Illinois Penn State offense

Tight end Daniel Barker, left, and running back Mike Epstein celebrate a touchdown during the Illini’s final game this season at Penn State on Dec. 19.

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The 2020 Illinois football season is in the books. And what a strange 2-6 season it was. From four different starting quarterbacks in a 23-day span to a pandemic-abbreviated schedule to a coaching change in mid-December, beat writer COLIN LIKAS hands out season-ending grades for the Illini offense as a way to look back at what happened this fall — and a way to look ahead at what new coach Bret Bielema might have to work with in 2021 (More, D-7):

QUARTERBACKS: C-

Brandon Peters, Sr.

➜ The skinny: The first-game starter each of the last two seasons missed three games after a positive COVID-19 test and completed 39 of his 80 passes for 429 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. In addition, Peters added 136 rushing yards, but was replaced late in losses to Iowa and Northwestern before hardly playing in the season finale at Penn State.

➜ The highlight: His 1-yard touchdown run and subsequent point to the Memorial Stadium scoreboard during the Illini’s 41-23 win at Nebraska on Nov. 21, Peters’ first game back from COVID-19 and his most consistent performance all season.

Coran Taylor, Soph.

➜ The skinny: The Peoria native was needed early in season because of COVID-19 issues. Entering the week ahead of the Illini’s home game against Purdue fourth on the depth chart, Taylor was thrust into duty after a positive COVID-19 test to Brandon Peters and subsequent contact tracing to Isaiah Williams knocked out the Illini’s top two quarterbacks. An early injury to Matt Robinson meant Taylor played much of the Halloween game against the Boilermakers and started the following week against Minnesota. All told, he performed admirably in his two games, going 23 of 46 for 379 passing yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions along with 74 rushing yards.

➜ The highlight: Going 17 of 29 for 273 passing yards and two touchdowns, nearly helping the Illini pull off a fourth-quarter comeback before losing 31-24 to Purdue.

Isaiah Williams, R-Fr.

➜ The skinny: Proved himself Illinois’ most dynamic playmaker at quarterback, particularly in the run game, after missing two games because of COVID-19 contact tracing. He started the Illini’s first win this season at Rutgers and then saw considerable playing time in December, piling up 393 passing yards, 389 rushing yards and five total touchdowns. Needs to improve his passing accuracy, though, after only completing 26 of 62 passes (41.7 percent completion rate) this season.

➜ The highlight: Setting program’s single-game quarterback rushing record with 192 yards in the Illini’s come-from-behind 23-20 win at Rutgers on Nov. 14.

RUNNING BACKS: B-

Chase Brown, Soph.

➜ The skinny: The Western Michigan transfer shined in his first full season with the Illini, and he presents a strong case to win the team’s MVP honors. After scant playing time in 2019, the twin brother of Illini safety Sydney Brown rushed for a team-high 540 yards and averaged 5.2 yards per carry to earn All-Big Ten plaudits (third team by the media, honorable mention by the coaches). He accomplished this in only eight games and shouldn’t sneak up on any opposing teams next season.

➜ The highlight: Recording his first collegiate rushing touchdown — in addition to 110 yards — during the Illini’s 41-23 win at Nebraska.

Mike Epstein, Jr.

➜ The skinny: Finally stayed healthy for the majority of the season, missing just the Iowa game for undisclosed reasons after being held out from 24 games in previous three years. The Florida native rushed for 367 yards and a team-high four rushing touchdowns, bringing his career totals in four seasons at Illinois to 1,169 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns.

➜ The highlight: Tying his career-high with 113 rushing yards at Nebraska in the Illini’s most complete offensive performance of the season.

RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS: C

Daniel Barker, Jr.

➜ The skinny: Recorded similar numbers (19 receptions for 268 yards and two touchdowns) to those of his sophomore season, using his 6-foot-4, 250-pound frame and outwardly competitive personality to overpower defenders. Also had occasional issues with dropped passes, but should enter 2021 as the Illini’s top option at tight end.

➜ The highlight: His post-touchdown twerk celebration at Penn State. Look it up. It’s entertaining.

Brian Hightower, Jr.

