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Can Illini football contend in the Big Ten West in 2023?



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Expectations are high for Illini Football in 2023

The time for talk is almost over. In two weeks, the Illinois Fighting Illini take the field in their home opener against the Toledo Rockets. Expectations are high for Illini Football. Record season ticket sales prove what fans think of the Illini’s chances this fall. Illini fans have every right to expect big things in 2023. This roster is loaded with returning and new talent.

Jer’Zhan Newton and Keith Randolph are on the Chuck Bednarik watch list as two defensive linemen to watch. Freshmen wide receivers Kenari Wilcher and Malik Elzy are looking to supplant Pat Bryant and Casey Washington at receiver. Luke Altmyer wants to prove that Lane Kiffin sent the wrong quarterback into the transfer portal. Consequently, head coach Bret Bielema and his staff know that his team has all the tools to contend in the Big Ten West.

How many games will Illini Football win this fall?

Sept 2 Toledo W:  The Illini had better be ready to play against the Rockets. Toledo returns Dequan Finn, Jacquez Stewart, and Jerjuan Newton. This is an offense that can score in multiple ways. However, Illinois wins this game because they should be able to use their size advantage in the trenches to overwhelm the Rockets.

Sept 9 at Kansas W: Champaign isn’t the only place where there is a buzz about the football program in 2022. Jayhawk fans are excited about football in Lawrence. This game should be one of the more entertaining early-season games of the season. One concern is Kansas’ ability to throw the football. The Jayhawks might be able to exploit a rebuilt Illinois secondary. However, Illinois has the advantage because Kansas’ defense can’t stop anyone.

Sept 16 Penn State L: This might be more of a 50/50 game than most people think. Drew Allar is supposed to be the quarterback the Nittany Lions have been looking for since James Franklin took the job at Penn State. Also, Penn State should have one of the best defenses in the conference. Conversely, so do the Illini. This game is going to be a slugfest. Penn State might be more explosive offensively, which gives them the edge.

Sept 23 Florida Atlantic W: New head coach Tom Herman brought in the quarterback he recruited at Texas, Casey Thompson. The Nebraska transfer has weapons as well. Leading rusher Larry McCammon returns, as do leading receivers Je’Quan Burton and LaJohntay Wester. The offense was not the problem for the Owls in 2022; it was the defense. Illinois’ offense is the reason they win this game.

The Heart of the Conference Schedule

Sept 30 at Purdue W: This game has given Illinois fits the last few years. The Illini has won the Purdue Cannon four times since 2010. Purdue has a new head coach, a new quarterback, and a new offensive coordinator. Despite this game being on the road, Illinois has the better roster, and there is a lot of turnover in West Lafayette. The Illini wins the Purdue Cannon.

Oct 7 Nebraska W: While the Cornhuskers should give the Illini a great game, Nebraska is gambling on Jeff Sims, staying healthy for an entire season. That is quite the gamble since Sims has had injury issues his entire career. Illinois has the advantage because of the continuity of the staff and the roster. In addition, it’s hard to fathom that the Cornhuskers’ rush defense can get fixed in one off-season.

Oct 14 at Maryland W: This game is the most exciting contest of the season. Maryland’s offense is going to be legit. Taulia Tagovailoa leads an offense that features Roman Hemby, one of the best all-purpose backs in the conference, and Corey Dyches, one of the best tight ends. The question here is, “Who do you trust?” Do you trust Maryland’s defense or Illinois’ offense? Trust the Illini offense in this game.

Oct 21 Wisconsin W: Many people have this game as a 50-50 game for both the Badgers and Illini. However, Wisconsin is shifting its offensive philosophy. Also, they have a lot of turnover on offense. Can Tanner Mordecai be a difference-maker for the Badgers? Wisconsin had Braelon Allen, and he’s one of the best running backs in the country, but he might be alone as a playmaker. Wisconsin’s defense has questions of its own. They are replacing Nick Herbig and John Torchio. It’s not a guarantee, but Illinois wins a close one.

The last quarter of the season

Nov 4 at Minnesota W: Much like Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Purdue, there is turnover in Minneapolis. They have a new quarterback, running back, and interior offensive linemen. The Gophers will be solid on defense but also suffered some losses to the NFL. The question is whether or not you trust PJ Fleck and his ability to reload the roster. Once again, not a gimme game, but Illinois should come away with a road victory.

