The good, bad and unknown as Illinois winds down first spring under Bret Bielema
How fans felt after Illinois’ spring game on Monday probably depends on mindset. Are you a glass-half-full or a glass-half-empty thinker?
Illinois was on display for the first time under new head coach Bret Bielema on Monday. The lights were on at Memorial Stadium, fans were in attendance and the Big Ten Network crew was on site as the team took the field. By the time the scrimmage came to an end in Champaign, there was one main takeaway.
Bielema already has the Fighting Illini looking better.
That’s a difficult statement to make in a scrimmage that features the first-team offense and defense on one sideline and the second-stringers and reserves on the other. That kind of format lends itself to a lopsided outcome, which was the end result with the Orange defeating the Blue 65-15.
From Monday’s spring game, there were plenty of observations to dissect.
Line of scrimmage play was solid
The biggest gap in talent between the first team and reserves is probably along the offense and defensive lines. That was pretty apparent in Monday’s scrimmage. The Orange offensive line pushed the Blue defense around all four quarters and allowed Brandon Peters to feel comfortable in the pocket. Running lanes were wide enough for a semi-truck to get through untouched.
On the flip side, Isaiah Williams got in plenty of sprints trying to lead the Blue offense. The first-team defense was constantly getting pressure, forcing Williams to scramble, throw the ball away or make bad decisions.
Yes, these were the results you’d expect along the front lines in this type of scrimmage. But it was also refreshing to know that Illinois should find more success at the point of attack this season than it did under Lovie Smith. Assuming those guys up front stay healthy, of course.
Brandon Peters still looks like QB1
With a new coaching staff in place and another offensive scheme to learn, it wouldn’t have been too surprising if Peters struggled throughout the spring game. His mistakes were few and far between, though. Part of that is a credit to the play on the offensive line, but it also speaks to Peters’ experience, comfort level with the new staff and confidence in his ability.
Peters looked like a third-year starter during the spring game. Will that translate to live game action when the fall rolls around? Obviously, it’s a bit of a waiting game but he looks like the most polished quarterback in Champaign right now and will probably win the job before the Week 0 game against Nebraska.
Illinois might have located some pass catchers
Wide receiver was an area of concern for Illinois after losing star Josh Imatorbhebhe at the end of last season. The Illini aren’t exactly loaded at the position, but there were certainly some impressive outings.
Donny Navarro III looked really good throughout the scrimmage, catching multiple intermediate passes and using his speed to beat the secondary and produce some big-yardage plays. Tight end Luke Ford made some impressive snags and could be a big weapon, along with running mate Daniel Barker at the position.
Brian Hightower is another player who could make a big leap from last season and carve out a more prominent role in the offense. Throw in Notre Dame transfer Jafar Armstrong, and Peters should have plenty of solid options to throw the ball to this season.
Depth looks like it’s a concern
As impressive as it was to see the Orange team dominate the Blue team at the line of scrimmage for four straight quarters, that probably means Illinois doesn’t have the kind of quality depth it takes to compete at a high level in the B1G for a full 12-game season. That doesn’t mean the Fighting Illini can’t still see major improvement in Bielema’s first season, but if there are any injuries, Illinois might be in trouble.
Illinois’ starting group on both sides of the football should be pretty solid, capable of wiggling into bowl eligibility if pieces fall into place. But this isn’t a team with the kind of depth necessary to compete for a division title. This isn’t just one position group, either. Bielema will have to address this concern over time through recruiting and, more immediately, in the transfer portal.
We probably don’t know much about the secondary
This may not necessarily be “bad” but it’s an unknown. Illinois’ Orange secondary undoubtedly played well in the spring game, but with the defensive line getting so much pressure on Williams and the quarterback having to hurry his decisions and throw into coverage, it doesn’t give us much of an idea of what the defensive backs look like.
How will they handle covering better receivers? What will happen when a quarterback actually has time to throw and find receivers? Those are just a few of the questions that have yet to be answered.
When the season kicks off in August, the secondary could be just fine. Right now, it’s really hard to tell.
Expect a more fun, competitive Illinois team
Already, Bielema has placed a heavy emphasis on improving the play on the offensive and defensive lines. He wants to run the ball frequently and give his quarterbacks plenty of time to throw. All of that showed up in the spring game on Monday. And this was from a “basic” scrimmage, where Illinois didn’t really open up much of the playbook on either side of the ball.
With the talent coming back and the additions from the transfer portal, the Fighting Illini don’t lack talent. Depth will be an issue, but this starting rotation should be good enough to compete with a lot of teams on the schedule in 2021.
Is bowl eligibility a lock? Far from it. But Illinois should certainly consider that a target, even in Year 1 under Bielema.