Temperatures are slowly starting to get warmer, it appears that winter is winding down, which can only mean one thing. Spring is upon us, which also means that it's time for spring football.
And if there's one team that will have many eyes upon them for these practice sessions, it's the Illinois Fighting Illini. Entering year two under Bret Bielema, Illinois has increased expectations heading into the upcoming season. Especially since the Illini missed out on bowl eligibility by one win in 2021, and because Bielema has proven to deliver results in his second season everywhere he's coached.
He's a proven winner in the Big Ten, and Illinois looks primed for success in 2022. But spring drills need to come first.
5 Storylines to Watch During Illinois' Spring Practice
1. Learning a new offense
Barry Lunney Jr. is the new offensive coordinator, replacing Tony Petersen. A change was needed after Illinois finished as one of the worst offenses in the country in 2021, and the hope is that Lunney can jump-start the Illini's attack. He comes from UTSA, where he guided the eventual C-USA champion Roadrunners to 37 points (11th nationally) and 439 yards (34th) per game. Besides installing his system, Lunney will use the spring to become more familiar with his personnel.
2. Quarterback position
With Brandon Peters trying to continue his playing career in the NFL, Illinois' starting quarterback will probably be either Tommy DeVito or Artur Sitkowski. Both are former transfers, but Sitkowski has been with the Illini longer since coming from Rutgers. He was Peters' backup last season and saw action in five games as Peters dealt with injuries. DeVito is joining Illinois after losing the starting job at Syracuse.
With the change in offensive coordinator, DeVito could be just the guy to inject some life into a passing attack that managed just 156 yards per game last season. Sitkowski also is recovering from arm surgery and isn't expected to participate in spring practice, so DeVito will have an opportunity to really stand out and maybe end the competition before it has a chance to get started. It's also possible that Bielema could turn to the transfer portal again if he's not pleased with how the spring goes.
3. Building a supporting cast
There are some pieces in place around whoever ends up being the quarterback. Running backs Chase Brown, Reggie Love III, and Josh McCray (combined for 1,712 rushing yards and seven touchdowns last year) are back to anchor the rushing attack again. At wide receiver, there's Isaiah Williams (534 rec. yds., 4 TDs since converting from quarterback), Casey Washington (294 yds. 14.0 ypr in 2021) also is back and former Miami transfer Brian Hightower is ready to get back to action after redshirting last season. Tight end Luke Ford is back for his senior year and could be a bigger part of the offense under Lunney.
The offensive line will be anchored by tackle Alex Palczewski, who decided to return for one more year after he was limited to just three games in 2021 due to injury. He's one of the most veteran members of the team with 43 games played. Illinois also will be adding a top-50 recruiting class, according to 247Sports, a crop that includes 15 offensive players. With the coordinator change, it will be interesting to see how many true freshmen will crack the rotation this fall.
4. Familiar faces on defense
Defensive linemen Jer'Zhan Newton, Keith Randolph Jr. and Jamal Woods lead the charge up front. Linebacker Tarique Barnes, who led the team in tackles last season, anchors the middle while Calvin Hart looks to make up for lost time after a season-ending injury in the opener of the 2021 campaign.
The secondary will be anchored by veteran safety Sidney Brown, who will be joined by cornerback Jartavius Martin, the versatile Devon Witherspoon and Tahveon Nicholson. The task for the defense is simple: improve upon the 366.3 yards per game allowed last season.
5. Staying healthy
Injuries were a big factor last year for Illinois. Besides losing Hart in the opener and Peters missing some time, running back Mike Epstein, who's had a list of injuries during his time in Champaign, suffered not just another season-ending ailment, it ended his playing career. Jake Hansen, another linebacker, also missed a handful of games.
The Illini also had to deal with some COVID-19 issues at different points of the 2021 season. It's safe to say that all these external factors played a part in the team's struggles. So having everyone healthy in the spring is a good start, although we already know that apparently won't be the case because of Sitkowski's recent arm surgery. Still it's important that the other key players make it through these next weeks unscathed.
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— Written by Gabe Salgado, who 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.