Apr 18, 2023

The stream of Illini information coming into my head is very unique. It's mostly personal observation of the teams plus the questions people ask me. I love having Illini conversations, and I feel like I can get a read on the State Of The Fanbase just though the conversations I have - in person, over text, and online.

I can't exactly say why but right now, with spring football going on, Illini football conversations feel severely compartmentalized. I don't know what has made everything that way (the way content is packaged for social media, maybe?), but my sense is that no one is enjoying The Spring After A January Bowl like everyone should be enjoying The Spring After A January Bowl.

Part of that is that we've all been hurt before, right? If it didn't work out with our last five girlfriends, we're really not going to trust our sixth girlfriend. It will take a long time before every action isn't met with an equal and opposite knee-jerk reaction. We still have a lot of healing to do.

But this feels like it's more than that. This feels like there's distrust beyond just "other coaches have failed to complete their rebuilds." This feels more like... content distrust? Like, there's immediate skepticism when I say that some freshman really looks the part. And if I say that I'm really concerned about quarterback, it's met with "I heard so-and-so looked great." This probably doesn't make any sense, but this spring, when I discuss Illini football with people, they immediately put everything into compartments they brought to our conversation.

As I say that out loud (er, type that), I immediately realize that this is probably a very social media thing. With so many short bits of information thrown in our faces, sorting everything into recognizable bins makes life easier. As long as that goes here and this goes there, life is much more manageable.

But this still feels like it's more than that. Illini football just won 13 regular season games over two consecutive seasons for the first time since 2007-2008, and yet there still feels like there's a governor on everything. Well, both a governor and a booster. If I say that I think the wide receivers will be an 8, everyone tries to move it back to 5. If I say that I'm concerned the quarterbacks being at 2 could sink the whole season, everyone tries to boost it up to 5. 8's and the 2's are part of all this, people. Not everything has to be a 5.

So this article is my attempt to break all of your compartments. I know your eyes have glazed over after years of being told that every single recruit is a future contributor, but there are some recruits here who are absolutely future contributors (and some who are 100% projects). I know you want to believe that the 2022 defense will be the Illini defense of the next decade but it's OK to realize that the three defensive backs who will be drafted next week will be extremely hard to replace. Let's decompartmentalize and talk about...

Spoon, Syd, & Quan

I'm a huge Matt Bailey fan. I really think Xavier Scott can be a special player. But sophomore Matt Bailey and sophomore Xavier Scott will not be 5th-year senior Sydney Brown and 5th-year senior Quan Martin. The 2023 secondary is going to take a big step back because thousands of snaps just walked out the door.

And it's OK to talk about that! It's perfectly fine to just acknowledge it and put it out there. Everyone has always been afraid to talk about these things because there's always this big WHAT IF THIS REBUILD DOESN'T WORK?? hanging over our heads and we don't want to be the one to identify The Thing that might bring it all crashing down. But I now believe we know the floor for this coaching staff, and with a safe floor (our first safe floor in 30+ years), we can talk about our team like other Big Ten West fans talk about their teams.

I should probably clarify that a little more before we get to Spoon, Syd, and Quan. Or maybe I can clarify using Spoon, Syd, and Quan. Yeah, let's try that.

Before, it was "oh great, Whitney Mercilus left early for the pros, we probably won't have another great pass rusher for five years." Now, at least for me, it's "oh great, Spoon left for the draft, we'll definitely take a step back at corner next year but will surge at other positions." That's how I'm viewing this whole thing. I'm no longer cautious. I'm not wearing a cup. I'm looking at the ebbs and flows of the roster to see if I can find a great season mixed in with the OK seasons. The desperation of "will it be three years before we even sniff another bowl?" is gone.

And that's not to say that I'm expecting 10 straight bowls. It's the same as I don't expect 10 straight NCAA Tournaments. I allow for one-offs. And we're mid-rebuild here, so I might allow for a two-off. Bielema's first recruiting class will be sophomores and redshirt freshmen this fall. Once those redshirt freshmen are redshirt seniors, it will need to be completely rebuilt. But until then, the roller coaster will still go up and down.

