INDIANAPOLIS– Bret BielemaBig Ten Media Days’ second appearance since taking over as Illinois head coach in December 2020 is in the books. Student-athletes Bielema and Illini attended day two of the two-day event alongside six other conference teams, along with senior defensive backs Sidney Brown and Jartavius Martinjunior running back Chase Brownand second wide receiver Isaiah Williams all representing Illinois in Indianapolis.
After a 5-7 season at Bielema and the company’s first year at Champaign, Illini’s head coach focused on several key topics during his press conference and TV appearance, including including improving the defense under the direction of the defensive coordinator. Ryan Waltersthe change of offensive coordinator with the new OC Barry Lunney Jr.the ambiance inside the Smith Center and more.
With training camp starting on Saturday and the season opener against Wyoming just a month away, let’s take a look at five key highlights from the Big Ten Media Days.
Defense make huge progress under Walters
After the Illini’s loss to the Virginia Cavaliers in Charlottesville on September 11, the defensive unit swung. Illinois has allowed 20 or fewer points in seven of the last nine games and has established itself as one of the best defenses in the conference.
The Illini ranked 14th in the Big Ten in points allowed in 2020, giving up just under 35 points per game during the COVID-19 shortened season. In Walters’ first campaign in Champaign, Illinois finished fourth in the conference in points allowed per game at 18.9 points per game.
“Without a doubt what Ryan has is total confidence, like he’s a very confident person,” Bielema said. “He has a great relationship with our players, and… I think our guys basically recognize his competitiveness.”
Martin and Sidney Brown played a big role in improving the defense, while former Illinois defensive back of the 2021 All-Big Ten first team Kerby Joseph led the conference in forced fumbles and ranked second in interceptions.
Although Joseph is no longer with the team after being selected by the Detroit Lions in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft, Martin and Sidney Brown will continue to bring their production and experience to Illini High this season.
“Yeah, (Coach Walters) had a big impact in that,” Sidney Brown said. “I would say a real turning point and landmark that we can do was watch the Virginia game after we played. I mean, it was a game that we faced a lot of adversity. And that are guys like Kerby who came in and stepped in and played a big role.
“So, I mean, turning around that game and making improvements, you know, going on this season and having the success that we had later down the road was a big, big turning point.”
Offensive line remains strong despite loss of key fifth-year starters
It’s no secret that the key to any dominant running game is a strong, reliable offensive line. Illinois had one of the most experienced units in the nation last season, and despite the loss Doug Kramer, Vederian Loweand Jack BadovinacBielema and Illini still feel confident in their offensive line heading into the season.
It starts with the return of the seniors Alex Palczewski, who already has 52 career starts to his credit. Bielema knows his veteran experience will be crucial, especially at the start of the season as the rest of the o line develops and integrates.
“The players we have back from last year’s line-up start with Palcho,” Bielema said. “He looks amazing. He’s kind of redefined his weight. We’ve had a whole year to work with him. If he continues to be what we think he will be, he’ll leave college football with the most career starts in the game’s history. He’s played a lot of great games at guard and tackle. His leadership has been unwavering since we met again in January.
Senior Alex Pihlstrom and junior Julien Pearl are two other key team returns from last year. Pihlstrom played in all 12 games last season, including five starts, and has experience as both a tackle and a guard, while Pearl also played in all 12 games while making 10 starts.
Bielema says he foresees Pihlstrom playing in the center, while the additions of Isaiah Adams and Zy Crislerwho both have experience at the community college level, and the return of Jordyn Slaughterwho missed the 2021 season through injury, has the offensive line in good shape heading into training camp.
“Those three guys (Pihlstrom, Slaughter and Pearl), in addition to the new faces you’re going to see, have me excited about our attacking game,” Bielema said.
Good vibes inside the Smith Center before training camp
Despite the return of lesser Big Ten production, Bielema feels good about the Illini’s position with less than a week to go before training camp begins.
“One of the things that jumped out at me, everyone that comes into this building and is around our players and engaged with our players, they talk about the vibe that’s at Smith Center,” Bielema said. . “I think it’s very real, and I can’t wait to see where it leads.”
Bielema says the fact that he was able to go out on the recruitment track and bring his own freshman class is a big reason behind the sentiment around the building, while the ability to use the transfer portal to meet some of the greatest needs of the team was also important.
“I would say at the start of this year, that’s what I know and appreciate the most is that I think I know our roster so much better,” Bielema said. “We’ve had moments of adversity and moments of success and we’ve added players now that we’ve signed up, so there’s a really good vibe at Smith Center right now.”
With last season now in the rearview mirror, Bielema and the Illini are looking to turn the page and build a strong start for the new coaching staff in Illinois.
“I hope we will win as much this year as last year,” Bielema said. “I love our team. I love our roster. I love our staff. There’s a really good vibe at the Smith Center right now and I hope it’s going in the right direction.”
Lunney brings a new face and energy to Illini’s offense
Although Lunney is in his first season with the Illini, Bielema says players have already bought into his high-tempo system.
Illinois actually got a first-hand look at what Lunney brings to the table, as the Illini took on Lunney’s former team, UTSA, in their second game of the season last year. The Roadrunners used a strong running and passing game to narrowly defeat the Illini in Champaign on September 4.
“I think Barry got our players excited,” Bielema said. “They’re excited on the attacking side about the scheme and the way we’re playing.”
The Illini have one of the most dynamic running back duos in the Big Ten in Chase Brown and second Josh McCray. The pair combined for seven rushing touchdowns in 2021, while Brown, who was named to the Maxwell Award and Doak Walker Award preseason watch lists this year, averaged more than 100 yards per game and became only the third player in program history to record multiple 200-yard rush games in a season.
Williams is also looking to build a strong 2021 season after moving from quarterback to wide receiver, leading the Illini in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
QB1 has yet to be determined, although Bielema is delighted with the competition in the quarter room ahead of training camp.
“I love the hall and the competition,” said Bielema. “I think our offensive guys, wide receivers: I’ll come in Saturday morning at 6:30 or I’ll come back Saturday night at 6:30, and we’ll have guys throwing on our grass pitch. I just haven’t seen that happen before , so I think our guys are all in.”
Importance of a Week Zero Game
Like last year’s season opener against Nebraska, Illinois will open its 2022 schedule with a Week Zero contest, taking on Mountain foe West Wyoming on August 27 before opening Big Ten play. next week.
Bielema says he likes the Week Zero game to give the team some playing experience before they face Indiana to start conference action.
“We’re going to Indiana right off the bat, but I really wanted to have a home game,” Bielema said. “We have the least return production, so I want to have a game at home.”
Martin echoed the sentiment expressed by his head coach, as the Week Zero game against Wyoming allows the Illini to “get their feet wet” before heading to Bloomington, Indiana.
“It’s a great opportunity to open up to week zero,” Martin said, “and we have Indiana after that, so just to be able to get our feet wet before we get into the Big Ten game, that’s pretty cool.”