With Bret Bielema in place as Illinois football's new coach, there are plenty of questions facing the 26th man to lead this program. Beat writer COLIN LIKAS explores 10 of the most pressing ahead of the Illini's 2021 season opener, scheduled for Aug. 28 against Nebraska in Dublin, Ireland:
1. How can Bret Bielema help Illinois regain its recruiting mojo?
It’s been a while since the Illini found a single-digit spot in Big Ten recruiting rankings.
Since the Class of 2015, specifically, according to Rivals.com.
Illinois’ final class to sign with Tim Beckman still in charge totaled 24 athletes and rated sixth out of 14 in the league. Among the key hauls were running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn and offensive lineman Gabe Megginson. Both players started at various points in their Illini career before transferring from the program with Lovie Smith in charge. Vaughn is now a rookie running back with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Between 2016 and 2020, Illinois’ recruiting classes have sat in the 10-14 range within the conference, per Rivals.
New coach Bret Bielema already has spoken at length about winning in-state recruiting battles. That, according to Rivals national recruiting director Mike Farrell, is a good place for him to start in order to turn around the Illini on this front.
“The coaches and players would prefer to get an opportunity to play at Illinois,” Farrell said. “The mid-level prospects, the ones that have been getting away, the three-star kids you can build a roster around, kids maybe previous staffs didn’t offer that ended up in the MAC, those are the guys he was speaking to.”
Farrell termed Bielema “the safe choice, but the right choice” both before and after Illinois hired him. Prime reasons for that are Bielema’s knowledge of the Big Ten and his recruiting ties both in the Midwest and outside it.
Through his first two weeks, the Illini already have handed out offers to high school prospects like Florida defensive back Isaiah Taylor, Florida tight end Mason Taylor and Alabama running back/wide receiver Josh McCray during Bielema’s short time in charge of the program.
Farrell noted that recruits who can and want to attend regularly successful programs like Ohio State and Notre Dame will continue to do so. That said, how does Bielema sell his new program to potential signees, considering Illinois hasn’t posted a winning season since 2011?
“You sell your NFL experience — I can get you to the league (and) I know what it takes — you sell your SEC experience (with Arkansas) ... and, of course, your success at Wisconsin,” Farrell said. “Take all those things and say, ‘I’m going to bring that package and experience to Illinois. They’ve never had a coach like me.’”
2. How do the Illini get fans back inside Memorial Stadium (once they’re safely allowed to do so)?
No matter what the paid attendance figures indicate, Illinois has struggled to fill Memorial Stadium in recent years.
Perhaps attendance would have improved in 2020, on the heels of the Illini’s first bowl game appearance since 2014. But the COVID-19 pandemic ensured only family members and cardboard cutouts could occupy Memorial Stadium, from a fan standpoint.
So how does Bret Bielema’s first team convince supporters to fork over money for a live viewing experience — if the pandemic is under control — when Illinois opens its 2021 home slate on Sept. 4 against Texas-San Antonio?
“Of course the fans want to see the team win,” said Kelly Rund, president of the Illini Quarterback Club. “But in addition to that, I think that it’s important that he be a fan coach, really engaging with the fans and the community. Previously, we didn’t have that with some of our coaches. But the coaches that succeeded in that area were welcomed and supported.”
Bielema quickly made a good impression in that regard after he was hired to replace Lovie Smith. His introductory press conference on Dec. 21 included him discussing how he hopes to walk down Champaign-Urbana’s streets and reply to shouts of “I-L-L” with “I-N-I.”
“I sensed a really strong commitment from him to our program, to our community and to our state,” Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said. “It was evident from our first conversation that he was committed to recruiting in the state of Illinois. It was evident he was committed to being a strong member of our community.”
Both Rund and Mike Wallner, past president of the Illini Quarterback Club, feel early fan reaction to Bielema’s hire is positive.
“People are excited,” Wallner said. “I honestly didn’t even think of Bret Bielema (as a potential hire). Now that you look back at it, he’s the obvious choice.”
Several of Rund’s family members live in Arkansas, where Bielema last coached in college. Despite a losing record with the Razorbacks, Rund said Bielema still left a positive impression on the area.
