Just before the start of spring practice, second-year Illinois head coach Bret Bielema decided to take his young daughters Briella and Brexli to Disney World for the first time. "I know I can handle 120 young men on a field for two hours. I don't know if I can handle a 4- and 2-year-old in a theme park for a day," Bielema said.
He was happy with the experience. "It was 12 hours of nonstop fun," Bielema said. "Those are moments you can take with you."
The trip was a piece of cake compared to what Bielema is attempting to pull off in Champaign-Urbana. His 5–7 debut was the school's 10th consecutive losing season.
Yet everywhere he looks, Bielema sees progress toward the goal of contending in the Big Ten West. "I feel much more comfortable walking in the building every day, knowing everybody knows their job," Bielema says. "We've got a big saying here: We've got four things coming in the door, four things going out the door. The first thing they see in that sign is 'Do your job.'"
Communication between the staff and players has improved dramatically.
"Everybody understands the things we're saying but also the things we're not saying," Bielema says. "The expectation level is a lot better in the building."
Previewing Illinois' Offense for 2022
Not satisfied with the direction of the Illinois attack, Bielema made a change at the top. Out went one-year coordinator Tony Petersen, and in came former UTSA offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. He worked as tight ends coach at Arkansas under Bielema and knows what the boss wants.
Lunney promises to run a tempo offense, with the pace determined by the game situations. He wants a balanced system with the idea of keeping opposing defenses guessing — run when they expect you to pass, pass when it looks like a run.
Lunney inherited four assistants already in place. He is the lone new guy. "They've been awesome," Lunney says.
The strength of the offense is at running back, where 1,000-yard rusher Chase Brown is joined by promising Josh McCray and a handful of capable reserves.
"You earn the right to get the ball. I know we've got some talent there. We've got to run the football. That's going to be the starting point of who we are offensively," Lunney says.
Syracuse transfer Tommy DeVito is a one-year answer at quarterback. Lunney hopes DeVito can repeat his 2019 season with the Orange, when he threw for 2,360 yards and 19 scores. "I think he should be confident in his abilities. He's played a lot of football and has made a lot of good plays," Lunney says. Former Rutgers transfer Artur Sitkowski provides an option if DeVito falters.
DeVito will work behind a rebuilt offensive line that welcomes back starters Alex Palczewski and Julian Pearl.
Converted quarterback Isaiah Williams easily led the team with 47 catches, more than double No. 2 Casey Washington, who had 21. Williams tied for the team lead with four touchdown catches and had two more scores on the ground. Lunney wants to get him the ball more often in space.
Tight end Luke Ford is looking for a big senior season under Lunney, who has produced NFL-level tight ends in the past, such as the Patriots' Hunter Henry.
Previewing Illinois' Defense for 2022
While the offense struggled, Ryan Walters' unit held up its end. A year after Lovie Smith's team finished 97th nationally in points allowed, Walters and Co. improved to No. 29 in scoring defense. And in total defense, the crew jumped from No. 114 to No. 46.
Solid? Yes. But Walters says there is room to improve. He brings back an intriguing combination of youth and experience. Only three seniors are projected as starters.
The two leading tacklers are back, and five of the top seven from 2021 return.
If Calvin Hart Jr. is able to play like he did in the 2021 opener, linebacker will be a strength. The NC State transfer earned national Player of the Week honors after helping the Illini beat Nebraska. Unfortunately, Hart tore up his knee late in the game and was lost for the season. Fully cleared to return, he participated in spring workouts and is expected to start alongside No. 2 tackler Tarique Barnes. "I'm excited to get him back on the field," Walters says of Hart.
Up front, Keith Randolph Jr. looks to continue on an upward trajectory after finishing second on the team with four sacks.
The secondary is led by returning starters Sydney Brown and Devon Witherspoon.
Previewing Illinois' Specialists for 2022
Illinois is starting over at three critical spots: kicker, punter and long snapper. Five-year starting punter Blake Hayes and three-year starting kicker James McCourt are out of eligibility and looking for spots in the NFL. At kicker, longtime backup Caleb Griffin from nearby Danville is expected to get the call. Hugh Robertson, a former police officer, is in line to replace fellow Australian Hayes as punter.
The Illini were oh-so-close to an unexpected bowl bid in Bielema's first season, falling one win short. The team had four losses decided by a touchdown or less. If the offense is able to make statistical jumps similar to the Illini defense in 2021, it will be enough to push the program over the bowl hump.
The schedule is challenging, with eight bowl teams on tap. But the Big Ten did Illinois a favor, replacing a ninth bowl team (Penn State) with Indiana.