It has been a busy week for the Illinois football team, which has a new offensive coordinator (Barry Lunney Jr.) and a revised 2022 Big Ten schedule. We got to thinking: What else does Bret Bielema need to accomplish before his second
season? Here are 10 questions and answers from columnist Bob Asmussen:
1. Who’s going to start at quarterback?
Syracuse transfer Tommy DeVito. Lunney just got here, meeting with the media for the first time on Wednesday and won’t work with the players until later. DeVito wasn’t on the roster as of Thursday but will be added after he starts classes Tuesday. The competition includes returning-from-injury Art Sitkowski, Matt Robinson, Ryan Johnson, Samari Collier and incoming freshman Donovan Leary. DeVito gives the team the best chance to win in 2022.
2. What will Lunney’s
offense look like?
Balanced, but better at throwing the ball than the 2021 Illini, who were No. 121 nationally in passing offense. “The last two years at UTSA, I’ve seen what he’s been able to do as an offensive coordinator,” Bielema said. The head coach likes the fit, and said Lunney will be the only new offensive assistant. “Ever since I’ve been around Barry, we’ve always talked about maximizing players’ strengths and minimizing player weaknesses,” Bielema said. “He’ll come in and be the guiding light.”
3. What is the most
appealing home game?
Michigan State on Nov. 5. The Spartans are coming off an 11-win season in Mel Tucker’s second year. Good enough to earn the coach a big wad of cash and a lengthy contract extension. Last time the teams played at Memorial Stadium, Lovie Smith’s Illini won 31-27 in 2016. In fact, Illinois has won the last two games in the series, including an epic comeback victory in 2019 at East Lansing.
4. What is the most
difficult road test?
Easy. Nov. 19 at Michigan. Assuming Jim Harbaugh remains as the Wolverines’ coach. A year after taking a pay cut, Harbaugh is again the toast of the Maize and Blue fandom. The team took some big graduation losses on defense, but the offense should be prolific. The matchup provides another chance to reminisce about Jim Klein, Rocky Harvey and Juice Williams. Illinois’ last win in Ann Arbor came in 2008 (45-20).
5. What position group needs to develop the most in the spring?
Offensive line, where the team must replace longtime starters Doug Kramer, Vederian Lowe and Alex Palczewski. Lunney and Bielema want a strong run game to be the identity of the Illinois offense. It starts with the guys up front. Danville’s Julian Pearl will fill one of the spots. Isaiah Adams, a transfer from Garden City (Kan.) Community College, will be given a long, early look.
6. What will Luke Ford’s role be in the offense?
Potentially massive. If he decides to return for another season. Daniel Barker won’t be back, opening up oodles of targets for the Georgia transfer. Ford needs to Google “Hunter Henry” and “Jeremy Sprinkle.” They both played for Lunney at Arkansas and were NFL draft picks. Henry is with the Patriots and has 50 catches for the playoff qualifier. If the goal for Ford is to play pro football, a year with Lunney would seem to be a no-brainer.
7. Can Chase Brown raise his play another level?
Quickly adapting to Lunney’s offense is a must. The Canadian became the second Illini in the past decade to hit 1,000 yards in a season, joining Reggie Corbin. He has 1,563 career yards at Illinois with at least one more season to play. That puts him 26th on the career rushing list, with the Top 10 a lock with another 1,000-yard campaign. He won’t catch No. 1 Robert Holcombe (4,105) but everyone else is within reach.
8. Will any former Illini hear their name called in the 2022 NFL draft?
Yes, at least one. All-Big Ten safety Kerby Joseph is ranked the No. 131 overall prospect by drafttek.com. If that holds true, he can expect to be selected sometime in the middle rounds. Illinois had two players picked in last year’s draft: Kendrick Green (Steelers) and Nate Hobbs (Raiders). Both saw significant time with playoff teams as rookies.
9. Is the schedule conducive for a bowl bid?
It got a lot better on Wednesday when a trip to Penn State was replaced by one to Indiana. “Like I’ve always said, tell me the rules and we’ll play,” Bielema said. “It gives us a three-week window, a bye week, a four-week window and a bye, then five games.” Five of the first seven are at home. Sweeping the three nonconference foes would help, with Virginia the trickiest of the three. But the Cavaliers are breaking in a new coach (Tony Elliott).
10. Will the fans (and
media) get a chance to see the Illini in the spring?
Yes. Though the coach is waiting for the final go-ahead, he wants to have a spring game on April 28, which is a Thursday. During a Wednesday Zoom call, he promised more access for the media in his second season. “You guys will be invited on a limited basis,” he said.