For the secondary, that roller coaster will go down because three guys are getting drafted next week. I can't recall losing three guys from the same secondary to the NFL in one year... maybe ever? So whatever you expect the secondary to be this fall, subtract at least 40%. There's going to be a large step back.

(Which is fine! It's part of this!)

Standout Wideouts

As I said in my last spring football article, the position I believe could take the biggest step forward next fall is wide receiver. Miles Scott was the #5 receiver last fall and he's been moved to defensive back; to me, that screams "we have plenty of depth at WR." A list feels appropriate here so let's list the depth.

  • Isaiah Williams caught 82 passes last year. That's the most since AJ Jenkins had 90 catches in 2011. Jenkins averaged 14.2 ypc and Williams averaged 8.7, so please note that there's some noise in that number. But still, part of this offense is a six-yard route to keep the chains moving, and we have a guy coming back who caught 82 passes. He could potentially put up Charlie Jones at Purdue numbers (110 catches, 1360 yards).
  • Pat Bryant was the ypc guy last year. 34 catches for 453 yards (13.3 ypc), and those numbers should only improve for his third season. Of the three starting receivers, he probably has the best "future NFL wideout" measurables.
  • Casey Washington was the 4th receiver for the first half of last season (with Brian Hightower the main guy alongside Williams and Bryant). But by the end of the season, Washington seemed to be well ahead of Hightower. Casey finished with 31 catches for 306 yards and should improve on that during his senior season. And he has the best hands on the team.
  • There are, I believe, ready-if-you-need them understudies for each receiver this spring. Hank Beatty (7 catches last year as a true freshman) is behind Isaiah Williams, Shawn Miller (highest-rated recruit in the 2022 class who missed last year with an injury) is behind Casey Washington, and true freshman Kenari Wilcher (who, according to his official bio, "caught 58 passes for a state-leading 1,516 yards and 15 touchdowns" as a senior in high school) is behind Pat Bryant.
  • And then this summer, consensus 4-star receiver Malik Elzy arrives along with Wisconsin-flip Collin Dixon.

Consider this list your old pal Robert giving you permission to get crazy excited about the future of the wideout position in Champaign.....

QB Jamboree

...and then consider this your old pal Robert giving you a very stark warning that there's a chance we could be 14th out of 14 Big Ten teams in the quarterback department.

Do you understand how this is going? Do you see what I'm doing here? I'm trying to discuss Illinois football away from the compartmentalized discussions I sense all around me. If you feel some level of shock when I say "14th out of 14", then you've been caught up in it that compartmentalizing. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

Quarterback is a massive, massive question this fall. That doesn't mean it's guaranteed to be awful, and we could even see Luke Altmyer take the reins and not let go for three full seasons, putting his name in the top-5 of all Illini passing records. But we have a QB battle between a sophomore with 54 career passing attempts and a redshirt-freshman with zero career passing attempts. Tommy DeVito came here as a fifth-year senior with 572 passing attempts; this is not that.

John Paddock provides insurance. He's the walkon from Ball State who was their starter last year. He does have a full season of starting experience (in the MAC). But beyond Paddock, we have a very murky quarterback picture. Murkiest in the Big Ten? I think so. Purdue will also be likely turning to a transfer, but Hudson Card started four games at Texas last year (and a few games the year before that). Illinois will be turning to either Luke Altmyer (one start at Ole Miss last year) or Donovan Leary (redshirted here last year).

It's very possible that by November we're saying something like "this was probably a 7-5 or 8-4 football team if we had anything at QB, but all of the quarterbacks were too young and that's why we're not in a bowl." I get it - Donovan Leary is the first quarterback this staff had a chance to recruit, and that first recruit is still only a redshirt freshman this fall - so this is about the best a staff can do for year three (especially a staff that didn't arrive until after signing day for the 2021 class). You go get a 4-star from the portal, you add your first QB recruit (as a redshirt-freshman), and then you grab a walkon who was a starter in the MAC last year. That's probably the best you can do because the two quarterbacks you inherited who would still be here (Matt Robinson and Samari Collier) were recruited for the Rod Smith system.