➜ The skinny: Miami transfer showed brief flashes in his first season with the Illini. He tied for most receiving touchdowns — three — with Josh Imatorbhebhe and hauled in 11 receptions for 209 yards.

➜ The highlight: Hauled in four catches for 97 yards and a touchdown in close loss to Purdue.

Josh Imatorbhebhe, Sr.

➜ The skinny: Illinois’ leading receiver for second consecutive year (22 receptions, 297 yards, three touchdowns) missed the loss at Penn State after declaring for 2021 NFL draft. Imatorbhebhe will have to hope his athleticism and usually reliable hands helps him become the first Illini picked in the draft since A.J. Jenkins in 2012.

➜ The highlight: Impressive touchdown catches against Nebraska and Iowa showed off his potential.

Donny Navarro, Jr.

➜ The skinny: His numbers dipped after the Naperville native had the second-most catches for the Illini in 2019, ultimately finishing with eight receptions for 88 yards this season.

➜ The highlight: Notching five catches for 58 yards — and fighting through having his helmet ripped off mid-catch — in the Illini’s win at Nebraska.

Casey Washington, Soph.

➜ The skinny: Statistics down a shade (10 receptions, 106 yards) from previous year as Washington battled for possessions with veteran pass-catchers amid a rotating quarterback situation.

➜ The highlight: Turning in a three-catch, 52-yard performance in the victory at Rutgers.

OFFENSIVE LINE: B

Verdis Brown, Soph.

➜ The skinny: The former four-star recruit from Chicago emerged as the starting right guard after entering Illinois on the defensive line and helped offense average 196 rush yards per game.

➜ The highlight: Made first collegiate start in the Oct. 23 season opener at Wisconsin.

Kendrick Green, Jr.

➜ The skinny: A Second-Team All-American by USA Today, First Team All-Big Ten choice by The Associated Press, conference media and league coaches moved multiple times from starting left guard position to center when Doug Kramer was out for contact tracing and injury. If he stays at Illinois for 2021 season and skips out on NFL draft, it would be a huge boost.

➜ The highlight: His block on a screen pass at Nebraska where he knocked over two defenders in the same sequence.

Doug Kramer, Sr.

➜ The skinny: Honorable-mention All-Big Ten pick missed two games in COVID-19 contact tracing and a third because of an injury but veteran voice along the line already announced he would return for a sixth season in 2021.

➜ The highlight: Blocking for a Chase Brown run at Northwestern, suffering a noticeable injury and playing through it for close to half the game.

Vederian Lowe, Sr.

➜ The skinny: Starting left tackle and honorable-mention All-Big Ten choice stayed steady when Doug Kramer and Alex Palczewski missed time.

➜ The highlight: Continuing to be a father to 1-year-old son Kingston while also starting at a Power 5 program.

Alex Palczewski, Sr.

➜ The skinny: Starting right tackle for 40 games already, Mount Prospect native went down early in the win at Rutgers with a knee injury. Eventually was ruled out for the season and had ACL surgery, but is planning on playing again in 2021.

➜ The highlight: Immediately motivating replacement Julian Pearl and serving as a sort of coach for teammates before, during and after games.

Julian Pearl, Soph.

➜ The skinny: Danville graduate started the final four games at right tackle after Alex Palczewski’s injury at Rutgers.

➜ The highlight: Making his first collegiate start on Nov. 21 at Nebraska.

KICKERS: B+

Caleb Griffin, Soph.

➜ The skinny: The Danville native was the Illini’s starting kicker in two games (5 of 5 on extra point attempts, 1 of 1 on field goals) when James McCourt was sidelined for contact tracing.

➜ The highlight: His first collegiate extra point and field goal, coming about 41/2 minutes apart against Purdue.

James McCourt, Sr.

➜ The skinny: All-Big Ten honorable mention pick missed two games because of contact tracing and went 15 of 15 on extra points and 6 of 10 on field goals.

➜ The highlight: His game-winning 47-yard field goal at Rutgers.

Colin Likas is the preps coordinator at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at clikas@news-gazette.com, or on Twitter at @clikasNG.

College/Prep Sports Reporter

Colin Likas covers Illinois football and high school sports at The News-Gazette. His email is clikas@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@clikasNG).

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