Nov 11 Indiana W: Current head coach Tom Allen might be on the outs by this game. Illinois wants their win back from their controversial loss last year. Illinois should win this game comfortably.

Nov 18 at Iowa L: Iowa City is a tough place to play for anyone. If this game is at night, Iowa has the advantage. Illinois can upset the Hawkeyes if this game is at noon. That said, Iowa is going through some changes offensively. The Hawkeyes have to replace some key pieces in the secondary, including Riley Moss. The Hawkeyes also lost three linebackers to the NFL. It’s a 50-50 game, and Illinois does have a chance to win.

Nov 25 Northwestern W: Illinois football should have little issue with the Wildcats against their interstate rival in the annual game for the Hat. Northwestern is a mess after the Pat Fitzgerald scandal. It also remains to be seen how much of a roster. The Wildcats will have by the end of the season.

Prediction: 9-3, 6-2

There are many potential unknowns with the Illini. Luke Altmyer is talented but unproven. The staff hopes two true freshmen receivers are as advertised. However, Illinois football might have the best offensive/defensive line combination in the conference. Their defensive front is elite, and the secondary will be good despite losing three defensive backs to the NFL.

This is Illinois’ best opportunity in a long time to win the Big Ten West and play for a conference title. There is a lot of turnover in the division ahead of the conference realigning in 2024. Illinois has to take advantage of that this year.

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Playing Freshmen doesn’t mean you’re giving up on the season



Should Illinois football play more freshmen?
Jan 2, 2023; Tampa, FL, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Bret Bielema takes the field fro the the 2023 ReliaQuest Bowl against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois football needs answers on offense. Could some of those answers be true freshmen?

There were some bright spots in Illinois‘ 30-13 home loss to Penn State. “The Firm” of Jer’Zhan Newton and Keith Randolph, Jr. had their best game of the season. The defense held Penn State quarterback Drew Allar to 5.9 yards per attempt and under 50% completions. The defensive front had its most consistent game against the run, limiting Penn State backs to 4.1 yards per rush attempt. Unfortunately, the offense still has issues.

Quarterback Luke Altmyer threw four interceptions, putting the defense in difficult positions all game. He was benched for Ball State transfer John Paddock, who fared better, throwing the only touchdown pass for the Illini.

Should the Illinois football turn to Paddock over Altmyer?

Though Paddock played better than Altmyer, it won’t matter if the offensive line doesn’t play better. Paddock threw the football well after settling in. Does that mean he gives the Illini a better chance to win? That’s hard to say. If Paddock plays well against Florida Atlantic, does that mean he’ll fare better in conference play?

In addition to quarterback, the Illini need another running back to step up next to Reggie Love III. Josh McCray has struggled, averaging just 2.5 yards per rush attempt. Frosh running back Kaden Feagin got some carries, but McCray might have to carry the load until someone plays well enough to get meaningful carries.

The best receivers on the field were freshmen.

Altmyer tried to push the football down the field. A couple of his interceptions were because his receivers could not separate from Penn State’s defensive backs. However, freshman receiver Kenari Wilcher had the biggest catch of the day, a 47-yard reception. And fellow freshman Malik Elzy hauled in a nice touchdown reception on a 50/50 ball. The Illini play a struggling FAU team this weekend. There is nothing wrong with giving Elzy, Wilcher, Ashton Hollins, and Hank Beatty some meaningful snaps to see what you have.

They will have to figure out the running game and the explosive passing game before they get into the meat and potatoes of their conference schedule.

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Former Illinois Football Star to make NFL Debut Sunday



Former Illinois Football Star to make NFL Debut Sunday
Apr 27, 2023; Kansas City, MO, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini cornerback Devon Witherspoon poses on the red carpet at the National World War I Museum and Memorial. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Former Illinois Football Star to make NFL Debut Sunday

Illinois football needs a pick me up. The first three games have certainly left fans wanting more. Though the season is not lost, Illinois Football seems to have lost the buzz they created to start the season. They were not expected to beat Penn State, however they fizzled off after a decent start. Luke Altmyer, the teams sole bright spot after two games, had his worst game of the season. Who knows how the rest of the season plays out at this point. On a bright note, Devon Witherspoon will officially make his NFL debut.

After a series of injuries that kept him out of the preseason and the first game of the regular season, Devon Witherspoon is available this Sunday.