But it doesn't change the reality that there's a decent chance we're 14th out of 14 in QB play. I want it to be Northwestern dead last (I always want it to be Northwestern), but their odds (Hilinski figures it out in his final season/Sullivan is ready) are pretty close to our odds. Rutgers is bad, but Gavin Wimsatt has been their 4-star QB in waiting for two years so now he gets his shot. Purdue got Card, Iowa got McNamara, Wisconsin got Tanner Mordecai, Nebraska still has Casey Thompson - everyone else has transfers with more experience. Altmyer could be better than all of them, but... he's still an unproven sophomore.

My point: I'm going to be worried about the QB position all summer unless we see some incredible performances on Thursday night. I worry about everything but... QB problems could sink the whole season.


I'm getting too wordy with these. I need to keep these last two short and sweet. This one is simple: how many NFL players do you count on the 2023 defensive line?

  • Johnny Newton will be a 1st or 2nd round pick in the 2024 draft.
  • Keith Randolph will also be drafted. For now I'll guess... third round.
  • Gabe Jacas probably will only have three years in Champaign and then head off to the 2025 draft (he'd be the first non-redshirt junior to leave for the draft after only three years since... Corey Liuget in 2011 I think?).
  • I'm not sure if Seth Coleman will be drafted (either in 2024 or 2025), but he'll certainly be in an NFL camp in a few years.
  • And if we look at backup edge guys I'd say both Alec Bryant (a strongside end like Jihad Ward) and Jared Badie (a weakside end like Michael Buchanan) have the measurables to see themselves in the draft in 2026.

Up all night worried about QB? I'll just switch my thoughts to the brick wall we've built on the defensive line.

Because maybe... they're gonna be the ones that save me...


I just want to end here by talking about the final year of the Big Ten West. It's likely that divisions go away once UCLA and USC join in 2024. In fact, we'll likely learn what that realignment looks like in the next 90 days. So as we look at the final season for the West, I'll point to the thing I've been saying all offseason:

  • Nebraska has a new head coach, and it's very difficult to win the division in your first season (especially after going 4-8).
  • Wisconsin has a new head coach, and it's very difficult to win the division in your first season (especially after going 6-6).
  • Purdue has a new head coach (hey we know him!) and it's very difficult to win the division in your first season (especially after losing your bowl game 63-7).
  • Northwestern has been a complete trainwreck for the last two seasons (really, three of the last four seasons).
  • Iowa still has that Iowa defense, but Brian Ferentz was retained to rebuild his own putrid offense.
  • Minnesota lost a ton (probably the Big Ten team which lost the most this offseason).

So when you just look at the big picture, why not Illinois? 8-4 last season with the Indiana and Michigan losses happening in the final 30 seconds. In the division, we're 4th in terms of returning production but that's behind the three teams that changed coaches and are implementing new schemes. Purdue's staff turnover (and QB/WR turnover) would suggest a rebuilding year (especially with that schedule), so I'd say that the West will come down to Iowa, Minnesota, or Illinois. Maybe Luke Fickell sneaks Wisconsin in there, but I'm still not convinced switching to Phil Longo's passing offense is gonna work at Wisconsin. At least not in the first year.

Or maybe we can just look at schedule. Phil Steele put out his "toughest opponent win percentage" list for 2023. South Carolina has the toughest schedule on paper (their 2023 opponents went 103-53 last year). Ohio U has the easiest schedule on paper (their 2023 opponents went 58-89). Want to see the Big Ten West? Here it is in terms of toughest schedule to easiest schedule:

25. Minnesota
31. Northwestern
45. Purdue
80. Illinois
90. Wisconsin
106. Nebraska
109. Iowa

Minnesota has to go to North Carolina in the non-conference and then they get Ohio State, Michigan, and Michigan State as their crossovers. Purdue has Fresno State, Syracuse, and Virginia Tech as their non-conference opponents and then they also get Ohio State and Michigan as crossovers (plus Indiana). Nebraska and Northwestern aren't going to win the West so... on paper (just on paper) I'd think it's Illinois or Iowa (plus maybe Wisconsin gets it together overnight).

