Illinois prepares for 2022 spring game in Bielema’s second year at helm

Illinois+football+head+coach+Bret+Bielema+speaks+with+the+team+from+the+sidelines+during+the+Homecoming+game+against+Wisconsin+on+Oct.+9.+Bielema+begins+his+second+year+on+the+team+as+the+Illini+prepare+for+the+spring+game+on+Thursday.+

Cameron Krasucki

Illinois football head coach Bret Bielema speaks with the team from the sidelines during the Homecoming game against Wisconsin on Oct. 9. Bielema begins his second year on the team as the Illini prepare for the spring game on Thursday.

By Jonathan Alday, Assistant Sports Editor

After an up and down first season for Bret Bielema and the Illini, the expectations are for the waves of execution to simmer down as Bielema’s culture has solidified. Throughout the five weeks of spring practices, the coaches have begun to see some massive improvements, implemented a new offense and expanded the defense.

“They’re doing so many things positively,” Bielema said. “These guys work, they’re tough, they’re smart, they’re dependable.”

Offensively, Illinois struggled under Tony Petersen, shown by an abysmal stretch of games in September, outlined by losses against UTSA, Virginia, Maryland and Purdue. Petersen was fired at the conclusion of the 2021 season and was replaced by UTSA offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr., who has looked to revamp the offense into a more pro-tempo offense.

“We’re not game ready yet but no position is yet, we’re going to get there,” Lunney Jr. said. “They come to work every day, trying to make corrections. The culture is healthy, the chemistry makes it easy to come to work every day.”

While fall training camp is still months away there are clear decisions that await Bielema and his staff. Most notably, the fight for the starting quarterback role is set between junior Artur Sitkowski and senior Syracuse transfer Tommy DeVito.

With Sitkowski still recovering from an injury, it is likely that DeVito will play the spring game with the first-team while one of the three remaining quarterbacks on the roster — freshman Jake Huber, redshirt freshman Samari Collier and senior Ryan Johnson — will take the quarterback role for the second-team.

Regardless of who will be starting for each squad, Bielema and Lunney Jr. will be looking for a pocket passer to fit their new offensive scheme.

In addition to that, the recently signed class added a host of early enrollees at multiple positions, notably in the running back position. Freshmen Aidan Laughery and Jordan Anderson provide further depth to a running back room which includes junior 1,000-yard rusher Chase Brown and redshirt freshmen Josh McCray, who led a strong running attack.

Both Bielema and Lunney Jr. showed nothing against allowing them to contribute their skills to the offense.

“We don’t care what year they are, we want to find the best players to help us,” Lunney Jr. said.

“When you got that type of speed, you can make things happen,” said running backs coach Cory Patterson.

Defensively, Illinois is trying to build off their success from last year. However, the holes left by NFL hopefuls Kerby Joseph, Owen Carney Jr. and others bring up personnel questions for them. Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters believes that they have the right guys in the building to keep trending in the right direction.

“Just looking at where we were around this time last year, the communication has ramped up, the guys understand football a lot more,” Walters said. “I think we’re definitely improving.” 

The defensive linemen positions have shown to be extremely deep, furthered by the transfer of redshirt freshman TeRah Edwards from Northwestern. While at the safety position, the defensive staff have continued to rotate players around to find the best fit.

“We owe it to the Illini faithful to have the best 11 out there,” Walters said.

The first showing of the 2022 Illinois football season starts with the Orange and Blue Spring Game which will take place on Thursday night, at 6:30 p.m. in Memorial Stadium. Admission is free of charge.

 

@JonathanAlday7

[email protected]