Devon Witherspoon was a joy to watch

The Illini could use Devon Witherspoon, Quan Martin and Sydney Brown. All three players were supremely talented, however they had that veteran savvy that this current team really lacks. Witherspoon adored himself to fans from day one. He played with a consistent edge and rarely gave up back-breaking plays. Though Xavier Scott has been solid in his sophomore year, he has notably given up some chunk plays. Witherspoon will likely need some time to adjust to the NFL speed. Despite this, I am so intrigued to see how Witherspoon’s speed and instincts translate to the professional ranks.

Witherspoon will play the Detroit Lions offense. Amon-ra St Brown is a star WR, however I do think that Witherspoon will play intermittently on some of the other Lions. Of note, Kerby Joseph is a full time starter on the Detroit Lions defense.

Good vibes from the NFL.

Honestly, the last thing I wanted to do was write a recap of the Illinois-Penn State game. We know that the team is struggling to find themselves. For now, I will turn my attention to the few Illini battling it out there on Sunday afternoons.

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Illinois Football players who made NFL Rosters



East Rutherford, NJ August 26, 2023 -- Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers with quarterback Tommy DeVito of the Giants at the end of the game. The NY Jets against the NY Giants on August 26, 2023 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ, as the rivals play their final preseason game before the start of the NFL season.

Illinois Football players who made NFL Rosters

Illinois Football may not have the biggest NFL presence. After a tumultuous decade under Tim Beckman and Lovie Smith, the Illini presence has seemingly dwindled in the NFL. Though Lovie Smith recruited some of these players to Illinois, The Bret Bielema era has focused on improvement and sustained reliability. Players are learning strong habits that stick with them on their journeys to becoming professional football players. Whether they are drafted or undrafted, Illinois Football is slowly growing their presence in the professional ranks.

The list will certainly grow. Players like Johnny Newton, Keith Randolph, Isaiah Adams and more could probably be on NFL rosters this very moment. However, these guys came back to further their college legacy and to further solidify their draft prospects. Illinois continues to win power-five recruiting battles which also ensures that their presence will continue to grow.

The Class of 2023:

To start, I wanted to highlight the players who just graduated from Illinois. These players are probably the most familiar. They were a huge reason why Illinois Football had its best season in quite some time.

  1. Devon Witherspoon (Seattle Seahawks
  2. Quan Martin (Washington Commanders)
  3. Sydney Brown (Philadelphia Eagles)
  4. Chase Brown (Cincinnati Bengals)
  5. Tommy Devito (New York Giants)
  6. Isaac Darkangelo (Las Vegas Raiders)
  7. Alex Palczewski (Denver Broncos)

The first four players were all 2023 NFL Draft picks. Witherspoon made history and was the fifth overall pick in the draft. Though he was limited by a preseason, Witherspoon is carrying the DB U flag into the NFL. Quan Martin and Sydney Brown probably had the most successful preseasons as they continued to make plays and impress their coaching staff. Notably, Kendall Smith made some plays on the Washington Commanders, however was cut.  Chase Brown struggled this preseason. Brown had 28 carries for 69 yards, however did catch the ball well out of the backfield.

Tommy Devito was very impressive. He threw for 453 yards at a 67 percent completion rate. He had two touchdowns and two interceptions. The two interceptions included one end of the game Hail Mary.

Other notable alums

  1. Kendrick Green (Houston Texans)
  2. Jake Hansen (Houston Texans)
  3. Vederian Lowe (New England Patriots)
  4. Del’Shawn Phillips (Baltimore Ravens)
  5. Doug Kramer (Chicago Bears)
  6. Ted Karras (Cincinnati Bengals)
  7. Kerby Joseph (Detroit Lions)
  8. Dawuane Smoot (Jacksonville Jaguars)
  9. Jihad Ward (New York Giants)
  10. Nate Hobbs (Las Vegas Raiders)
  11. Nick Allegretti (Kansas City Chiefs)
  12. Tony Adams (New York Jets)
  13. Justin Hardee (New York Jets)
  14. Chase Mclaughlin (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)

Quite the list! Most of these players were just in Champaign trying to win on Lovie Smith’s roster. There are many more players such as Owen Carney, Kendall Smith and Clayton Fejedelem who are trying their best to get back onto NFL rosters. James Mccourt is also a player that has potential. Despite this, Illinois Football is growing its presence. That presence will only grow.

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