Column | Illini offense looks promising in 2022 Spring Game

Junior+running+back+Chase+Brown+receives+the+ball+from+senior+quarterback+Tommy+DeVito+during+the+first+half+of+the+Spring+Orange+and+Blue+Game+on+Thursday.+Brown+and+sophomore+running+back+Josh+McCray+ran+for+a+combined+174+yards+during+the+game.+

Sydney Laput

Junior running back Chase Brown receives the ball from senior quarterback Tommy DeVito during the first half of the Spring Orange and Blue Game on Thursday. Brown and sophomore running back Josh McCray ran for a combined 174 yards during the game.

By Josh Pietsch, On-Air Editor

I’d like to start by saying that it’s very hard to get a read on an offense as a whole during a spring football game. The first team offense plays against second and third-stringers on defense, so you can’t truly tell how good certain people look. However, there are some things that show signs of success, many of which were displayed on the field Thursday night.

Starting at the most important position on the field, likely starter Tommy DeVito looked solid in his first time playing in front of fans at Illinois as quarterback. The transfer QB comes to Champaign after spending four seasons at Syracuse, and has one year of eligibility to play for Illinois.

In the game, DeVito completed 16 of his 20 pass attempts for 248 yards and three touchdowns. His touchdown passes were for 25, 21 and 44 yards. He likely would have had another touchdown, one of 50+ yards, had sophomore receiver Isaiah Williams not dropped a pass in the middle of the field. But, the ball was thrown a little behind him.

DeVito looked comfortable, strategic and accurate. For a debut in front of fans, there wasn’t much more you could’ve asked for out of the transfer quarterback. One of his touchdowns was a 25-yard corner route to Williams and another was on an inseam route to sophomore tight end Tip Reiman. We saw some diversity out of DeVito, which is good to see for the likely starter of a quarterback room that has struggled over the last half-decade plus to find talent under center. 

Speaking of Williams, I really liked what I saw out of the receiver room, specifically from Williams and transfer senior Brian Hightower. Hightower joined the Illini in 2020 after starting his collegiate career at Miami-Ohio and had a decent season. He missed most of 2021 with injuries and is now healthy and preparing for the upcoming season. And, he showed off some of his skill in the spring game. Hightower caught four passes for 80 yards and did a bit of everything in terms of route running. I expect him to be a top-three receiver next season along with Williams and junior Casey Washington, who was sidelined due to injury.

Williams caught six passes for 120 yards and two touchdowns during the game, looking like the clear number one target for DeVito this year. Williams has so much talent that hasn’t been used properly in past years, but I expect that to change a lot with a new offensive coordinator. I was looking forward to seeing freshman Shawn Miller play, but the early enrollee was also sidelined due to injury.

The running back room looks to be picking up where it left off last year, and then some. Junior Chase Brown and sophomore Josh McCray are at the top of the group once again, as the duo combined for 174 yards and three touchdowns during the game. But they aren’t the only ones that looked good in the group. 

Freshman Aidan Laughery was sidelined due to injury and would have been very fun to watch, but fellow freshman Jordan Anderson did play, and was lots of fun to watch. He was on the blue team, which was the non-first team, but still shined. Anderson was active both on the ground and in the air, rushing for 30 yards and a touchdown and also catching a pass for 14 yards which set up the score. The running back room is loaded for Illinois right now, but I think Anderson will definitely be a star for the Illini in the future. 

The offensive line will need some polishing before the 2022 season kicks off, especially after losing key pieces such as Doug Kramer and Vederian Lowe to eligibility. But, with super senior Alex Palczewski returning, the line should be alright no matter what. Junior Julian Pearl was out, but we still got to see guys like juniors Isaiah Adams and Jordyn Slaughter get some good minutes. 

I was arguably the most pleased with newly hired offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr., who impressed me with his offensive schemes during the spring game. Now would be a good time to reemphasize that it’s very hard to tell how well an offense will work when watching them compete against backups, but I still really liked the idea that Lunney displayed.

Lunney understands that Illinois’ best offense last year came through the running game, but that there are also other weapons to be used. His offense featured a strong run game, which is what he should do considering he has a two-headed monster of Brown and McCray in the backfield. But, there was also a good amount of passing, which he likes to do fast. DeVito got the ball out of his hands quickly, not waiting around for many deep-ball attempts.

What I liked most is that Lunney got the ball into the Illini’s best players’ hands. Brown and McCray got the ball a lot, and DeVito’s main target was Williams, who has the potential to explode this season. Former offensive coordinator Tony Petersen didn’t use Williams even close to how he should have been last season, but Lunney has already shown that won’t be the case in 2022.

It’s very early on, but I expect a significantly better and well-rounded offense this upcoming season compared to 2021.

 

@JPietsch14

[email protected]