Illinois football answer questions on expansion, offense amid B1G Media Days

Wide+receiver%2C+Isaiah+Williams+dodges+an+attempt+to+tackle+him+from+Rutgers+on+Oct.+30.+Williams+has+been+practicing+during+the+off-season+catching+250+balls+each+day+from+the+jug+machine+to+ensure+he+is+ready+for+a+transition+from+wide+receiver+to+wide+out.

Cameron Krasucki

Wide receiver, Isaiah Williams dodges an attempt to tackle him from Rutgers on Oct. 30. Williams has been practicing during the off-season catching 250 balls each day from the jug machine to ensure he is ready for a transition from wide receiver to wide out.

By Carson Gourdie, Sports Video Editor

Illinois head football coach Bret Bielema, along with four athletes and athletic director Josh Whitman, were available to the media Wednesday for the annual Big Ten Media Days. After an offseason that included the firing of offensive coordinator Tony Petersen, Bielema and co. shared their thoughts on the offense’s development, as well answeredd lingering questions about the future landscape of collegiate athletics. 

Illini embrace USC, UCLA’s addition to B1G

Divisions may be dismantled, annual rivalry games may have to be discontinued and the amount of travel from coast to coast are implications of the addition of USC and UCLA. However, Whitman and Bielema are embracing the expansion as they believe it will help the Illini. 

“It’s a great opportunity for us to augment our brand,” Whitman said. “For us to be exposed to another part of the country, obviously the business elements are still to be determined, but the financial upside I think will be meaningful.”

With the addition of the two West Coast schools, analysts say the new media rights deal for the Big Ten conference may pay out over $100 million to each member, as they try to keep up with the Southeastern Conference. But aside from revenue from television, the move is believed to be a “net positive” for Illini in multiple aspects. 

Whitman mentioned the uniqueness of the Illini being able to affiliate with the two brands and play regular season games in two historic stadiums, the Rose Bowl and the Coliseum. Affiliating with two brands also provides an opportunity for the Illini to create avenues to recruit the most populous state in America. For example, the SEC’s success in recruiting the state of Texas increased significantly after the addition of Texas A&M in 2012, an analogous situation could occur for the Big Ten conference in California. 

Whitman applauded the Big Ten’s activeness in the changing landscape of collegiate athletics, even stating that Notre Dame would be a good fit to join alongside USC and UCLA. 

“Just like with USC and UCLA, we are not actively seeking out new members,” Whitman said. “But in this evolving landscape, we will continue to evaluate opportunities as they’re presented to us and if Notre Dame happens to be one of them, I’m confident we would engage in that discussion.”

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Bielema, players prepare for an up-tempo offensive attack

The Illini finished 11th in scoring offense and last in passing offense among Big Ten teams. The lack of offensive production doomed the team’s chance of securing a bowl game, and Bielema held Petersen responsible. With the addition of the University of Texas at San Antonio offensive coordinator Barry Lunney, Bielema and his players are embracing the change. 

“This offense will not be like anyone else’s (in the Big Ten),” Bielema said. 

Lunney’s tenure at UTSA marked a balanced and fast tempo attack that helped the Roadrunners record 36 points a game and secure a school record in wins last season. A big key to Lunney’s success was getting the ball into playmaker’s hands. Last season, UTSA’s top wideouts caught 81, 71 and 52 balls, respectively. 

The Illini’s top wideouts caught 47, 21 and 18 balls, respectively. 

However, despite the track record, it took time for Lunney’s new unit to transition to the change. 

“At the beginning (of Spring practice), the tempo was definitely a disadvantage,” wide receiver Isaiah Williams said. “We had to do four-play reps (of no-huddle). After the second play, I’m dead tired.”

Williams said that challenging themselves during summer conditioning has helped the offensive unit become better at running Lunney’s offense. He now says the up-tempo facet of the offense is his favorite part, as he believes it will help catch defenses off guard on the perimeter.  

Williams, who had a breakout season for the Illini in 2021, said that Lunney will strike a balance with short, intermediate and vertical routes, but that doesn’t mean the plays are permanent. 

“Coach Lunney does a great job of knowing his players,” Williams said. “So things may change during the season if we run certain routes better than others.”

Who will be the single caller for the offense is still unknown, however, as Bielema said the locker room won’t know who the starting quarterback is until a week before the game against Wyoming. It’s expected that Syracuse transfer Tommy DeVito and returning junior Artur Sitkowski are competing for the top job. 

Isaiah Williams ready to take the next step as a wide out

Even though the passing game struggled last season, Williams made the most out of his inaugural season at wide receiver, leading the team in receptions, yards and touchdowns. Despite the breakout year, Williams has used the off-season to improve pass catching. 

Waking at 6:00 a.m. every Monday through Friday over the summer, Williams caught 250 balls each day on the jug machine before a 10:00 a.m. lift. 

But transitioning to the position is more than route running and catching; it’s about understanding the game. A former quarterback, who’s used to studying an entire offense, Williams believes his former position helps him create a broader skill set for the offense. 

“It makes it easier for me to play every position,” Williams said. “I can be outside or inside because I know it all. I feel like most receivers just learn a position. I never really have to come off the field if we go 12-personnel.”

Bielema added that spacing out the wide receivers played a major role in Lunney’s UTSA offense, which he believes will be “Isaiah’s friend” as they try to keep defenses more honest. Junior running back Chase Brown, who rushed for over 1,000 yards last season, thinks defenses won’t be able to stack the box against the run if Lunney’s offensive plans come to fruition.

Other takeaways from Media Days 

  • Bielema said on Wednesday that the roster size has grown to 118 players, helped by an emphasis put on the walk-on program. Most of the walk-ons come from Illinois high school football players, and adding them may help the program develop relationships with high schools and help in-state recruiting. 
    • “Successful businesses are usually built by the people that are around them,” Bielema said. “If Illinois was going to be successful, we’re going to have to recruit the state.”
  • Bielema said Whitman approved investments of customized helmets despite the higher cost, tweaked the shoulder pads and moved up the transition of a turf field a couple years. 
  • The program is a fan of the Week Zero game, and they would like it to become an annual occurrence. Bielema said it gives his team a competitive advantage, as he believes inexperienced players take the biggest leap in the second game of the season. It also provides the Illini two bye-weeks in the middle of the season instead of one. 

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