The first year of the Bret Bielema era in Champaign certainly had its highs and lows, didn’t it? Illinois enjoyed some major wins during the 2021 season but also endured some of the growing pains that come with a change.

Illinois closed the year with a 5-7 record, 1 victory shy of reaching the postseason. Still, there was a lot to celebrate. The Fighting Illini defeated ranked opponents Penn State and Minnesota on the road and closed out the regular season with a victory over Northwestern.

Bowl eligibility tends to be the measuring stick, but it’s fair to say the 2021 season was a minor success considering the struggles the program endured under Lovie Smith.


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A few stars emerged in Champaign during that roller coaster season, as well. It gives us an idea of what players to keep an eye on as we head into 2022.

Here are 5 candidates to be the face of Illinois for the 2022 season:

RB Chase Brown

The first 5 games of the 2021 season didn’t quite go as planned for Chase Brown, but once October hit, the talented running back really showed his potential. In the final 7 games of the season, Brown eclipsed the 100-yard barrier 4 times, including a pair of 200-yard outings in wins over Charlotte and Penn State. Brown’s legs never stop moving, making him one of the more difficult backs in the B1G to bring to the turf. That’s why, even against a stout Nittany Lion defense, he piled up 223 yards and a touchdown on 33 carries. He’s not the fastest player, but Brown is a grinder and easily capable of breaking off a big run at any moment. Heading into 2022, Brown will be the focal point of the offense after rushing for over 1,000 yards and 5 touchdowns one year ago.

WR Isaiah Williams

Because of Illinois’ struggles in the passing game, Isaiah Williams didn’t exactly put up the kind of numbers you’d expect to see from a team’s most explosive player, but that’s exactly what the veteran wide receiver is for Illinois. He ended the 2021 campaign with 525 yards, leading the team by more than 200 yards. Williams is incredibly elusive and can turn short passes into long gains. He’s not going to emulate Calvin Johnson anytime soon, but he makes up for it with his ability to leave defenders in the dust. The biggest issue for Williams to emerge as the face of Illinois is the quarterback situation. The Illini have to get more consistent through the air. Maybe they’ll have that with Syracuse transfer Tommy DeVito.

DL Keith Randolph Jr.

Keith Randolph Jr. made quite a big impression in Bielema’s first season in Champaign. The defensive lineman showed off the ability to do it all, piling up 42 tackles, collecting 4 sacks, intercepting a pass and forcing a fumble. Can we expect to see more of the same this year? Defensive coordinator Ryan Walters did an excellent job getting the most out of his players a season ago, so if Randolph can use that full season to develop into a better player, he could be a serious problem for opposing offensive linemen.

LB Calvin Hart Jr.

This might be the odd pick of the bunch considering he played in just 1 game in 2021, but Calvin Hart Jr. made that kind of impression in the opener against Nebraska. The transfer from NC State was all over the field in his lone contest, finishing the game with 6 tackles, a sack and a fumble return for a touchdown. Even when he wasn’t making a stop, he found a way to be involved in the play. Maybe Hart just had an incredible performance and that 1-game sample size is misleading. If he’s capable of playing that well throughout the course of a season, though, watch out. Hart could easily be one of the best linebackers in the B1G.

RB Josh McCray

If you love a power running game, Josh McCray is the guy. The freshman showed his ability to punish defenses with his size and strength, cranking out 549 yards and 2 touchdowns for the Illini last season. Obviously, those aren’t eye-popping numbers, but he’s the type of player who will leave a lasting impression. It’s hard to imagine McCray would pass up Brown as the face of the team, but the tandem could at least form a nice punch out of the backfield and wear down defenses on a weekly basis.