Illinois coach Bret Bielema is looking to improve on last year’s 5-7 record as he embarks on his 2nd season on the Fighting Illini sidelines. Bielema’s track record has shown that he usually posts a winning record during Year 2 as a head coach (2007 at Wisconsin, 2014 at Arkansas).

What helps him at Illinois now is the multitude of players returning on both offense and defense. But with the uncertainty currently surrounding this team, there are more questions than answers as to how good it will truly be and if it can turn the page.

With the Illini now in training camp, here are the 10 most important questions that need to be answered as they prepare to host Wyoming on Aug. 27.

1. Who will start at quarterback?

Artur Sitkowski and Tommy DeVito are both capable of taking the reins, but both have question marks hanging over them.

The question for Sitkowski: Will he be 100 percent healthy? After suffering a season-ending injury in last year’s win at Penn State, the Rutgers transfer required surgery and missed spring ball as a result. Sitkowski will need to use his practice reps to knock off the rust.

As for DeVito, can the incoming transfer be consistent? While playing at Syracuse last year, he posted career lows in games played (3), completed passes (32), passing yards (388) and touchdown passes (1). He entered the portal shortly afterward, as he was never able to fully grab the starter’s job in upstate New York.

2. Can more than 1 Illini running back top 1,000 yards?

Although it’s never happened in school history, Illinois has the talent and depth to make that a reality. Chase Brown hit the mark last year (1,005 yards, 7th in the Big Ten), and he’s the only back on the current roster ever to do so. While Brown is expected to be the feature back, Josh McCray, Reggie Love III and Chase Hayden will also get their share of carries. When offensive coordinator Barry Lunney Jr. called the plays for UTSA last season, the Roadrunners averaged 183.5 rushing yards per game (second in Conference USA). And with the talent in this Illinois backfield, it wouldn’t surprise me if this feat is accomplished.

3. Who will stand out as the No. 2 receiver next to Isaiah Williams?

Casey Washington somewhat emerged as that player last year, but he only caught 21 passes for 294 yards. Although he averaged 14.0 yards per catch, he never found the end zone. All of that will need to change for the Illini to have an improved passing attack. Everyone is curious to see what junior Khmari Thompson can do, seeing that he has yet to catch a pass in Champaign. And all eyes will also be on former Miami transfer Brian Hightower, who caught 11 balls for 209 yards and 3 scores for Illinois back in 2020.

4. Will there be more production out of the tight end position?

There must be in order for this team to take the next step forward. All signs point to senior Luke Ford being the starter, but he has only 17 receptions for 129 yards and 2 TDs since transferring from Georgia in 2020. The only other tight end with game experience is fellow senior Michael Marchese (2 catches for 30 yards in ’21).

5. What can the offensive line improve on?

Cutting down on sacks, and keeping Sitkowski and/or DeVito upright. Last year, Illinois allowed 23 sacks, which ranked 7th in the B1G. Under Lunney’s play-calling in ’21, USTA gave up 21 while playing in 2 more games than Illinois.

6. What should we expect from the newer faces on the defensive line?

Considering that sophomore’s Keith Randolph Jr. and Jer‚ÄôZhan Newton collectively posted 7.5 sacks last year, we should expect even bigger numbers from them. It will also be interesting to see how Northwestern transfer TeRah Edwards contributes, and I’m also hoping to see more from senior Calvin Avery (51 career tackles, 5.0 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks) and junior Verdis Brown (4 tackles).

7. Who replaces Jake Hansen and Owen Carney as the next star LBs?

Tarique Barnes and Calvin Hart Jr. have already shown that they’re ready to fill those roles (178 combined collegiate tackles, 17.5 combined TFLs, 7.0 combined sacks). But they won’t be alone, as they’ll be joined by Seth Coleman. Also, Illini fans will get to see what Virginia Tech transfer Alec Bryant brings to the table.

8. Who fills the void in the secondary left by Kerby Joseph and Tony Adams?

That would be Sidney Brown (260 total tackles at Illinois) and Devon Witherspoon (9 TFLs and 11 pass breakups for the Fighting Illini), who’ve already proven that they’re ready to take the reins on the back end. Jartavius Martin, Kendall Smith and Tahveon Nicholson will also be in the mix.

9. What does the future hold for the kicker and punter positions?

Caleb Griffin (1 made field goal and 5 extra points) and Will McManus (no game experience) will battle to replace James McCourt. At punter, Hugh Robertson (1 punt for 38 yards last year) and Fabrizio Pinton (transferred from Air Force, has yet to punt a ball in college) are seeking to fill the job opened up by the graduation of Blake Hayes. It would not surprise me if both positions use the platoon system at the start of the season.

10. What is the biggest concern for this team at the moment?

Staying healthy. This team has been hit hard by injuries in recent seasons, but if everyone can stay on the field, Illinois has a chance to get back to the postseason.