Better or worse? Previewing Illinois' offense in 2022
Illinois finished 5-7 last year — 1 win shy of bowl eligibility in Bret Bielema’s debut season. Not bad considering the consecutive seasons of losing that proceeded him under Lovie Smith. But there were other factors at play as well. Injuries ravaged the offense, which led to inefficiency and inconsistency. The latter two issues are why Illinois changed offensive coordinators.
Illinois finished 10th in the Big Ten in total yards per game (329.8 ypg), dead last in passing (156.2 ypg) and had the conference’s 4th-worst scoring offense (19.8 ppg). They could run a bit, finishing 7th in rushing (173.6 ypg), but the overall product forced Bielema to change play-callers.
Out is Tony Petersen, and in is Barry Lunney Jr., who drew up the playbook for the UTSA Roadrunners. The Roadrunners finished 2021 ranked 34th nationally in total offense (439.0 ypg) and were tied for 11th in the nation in scoring offense (36.9 ppg). They finished 5th in Conference-USA in passing (255.5 ypg) and were 2nd in rushing (183.5 ypg). Bielema got to see Lunney work his magic, too, when UTSA came to Champaign and beat the Fighting Illini 37-30 last September. It was the school’s first win against a Big Ten team.
Lunney’s playbook is also a prime reason the Roadrunners won last season’s C-USA Championship. His offense accounted for 7,247 yards and scored 66 TDs. Now Illinois hopes to have similar success. Lunney will have a strong talent pool to work with, which includes many returning players who have all made an impact in recent seasons.
Can Lunney translate his UTSA success to the Big Ten? This edition of better or worse will answer that question.
Key losses: Brandon Peters, QB; Mike Epstein, RB; Jakari Norwood, RB; Daniel Barker, TE; Donny Navarro III, WR; Vederian Lowe, OL; Doug Kramer, OL.
Key returnees: Artur Sitkowski, QB; Isaiah Williams, QB/WR; Chase Brown, RB; Josh McCray, RB; Reggie Love III, RB; Chase Hayden, RB; Luke Ford, TE; Casey Washington, WR; Alex Palczewski, OL; Josh Kreutz, OL.
Potential breakout players: Tommy DeVito QB; Brian Hightower, WR; Khmari Thompson, WR.
Depth is not an issue, at least on paper. The issue will be staying healthy. The Fighting Illini have more than enough talent to fill the voids left behind from last year’s departing players. Combined with Lunney’s playbook, the expectation is that Illinois will show improvement from Day 1.
Here is how each facet of the offense breaks down for 2022.
Passing offense: Better
Brandon Peters started 25 games over the previous 3 seasons but battled injuries and inconsistency. Last year was more of the same.
Sitkowski is the favorite to win the starting job this year, but health already is a concern. He missed spring ball as he recovered from surgery, caused by the shoulder injury he sustained in the 9 overtime marathon at Penn State last October. But before the injury, the Rutgers transfer showed that a change of scenery did him some good. He completed 74-of-148 pass attempts for 704 yards, 6 touchdowns (2 INTs, 8 sacks), and finished with a passer rating of 100.6. He’ll be under quite the microscope during training camp.
If Sitkowski isn’t able to go when the season kicks off, the focus shifts to DeVito. During his 4 years at Syracuse (2018-21), DeVito passed for 3,866 yards and was responsible for 32 touchdowns. Those are pretty good numbers considering he wasn’t always the full-time starter. He is more mobile than Sitkowski, but has a tendency to hang onto the ball too long at times (was sacked 80 times at Syracuse).
Let’s not forget that Isaiah Williams, Illinois’ top wide receiver, also has experience at quarterback (431 career passing yards, 4 TDs).
Speaking of Williams, he led the Illini in 2021 in receptions (47), receiving yards (525), and touchdown catches (4). Casey Washington was No. 2 in catches (21) and yards (294), although he did not find the end zone. He’s looking to change that this year, as he’ll be the No. 2 pass catcher again. Joining them will be former Miami Hurricane Brian Hightower, who played in 4 games last year before redshirting. He didn’t catch a pass, but did grab 11 balls for 209 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2020. That was his first season after transferring from “The U.”
Ideally, he earns a more prominent role and gives Illinois another downfield threat. I’m also curious to see what junior Khmari Thompson can do with the ball in his hands. He’s only been a special teams player. Senior Luke Ford is expected to start at tight end after Daniel Barker transferred to Michigan State. Ford caught just 15 passes for 114 yards and 2 touchdowns in ’21.
Illinois only totaled 1,874 yards through the air with 13 touchdowns. That’s pedestrian, at best, but the biggest reason for the low numbers was the Illini’s superior ground game.
Rushing offense: Better
The Illini didn’t lose much from this position group. Mike Epstein graduated, although his career was derailed with injuries. And Jakari Norwood transferred to Temple. But the cupboard remains loaded as Chase Brown, Josh McCray, Reggie Love and Chase Hayden return for more. There might not be enough carries to go around.
But that isn’t a bad thing. Illinois was 7th in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game (173.6), and total rushing yards (2,083). Brown was 7th in rushing yards (1,005), 5th in yards per attempt (5.9) and led the Illini with 5 rushing touchdowns. He’s set to be on top of the depth chart again.
McCray, Love and Hayden combined to run for 725 yards, with McCray finding the end zone twice. With Epstein and Norwood gone, expect that trio to get more opportunities.
Up front, the o-line is a veteran group. If they can protect the QB a bit better (23 allowed in 2021), the Illini will be on their way toward going bowling for the first time since 2019.
Special teams: Worse
James McCourt is off to the NFL after making 37-of-52 career field goals and 83-of-84 extra points. Untested Caleb Griffin is set to replace McCourt. Griffin has made 1 field goal and 5 extra points in 4 career games. Will McManus is the only other kicker on the roster and hasn’t kicked in a game.
Illinois only returned 3 kickoffs last season — obviously the fewest in the country. That can’t help but improve in 2022 even though last year’s primary return man, Donny Navarro III (121 punt return yards, all 49 kick return yards), transferred to archrival Northwestern.
Thankfully, the Fighting Illini have others who can fill this role. Chase Brown and Chase Hayden have returned kicks (326 combined kick return yards), but they’ll have to knock off some rust. Brown’s last kick return was in 2020, and Hayden hasn’t done so since 2019 when he was at Arkansas.
As far as punt returns go, Khmari Thompson returned 12 for 234 yards (19.5 avg) in 2020. So the only concern with the return game is getting players used to those responsibilities again.
Quarterback play has been erratic and inconsistent for some time. Illinois hasn’t thrown 20 TD passes in a season since 2014.
Asking Sitkowski to end that streak is a bit of a reach, but ideally he provides more stability while allowing the running game to continue leading the way.
That’s the hallmark of Bielema’s teams. The pieces are in place and Lunney has a proven track record. It’s reasonable to expect that will lead to more offense than the 20.2 points per game last year’s group averaged.