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2023 Know Your Opponent: Illinois Fighting Illini

How will Illinois replace six All-Big Ten players from its 2022 squad?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 22 Chattanooga at Illinois Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Today, we’ll wrap up previewing Northwestern’s final opponent of the 2023 season: the Illinois Fighting Illini. Following a renaissance season in 2022 under Bret Bielema, the Illini look to make it consecutive years of producing NFL talent and having on-field success.

The Basics

Returning Production: 63% overall (64% offense, 62% defense); 71st overall

2022 record: 8-5 (5-4 B1G)

Head Coach: Bret Bielema (3rd season)

The Stats

The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly and ESPN. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.

2022 SP+ Overall: 21st

2022 SP+ Offense: 99th

2022 SP+ Defense: 2nd

2022 Capsule

After a 2-6 season in 2020 with Lovie Smith at the helm, Bielema brought Illinois back to a more competitive product on the field, finishing the 2021 season 5-7 overall with a 4-5 record in conference, and furthered that upward trend in 2022 as the Illini finished second in the Big Ten West with an 8-5 record.

However, while Illinois’ 2022 season included many highs, there were lows as well. It started out well, with a 38-6 victory over Wyoming in Week Zero. Illinois immediately suffered a setback, however, losing its Big Ten opener 23-20 on the road against Indiana. But the Illini responded quickly and valiantly.

They won their last two non-conference games by three scores or more, starting with a 24-3 win against eventual ACC cellar-dweller Virginia. Illinois then posted a 31-0 victory over FCS opponent Chattanooga to finish an undefeated non-conference slate. But with that loss to Indiana, the Illini were starting the rest of conference play at a slight disadvantage. The Illini had a tough assignment as well, playing Wisconsin on the road. Illinois was up to the challenge, though, claiming a 34-10 victory to notch its first victory over the Badgers in Madison since 2002.

Then, in what was probably the sloppiest game of the season, Illinois defeated Iowa 9-6 (yes, that is a real football score), as the teams mirrored each other perfectly with great defense on either side. Illinois entered the AP Poll at No. 24 after that ugly victory, but then defeated Minnesota 26-14, and all of a sudden, the Illini had gone undefeated against the top three teams of the 2021 Big Ten West standings. Through seven games, Illinois was 6-1, with a 3-1 conference record, and entered a road matchup with Nebraska as the No. 17 team in the country.

The Illini carried that momentum forward against the Huskers, holding their sixth opponent out of eight games to 10 points or less. Bielema’s squad eventually defeated the Cornhuskers 26-9 to improve to 7-1 and No. 14 in the AP poll. Looking ahead, Illinois had one extremely tough game left on the schedule, a matchup with reigning Big Ten Champions — Michigan — in Ann Arbor. But looking ahead is exactly what the Illini were caught doing.

Defensive back Sydney Brown recorded an interception on the first play of the game against Michigan State, but from then on — both in that game and in the season — everything went downhill. MSU, which was 3-5 overall and 1-4 in conference heading into the weekend, took a 23-7 lead into the fourth quarter; Illinois could not complete the comeback, falling 23-15 to the Spartans.

And yet, everything was still right in front of Illinois. Purdue, which was 3-3 in conference, headed to Champaign in what proved to be a pivotal showdown in the Big Ten West race. Yet, the Boilermakers proved to be Illinois’ kryptonite, as Purdue’s Aidan O’Connell completed 62.5% of his passes for 237 yards and three touchdowns with only one interception, to lead the Boilermakers to a 31-24 victory.

Now in a tie atop the Big Ten West at 4-3 after dropping two games in a row, Illinois had to rally to beat Michigan and Northwestern to close out the season and hope the chips fell their way to get to Indianapolis. While the Illini did give No. 3 Michigan its toughest test of the regular season, forcing the Wolverines to kick a game-winning field goal with just nine seconds left, moral victories were not enough at that point in the year.

Illinois won its season finale 41-3 against Northwestern to finish the season on a high note, but unfortunately for the Illini, their 5-4 conference record would leave them one game behind Purdue (6-3 in conference) for the opportunity to win the Big Ten West. Illinois drew a tough assignment in bowl season, as the Illini matched up with the No. 20 Mississippi State Bulldogs, who beat the Illini 19-10 in the ReliaQuest Bowl.

Offensive Overview

The Illini were weak overall on offense last season, but they had one player who consistently made an impact. Lead running back Chase Brown, brother of Sydney Brown (more on him later), ran for 1,643 yards on 328 attempts. Yet, Brown was selected in the fifth round of the 2023 NFL Draft, so he will not factor into the 2023 Illinois offense. That is an important loss for the Illini, as he ranked fourth among individual FBS rushing leaders, despite Illinois ranking 55th in rushing yards per game as a team due to the lack of a real second threat behind Brown. However, Illinois does return his backup in Reggie Love III, who ran for 316 yards on 70 attempts.

While Syracuse transfer Tommy DeVito set the Illinois record for completion percentage (69.6%) in his only year with the Illini in 2022, the Illinois still ranked 92nd with 211.8 passing yards per game, just 1.5 yards per game ahead of Northwestern. Illinois also ranked a lowly 95th in FBS with 24.2 points per game. The best method to dealing with the loss of Brown is arguably to come out of the gates more balanced on offense, and that is probably what the Illini will do.