“I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people from Arkansas who said great, positive things about the coach,” Rund said. “Positive things about his engagement and his involvement. I’m really looking forward to what he’s going to bring to the community.”
Bielema already has spoken to numerous Illinois high school football coaches and held a Zoom call with some Illini football alumni this past week. Rund said she’s meeting with Bielema in the near future as well.
And if the fans feel a connection to the man overseeing their favorite college football team, chances are they’ll give him a shot by attending games.
“It does sound like Bret’s going to be out in the town more and be more of a community guy than maybe Lovie was,” Wallner said, “and that’s going to put people in seats.”
3. Can Bret Bielema win over former Illinois players?
This question may have already been answered, at least on a basic level.
That’s because of the Zoom call that Bret Bielema held alongside Josh Whitman on Wednesday night. Among those to join was Michael Martin, a long snapper with the Illini between 2012 and 2016. Martin, a Centennial graduate and Champaign native, now serves as sideline reporter on Illinois football’s radio broadcasts.
Martin said the call participation peaked at about 130 alumni from numerous eras.
“I fully acknowledge the priority should be (Bielema) needs to get on the same page with his players, then the recruits, then the alumni,” Martin said, “but alumni can be some of the best ambassadors for the team, some of the best recruiters for the team. It’s good to see it’s been made a priority to get us involved.”
Among the former Illini who immediately showed support for Bielema’s hire via social media were Martin, Justin Hardee, Juice Williams, Jihad Ward and Reilly O’Toole. And Martin said he’s turned into more of a Bielema believer since Whitman brought Bielema aboard on Dec. 19.
“Every time I hear him speak, I buy in a little bit more,” Martin said. “I’m cautiously optimistic because it comes down to the product on the field, but from what I can see, he’s taking all the right steps.”
Two topics Martin said he was glad Bielema addressed during Wednesday’s Zoom were his Illinois roots — Bielema is a native of Prophetstown in northwest Illinois — and his desire to fulfill at least the initial six-year contract he was given.
“He made it clear ... ‘I want to be here for a long time,’” Martin said. “Some of that you can say is coach speak, but that’s stuff you need to hear from a head coach.”
And, as has been a trademark in his brief Illini career, Bielema used that Zoom call to touch upon recruiting.
“He encouraged us to reach out if there’s any underrecruited guys (alumni know of) that might be able to help the program,” Martin said. “I was really invested to hear what he had to say about the direction he wants to take the program.”
4. Who is the next can’t-miss in-state recruit for Illinois?
Rivals national recruiting director Mike Farrell has four, four-star prospects that fall into this category for the Illini.
➜ Kaleb Brown (athlete, St. Rita; 5-foot-11, 183 pounds). Offers include Illinois, Alabama, Florida, Iowa, Kansas State, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Ohio State and Wisconsin.
➜ Tyler Morris (wide receiver, Nazareth Academy; 6-foot, 175 pounds). Offers include Illinois, Florida, Iowa, Kansas State, Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, Notre Dame and Texas.
➜ Sebastian Cheeks (outside linebacker, Evanston; 6-foot-2, 210 pounds). Offers include Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Stanford, Texas and Wisconsin.
➜ Reggie Fleurima (wide receiver, Naperville Central; 6-foot-2, 200 pounds). Offers include Illinois, Iowa, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Oregon State, Penn State and Purdue.
Farrell also said three-star quarterbacks Dontrell Jackson Jr. out of Marist — a Coastal Carolina commit — and Kaden Cobb out of Fenwick would be good pickups, though Farrell added that “you can get quarterbacks to travel” from other states.
“It’s the skill kids you’ve got to keep home, and the big kids,” Farrell said. “It’s not a great year for big men in Illinois this year, so you’ve got to keep the receivers home.”
5. Will Illinois open the season against Nebraska in Ireland?
This question is the most difficult to answer right now. According to athletics department spokesman Kent Brown, there’s currently no updates about the status of the Illini’s 2021 season opener, scheduled for Aug. 28 in Dublin.
Illinois is in line to host the game should the schools determine it needs to happen in the United States.
