It's a new day for the Illinois Fighting Illini football program. As the team begins its spring football session in Champaign, there's a little more optimism on campus this time around. A new head coach, a scheme change, and a new outlook altogether are giving the Illini hope in 2021. During the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, the Illini posted its fourth losing season in five years. This resulted in the removal of Lovie Smith as head coach.
The Illini begin spring workouts under a new administration this week, and now the work begins to get back to a bowl game this year. Here are five things to watch as the Illini move forward with spring workouts.
5 Storylines to Watch During Illinois' Spring Practice
1. Bret Bielema: Year One
The Illinois native returns to the collegiate ranks after spending the previous three seasons as an NFL assistant. His record as a college coach speaks for itself, especially when it comes to the Big Ten. And while it's too early to expect Illinois to win the Big Ten championship, a return to a bowl game isn't too far-fetched. Helping this regard is the proven assistant coaches that Bielema brings with him to Champaign.
Offensive coordinator Troy Petersen called the plays for Appalachian State last year. The end result was the Mountaineers finishing 23rd in the nation in total offense (452.0 ypg) and 25th in scoring offense (33.8 ppg), all while posting the third-best record in the Sun Belt Conference (9-3). Running the defense will be former Missouri defensive coordinator Ryan Walters. Under his watch, the Tigers had the SEC's fifth-ranked pass defense last season (245.8 ypg), tied for fourth in the conference in sacks (20), only trailed Alabama in forced fumbles (9), and held three of their 2020 opponents 10 points or less. Walters will be tasked with improving a defensive unit that finished dead last in the Big Ten in both total defense (467.3 ypg) and rushing defense (230.1 ypg), second to last in scoring defense (34.9 ppg), and eighth in passing defense (237.1 ypg).
2. Brandon Peters is back
Initially, it was believed that Peters was moving on to the next phase of his life. But instead, he decided to take advantage of the extra year of eligibility that the NCAA granted to players last season because of the coronavirus pandemic. Although he's been limited to 16 games because of injuries and COVID-19, the Michigan transfer has completed 53.8 percent of his Illini pass attempts for 2,313 yards, and 21 touchdowns (8 interceptions), all while averaging an uninspiring 6.5 yards per attempt. Those numbers should go up with the Illini's new-look offense this year.
3. Who replaces Josh Imatorbhebhe?
Peters will need someone to throw the ball to, but others will need to step up with Imatorbhebhe — who led Illinois with 297 receiving yards last year — now plying his trade in the pros. Tight end Daniel Barker is back, and he was the Illini's No. 2 pass catcher last season (19 rec., 268 yds., 14.1 ypr, 2 TDs). Brian Hightower is also returning (11, 209, 19.0, 3), as is Donny Navarro III (35 receptions for 433 yards over the last two seasons). Tight end Luke Ford (three career catches) should also see more time.
4. One more time for Jake Hansen
Walters must be pleased that he'll be getting the leader of last year's defense back on the field. Hansen has also decided to take advantage of the NCAA's pandemic exception, and as a "super senior" there's no doubt that the linebacker will be the focal point of the Illini defense. Hansen's production speaks for itself (242 tackles, 26.0 TFLs, 7.0 sacks, 10 forced fumbles). His presence on the field will go a long way in helping this side of the ball get better.
5. Depth at running back
This is probably the deepest offensive position for Illinois. Chase Brown and Mike Epstein (combined 907 rushing yards, 7 TDs in 2020) will be atop the depth chart again. But Reggie Love III could see more action (10 career rushing attempts), and Arkansas/East Carolina transfer Chase Hayden will also be in the mix (805 career yards from scrimmage, 10 total TDs), as will youngsters Jakari Norwood, Nick Fedanzo, and Matt Bobak (17 combined games of experience). Having depth at this position will definitely take pressure off of Peters and the passing game.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He can also be heard on WGN Radio. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Top photo courtesy of @IlliniFootball)