Newcomers could factor heavily into any potential success for several Illinois teams this season. With the athletic year underway, beat writer SCOTT RICHEY spotlights 10 Illini that could make the most difference:
Siyan Chen, Women’s golf
Two freshmen made an immediate impact for Renee Slone’s team last season. The Illini coach could have another in Chen. The Chinese National, who attended Montverde Academy (Fla.), was ranked by Golfweek as the No. 18 player in the 2019 class. She also has the fourth-highest World Amateur Golf Ranking on the team.
Kofi Cockburn, Men’s basketball
Simply put, Illinois has never had a player like Cockburn on its roster. The 7-foot, 290-pound center has trimmed down a bit since he arrived on campus, but he’s still, clearly, an imposing physical presence in the paint. The only question that still remains is how he’ll fit next to Giorgi Bezhanishvili in the Illini frontcourt.
Milo Eifler, Football
Eifler spent last season watching and learning after transferring from Washington. This season? The 6-foot-2, 225-pound linebacker should be in the starting lineup. A strong spring from sophomore Delano Ware had Eifler looking like a backup outside linebacker, but he elevated his play in training camp to nab the bulk of the first-team reps.
Rylee Hinton, Volleyball
One freshman middle blocker is going to start for Illinois this season. The question that remains between now and the Aug. 30 opener at Tennessee is which one. Hinton, a Champaign Central grad, has a leg up in that competition given the fact she enrolled early for spring practices and played on the Big Ten Foreign Tour team in Japan.
Jerry Ji, Men’s golf
Mike Small’s recruiting forays into Europe have been overwhelmingly fruitful with just Belgians Thomas Pieters and Thomas Detry alone. Ji might be the Illinois coach’s best addition, though. The Illini freshman is currently ranked higher than any of his teammates in the World Amateur Golf Rankings at 55th.
Brandon Peters, Football
It wasn’t a “Brandon is our quarterback” moment, but Illinois coach Lovie Smith named the Michigan transfer his starter on Tuesday. The Illini purposefully set out this offseason to add a veteran to that position group, and Peters showed through his solid arm (and better than expected feet) that he was the guy to run the offense.
Trevon Sidney, Football
Wide receiver was also a position of need this offseason for Illinois, and Smith partially addressed it with not one, but two, transfers from Southern California. Josh Imatorbhebhe could wind up being just as significant an addition, but Sidney showed in training camp (before suffering an injury) he was the top Illini receiver.
Bruna Vrankovic, Volleyball
A year on campus — if not officially on the team — at least helped Vrankovic adjust to college life. Now cleared by the NCAA and eligible, the 6-foot-2 outside hitter gives Illinois another legitimate option on the pin. Her international experiences help, too, given she’s at least got some six-rotation play to lean on for the Illini.
Isaiah Williams, Football
Peters might be Illinois’ starter, but don’t be surprised to see Williams on the field this season. The fleet of foot freshman is viewed as the Illini’s future at the position, but his skillset could lend itself to some special play packages. He’s got the arm to make defenses have to think twice if those plays will be run-centric.
Ashley Yeah, Women’s tennis
Los Gatos, Calif.
Illinois coach Evan Clark added the No. 15-ranked class in 2017, and that group has helped deliver 38 wins and consecutive NCAA tournament appearances the past two seasons. The Illini’s 2019 class is ranked No. 22 nationally and led by Yeah, a blue-chip recruit and the No. 16 recruit in the class.