“I’ve got to tell you, when I first saw the game was in Ireland, I was like, ‘OK, this is going to be one heck of an opener,’” Bret Bielema said. “And then I forgot that we were in COVID, so whether that happens or not is to be determined. But I’m very excited about that schedule coming at us in the fall.”
Illini Quarterback Club president Kelly Rund said she’d attend the game if it kicks off in the Ireland capital city, but she understands the situation.
“(There’s) a lot of excitement for that and the opportunity for students and the staff to be able to do that,” Rund said. “But, of course, we like to see games at home. We like to see the tailgating and bringing people into Champaign-Urbana and to support the community and the football program.”
6. How does Bret Bielema address a larger-than-usual roster in 2021?
The COVID-19 pandemic has created opportunity, according to Bielema, to transition Illinois football from the Lovie Smith era.
“This could be one of the biggest advantages we have,” Bielema said, “if you handle it the right way, manage it with the right tone and put the right people in position.”
One matter Bielema will have to address is roster size. Not only did the NCAA permit an extra year of eligibility, but they are allowing more scholarship athletes on rosters — up from 85 to as high as 110. Some Illini seniors already have announced they’ll return in 2021: quarterback Brandon Peters, offensive linemen Doug Kramer, Alex Palczewski and Vederian Lowe and long snapper Ethan Tabel.
How does Bielema manage this situation with incoming recruits and returning veterans?
“I don’t think anyone really knows,” Rivals national recruiting director Mike Farrell said. “It’s almost like Oprah — everybody gets a car. ... The guys you want back, you encourage. The guys you don’t want back, you politely discourage and take it from there.”
7. How does Illinois replace Jake Hansen at linebacker?
Hansen declared for the 2021 NFL draft on Monday, and he’s joined in that regard by fellow Illini Kendrick Green, Milo Eifler and Josh Imatorbhebhe. Another key defensive starter in 2020, defensive end Owen Carney Jr., announced he would enter the transfer portal on Wednesday.
Losing each of those contributors creates a significant hole for Illinois. But the return of the Illini’s other starting offensive linemen somewhat blunts Green’s absence, while both Eifler and Imatorbhebhe played just two seasons for Illinois.
Hansen is a different story, especially considering fellow linebacker Eifler is also leaving. Hansen played immediately for the Illini, seeing 29 starts at linebacker during his last three years. He finished third in team history with 10 forced fumbles and also contributed 243 tackles, 26 tackles for loss, seven sacks and three interceptions during his Illinois career.
Players who likely will be relied upon heavily among the 2021 linebackers corps include junior Khalan Tolson, sophomore Tarique Barnes and redshirt freshman Shammond Cooper. Tolson and Barnes both suffered season-ending injuries during the 2021 campaign and already have undergone surgery.
Eifler called it heartbreaking to see both Barnes and Tolson go down after they started making positive strides, but Eifler also believes the duo will improve in 2021.
“The program’s in good hands, especially in the linebacker room,” Eifler said. “They’re definitely going to hold it down.”
Eifler feels the lineup of Tolson at outside linebacker, Barnes at middle linebacker and Cooper at inside linebacker can thrive for Bret Bielema. Depth, however, is an area that will be tested with this group.
“They all have played, which is the good part. Having experience plays a big role, especially playing linebacker,” Eifler said. “Those guys in the room, they’re going to be new leaders of the defense. And sky’s the limit for them as well.”
When asked what he hopes he and Hansen provided to the returning Illinois linebackers that they could use moving forward, Eifler referenced a mindset instilled in him by Dele Harding, the team’s leading tackler in 2019.
“Go out there and let it all out. No regrets, really,” Eifler said. “When you touch the field ... never have that feeling where, ‘I wish I could’ve done this.’ ... The linebacker room, they can control the outcome of some games, for real.”
8. What will offseason preparation look like under Bret Bielema?
Bielema said two days after he was hired that he hoped to have his coaching staff finalized by early January. He already has selected Tony Petersen as offensive coordinator and Bart Miller as offensive line coach.
