4 big questions facing Illinois as Illini prepare to begin preseason camp
Illinois is about to enter its first fall camp with head coach Bret Bielema in charge.
Here are five key questions facing the Illini as they prepare for the 2021 season.
1. How quickly can Bret Bielema change the culture?
This isn’t to say that Illinois’ culture under Lovie Smith was bad, but things had certainly turned sour by the end of his tenure. The Illini went just 2-5 last season under Smith and 17-39 overall.
The Illini were in need of a new voice, Bielema seems up to the challenge. Illinois has made just two bowl games in the last decade, and appeared to bottom out during last year’s 2-6 campaign. Still, optimism is high as Bielema takes the helm. But how much will be able to accomplish in Year 1?
2. Will Brandon Peters be challenged?
Quarterback Brandon Peters is the presumed starter for Illinois, but he struggled mightily last season. He completed just 48.8 percent of his passes for 429 yards and three touchdowns across five games. He’ll need to be more consistent under Bielema in order to continue as the team’s starter.
Incoming transfer Artur Sitkowski is the most likely candidate to replace Peters at some point during the year. However, his numbers at Rutgers aren’t gaudy either. If either QB can have an excellent fall camp, it could translate into early playing time under Bielema.
3. Can Isaiah Williams make an impact at receiver?
The quarterback race at Illinois is a little thinner than expected because ex-QB Isaiah Williams decided to switch positions to wide receiver. He played QB in a reserve role for the Illini last year, and showed off his elite athleticism on multiple occasions.
Williams carried the ball 63 times for 389 yards and a touchdown, averaging 6.2 yards per carry. He was also named Big Ten Freshman of the Week for his 192-yard rushing performance vs. Rutgers last season.
Will he be able to translate that into success at WR? Time will tell, but this fall camp figures to be extremely important for him.
4. Will LB Jake Hansen have help on defense?
Illinois fans know all about Jake Hansen, but what about the rest of the defense? Last season, Hansen produced 10 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries, 2 forced fumbles and 2 interceptions. He also led the team in tackles with 68.
But Illinois ranked No. 13 in the Big Ten in scoring defense and struggled to stop teams on the ground. The Illini gave up a conference-worst 233 rushing yards per game. If Illinois’ defense is going to improve in 2021, it will need to identify other playmakers around Hansen.
Illinois opens its 2021 season against Nebraska on Aug. 28.