Biggest takeaways from Illinois' spring game
Illinois put a bow on spring practice Thursday night, hosting the annual spring game inside Memorial Stadium. The Fighting Illini are coming off a 5-7 season in Bret Bielema’s first year at the helm.
Eyes were on Illinois’ new-look offense under new offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. Syracuse transfer quarterback Tommy DeVito took the first-team reps with returning gunslinger Art Sitkwoski still recovering from injury.
DeVito looked good for a majority of the game, hitting on some big passes and showing his ability to scramble away from the defense. It was a big improvement from last season, when the Fighting Illini struggled mightily to throw the football.
Along with DeVito’s performance and the new-look offense, here are some other takeaways from the Illinois’ spring game:
Pat Bryant is emerging as a third option at wide receiver
With Casey Washington missing Thursday’s spring game, an opportunity opened up for Pat Bryant to show what he could do. The sophomore appears ready to become a legitimate third option in the Fighting Illini passing attack.
Bryant was able to break free from defenders and haul in some big catches throughout the game from Tommy DeVito. He’s not going to challenge Isaiah Williams or Washington for one of the top two spots in the receiver room, but having a third target with dependable hands is something the Fighting Illini passing attack needs.
Bryant possesses that ability.
Last season, Bryant played in 10 games and had 6 catches for 98 yards. Based on what we saw Thursday night, he’ll likely have a much bigger role in the offense in 2022.
Bielema was right about the running back room
It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Chase Brown and Josh McCray looked really good in Illinois spring game. Bielema told Big Ten Network he thought the running back room looked strong this spring heading into Thursday night. Plus, they’re the top two ball carriers from last season.
The foundation is in place for Illinois to improve further on its 173.6 yards per game average on the ground in 2021. It’ll be aided even more if Barry Lunney Jr.’s offense finds a way to move the ball through the air with consistency.
Both Brown and McCray were tough to bring down on first contact in the spring game. They consistently bounced off defenders and were able to pick up some yardage even when the second-team defense appeared to shut down all running lanes.
Illinois has a really strong combo in the backfield. On top of the contributions of Brown and McCray, Bielema says Chase Hayden has put together a really strong spring practice. By the time the season kicks off, the Fighting Illini might have a 3-man backfield to rely on to pick up yardage.
The defense should still be Illinois’ strength
Maybe it’s premature to anoint the Illinois defense as the strength of the team again in 2022, but the first-team unit was locked in from start to finish. The second-team offense looked out of sorts at times, so it can be fairly difficult to judge exactly where the defense stands this spring, but it was mostly positive on Thursday night.
The defense held the second-team offense to a pair of 3-and-outs to open the game, Kendall Smith intercepted a pass in the first half and Seth Coleman, Isaac Darkangelo and Devon Witherspoon were all over the field.
At times, the defensive line didn’t get quite the amount of push you’d like to see against a second-team offensive unit. That might be an area of concern for Ryan Walters’ group heading into the fall.
For the most part, though, the defense looks like it’s ahead of the offense. That’s pretty typical of a spring game, anyway.
Depth is still a concern
Based on Thursday night’s performance, it’s probably fair to assume that — from the first-team standpoint — Illinois should be in contention for a bowl game in 2022. It wasn’t far off in Bielema’s first season, finishing 5-7.
One of the bigger issues for the team, though, is depth still appears to be a significant issue. That’s not a huge surprise from a team that recruited poorly under Lovie Smith and is still in a bit of a transitional phase under Bielema.
It’s not that Illinois’ first-team units thrashed the rest of the squad in the spring game. That’s to be expected. But, at times, the second-team offense didn’t even appear to know what play was being run, quarterbacks and receivers weren’t on the same page and the offensive line failed to get much push up front.
The defense might be in a slightly better position heading into the season, but it was also torched by Williams and Bryant throughout the game and struggled to bring Brown and McCray to the turf.
While Illinois appears to be in better shape than a year ago, particularly on the offensive end, building quality depth is still a work-in-progress for Bielema and his staff.