase Brown and Mike Epstein. 

    But while Bielema promised to blend new offensive schemes that are more suited for today’s style of college football, the scrambling and option-running quarterback may stay on the sidelines. 

    Brandon Peters has announced he’s returning for his sixth season, and Petersen has signaled the big-framed quarterback is the front-runner to lead the Illini offense in the fall. 

    “I’m fired up to sit down with him,” Petersen said. “I’m going to make sure he has the best year of his career that he can have. I’m going to work around him, see what he’s familiar with, change some terminology to make sure it’s easier for him.”

    The full-throttled endorsement of Peters may come as a surprise to Illini fans. After all, Peters struggled down the stretch, clearing the path for Isaiah Williams to take over the quarterback spot for the foreseeable future. But Peters, while not guaranteed the job, got a warm response from Bielema. 

    “He expressed to me that he would like me to come back,” Peters said. “(But)  I know I will have to compete and win a job.” 

    In hindsight, it’s barely a surprise. Bielema and Petersen have never worked with a quarterback like Williams, having coached more pro-style guys such as Scott Tolzien, Chad Pennington and Joel Stave. But the decision to tip the scales in favor of Peters points to a much bigger picture. 

    Peters is not the future of Illini football. He has one year left with the program. However, a decision to bypass Williams infers Bielema wants a quarterback who can make consistent throws while relying on running backs for rushing yards. They don’t want Williams to put their desired product on hold. 

    Petersen, who’s glad to be back in the conference he follows most, is an offensive mind that has shown he’s been able to adapt and adjust to what a head coach wants. His career, though, has had rough patches — his East Carolina tenure that finished with a 3-9 season. 

    But Petersen is under a coach who knows exactly what he wants — smash-mouth football with a little more tempo — and he understands that’s the blueprint for succeeding in the conference, noting “it’s not the Big 12” and air raid offenses don’t translate often. 

    But Illinois finished second in the Big Ten in rushing this season and still finished bowl-less. For this Illini offense to get to the next level, Petersen and Bielema need a quarterback who can consistently keep defenses honest.



    [email protected]