Third String - Offense

Feb 9, 2023

Years ago, "letterman" was the thing. No, not David Letterman. Earning a "letter" on the college football field. The term really isn't used very much anymore, but it used to refer to the players who participated on Saturdays. Sure, you can be on the roster, but if you're out there on the field participating, meeting a certain performance standard, you get a letter. It was usually a pin your could put on your letterman's jacket.

Offseason articles back then would then track the roster based on lettermen and non-letter winners. There were basically three components to next year's team: Lettermen, non-letter winners, and incoming freshmen. I'm planning to use that same structure as I work my way through the football roster:

  1. Here's the players you saw on the field last year who will return for 2023 ("returning lettermen").
  2. Here's the players on the roster last year who didn't get a letter (but might contribute in 2023).
  3. Here's the incoming freshmen/transfers.

I already covered the lettermen in this article and this article. Now it's time to go through the players that make you say "oh yeah, 2021 recruiting class, right? I totally forgot about him." And then the table will be set to evaluate every incoming player (transfers + high school recruits) and where they might fit.

I'll do this position by position. Some of these players I mentioned in those first few articles, typically in an "and remember, we have That One Player there as well" sense. But this is the article that explores the openings we talked about in the last two. There's room for a tailback or two to make some noise next year. Will that come from the players on the sideline last season or the incoming recruits/transfers?

And we'll begin with the position that has 0.0% returning production:


Tommy DeVito has graduated. Art Sitkowski is now a student assistant coach. Which means that the starting QB on Labor Day Weekend will either be an incoming recruit/transfer or one of the returnees. And there's exactly one scholarship returnee: Donovan Leary.

Leary was a true freshman in 2022, and he wasn't going to be needed on the field, so he took a redshirt and learned the system. He was the first hand-selected high school quarterback of the Bielema era, so this is their guy. Will he be ready to compete for snaps as a redshirt freshman? We shall see.

The other option from the current roster is a walkon (Kirkland Michaux). But he's a little more than a camp arm walkon quarterback. This is probably most similar to maybe… Matt Robinson? Allow me to explain.

When Rod Smith was named offensive coordinator in January of 2018, he immediately went looking of an available freshman QB who fit his system. There wasn't much out there (in late January), but he needed his type of QB, so he offered Robinson. Rod Smith would also add a transfer he thought would fit (AJ Bush), but the staff at the time wanted to immediately add a freshman QB who fit what they wanted to do in the new offense.

Barry Lunney Jr. did something similar last year. The staff had already added Tommy DeVito to the roster by the time he was in Champaign, but they wanted to add another QB of Lunney's choosing to build younger depth for this system. And they did that by adding a kid who Lunney was recruiting at UTSA two years ago (Michaux). Michaux ultimately chose to play baseball instead of football, but two years later, with Lunney needing a Matt Robinson, he chose to add now-done-with-baseball Kirkland Michaux (as a preferred walkon).

We'll get to the transfers (and the freshman) in the next set of posts. But for now, with DeVito and Sitkowski gone, the returning quarterbacks (whose arms might fall off by the end of spring ball) are Donovan Leary and Kirkland Michaux. There's not a position on the field that will need more of a boost from the incoming freshmen and transfers than quarterback.

Running Back

When discussing returnees I focused on two players: Chase Brown's 2021 backup (Josh McCray) and Chase Brown's 2022 backup (Reggie Love). A healthy McCray and an experienced Love will likely be the focus of Barry Lunney's 2023 running attack.

The national talking point, obviously, is going to be Brown's replacement. After our first handoff in the Toledo game, whoever is doing color commentary is absolutely going to say "you know, he's taking over for Chase Brown who led the conference in rushing last season...", so get ready. I'm not complaining, of course. I love having a national talking point. There was an article in The Athletic the other day looking at the Big Ten recruiting classes and Grace Raynor, who used to cover Clemson and now covers the entire southeast (including recruiting) for The Athletic, had this to say in the "offensive player in the 2023 class who will make the biggest immediate impact" section:

Illinois also had to say goodbye to its star running back, Chase Brown -- the first Doak Walker Award finalist in program history. We'll see if true freshman Kaden Feagin is ready to step up, but his size alone makes him an intriguing option. Feagin doesn't turn 18 until March, and yet he's already 6 foot 3, 240 pounds. The 2022 Gatorade Player of the Year in Illinois rushed for 1,637 yards and 27 touchdowns with an average of 11.1 yards per carry as a high school senior.

As an aside - and she's answering a question in a recruiting article so this isn't directed at her - this is kind of the reason for doing this "third string" series of articles. So often, these talking points are "dude just left for the NFL - who did they recruit to replace him?". And those players over on the sideline last year - the third stringers, if you will - are left out of the conversation.

