Illinois offense overview: Bielema opens season with mostly retained roster

Quarterback+Brandon+Peters+practices+at+training+camp+Aug.+6.+Illinois+football+coach+Bret+Bielema+keeps+a+retained+roster+for+the+upcoming+season.

Photo Courtesy of Fighting Illini Athletics

Quarterback Brandon Peters practices at training camp Aug. 6. Illinois football coach Bret Bielema keeps a retained roster for the upcoming season.

By Wes Hollenberg, Staff Writer

As the Illini begin their transition into the Bret Bielema era, there will undoubtedly be a variety of changes throughout the program. One place to start is the offense, where Bielema has a history of focusing on the power run game in his previous head coaching jobs at Wisconsin and Arkansas. It’s been almost half a decade since Bielema has helmed a college program, though, and he’s spent that time working in the NFL, so it’s likely Bielema has added new wrinkles to his offensive schemes.

At offensive coordinator, Bielema brought in Tony Petersen in December. He brings decades of experience coaching offense, with a highlight being his time at Minnesota as offensive coordinator, quarterbacks coach and offensive play caller from 1999 to 2006. During that span, he coached quarterback Bryan Cupito to success in breaking the school’s all-time passing record.

To lead the offense, Illinois will likely look similar to last season with returning senior Brandon Peters at quarterback. He’s been a steady starter for the past two years, but the depth chart behind him may shift a bit. Redshirt freshman Isaiah Williams, last season’s primary backup, shifted to wide receiver in the offseason, leaving a hole to be filled. The best potential candidate would be junior transfer Artur Sitkowski, who started two games for Rutgers last season. The only other player with starting experience on the roster is sophomore Matt Robinson, who started one game last season when Peters was out. The Illini ranked dead last in the Big Ten in passing yards per game last season, so the passing game has a chance to be an area of improvement in 2021.

At wide receiver, the Illini mostly remained steady, aside from the loss of starter Josh Imatorbhebhe. The primary additions were senior transfer Jafar Armstrong, redshirt freshman Marquez Beason switching positions to receiver and Williams also switching to receiver. Armstrong played both receiver and running back for Notre Dame in his three seasons there and will probably be a depth option for the Illini as a split end. Williams is a bit more of an unknown for the Illini but may see time as a slot receiver with few other competitive options for the role on the roster.

Juniors Brian Hightower and Donny Navarro III will likely serve as the primary starters as flank and split end receivers, respectively, after strong showings from both last season. Hightower caught 11 passes for 209 yards and three touchdowns last season, while Navarro III caught eight passes for 88 yards.

The Illini currently have 16 players listed as receivers on the roster, so Bielema may have plenty of surprises up his sleeve if he chooses to go a new direction with his receivers. One such option might be sophomore Casey Washington, who played in all eight games last season and registered 10 catches for 106 yards.

The Illini’s deepest position may be tight end, as they have 11 currently listed on the roster. The presumptive starter would be junior Daniel Barker, who had a stellar 2020 season, ranking second on the team in receiving with 268 yards and two touchdowns. While there are a lot of options to back up Barker, junior Luke Ford has the second most experience on the roster, as he played in every game last season, including two starts at tight end.

Redshirt sophomore Chase Brown will look to be the focal point of Illinois’ running attack after a breakout 2020 campaign. Last season, he racked up 540 rushing yards on 104 attempts and three touchdowns, earning himself All-Big Ten Third-Team honors. Behind him, much is uncertain on the depth chart with senior Mike Epstein registering the next most attempts with 69 for 367 yards. Junior transfer Chase Hayden will also be in the mix, as he had relatively successful seasons rushing at Arkansas in 2017 and 2018. With a plethora of strong options at running back, the Illini will look to continue their successes from last season, in which they ranked third in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game.

The greatest weapon for the Illini may be their continuity on the offensive line, as most of last season’s starting unit is back. Senior Vederian Lowe is returning for a final season at left tackle and has been a paragon of steadiness with 34 straight starts. Left guard may be a bit of a question, but players like junior Alex Pihlstrom bring experience after playing in all eight games last season. Blake Jeresaty may contend for the starting job as well after missing all of last season with an injury. He transferred from Wofford last year and was a successful center on their roster.

However, the center job is locked down by returning senior Doug Kramer, so Pihlstrom will probably make a shift to left or right guard. At right guard, Pihlstrom will have to contend with players such as transfer senior Jack Badovinac, who started 33 games on the offensive line at Colgate.

Finally, at right tackle, senior Alex Palczewski is the presumptive starter, and is tied with Lowe for the most starts on the roster at 40. With so much combined experience among the starters on the offensive line, the unit may be in line for a strong year.

Last season, Illinois had one of the worst offenses in the Big Ten, ranking second to last in points per game. Bielema may have found himself in a perfect situation where the only direction to go is up. However, with a roster returning many of its seniors from last season, continuity may be a focus for Bielema rather than overhauling the offense all at once.

It may take some time to see Bielema’s vision of the Illini offense come to fruition, but the early results are just weeks away as Illinois kicks off its season hosting Nebraska on Aug. 28.

@WesHollenberg

[email protected]