Illinois football 2022 season preview: New faces, new challenges, new year

Football+head+coach%2C+Bret+Bielema%2C+walks+onto+the+field+during+the+Homecoming+game+against+Wisconsin+on+Oct.+9.+With+Bielemas+straightforward+approach%2C+it+may+help+in+improving+the+team+in+the+future.+

Cameron Krasucki

Football head coach, Bret Bielema, walks onto the field during the Homecoming game against Wisconsin on Oct. 9. With Bielema’s straightforward approach, it may help in improving the team in the future.

By Jonathan Alday, Assistant Sports Editor

As the days count down before Illinois’ Week 0 matchup against Wyoming at Memorial Stadium, the anticipation increases for head coach Bret Bielema, who’s heading into his second year in charge of the program.

The biggest change heading into this season is the implementation of new offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr.’s offense. Bielema hopes the addition of Lunney Jr.’s system will jumpstart an offense that stumbled mightily during the 2021 season, which gained only 329.8 offensive yards and averaged 19.8 points per game. Lunney Jr., who was previously the offensive coordinator at the University of Texas at San Antonio, helped the Roadrunners average 442.9 yards and 37.8 points per game.

The days leading up to the Illini’s matchup against the Cowboys also brings another question to the coaching staff, the quarterback position. 

Junior Art Sitowski enters his second quarterback competition in two years with Illinois. After two surgeries, one which sidelined him during the 9OT win over Penn State on his left arm, and the other regarding a previous injury on his right throwing shoulder, Sitowski has been cleared to practice and is finally putting into effect the mental reps he was taking throughout spring practice. 

The other player levying for the lead spot is Tommy DeVito, a senior Syracuse transfer looking for a new opportunity after injuries held him back at Syracuse. With the Orange, DeVito played in 24 games with 15 starts in three seasons, completing 305-of-520 passes for 27 touchdowns and wins over Florida State and North Carolina as a freshman. DeVito currently has the inside track as he had been practicing with the first team offense since arriving on campus in the spring.

Ryan Walters has been touted as one of the best young defensive minds in the country. During the 2021 season the defense often came in during crucial situations, helping them upset Minnesota and Penn State. 

Now the challenge for Walters is continuing the success. With numerous players from the 2021 gone due to eligibility, Walters needs to assemble a new lineup to fill in the gaps. Sydney Brown is expected to help lead the defense, with players like senior Calvin Avery and junior Kendall Smith to fill in the gaps left by Roderick Perry and Kerby Joseph.

While the question marks remain, the expectations of Bielema in his second year are high. 

“I do think we are a better football team than we were a year ago,” Bielema said. “I think that there’s a buzz in the (Smith Center). I’m excited to see it.”

Their season starts at home against Wyoming. They then travel for a cross border rivalry against Indiana in Bloomington, followed by a return to Champaign to take on the Virginia Cavaliers.

After an extra week of rest, Illinois will host Chattanooga before heading up to Madison to take on Wisconsin, a return for Bielema to a program which he had been a part of from 2004–2012, leading as head coach from 2006–2012. Illinois will then return home to take on rival Iowa followed by a Homecoming showdown against Minnesota.

After another week of rest, the Illini will travel to Lincoln, Neb. to take on the Cornhuskers followed by a Dad’s Weekend showdown in Champaign against Michigan State, with the following weekend being at home against Purdue.

The second to last week of the regular season will see Illinois travel to the Big House to take on Michigan. Illinois will then travel to Evanston to defend the Land of Lincoln trophy against in-state rival Northwestern.

 

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