Who was over there last fall? Well, four guys carried the ball (Brown, McCray, Love, and Chase Hayden, who graduated), so who has been over there waiting their turn? Three guys:

  • Nick Fedanzo, who will be a junior this fall, has only one rushing attempt (in 2020). He did play every game on special teams last year, and Bret Bielema mentioned him several times in August, so perhaps he'll get a shot? Seems like he's the fifth guy at the moment, though.
  • Aiden Laughery was the highest rated recruit in the 2021 class (per the 247 Composite). He got three carries in the Chattanooga game but took a redshirt.
  • Jordan Anderson also redshirted last year. So he, like Laughery, will be a redshirt freshman this fall.

Looking at it now - just looking at the returnees discussed in the last article and the third stringers discussed here - I could see a scenario with a one-two punch at big tailback and a one-two punch at shifty tailback. McCray and Anderson, Love and Laughery.

We really need to recruit a tailback with the last name "Live" so I can stencil this on my living room wall:


Wide Receiver

In the last article we discussed the main three returnees (Isaiah Williams, Pat Bryant, and Casey Washington). Brian Hightower has transferred to Cal, but we also talked about how Hank Beatty was the fifth receiver last year and will likely move into a bigger role (as will the 6th receiver, walkon Miles Scott). In the next article we'll discuss the receivers in the 2023 class, but for now, let's look at the third stringers. A list that consists of three freshmen who redshirted this past season:

  • Shawn Miller likely would have played (and he did play in the opener) but exactly two plays into his freshman season he suffered a season-ending injury. So he returns as a redshirt freshman.
  • Eian Pugh got four snaps in the Chattanooga game but that was it. He took a redshirt.
  • Ashton Hollins got three snaps in the Chattanooga game but that was it. He took a redshirt.

Pugh and Hollins needed a lot of weight room work before they'd be ready to block a Big Ten defensive back. Miller was much closer to being ready but... the injury. All three are probably ready to contribute this fall, though. In fact, this might be the position where everyone is talking about the three incoming freshmen in August (Malik Elzy, Kenari Wilcher, and Collin Dixon) when it's the three redshirt freshmen who end up contributing more in 2023.

If it surprises you to hear me say that, well, you understand why I'm writing this Third String series.

Tight End

When discussing what we lost (Luke Ford and Michael Marchese) and what we had coming back (Tip Reiman), I talked about how there are a lot of snaps available. This offense will play three, maybe four tight ends every season, and as of right now, besides Tip Reiman, the other returning tight ends have exactly one catch between them (Griffin Moore, moved up from third string when Luke Ford missed the bowl game). So the list of third stringers begins with him (and it's a long one):

  • Griffin Moore, a 2019 recruit who is now a (Covid) redshirt junior and got his first catch in the ReliaQuest Bowl.
  • Henry Boyer, a redshirt freshman. Worth noting that after the first or second practice last August, Bret Bielema noted that Boyer and Gabe Jacas were the two freshmen with "ready to play right now" bodies. Jacas was needed (especially after the Ezekiel Holmes injury), Boyer was not, but I haven't forgotten the head coach saying something about how we're going to see a whole lot of football from Jacas and Boyer.
  • Owen Anderson, another redshirt freshman.
  • Naivyan Cargill, yet another redshirt freshman.

It will be Reiman + two other names next fall. Might be a transfer. Might even be a freshman. But we need to find two tight ends who will each play 250+ snaps, and at least one of them will come from the list above. Maybe both.

Offensive Line

This is the most interesting position to discuss third stringers. Only six linemen qualify as "lettermen" from last year. Some teams go 7 or even 8 linemen deep, but the staff stuck to six guys. A few of these linemen did get their snap count up (like Zach Barlev and Hunter Whitenack), but nearly all of those snaps were on field goals and extra points.

So the list of third stringers includes most of the second string. Here it is:

  • Dylan Davis, the 2022 transfer from Furman, who will be a junior this fall.
  • Tommy Cronin, a walkon, who was on the second string (ahead of nearly all of the players listed below) last fall. He's also the guy on punt team who stands off to the side while the snap goes through and then centers the wedge.
  • The three OL recruits from the 2021 class: Josh Gesky, Zach Barlev, and Josh Kreutz. All will be redshirt sophomores.
  • The four OL recruits from the 2022 class: Hunter Whitenack, Joey Okla, Magnus Møller, and Clayton Leonard. All will be redshirt freshmen.

So if the staff goes with a rotation of six guys again, four of the six from last year return (only Alex Palczewski and Alex Pihlstrom have departed). So before we talk about who is coming in (including another juco OL), we need to look at this list. The coaches will be looking for two guys to add to the rotation. Are both on this list or will they turn to the to the incoming juco to take one of the two spots?

We'll discuss that... after we get to the incoming freshmen/transfers. Well, technically, we'll discuss that after we talk about the third stringers on defense. Coming tomorrow. Or Saturday morning depending on when I get it finished. Probably tomorrow.



neale stoner on February 9, 2023 @ 03:39 PM

Aren’t the two transfer QB’s on campus and in for Spring ball?

RonSwanson on February 10, 2023 @ 09:54 AM

I didn't realize Whitenack redshirted. That's great news. He seemed to be out there a lot on special teams so I assumed he blew his redshirt

Jacob on February 10, 2023 @ 12:46 PM

Hunter Whitenack is a True Sophomore now

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