My point here: we're relevant. We're in the game. We're part of the discussion. We have more all-conference players returning than any other team in the West. The rebuild isn't complete, and there might be roster hiccups that the portal couldn't patch, but we're back in the mix.

I mean, when I pull up the preseason SP+, I'm used to seeing us down here in Rutgers/Northwestern Land:

Instead, here's the company we currently keep:

Maybe we flop and end up the 68th best team in college football. Maybe we keep it rolling and end up 21st again. All I know is that this level of relevance has me giddy. I absolutely cannot wait for the spring game on Thursday night. So much to learn. So much to evaluate and re-evaluate all summer. And then, hopefully, another fun fall.

As long as we, you know, get the quarterback position figured out.


Refugee from Illinois on April 18, 2023 @ 06:49 AM

Great read. There are many things that I would like to say to you, but I don’t know how.

gman on April 18, 2023 @ 07:48 AM

Relevance, not cheerleading, that's why enjoy your articles Robert. Thankyou.

San Joaquin on April 18, 2023 @ 09:09 AM

Excellent offering. Much obliged. Feels good to be excited about football the full 12.

JohnnyKarate on April 18, 2023 @ 09:29 AM

I agree that we need to expect a step back from the secondary, and just hope we can take enough of a step forward on the DL and keep even (maybe improve with better health from Hart) at LB that we come close to the overall performance of the D, even if we don't get as many INTs.

Dan Allen on April 18, 2023 @ 10:36 AM

The best way to support a young secondary is a great pass rush and the second best is stopping the run. I feel like we are going to support our young DBs as well as anyone in the B1G. We are have a very high ceiling with our front 7.

Leechcass on April 18, 2023 @ 10:43 AM

LOL! so I'm NOT the only one worried about the QB position? Whew! I just hope we don't have a battle. I want to see Coach make a decision and that guy slay the dragons,....really easily. That said I want my Maypo!! Leary doesn't get pouty if he doesn't start. Paddock came here to learn coaching under a master. I wish we hadn't beat WI and NEB so darn convincingly. It would be better if Frost and Cryst were still around. You're on mark. The defensive line will be a big part of a successful year. And the backside 'D' will be AOK! Watch.

Nick-Chainsaw-Smith on April 18, 2023 @ 12:34 PM

Bring on September!

Illiniboat on April 18, 2023 @ 08:11 PM

Is the QB situation better or worse than Peters/Sitkowski? If it's better than that, Illinois will be fine. If it’s worse, the D better score two touchdowns a game.

Robert on April 19, 2023 @ 09:31 AM

My answer:

Altmyer and Leary are more talented than Peters and Sitkowski.

But the Peters/Sitkowski year was a 6th year player and a 4th year player. This is redshirt sophomore and a redshirt freshman. That's always a massive factor in this. on April 19, 2023 @ 01:26 PM

I should use Paddock instead of Leary in the comparison

BamaIllini on April 19, 2023 @ 10:19 AM

And not a mention of the FPI, which predicts 6.8 wins and an 11.9% chance of winning the division (WISC 47.9, Iowa 20.1, MN 12.1).

Absent injuries our DL will be better than last year when it was great. Our LBs I think will be better. We will miss dark, but I think Calvin will come back stronger from his injury and we have young guys to replace Dark. Barnes 23 is better than Barnes 22. Secondary a step back but maybe the DL gives QBs .3 of a second less time than 2022 and it covers this some. I really liked our D in Tampa, and other than Quan and Dark, that D is back. Offense who knows. I like the line with maybe another portal addition. RB is deep without a headliner. WR is clearly improved. QB has talent at the top just not experience.
I like this team better than 2022 Iowa and they had a chance to win the division.

Leechcass on April 28, 2023 @ 08:30 AM

I think I was,...questioned when I was against the "Altmyer is quiet" jabber. My thing was that he's here. Ya can't take his scholership away. What good are you doing by bitching and micro-analyzing a recruit. And I trhink this fits into what you're talking about. I guess its part of being a fan, but we'd be better off if most of us would just buy another ILLINI T-shirt and learn the correct way to chant I-L-L*I-N-I

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