Bret Bielema is back in the Big Ten. The former Wisconsin coach returns to the sidelines at Illinois after spending the last couple of seasons in the NFL. Prior to that stint, Bielema went 29-34 at Arkansas from 2013-17 and 68-24 at Wisconsin from 2006-12. Bielema is a native of Illinois and has won in the Big Ten before, so he certainly knows what it takes to win in this conference. However, he’s inheriting a program that hasn’t had a winning season since 2011. The Fighting Illini finished last season with a 2-6 mark, ending the Lovie Smith era at 17-40 from 2016-20. With the recent trends and roster returning for next fall, Bielema is going to have his work cut out for him in 2021 and beyond.
For every new coach, the to-do list after the initial press conference is pretty standard. The head coach has to recruit, implement scheme changes, build a staff of quality assistants and coordinators, discuss potential NFL draft impact with juniors and work on any facility or support staff requests. Needless to say, that’s a lot.
While every coach has those goals in mind, it’s never too early to look at some of the personnel concerns surrounding a program and a new coach for the upcoming year.
Here’s an early look at five personnel question marks for Bielema to address in 2021:
5 Priorities for New Illinois Coach Bret Bielema in 2021
Establish an Offensive Identity
Bielema’s teams at Wisconsin were strong in the trenches and consistently churned out some of the nation’s top ground attacks. Will that be the same identity at Illinois or will play-caller Tony Petersen aim for more spread looks to keep pace with the shift to high-powered offenses in college football? Illinois has finished no higher than eighth in the Big Ten in scoring from 2014-20 and ranked near the bottom of the conference in yards per play in each of the last two years. While there’s some uncertainty about scheme and identity, the Fighting Illini return one of the Big Ten’s better offensive lines to provide a solid foundation in 2021. Building around this group in the trenches and a run game featuring capable backs in Chase Brown, East Carolina transfer Chase Hayden and Mike Epstein would be a good starting point for this offense.
Get Brandon Peters Back on Track
Total yards isn’t the best way to judge an offense, but it’s notable Illinois ranked last in the Big Ten in passing yards per game (152.9), averaged the fewest passes per contest (24.3) and connected on average of just 11.4 passes a game in 2021. After throwing for 1,884 yards and 18 touchdowns to eight picks in ’19, Brandon Peters threw for just 429 yards and three touchdowns in five appearances. Backup Isaiah Williams threw for 393 yards and four scores and added 389 yards and a score on the ground. Neither quarterback completed more than 48.8 percent of their throws over the season and averaged a combined 5.7 yards per attempt. Also, the passing attack generated just five completions of 30-plus yards in 2020. Peters is the best candidate to start, but if he struggles, Williams should get the first chance off the bench, with Coran Taylor, Matt Robinson, Deuce Spann and Samari Collier looking to play their way into snaps.
Restock the Receiving Corps
Josh Imatorbhebhe was the team’s top playmaker on the outside but decided to leave Champaign for the NFL Draft. His departure is a big loss to a receiving corps that doesn’t return a clear go-to target and had just three other players catch more than nine passes in 2020. Tight end Daniel Baker (19) finished second to Imatorbhebhe in catches and receiving yards last season and should team with Georgia transfer Luke Ford to form a productive one-two combo at the position. More will be asked of Miami transfer Brian Hightower (11) in his second year on campus, while another transfer (Jafar Armstrong from Notre Dame) should push for snaps right away. Donny Navarro and Dalevon Campbell are two other names to watch this spring. Could Bielema and staff pursue another transfer here?
Patch the Run Defense
Illinois has finished 11th or worse in the Big Ten in rush defense every year since 2012. This unit surrendered 230.1 rushing yards a game and 5.1 yards per carry last year. Opponents also ran for at least 166 yards in seven out of the team’s eight games. However, Bielema received good news at this spot this offseason. End Owen Carney entered the transfer portal only to return to the team in late January. Also, tackle Roderick Perry II will take advantage of an extra senior year for 2021. A healthy year out of Jamal Woods would help the interior and plug some of the gaps against the run. No lineman outside of Carney had more than three sacks in 2020. Bielema and defensive coordinator Ryan Walters have to find a couple of pass rushers off the edge and create depth to help this unit hold up better against the run. The next level will have concerns as well, as Illinois is losing linebackers Jake Hansen and Milo Eifler to the NFL. Khalan Tolson, Tarique Barnes and NC State transfer Calvin Hart should form a productive trio at linebacker but filling the void left behind by Hansen isn’t going to be easy.
Tighten Up in the Secondary
Improvement as a whole for the Illinois defense is needed after giving up 34.9 points a game and 6.5 yards per play in 2020. As mentioned above, there’s a lot of work to do in the trenches. However, even if that group improves, work remains on the back end to help this defense take a big step forward. The Fighting Illini finished last in the Big Ten in pass efficiency defense last season, allowed nearly 70 percent of passes (69.6) to be completed and surrendered 18 touchdowns over eight games. Cornerback Nate Hobbs declared for the NFL Draft, leaving Tony Adams (corner) and Sydney Brown (safety) as the headliners for 2021. Quan Martin, Devon Witherspoon and Derrick Smith are back after seeing significant snaps last season, while additional help is coming in the form of Alabama transfer Eddie Smith. Former four-star recruit Marquez Beason is a name to watch in the secondary this offseason.
(Top photo courtesy of @IlliniFootball)