“Because of this world we’re in, we can’t go out on the road and recruit (because of COVID-19), which is a huge advantage for a staff that’s never been together,” Bielema said, “to be in the building here, to be able to meet and talk about ... offense, defense, special teams, get to know our roster through Zoom.”
The Illini eventually will return to campus. And, barring COVID-19 issues, Bielema has a plan in place for the ensuing months.
“We’ll go through an eight-week training, both mentally and physically, with our players on a daily basis to install our schemes and also install the mentality and the physicality that we need to train with to get where we need to be in the fall,” Bielema said. “After eight weeks of that, we’ll enter spring football, during a five-week window which will culminate with a spring game of some type. And then they’ll really jump into the summer, and then we’ll jump into the fall.”
Miller clearly is in step with Bielema already on this topic despite being hired in the past week.
“We will do some positional work in the summer ... so when we take the field wherever we are in August, we’re ready to hit the ground running with this new Illinois program, new Illinois offense,” Miller said. “The development piece is huge. ... But (we’ll have) a tremendous amount of training, physical work and getting these guys where we want them to be so we can do what we’re all wanting here to happen: We can win that championship and lead the Big Ten.”
9. Is Bret Bielema ready for a return to college?
Through all of his comments since being hired, it’s evident the 50-year-old Bielema is fired up about his first college job since he was fired at Arkansas in 2017.
But that relationship ended in a messy fashion. Litigation between Bielema and the Razorback Foundation, a private fundraising group associated with Arkansas’ athletic department, regarding payment of the remainder of Bielema’s buyout from his contract there is still ongoing.
Bielema experienced success at Wisconsin, guiding the Badgers to a 68-24 ledger, three Big Ten titles and two bowl wins from 2006 through 2012. At Arkansas between 2013 and 2017, Bielema directed the Razorbacks to a 29-34 mark and two bowl triumphs, though his last year resulted in a 4-8 record.
Bielema has since been with the NFL’s New England Patriots and New York Giants. He even helped play a role in the Patriots winning Super Bowl LIII under coach Bill Belichick.
So, until Illinois and Nebraska kick off the 2021 season, Bielema may face questions about why the time is now for his college return.
“I left one institution (Wisconsin) to go to another (Arkansas) with an idea of being highly successful, and we did have success. I can never lose sight of that,” Bielema said. “But to walk out of there on somebody else’s terms to this day is something that motivates me on a daily basis.
“Two years with Coach Belichick, I can honestly say every day you would learn something in the game of football that you maybe have never heard of or even thought of. His knowledge and wisdom is beyond anything that I had ever seen before. That part is really going to be beneficial. Even though it’s a different game in pro to college, the fundamentals of winning and losing are still very very similar.”
10. What would constitute a successful first Illinois season for Bret Bielema?
This is the question that will become more and more pertinent as winter turns to spring and spring to summer.
The Illini haven’t finished over .500 in a season since Ron Zook was around in 2011. Haven’t finished a regular season with a winning record since 2007.
That was four coaches ago for the Illini.
And they’ve made just six bowl games this century, winning only two of them — both under the Zook era, with interim coach Vic Koenning leading the Illini to a win in the 2011 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl and Zook doing so in the 2010 Texas Bowl.
How much do Illinois fans expect of Bret Bielema, and how quickly do they expect him to arrive at that point?
Those who spoke with The News-Gazette are keeping tempered hopes early on.
“Being competitive (and) being in the games all the way to the end — that always helps. And maybe we can get a bowl game,” said Mike Wallner, the Illini Quarterback Club past president. “If he comes out and maybe they go 3-9, people are going to be probably disappointed a little bit. But I think the first year, you’ve got to give him kind of a pass to get caught up a little on recruiting.”
“We’re probably not going to go to a bowl the first season, but I hope we would have four or five wins,” Quarterback Club President Kelly Rund added. “I’m very excited to have a coach that’s back from the area, from the Big Ten, and I’m really hoping that he’ll be successful with recruiting.”
“Quite frankly, I don’t know what the bar is going to be set with,” former Illini Michael Martin said. “If we can see the mentality and his philosophy of what a well-coached team, a successful team, is supposed to look like, I think we’re good. Is there a win total that goes along with that? I don’t know.”