The resurgence of the Illinois Fighting Illini in 2019 has brought new expectations for this program looking ahead to 2020. Part of this team's revival down the stretch last season can be credited to the offense. And that much-improved offense returns key playmakers that should put the Illini in position to reach another bowl game this season. Here are five players that are back for this year and hope to take Illinois to the next level.
Brandon Peters, QB
Despite missing two games due to injury last season, the Michigan transfer managed to complete 55 percent of his passes for 1,884 yards and 18 touchdowns. Peters has a big arm, he doesn't turn the ball over much (8 INTs in 2019), and he isn't afraid to stay in the pocket and take a hit. He's not known for his running ability (177 career rushing yards), but Peters is able to move in the pocket to avoid the rush and extend plays. The Illini will need his arm strength if they are to get to another bowl game this year.
Josh Imatorbhebhe, WR
After transferring from USC, Imatorbhebhe became Brandon Peters' favorite target in 2019 as he led the Fighting Illini in every receiving category — 33 receptions, 634 yards, 9 TDs, 19.2 ypc. He came through with the big catches when Illinois needed him the most, and now he looks to be one of the most dynamic receivers in the Big Ten for 2020. Imatorbhebhe's combination of size (6-3, 215) and speed (83-yard TD in upset of Michigan State) makes him difficult to defend.
Ra'Von Bonner, RB
After splitting time with Reggie Corbin, Dre Brown, and Mike Epstein in previous seasons, Bonner is on track to become the Illini's feature back this season. Bonner is a dual-threat talent who's posted 905 yards from scrimmage with 11 total touchdowns. The spark that he can provide for this offense will take some pressure off of Brandon Peters and the passing game. Bonner also can create difficult matchups for defenses.
Donny Navarro, WR
With Josh Imatorbhebhe getting most of the attention, Navarro's contributions last year fell under the radar to some degree. He finished second in both receptions (27) and receiving yards (345), third in touchdown catches (2), and sixth in yards per catch (12.8). Navarro has established himself as this team's primary slot receiver and should take another step forward in 2020.
Ricky Smalling, WR
Smalling has been productive for the Illini uniform from Day One (88 career catches, 1,141 receiving yards, 8 TDs). This season, Smalling looks to round out Illinois wide receiver trio alongside Josh Imatorbhebhe and Donny Navarro to give Brandon Peters three reliable downfield options. This also will force defenses to make tough coverage decisions.
— 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's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.
(Top photo by Craig Pressman/Illinois Athletics, courtesy of fightingillini.com)