Lineup Watch: How the Illinois opt-outs impact the football team‘s potential

Defensive+back+Matthew+Bailey+attempts+to+get+through+Minnesota+on+Oct.+15.%0ABaileys+defense+for+the+Illini+this+season+demonstrates+a+positive+potential+future+for+the+team.++

Logan Hodson

Defensive back Matthew Bailey attempts to get through Minnesota on Oct. 15. Bailey’s defense for the Illini this season demonstrates a positive potential future for the team.

By Jonathan Alday, Assistant Sports Editor

The often-forgotten consequence of having a good team is the realization that at a certain point, the NFL begins knocking.

For many, if not all, college football players, their dreams are swarmed with visions of making it to the NFL. Coming off their best season since 2007, comes a high level of production from multiple players and leaders of the Illini football team.

Cornerback Devon Witherspoon, safety Sydney Brown, running back Chase Brown and tight end Luke Ford all have decided to declare for the draft ahead of the bowl game, opting out to begin their individual training.

The opt-outs provide an interesting challenge for the Illinois coaching staff as they look to fill in the holes left by the aforementioned players.

In the defensive back room, depth was already an issue after injuries to redshirt sophomore Taz Nicholson and senior Terrell Jennings during the season. Head coach Bret Bielema and then-defensive coordinator Ryan Walters had to increasingly rely on redshirt freshmen and freshmen to complete the rotation, opening a weakness in the stout defense.

Freshman defensive back Matthew Bailey is an exception to the weakness, having played an important role in the safety rotation throughout the season. In 12 games played, Bailey tacked on 5 tackles, two interceptions, four passes defended and a fumble recovery touchdown. Bailey is expected to take full starter responsibilities with redshirt freshman Kionte Curry, taking a rotational role.

Freshman Xavier Scott and redshirt freshman Tyler Strain would step into full-time cornerback roles after a serviceable end of the season in relief. Scott played in 10 games, making nine tackles and forcing a fumble in Illinois’ game against University of Michigan. Strain dressed for 11 games in 2022, with his best coming in the final two games of the regular season where he made eight tackles, defended four passes and caught two passes for interceptions.

While the absence of Doak Walker Award finalist Chase Brown will hurt the Illini’s offensive capacity, redshirt sophomore Reggie Love III proved he’s more than capable of filling in. Love III got a good start in the regular season finale against Northwestern, notching 85 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries. He’s expected to split duties with sophomore Josh McCray who had been absent throughout the season.

McCray is reportedly “100 percent” after a Week Zero injury kept him off of the field throughout the year. McCray’s breakout potential makes his presence interesting, especially after a productive freshman season, carrying the ball 112 times in 11 games for 549 yards and two touchdowns.

Tight ends have had an up and down role in the Barry Lunney Jr. offense this season. While some games see them have multiple targets, they have maintained a consistent blocking role. Redshirt sophomore Tip Reiman continues to lead the group, rotating and splitting right end sets with Michael Marchese. Redshirt sophomore Griffin Moore and freshman Henry Boyer may also get playing time based on overall reliance on the position group.

While the team that takes the field on Monday may not be the team that Illini fans are accustomed to seeing, the players new to the lineup have the potential to make an impact on the game and establish themselves ahead of spring training.

 

@JonathanAlday7
[email protected]