Bielema at April 3 spring practice

Bret Bielema’s Illinois football team will play in front of a live audience during Monday’s 7 p.m. Orange and Blue spring game at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.

Listen to this article

Even before the pandemic, most college football coaches favored banning the blabbing media from practices.

“When I became coach at Wisconsin,” said now-retiring Badger athletic director Barry Alvarez, “I asked our media if they would make it public that our quarterback was injured in practice. They said, ‘Yes.’ So I said, ‘OK, practices are closed.’”

Bret Bielema, who succeeded Alvarez as Wisconsin head football coach in 2006, has a double reason in his first season at Illinois.

First, general principles. Second, Aug. 28 foe Nebraska doesn’t know what to expect from the revamped Illini, and he’s not going to tell them.

So when you read The News-Gazette scribes reviewing Illini players, it should be prefaced with these words from Graham Couch of the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal: “Players we hope you’ll read about even if we know nothing more than we did in December and won’t until September.”

More questions than answers

We are closed out.

What we will see in Monday night’s televised spring game will be a bland version of vanilla.

We pretty much know that Brandon Peters will be the quarterback, and a healthy Jake Hansen will return next fall to lead the defense.

But we won’t know how far Danville graduate Julian Pearl has progressed along the offensive line, if Marquez Beason can bolster the troubled wide-receiver position and what it means when you see the defensive alignment for ends Isaiah Gay and Owen Carney listed at outside linebacker.

While we assume sophomores tend to make big strides, we’re left to wonder who’ll emerge from the weakest freshman class in years? Running back Reggie Love, maybe? Or defensive tackle Johnny Newton?

The interior line positions are anyone’s guess, and the cornerback slots featuring Tony Adams and Devon Witherspoon appear more settled than the safeties.

Might Tailon Leitzsey or the other three newly scholarshipped walk-ons make an impact?

What follows is the worst phrase ever employed by a writer: “We’ll see.”

Clearing up a few things

Here’s what we know.

➜ Thanks to Bielema’s fast work with last year’s veterans, Illinois returns 20 “super seniors,” more than any team in the country.

This includes an outstanding special teams trio of snapper Ethan Tabel, punter Blake Hayes and kicker James McCourt.

Peeking through the policy of secrecy, between 11 and 13 of the other 17 could start. That includes four offensive linemen, based on the assumption that Wofford transfer Blake Jeresaty is fully recovered from shoulder surgery and performs as advertised.

➜ The home opener with Nebraska is critical.

Illinois rushed for 285 yards in blitzing the Cornhuskers 41-23 last year. Even as the Midwest media projects Illinois down alongside Purdue in the West standings, an August win could set in motion an early run with follow-up games against Texas-San Antonio (7-5 last year), Virginia (5-5), Maryland (2-3), Purdue (2-4) and Charlotte (2-4).

No guarantees but all within reach.

➜ No Big Ten team has a friendlier schedule.

Nebraska plays Oklahoma and crosses over against Michigan, Ohio State and Michigan State. Wisconsin opens against Penn State and faces Notre Dame and Michigan directly ahead of Illinois. Iowa opens against resurgent Indiana and Iowa State programs.

First up: the wayward Huskers

Nebraska is the target, and no Big Ten program matches the Cornhuskers for on-rails, off-rails turbulence through four consecutive losing seasons (16-28 in that span).

When the Big Ten initially called off the 2020 football season, Nebraska challenged the decision by expressing a desire to “find other games.” Talk of leaving the conference, always a rumbling undercurrent by those enamored by the Big 12, faded later when a shortened schedule was approved.

Nebraska culture — they still revel in a 60-for-63 win surge under Tom Osborne through 1997 — was questioned when team members voted against a bowl game last year, and the Cornhuskers’ season ended with a 28-21 win against Rutgers.

In the latest ruckus, internal concerns over $40 million in pandemic losses raised talk of Nebraska backing out of the Sept. 18 trip to Oklahoma in favor of a better-paying home game.

Embarrassed, athletic director Bill Moos quickly shot down the “rumor.”

On the field, five 2020 signees from Florida left, and eight scholarship players departed since season’s end.

Among those gone are all-star receiver Wan’Dale Robinson (to Kentucky) and quarterback Luke McCaffrey (to Louisville).

McCaffrey replaced Adrian Martinez briefly last season — he started against Illinois — but Martinez retook the position and completed 24 of 28 passes, ran for 157 yards and finished with three total TDs at Rutgers. Martinez has started 27 games with many ups and downs, and leads the nation in career fumbles lost with 15.

Even as support for coach Scott Frost dwindles, he influenced the return of five sixth-year seniors on defense, plus All-Big Ten second-team cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt.

Ever optimistic, they still have designs on the West Division playoff berth despite a schedule that makes it highly unlikely.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at

Trending Videos