Another factor influencing the potential of the Illini offense in 2023 shifting its focus is incoming transfer Luke Altmyer. Altmyer was recruited to Ole Miss in the 2021 class, where he was ranked as the 21st-best quarterback in the country according to the 247 Sports composite rankings, but only saw significant time on the field when Matt Corral suffered an injury in the 2021 Sugar Bowl. Altmyer finished that game 15-for-28 with 174 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, but Baylor’s defense was suffocating in 2021, and he was only a freshman.

The other potential upside for the Illini is that three of its top four wide receivers — Isaiah Williams, Pat Bryant and Casey Washington — as well as their most productive tight end — Tip Reiman — from 2022 are returning. The Illini receiving corps should be in a good spot as a result of those four returning, likely allowing Illinois to balance out its offensive production more in 2023. Although the offensive philosophy of being a run-first team still might not change, Illinois should be more efficient when they it does turn to its passing game. The play split of runs to passes should be closer to even, which, in comparison to 57.9% run plays last year, would count as becoming less one-dimensional offensively.

Defensive Overview

Unfortunately for Bielema, his biggest challenge might actually be fixing the defense in 2023.

Although the Illini finished 2022 second in SP+ defensive rankings, a lot of that success was due to Illinois’ stacked secondary. Three players from that unit got drafted in the first three rounds of the 2023 NFL Draft: Devon Witherspoon (No. 5 overall pick), Jartavius Martin (second round, No. 47 overall) and Sydney Brown (third round, No. 66 overall). That means Illinois is not only looking to replace three open starting spots in the secondary, but also three high-level players.

The Fighting Illini defense led the country with 24 interceptions and ranked eighth in passing yards allowed per game (173.8 yards per game). While those numbers are likely not going to be matched by the 2023 squad, the passing defense remains a focal point of Illinois’ system and could be a strong suit once again this year. Although the secondary has two transfers projected as starters in FIU transfer Demetrius Hill and JUCO transfer Kaleb Patterson, and is replacing a lot of production from the back-end, the defense has some quality returners as well.

Defensive lineman Jer’Zhan Newton — who led the team with 14 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks last season — and fellow defensive lineman Keith Randolph Jr. — who ranked second with 13 TFL and 4.5 sacks — are both returning to anchor the defensive line in 2022. The pressure generated by a front seven that also retains three linebackers who ranked in the team’s top ten tacklers in 2022, along with Newton and Randolph, will help out with the relatively inexperienced secondary. While Illinois’ passing defense might see some regression, the Illini front seven should spearhead what will likely still be one of the better defensive units in the conference.

Three Players to Watch

QB Luke Altmyer

As discussed before, Altmyer had limited playing time at Ole Miss, after backing up Matt Corral as a freshman and then losing the QB competition in 2022 to USC transfer Jaxson Dart. Just looking at Altmyer’s offer list, which included Florida State (who Altmyer originally committed to), Alabama, Oregon and LSU among others, his talent is apparent. Although things did not look good on paper against Baylor in 2021, that defense was 10th in the nation in points allowed per game (18.3) that year, so the circumstances surrounding that game put Altmyer in a very tough spot.

Altmyer even showed some flashes in that matchup, but the reality is, there is not much on-field production to showcase Altmyer’s talent. That is what lands him as the most important player to watch. He was officially named the starter earlier this week, and if whatever the Illini coaching staff (as well as 2021 coaches on the recruiting trail) saw shows up on the field as well, Illinois could improve offensively in 2023.

However, if Altmyer struggles out of the gates, Illinois would likely have to turn to Ball State transfer John Paddock, who threw for 2,719 yards and 18 touchdowns in 2022, but also led all of FBS with 14 interceptions. Altmyer’s play under center is going to be the driving force of Illinois’ season, no matter how it turns out.

DL Jer’Zhan Newton

I hinted at Newton’s impact when giving the overview of the Illini defense, but it is really important to talk about the importance Newton will have on the 2022 Illini. Newton was named to the All-Big Ten First Team in 2022, and other than Randolph, none of Illinois’ five All-Big Ten selections on defense are returning. Teams tried to run on Illinois often to avoid throwing into its secondary in 2022; while there might be fewer opportunities for Newton to match his effectiveness from last year, he can be just as, if not more productive by impacting the passing game in 2023.

Newton had the opportunity to declare for the 2023 NFL Draft, but he decided to return to the Illini for the 2023 season. Newton and Randolph will likely have to put the Illini defense on their collective backs next year by disrupting everything in the trenches. If Newton can recreate his 2022 or somehow improve on his previous season, he could easily end up as a first-round pick in the 2024 NFL Draft while anchoring a defensive-minded Illinois team.

DB Demetrius Hill

Hill was an FWAA Freshman All-American in 2022 at FIU. Hill finished 2022 with 95 total tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, one sack, three pass deflections and three forced fumbles in his redshirt freshman season for the Golden Panthers, and will be tasked with filling an important role within Illinois’ defense.

In 2023, the Illini will be without 2022 starting safeties Sydney Brown and Kendall Smith, and Hill’s role will be to help fill that void, by working alongside Matthew Bailey, who tallied three interceptions, two passes defended and one fumble recovery last year.

Bailey is more of a known commodity when it comes to playing in the Big Ten, as he appeared in all 13 Illinois games last year as a true freshman, but Hill’s adjustment to the better competition in the Big Ten will be key for Illinois. If Bailey can follow up his amazing freshman season with the typical level of improvement from freshman to sophomore seasons, he will contend for a spot on one of the All-Big Ten teams, and the Illini will continue to have an elite defense in 2023. If Hill struggles with the adjustment, though, Illinois’ secondary will likely be viewed as a weak point of the defense with so many unknowns.