Illinois football pursues bowl game in 2022

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Sydney Laput

Senior quarterback Tommy DeVito looks for an opening during the Spring Orange and Blue game on April 21. DeVito is a fifth-year senior quarterback who transferred from Syracuse in the spring.

By Ben Fader, Staff Writer

As the fall sports season approaches ever so quickly, Illinois fans will soon discover if their football program can match the increasing pace of play and competition that is the new standard in the conference.

The Illini officially will enter year two of the Bret Bielema regime, with the program having only one bowl appearance since 2014 and without a winning record since 2011. The team’s 5-7 record in Bielema’s first year as head coach found the Illini just one game short of a postseason bowl berth, but with a bright future to look forward to. Ranked wins at Penn State and Minnesota highlighted the positives from the season, but more growth will be needed for the Illini to compete in one of the toughest conferences in the country.

Although the team, especially the defense, showed flashes of brilliance in 2021, they have a long way to go to match the fast-growing reputation of Brad Underwood’s basketball team, which has emerged as a powerhouse program in the Big Ten.

The Illini need to develop an offense capable of consistently putting points on the scoreboard, a trait of all good teams that have eluded them recently.

Early indications at practice show the Illini will have more diversity in their game plan this year with new offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr., which junior star running back Chase Brown is already enjoying.

“We are going to be more balanced,” Brown said. “We are going to get the ball to the perimeter and in our playmaker’s hands like Isaiah (Williams) and Casey (Washington) … it’s going to take the load off the run game but also open up the run game more when people can’t just load the box on us.”

Lunney Jr. is coming off a conference championship offense with UTSA in 2021, including a win over the Illini. Lunney now has the opportunity to work with more talent and depth, giving reason to expect offensive improvement. A more diverse play call will certainly keep opposing defenses on their toes more this year, but the Illini also need more “playmakers” to step up in big moments.

Fifth-year senior quarterback Tommy DeVito is the likely starter after transferring from Syracuse in the spring, giving the Illini more veteran experience leading the offense.

DeVito struggled to stay on the field with injuries after a solid sophomore season but will offer Lunney Jr. a better arm to work with than the Illini put on the field in 2021. As long as DeVito can keep healthy, this too is a major step in the right direction.

The skills positions are loaded with returning talent, as sophomore running back Josh McCray returns with Brown in a stellar backfield with sophomore Reggie Love and freshman Aidan Laughery providing solid depth as well.

Sophomore wide receiver Isaiah Williams is back to lead the receiving core for the second year in a row and is poised to become the clear number one option. He has been working tirelessly in the offseason, with the hopes of leading his team to a bowl game this year.

“I’m still focused on getting better day by day,” Williams said. “Monday through Saturday, we wake up at 6 (a.m.), get started at 6:30, and catch 250 balls at least on the jug machine.”

Improved hands from receivers will benefit the group in the fall, but Williams is still eager to improve even more about his game.

“Better catching, setting my routes up better, making contested catches,” Williams said. “Every single week I want to get better at that, and I want to get better at learning the offense.”

Junior Casey Washington has had a limited role in his first three years with the offense but “has really made a leap” during the offseason according to Bielema and will be expected to step into a consistent starting role. Redshirt sophomore Pat Bryant and incoming freshman Shawn Miller have also impressed during camp and will need to be relied on if the offense can match its full potential.

New faces make or break the success of teams around the country and it will be no different in Champaign for a team with great desire to take another step forward in a program rebuild this year.

Illinois fans should also expect to see the continued development of defensive players under Bielema and defensive coordinator Ryan Walters.

The defense was the highlight of last year’s team, and although they lost five starters, they can be just as effective this season. Bielema has noticed that the players understand their individual roles much better this summer.

“The thing that I feel about this team is that they understand what we’re saying and why we’re saying it,” Bielema said. “They are doing an incredible job of pushing each other.”

The Big Ten schedule is brutal, but if the defense can return to form with an improved offense, there is certainly the potential for improvement in a program that lost four games by just a single score in 2021.

Bielema has expressed his satisfaction with the team’s connection early on and has emphasized it all offseason.

“Once you have that created, that’s when something special can happen.”

 

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